Avatar: The Last Airbender is back on Netflix, and fans are reliving the animated series while seeing certain scenes and characters in a new light. Looking back at what made The Last Airbender so consistently good, it's impossible to ignore Prince Zuko’s redemption arc. Thoughtful and inspiring, Zuko’s turn from series antagonist to an ally of the Avatar is exemplary. It's the type of storytelling big-budget shows and movies should aspire to, but rarely achieve.
So when GameSpot dared fans on Twitter to “name a better redemption story” than Prince Zuko’s, there weren't a lot of valid answers. Naturally, one Star Wars suggested Kylo Ren’s redemption story is superior to Zuko’s. It wasn’t, but let’s dissect why.
Kylo Ren’s arc in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was unremarkable. Kylo followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, Darth Vader. He turned his back on his life as a Jedi in favor of the Dark side, turning to hate and anger and breaking his mother Leia's heart before doing the unspeakable and killing his father, Han Solo. The end of The Force Awakens felt like the point of no return for Kylo, who spent The Last Jedi attempting to convince Rey to join the Dark side.
You could argue that Kylo was influenced by Supreme Leader Snoke, or that Luke's behavior on Ahch-To pushed him to the Dark side. But Kylo’s actions were his own. He had multiple chances to turn to the Light or even express misgivings about the First Order, but he never does.
It wasn’t until the last third of The Rise of Skywalker, after hearing his mother’s voice and briefly convening with a vision of his dead dad, that Kylo gave up the Dark side to help Rey defeat Emperor Palpatine. Kylo’s final good deed was sacrificing himself to bring Rey back to life. Death was Kylo’s redemption story.
Prince Zuko’s storyline on Avatar: The Last Airbender shares some similarities with Kylo Ren. When we meet Zuko, he uses anger and hatred to fuel his mission to find Avatar Aang. What’s more, that anger makes him more lethal as a firebender. However, Zuko’s backstory was far more clear and his path was always leading towards good. Zuko’s journey to redemption was filled with a lot of ups and downs, but that’s par for the course.
Zuko also has much stronger motivations as a villain. After being banished and dishonored by his father, Fire Lord Ozai, Zuko sets out to capture Aang and regain his lost honor. Kylo's whole reason for being evil is basically that he's going through an emo phase.
And while other characters have sympathetic uncles (Iroh for Zuko, Luke Skywalker for Kylo), only Avatar truly explores that dynamic. Uncle Iroh is a staunch believer in his nephew's ability to rebalance the four nations, even after Zuko strays from the path in Season 2. Their uncle/nephew dynamic is something we could have seen between Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker — there's even a hint of it in Colin Treverrow's unused script — but alas.
Zuko’s internal struggle is well-documented throughout Avatar: The Last Airbender. He’s often torn between the villain his family raised him to be and the hero Uncle Iroh knows he is deep down. Once Zuko decides to help Aang, he sticks with it, understanding that he must atone for his sins with more than his words. Zuko then proves over and over again that he can finally be trusted.
After all, true redemption is about putting in the work. An apology isn’t enough and Zuko knew it. His redemption takes time and culminates in Zuko assisting in the fight to overthrow the Fire Nation’s rule and bring peace to the world. He doesn't die for the cause. He lives long enough to ensure that his partnership with Aang benefits everyone.
By comparison, Kylo’s redemption arc leaves a lot to be desired. His death may have saved Rey, but she's only one person. Ultimately, Kylo didn’t live long enough to help dismantle the First Order, a fascist government in which he played a key leadership role. He didn't put in any of the work to bring peace to the galaxy he helped terrorize for years. (All he did was put on a new sweater and kiss Rey.)
For Kylo, death is an easy out, when he should be answering for his crimes against the galaxy, and his one-dimensional redemption story can't be compared to the more thorough, meaningful, and multi-dimensional arc that Avatar: The Last Airbender gave Zuko.