Everyone has a favorite pop culture villain whom they love to hate. However, I have even more appreciation for the villains who, for one reason or another, opted to change their ways and tried to earn our love by doing the right thing. With that in mind, we figured we would give these vicious bad guys and just plain jerks from some of our favorite movies and TV shows their due by highlighting their moments of redemption.
Anton Ego (Ratatouille)
The only thing threatening the reputation of the world-famous Parisian restaurant, Gusteau’s, is the notoriously picky food critic, Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), in the underrated Pixar classic, Ratatouille. However, just one bite of the titular dish gives this iconic Pixar “villain” the satisfaction he had been chasing and, upon learning it was a rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) who prepared his meal, convinces him that, perhaps, anyone really can cook.
Apollo Creed (Rocky III)
Aspiring boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) not only had to contend with the fists of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), but also his cocky, trash-talking attitude, until he finally defeated the champion in the second chapter of the Rocky movies. That appeared to bring the athlete down a peg, and it taught him to respect his opponent, whom he would befriend and help achieve his own redemption moment in the third installment.
Brad Bellick (Prison Break)
Brad Bellick (Wade Williams), a guard who indulged in harassing and abusing inmates at every chance he got, was a primary antagonist for the first two seasons of Prison Break. After receiving a taste of life on the inside, he became an ally to Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) and Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), and he even sacrificed his life for them in the middle of Season 4.
Catwoman (The Dark Knight Rises)
Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway in one of the best Catwoman portrayals of all time) is robbing Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) when we first meet her in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. However, the thief comes to fall for the vigilante, and she helps him save Gotham City from a cataclysmic end, making her one of the live-action Batman movies’ most dynamic portrayals of the DC anti-hero yet.
Darth Vader (Star Wars: Episode VI - Return Of The Jedi)
One of the most iconic enemy team-ups in pop culture history is that of Anakin (Sebastian Shaw) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), at the end of the Star Wars movies’ original trilogy. The climax of Return of the Jedi sees the Sith Lord otherwise known as Darth Vader (a Star Wars character shared by multiple actors) choose to renounce the Dark Side and save his son from Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid), allowing him to help defeat the Empire.
Deckard Shaw (The Fate Of The Furious)
It was easy for fans to write off Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) as one of the Fast and Furious movies’ most loathsome antagonists after he, seemingly, killed Han (Sung Kang) in the sixth installment. However, after forming an alliance with Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) in The Fate of the Furious and later with Han himself in Fast X, I think the rogue MI6 agent has since earned our forgiveness.
Dr. Evil (Austin Powers In Goldmember)
We learned that two of Mike Myers’ most iconic characters — hip secret agent Austin Powers and his nemesis, Dr. Evil — are really twins at the climax of the parody movies’ third installment, Goldmember. This revelation convinces the international criminal to help his brother save the world from the titular villain (also played by Myers).
Dwight Schrute (The Office)
Dwight Schrute (Rainn Willson) is a pompous, over-serious, know-it-all who practically goes out of his way to make most of the Office cast feel alienated by him for much of the beloved series. However, by the final season, he makes amends with his enemy prankster, Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), and he gains the respect of his "subordinates" as their new manager.
Eric Northman (True Blood)
When we first met HBO’s True Blood cast, Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård) was the kind of vampire who was committed to getting whatever he wanted by whatever means necessary — even murder. Yet, his affection for Sookie (Anna Paquin) inspired him to soften up a bit and, in Season 5, he went full hero after the normally tame Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) was possessed by the evil Lilith.
George Mason (24)
One of Jack Bauer’s (Kiefer Sutherland) worst foils on 24 was actually the Counter Terrorism Unit’s District Director, George Mason (Xander Berkeley) — a poster child for bureaucratic corruption. But after he is exposed to lethal levels of plutonium in Season 2, he redeemed himself by selflessly giving his life for his country by flying a plane carrying a nuclear bomb into the Mojave Desert and succumbing to the ensuing explosion.
The Grinch (How The Grinch Stole Christmas)
Perhaps the most heartwarming redemption tale for the holidays (not counting A Christmas Carol) is one of the best Dr. Seuss movies, 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In the movie, the mean, green, titular curmudgeon (Jim Carrey) tried to ruin the celebration for all of Whoville. Much to his surprise, his heart grew three sizes that day, helping him realize the reason for the season and sharing it with his new friends.
Gru (Despicable Me)
The first (and, arguably, best) of Ilumination’s Despicable Me movies is the story of Gru (Steve Carell) and his transition from ruthless supervillain to heartfelt hero. All it took was becoming the adoptive father of three adorable orphaned girls (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher).
Harley Quinn (Birds Of Prey)
A key aspect of Harley Quinn’s story is that it was Joker who manipulated the former psychologist into going bad, which is why her DCEU version (Margot Robbie) undergoes a slight change after breaking up with the Clown Prince of Crime. While still pretty bad and quite clownish in Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, the 2020 film sees the Task Force X member do some good by choice, teaming up with a group of vigilantes to save a young girl from the ruthless Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
Jaime Lannister (Game Of Thrones)
One of the most complex characters in the Game of Thrones cast is Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who was initially depicted as a smug, merciless psychopath upon introduction. Things seemed to change when he adopted a somewhat nobler attitude after losing his hand. While he redeemed himself at one point, he continued to commit heinous sins that made it difficult to say he was truly redeemed by the end of his life.
Kylo Ren (Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker)
When Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) killed his father, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he seemed too deep into the Dark Side to be redeemed. However, a visit by his father’s ghost helped convince him to fully embrace the light and help Rey (Daisy Ridley) defeat Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) at the end of The Rise of Skywalker.
Lex Luthor (Justice League Dark: Apokolips War)
The Joker to Superman’s Batman is easily Lex Luthor, who is one of the most fearsome and powerful villains in DC history in general. However, in one of the last films of the DC Animated Universe timeline, Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, the criminal realized he had no choice but to join forces with his super-powered foes in order to save their world from the tyrannical New God, Darkseid.
Loki (Thor: Ragnarok)
Being the God of Mischief, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was always destined to be one of the Marvel movies’ greatest villains. Yet, he became a worthy ally to his adoptive brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, and he sacrificed his life to stop Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Avengers: Infinity War soon after.
This nameless demon — referred to as “Meg” after the first woman it was seen possessing on Supernatural (played by the late Nicki Aycox) — was one of Lucifer’s most loyal and merciless followers, despite being unafraid to question his authority. This rebellious nature may have been key to her eventual alliance with Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) against enemies they shared and even her romantic attraction with Castiel (Misha Collins).
What makes Megamind one of the most unique and best superhero movies not based on a comic is how its main focus is not the hero, but the titular, extra-terrestrial villain (voiced by Will Ferrell). That is, until he defeats his nemesis (Brad Pitt) and creates a new one of his own (Jonah Hill) to reclaim his purpose, only to realize his creation is worse than he is, which leads to him becoming the hero his city needs.
Merle Dixon (The Walking Dead)
Easily the most unlikable character from the original Walking Dead cast was Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker), who never quite progressed past his arrogant behavior and racist tendencies. Yet, the way he selflessly took on The Governor’s army to protect his brother, Daryl (Norman Reedus) and his crew gave us a reason to remember him with some admiration.
Nebula (Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2)
While she is not the main antagonist of 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Nebula (Karen Gillan) might be the most memorable and the most sympathetic, especially after you learn her traumatic backstory. She really began to earn our sympathies when she and her adoptive sister, Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), learned to set aside their differences in Vol. 2, and her transition into a hero (and a member of the Guardians’ family) reached full mast by Vol. 3.
Negan Smith (The Walking Dead)
No character had defined The Walking Dead’s “fight the dead, fear the living” theme better than the mercilessly sadistic Negan Smith, played with unsettling, scenery-chewing glee by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. But, in a surprising turn of events, after a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence in Alexandria, Negan developed genuine remorse for his former ways, and he worked hard toward redemption, earning the respect of his The Walking Dead: Dead City co-lead, Maggie (Lauren Cohan), in the process.
Nux (Mad Max: Fury Road)
There was not a single War Boy more eager to serve the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) than Nux (Nicholas Hoult) in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. That is until the death of Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) led him to question where his loyalty lied. He ultimately chose to ally himself with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), Furiosa (Charlize Theron), and the Five Wives. He even sacrificed himself to ensure their safe return to the citadel in one of the instant action movie classic’s most touching arcs.
Otto Octavius (Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man: No Way Home)
Prof. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) managed to overcome the manipulative A.I. in his mechanical arms and risk his life to prevent a city-wide catastrophe at the end of Spider-Man 2 in 2004. Seventeen years later, Spider-Man: No Way Home would reset that redemption arc in favor of its own, making him the first returning Spidey villain in the film to become good with help from Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) technical mastery.
Steve Harrington (Stranger Things)
Joe Keery’s initial portrayal of Steve Harrington on the Stranger Things cast is not so bad when compared to the Duffer Brothers’ original plans for the character. Still, the bullish, self-absorbed jock that he was then is a far, far cry from the lovable, selfless hero he evolved into in Seasons 2 through 4.
Steve Stifler (American Wedding)
When I think of cinema's most despicable, fictional douchebags, one of the first faces to come to mind is Seann William Scott in the American Pie cast as Steve Stifler, who seems to turn over a new leaf in the third installment, American Wedding. Of course, even though he went out of his way to make up for ruining Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle’s (Alyson Hannigan) impending nuptials, and he developed feelings for Michelle’s sister, Cadence (January Jones), he appeared to revert to his same perverse, foul-mouthed self in 2012’s American Reunion.
Tyrannosaurus Rex (Jurassic World)
Out of all the prehistoric creatures running amok in director Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the one Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and co. were most wary about was the top of the food chain: the T-Rex. However, in 2015’s Jurassic World, the fearsome beast turned out to be the theme park guest’s savior against a highly intelligent, blood-thirsty, man-made dinosaur called the Indominous Rex.
Wikus Van De Merwe (District 9)
The main plot of Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 debut, District 9, begins when Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) eagerly accepted a leading position in an operation to evict an alien race from the junkyard they were designated to in South Africa for decades. It was not until he became exposed to a chemical and began transforming into a “Prawn” that he began to see things from their perspective and fight for them in this thought-provoking sci-fi flick.
Yondu (Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2)
Writer and director James Gunn tricked us into thinking there was nothing more to Yondu (Michael Rooker) than a greedy, ruthless ravager in Guardians of the Galaxy before sweeping the rug right out from under us in Vol. 2. Yondu proved to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) that he actually cared about him as if he was his real “daddy” before giving his life for him at the sequel’s heartbreaking climax.
Zuko (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
For years, Zuko (Dante Basco) was devoted to capturing Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen) in order to take back the crown as Prince of the Fire Nation, until he came to detest his people’s oppressive ways. In one of the most pivotal twists on the classic animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko joined forces with Aang — even becoming his fire bending mentor — to defeat the Fire Lord and lead the Fire Nation into a new era of peace.
Everyone deserves a second chance, and we are happy that these characters received their opportunity to go from zero to hero.