Thirty years ago, Terminator 2: Judgment Day redefined the blockbuster and is still firmly on the list of the greatest films of all time. Among the film’s many triumphs, T2 popularized an image that is still widely used in modern franchised cinema today. As everyone probably knows, in the movie, the T-800, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, travels back in time to protect John Connor from the threat. The transformation of the villain of the first film into the hero of the sequel is a fantastic move in the long-running franchise, which is why it is still popular today.
One of the biggest benefits of franchises as big as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Fast and the Furious or The Terminator is the ability to respond to fan feedback in real time. Sometimes the villain of the film captures the hearts of the audience, even becoming more beloved than the protagonist. Seasoned filmmakers have noticed this trend, and with long-term franchises, they can keep their favorite characters “in their back pocket” for later use. With this in mind, villains believed to be dead never actually disappear. T2 may not have invented this technique, but he definitely popularized it.
Dozens of examples of this trend can be found in modern franchised cinema. One recent example is Loki, who is a villain in several previous films and turns into a complex hero. In the MCU, Loki goes through several different characters, from a mega-manic supervillain to a neutral sly and hero. He is a significant character in the Marvel comics universe, but the idea that he will become good is much less common. Obviously, the choice in favor of the good was made with the expectation of an army of fans who love him.
There are a few more villains in the MCU who have received redemption. For example, Nebula in the second film Guardians of the Galaxy. Nebula is injured at the hands of Thanos, but after a violent conflict with her sister Gamora, she becomes a semi-official member of the team, and then goes to kill her adoptive father. Nebula becomes a hero by the time of Endgame, where, ironically, she has to lead an alternate past version of Gamora through her own turn to the good side. Also in the premiere of What If? several villains have been reincarnated as heroes.
Another great example of villain reincarnation is Deckard Shaw, the character of Jason Statham in the long-running Fast and Furious franchise. Appearing in Fast and Furious 6, Shaw was a vengeful mercenary working for the film’s main antagonist. Over the course of the film, Shaw battles the main cast of the franchise, especially Luke Hobbs played by Dwayne Johnson. The show even killed the fan favorite character Khan, who, as it turned out 3 films later, survived. However, Shaw makes amends before Han returns. Shaw becomes a member of the franchise family and later becomes a hero in the movie Hobbs and Shaw.
The reason Terminator 2: Doomsday is the perfect inspiration for this makeover is because of the sheer simplicity of its execution. Technically, the T-800 shown in T2 is not the car that hunts Sarah Connor in the first film, but redemption for the classic villain is a very easy move to the other side. The T-800 essentially has the same personality, but from scratch and the transition to the good team is a matter of programming. When villains change their orientation in other franchises, their motives are questioned, but when an iconic robot goes over to the side of the good guys so fans can root for him, it’s simple and effective.