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. 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 Avatar 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 Avatar — driven by an interest in proving my fourteen-year-old self wrong — achieved its goal. The series’ impact on pop culture is undeniable: the intricate world-building exercises fertilized Game of Thrones’ ground. Its complex themes provided a framework for other animated series like Steven Universe. Avatar is also top-notch television, a stunningly animated and richly plotted landscape that doesn’t lose its heart or respect for its young audience’s intelligence. Even filler episodes add a valuable dimension to the characters, history, and surrounding universe.
Avatar’s most impressive achievement is its character development, especially that of its antagonist, Prince Zuko. A lesser series would’ve been content with a one-note foil for the heroes to outmaneuver in their world-saving quests. Instead, Avatar offered Zuko, a pathologically prideful child whose singular obsession with restoring his honor is rooted in complicated familial dynamics and profound trauma.
Zuko’s character traits bear more than a passing resemblance to another anime icon: Vegeta of Dragon Ball Z. I likely wouldn’t have made the connection fifteen years ago. (I revered Dragon Ball Z too much to draw parallels to a series I tolerated.) And yet, the similarities between the two apparent villains are undeniable. Just as indisputable is the realization that Zuko’s arc evolves and perfects what Vegeta would revolutionize.
More Than a Villain
Dragon Ball Z and Avatar introduced Prince Vegeta and Prince Zuko as immediate and tangible threats to the protagonists. After narrowly beating Radditz and losing Goku, the Z Fighters had to face Vegeta. He was a villain who dwarfed them in power, so fearsome that Dragon Ball Z dedicated two mini-arcs to preparing for his arrival. Team Avatar’s mission to save the world from the Fire Nation put them against Zuko, an exiled prince who wanted to capture Aang and send him straight to the Fire Lord. More than just obstacles to overcome, Vegeta and Zuko had unique inner lives. Vegeta’s pride, sourced from his annihilated Saiyan heritage, was his lifeblood and any challenge to it demanded destruction. Zuko’s teenage rage was inextricable from his mission to capture Aang and reclaim his place within his family.
Dragon Ball Z and Avatar are heroes’ stories first and foremost. However, giving Vegeta and Zuko perspectives and motivations made the series’ dynamics more exciting. It also made them likable (and merchandisable) in their own right. This character work enriched their histories, contextualizing their villainy and how they would push beyond it.
Vegeta’s transition from outright villain formally began at the twilight of the Frieza arc. Vegeta believes that, after Frieza’s years of subjugation, he can defeat him and avenge his people. He’s wrong, and Frieza ends him with devastating and indifferent ease. Goku’s arrival on the battlefield triggers a stunning emotional breakdown in Vegeta. He tearfully recounts how Frieza destroyed his home planet and molded him into an instrument of evil. After witnessing Goku’s increased power, Vegeta elevates the sky-high stakes, begging him to kill Frieza once and for all. In that harrowing moment, Vegeta became more than a villain. He transformed into a nuanced tragic figure shaped by colonial terrorism and years of tyrannical abuse.
Zuko’s own experiences with abuse hit closer to home. Avatar spends the first season peeling back the layers of his 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. His father, the Fire Lord Ozai, burned his face and banished him from the Fire Nation after the child prince spoke out of turn during a war council meeting.
The tragedy of Zuko’s psychological and physical abuse was its deep internalization. Whereas Vegeta was self-aware about how he became a villain, Ozai’s gaslighting gripped Zuko, allowing him to justify his every reprehensible choice through the lens of his righteous quest for redemption.
Zuko’s awakening to his trauma, and the realities of the Fire Nation’s atrocities, form much of his second season arc. After failing to capture Aang during the Southern Water Tribe invasion, Zuko and Iroh hide in the Earth Kingdom, pursued by Zuko’s sociopathic younger sister Azula. Zuko slowly realizes the extent of his homeland’s brutalities in exile and that Ozai’s lessons were wrong. Still, his father’s abuse runs deep, and Zuko insists that capturing Aang will redeem him.
Old Habits Die Hard
Eventually, Zuko discovers a life free from those burdens, contentedly serving tea with Iroh in a tea shop. However, it’s an uneasy peace, upset by some well-placed words. Azula manipulates Zuko into betraying Katara, Iroh, and his new life by teaming up with her to battle Aang. At the end of the season, Aang is defeated and presumed dead, Iroh is imprisoned, and Zuko’s status 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 and becomes a refugee on Earth. With Goku training off-world, Vegeta uneasily settles, accepting Bulma Briefs’ hospitality and having a son with her named Trunks. Still, Vegeta is intent on surpassing Goku to become the strongest being in the universe. The arrival of the Androids and Cell grant him a chance. Vegeta finally achieves the level of Super Saiyan, but his pride handicaps him several times and costs him, among other things, Future Trunks’ life. Ultimately, Goku sacrifices himself to defeat Cell with his ten-year-old son Gohan. Surpassed by both, a humiliated Vegeta effectively retires.
Seven years later, Goku returns from the dead for 24 hours to fight in the World Martial Arts Tournament, and Vegeta vows to defeat him. 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 him so he could finally defeat Goku.
With his new power, Vegeta goads Goku into a death match by killing thousands of tournament spectators. The fight allows Vegeta to unleash years of shame and guilt borne from his time on Earth. Processing Vegeta’s torrential emotional state alongside his high-octane battle with Goku and the impending threat of Buu is a lot. There isn’t much narrative space to parse through Vegeta’s psyche at that moment.
Dragon Ball Z is a battle-driven series. It’s ability to drive character development through kinetic action sequences is key to being a cultural phenomenon. Avatar’s structure was more advantageous in fully developing Zuko, as well as the other characters. We couldn’t see Vegeta’s anger at his circumstances fester throughout the series, but we could chart Zuko’s subtle changes and realizations.
The third season — starting with Zuko’s return to the Fire Nation as a war hero — pays off the emotional development of the previous season. His homecoming isn’t what he expects or even what he wants anymore. He accepts that everything Ozai instilled in him – his self-hatred, the Fire Nation’s deified greatness – was wrong. His only path toward peace was to teach Aang how to firebend and defeat Ozai. Zuko’s moment of self-actualization doesn’t erase the pain and misery he brought Aang and his friends. He spends several episodes proving himself worthy of their trust, and seeing him gain their respect and friendship was a reward in and of itself.
But redemption in Dragon Ball Z and Avatar is more intense than “guy makes friends.” Vegeta and Zuko both must confront their own cataclysmic threats. Vegeta fights Buu, the near-immortal monster he helped unleash during his battle with Goku, while Zuko comes face-to-face with Azula as she’s crowned the new Fire Lord.
They’re both winner-takes-all brawls with heavy emotional stakes. Vegeta’s fight with Buu reflects his acceptance 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 expresses his intense personal growth and the paternal intimacy that Goku himself never quite achieved with his 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.
Both battles rank among their series’ best moments, but neither Vegeta nor Zuko is victorious. Vegeta’s self-sacrificing Final Explosion attack could’ve been the perfect culmination of his decade-long search for peace and self-respect. Unfortunately, Buu survives, and Goku’s final Spirit Bomb ends him once and for all. Zuko’s battle with Azula is a spectacular and provocative clash of serene red and psychotic blue flames. However, her lightning attack against Katara clips his decisive win. Azula severely wounds Zuko when he jumps in to intercept it, and Katara is the one who defeats her and heals him.
Vegeta and Zuko technically lost their respective battles but won their wars. Vegeta assists Goku in defeating Buu, seeing his once-bitter rival as a begrudgingly-respected ally that doesn’t diminish his greatness. Zuko defeats his sister with Katara’s help. As someone who took the longest to forgive him, her support solidified that Zuko had become a hero in his own right.
Both arcs end similarly, but Dragon Ball Z ties Vegeta’s redemption too closely to Buu’s defeat for it to feel like a satisfactory resolution. Vegeta’s sacrifice is impactful, as is his relationship with Goku in the series’ final stages. However, a feeling lingers that Vegeta deserved the glory of beating Buu and saving Earth. Avatar avoids this by deviating Zuko’s arc from the final confrontation between Ozai and Aang, ending it with Azula instead. Aided by numerous episodes of intricate character work, the extraction makes Zuko’s challenge entirely his own and doesn’t rely on the main protagonist to progress it.
Vegeta’s popularity and influence stems from his character development, an arc that arguably eclipses Goku’s. He is frustrating, outrageous, absurd, and thoroughly compelling. He is the perfect template for generations of animated anti-heroes and reformed villains and a brilliant reference point for Zuko. The strengths of A:TLA’s storytelling structure helped smooth out the template’s rough edges and create a standout character in a series jam-packed with them.
The unqualified success of the two princes is a powerful example of the rich storytelling and character development that audiences expect from animated programs. If you ever you past these series, and those inspired by them, let Vegeta and Zuko offer a compelling reason to give them a second glance.