Last weekend, I did what many millennials and Gen-Zers were doing: streaming Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix. The iconic Nickelodeon series couldn’t have arrived at a better moment, when much of the world is quarantined and 90’s and 00’s babies are itching for content that celebrates the “good old days”. Unlike those that flooded social media with memes, I wasn’t as enamored with A:TLA during its initial run. I can’t pinpoint a specific reason why – likely a mix of thinking that the series was overrated and a general disinterest in Nickelodeon – but the fever that swept my generation passed right by me.
My binge of A:TLA, driven by an interest in proving my fourteen-year-old self wrong, achieved its goal. The series’ impact on pop culture – not just kids’ pop culture – is undeniable: the intricate world-building exercises fertilized Game of Thrones’ ground, while its complex themes provided a framework for other animated series like Steven Universe to build upon. Apart from that, A:TLA is also top-notch television, a stunningly animated and richly plotted landscape that doesn’t lose its heart or its respect for the intelligence of its young audience. Even filler episodes add valuable dimension to the characters, history, and surrounding universe.
Arguably, A:TLA‘s most impressive achievement is its character development, especially that of its antagonist, Prince Zuko. A lesser series would’ve been content with a largely one-note foil for the heroes to outmaneuver in their world-saving quests. Instead, A:TLA offered Zuko, a pathologically prideful royal scion whose singular obsession in restoring his honor at the hero’s expense is rooted in complicated familial dynamics and profound trauma.
The basic tenets of Zuko’s character bear more than a passing resemblance to another icon of millennial-age animation, Vegeta of the legendary anime Dragon Ball Z. It’s ironic that I likely wouldn’t have made the connection fifteen years ago, considering how much I revered Dragon Ball Z at the time. And yet, the parallels between the two ostensible villains are undeniable, as is the realization that Zuko is an evolution and perfection of the character arc that Vegeta would revolutionize.
Both Zuko and Vegeta were introduced as immediate, tangible threats to their series’ protagonists. After narrowly beating Radditz and losing Goku in the process, the Z Fighters had to face Vegeta, a villain who dwarfed him in power and was so fearsome that two mini-arcs were dedicated to preparing for his arrival. Team Avatar’s mission to save the world from the Fire Nation directly opposed Zuko, who was equally determined to capture Aang and send him straight to the Fire Lord. More than just plot obstacles to overcome, Vegeta and Zuko had their own unique inner lives: Vegeta’s pride, sourced from his annihilated Saiyan heritage, was his lifeblood and any challenge to it was subject to destruction, while Zuko’s teenage rage was inextricable from his mission to capture Aang and reclaim his place within his family.
Dragon Ball Z and A:TLA are heroes’ stories first and foremost, but affording Vegeta and Zuko their own perspectives and motivations made the hero-villain dynamics of their series more interesting, and made them likable (and merchandisable) in their own right. This character work also helped set up the enrichment of their histories, which would contextualize both their villainy and what would push them beyond it.
Vegeta’s transition from outright villain formally began with the twilight of the Frieza arc. Vegeta is convinced that, after years of subjugation by the galactic overlord Frieza, he has the necessary power to defeat him and avenge his people. He’s terribly wrong, and Frieza ends him with devastating and indifferent ease. When Goku arrives on the battlefield and Vegeta witnesses his increased power, the proud Saiyan experiences a stunning emotional breakdown, revealing Frieza’s destruction of his home planet and its people, how Frieza turned the adolescent prince into a bloodthirsty instrument of evil, and elevating the already-high stakes of Goku and Frieza’s impending battle. Suddenly, Vegeta was more than a villain, but a nuanced tragic figure shaped by colonial terrorism and abuse at the hands of an evil tyrant.
Zuko’s own experiences with abuse hit closer to home. A:TLA spent the first season peeling back the layers of its antagonist’s hardened shell to reveal the deeply traumatized boy at the core. In the revelatory episode “The Storm”, we learn the horrifying story behind Zuko’s trademark scar, how his father Fire Lord Ozai burned his face and banished him from the Fire Nation after the young prince spoke out of turn during a war council meeting. The tragedy of Zuko’s psychological and physical abuse was how deeply it was internalized. Whereas Vegeta had the self-awareness to understand how he became a villain, Zuko was gripped by his father’s gaslighting, justifying every reprehensible choice he made through the lens of his righteous quest for redemption.
Zuko’s awakening to his trauma, and the realities of the Fire Nation’s atrocities, forms much of his second season arc. After failing to capture Aang during the Southern Water Tribe invasion, Zuko and his uncle Iroh are in hiding in the Earth Kingdom, formally stripped of their royal status and in hot pursuit by Zuko’s sociopath younger sister Azula. In exile, he is confronted with his homeland’s brutalities, slowly realizing that Ozai’s lessons might’ve been wrong. Still, the roots of his father’s abuse ran deep, and Zuko clings to the belief that capturing Aang will bring him salvation. Eventually, his journeys with Iroh and on his own help Zuko discover a life free from those burdens, contentedly serving tea with his uncle in a tea shop. It’s an unsettled peace, however, ready to be upset by some well-placed words that tug at those roots. Azula finds those words, blatantly manipulating Zuko into betraying Katara, Iroh and his new life by teaming up with her to battle Aang. By the end of the season, Aang is defeated and presumed dead, Iroh is imprisoned as a traitor, and Zuko’s honor is restored.
Vegeta’s rise and fall from grace in Dragon Ball Z is more complicated, by the nature of the show’s structure. Vegeta is revived after Goku defeats Frieza, now a refugee on Earth. With Goku training off-world and no one to challenge him, Vegeta uneasily settles on Earth, accepting the hospitality of Bulma Briefs and even having a son with her named Trunks. Still, Vegeta’s focus is on surpassing Goku to become the strongest being in the universe, and the arrival of the Androids and Cell grant him a chance. He finally achieves the level of Super Saiyan, but Vegeta’s pride handicaps him on multiple occasions during the battles and costs him greatly, including Trunks’ life. Cell is ultimately defeated by Goku’s sacrificial death and his ten-year-old son Gohan who has surpassed them both, a devastating humiliation that forces Vegeta into self-imposed retirement.
Seven years later, Goku is granted a 24-hour return from the dead to fight in the World Martial Arts Tournament, and Vegeta vows to defeat him once and for all. At the tournament, the wizard Babidi takes control of Vegeta’s mind, hoping to release his full power and free his evil monster Buu. It turns out the mind control was voluntary; Vegeta wanted Babidi to awaken the evilness that domesticity had dulled inside of him so that he could finally defeat Goku. With his new power, Vegeta goads Goku into a death match by killing thousands of tournament spectators and risking Bulma’s life. The fight gives Vegeta the opportunity to unleash years of shame and guilt borne from his time on Earth and losing touch with his past brutality. Processing Vegeta’s torrential emotional state alongside his high-octane fight with Goku and the impending threat of Buu is a lot, and there isn’t much narrative space to completely parse through Vegeta’s psyche in that moment.
To be fair, Dragon Ball Z is a battle-driven series, and its ability to drive character development through kinetic action sequences is key to it being a cultural phenomenon. A:TLA‘s structure was more advantageous in fully developing Zuko and its other characters. We couldn’t see Vegeta’s anger at his circumstances fester over the course of the series, but we could easily chart the subtle changes and realizations in Zuko.
The seeds planted in the first and second seasons fully bloomed in the third as Zuko returns to the Fire Nation as a war hero. The homecoming he receives isn’t what he expects, or even what he wants after his time away. As he explains to his father during their fateful Solar Eclipse encounter, everything Ozai instilled in him – his self-hatred, the Fire Nation’s deified greatness – was wrong and defeating him, by teaching Aang how to firebend, was the only path towards true peace. Zuko’s moment of self-actualization didn’t erase the months of pain and misery he brought Aang and his friends, and he spent several episodes proving himself worthy of their trust. In some ways, seeing Zuko gain the respect and friendship he desperately yearned for was a reward in and of itself.
But true redemption in shows like Dragon Ball Z and A:TLA is much more intense than “guy makes friends”, and both Vegeta and Zuko have similar moments in the spotlight to confront their own cataclysmic threats. Vegeta fights Buu, the near-immortal monster that he helped unleashed during his battle with Goku, while Zuko comes face-to-face with Azula as she’s about to be crowned the new Fire Lord. They’re both winner-takes-all brawls, with heavy emotional stakes. Vegeta’s bout also reflects his acceptance of responsibility of the role he was ready to decimate, as a protector of Earth and his loved ones. His embrace of Trunks before his final attack is an expression of his intense personal growth and the kind of paternal intimacy that Goku himself never quite achieved with his own sons. Zuko has fought Azula before, but his newfound, hard-won serenity, paired with her decreased mental capacity, gives him the confidence to face her on his own, without Katara’s help.
While both battles rank amongst their series’ greatest moments, neither Vegeta nor Zuko actually emerge as victors. Vegeta’s self-sacrificial Final Explosion attack may have been the perfect culmination of his decade-long, subconscious search for internal peace and respect, but Buu survived, and it’s Goku’s final Spirit Bomb that ends him once and for all. Zuko’s battle with Azula is a spectacular, subversive clash of serene red and psychotic blue flames, but his decisive win is clipped by her lightning attack against Katara, which severely wounds him when he jumps in to intercept it. Katara is the one who ultimately defeats Azula and heals Zuko.
Vegeta and Zuko technically lost their respective battles, but they won their wars. In assisting Goku finally defeat Buu, Vegeta pushed his personal development even further, coming to see his once-bitter rival as begrudgingly-respected ally that didn’t diminish his own greatness. Zuko ultimately defeated his sister with Katara’s help, someone who took the longest to forgive him for his past transgressions, a final vote of confidence that Zuko had become a hero in his own right and way.
While both arcs end similarly, Dragon Ball Z ties Vegeta’s redemption too closely to Buu’s defeat for it to feel like a completely satisfactory resolution. As impactful as Vegeta’s sacrifice is, and even considering the evolution of his friendship with Goku in the series’ final stages, there’s a lingering feeling that Vegeta was robbed of the glory of beating Buu and saving Earth. A:TLA ultimately avoids this by deviating Zuko’s arc from the final confrontation between Ozai and Aang and ending it with Azula instead. Aided by episodes worth of intricate character work, the extraction makes Zuko’s challenge fully his own and doesn’t rely on the main protagonist to progress it.
Vegeta’s enduring popularity and influence stems from his character development, an arc that downright eclipses that of his heroic counterpart Goku. He is frustrating, outrageous, slightly absurd, and thoroughly compelling, making him the perfectly complex template for generations of animated anti-heroes and reformed villains. He was a brilliant reference point for Zuko, and the strengths of A:TLA’s storytelling structure helped smooth and build upon the rough edges of his arc to build a standout character in a series jam-packed with memorable and lovable personalities.
The unqualified success of Vegeta and Zuko are sterling examples of the rich storytelling and character development that young and older audiences expect and demand from animated programs. If ever you looked at these series, and those inspired by them, and passed them over, let these two characters serve as a reason to give them a second glance. All you need is a couple of streaming services, and a global pandemic doesn’t hurt either.