Why We Are So Obsessed With Antiheroes

Leigh Singer
Movies DC
Movies DC

“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” reasons Gotham City’s straight-arrow, crime-fighting District Attorney Harvey Dent in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Well, yes and no.

Nolan’s 2008 game-changing, noir­-inflected spin on Batman ends with our hero taking the fall for Dent, to preserve the legacy of an upstanding man driven mad, facially disfigured and reborn – and then killed off – as psychotic Two-Face. Batman is pursued by the forces of justice as a dangerous vigilante. But we, and crucially, honest cop Jim Gordon, know that it’s an act.

It’s easy to believe Batman may have broken bad, because Batman has always stood in sharp – or rather, murky – contrast to the conventional bright, shining, largely unambiguous derring-do of his fellow D.C. Comics A-listers, Superman and Wonder Woman. And later still, to Marvel’s early roster of do-gooders, The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Captain America. These are heroes. Batman is something else. An anti-hero.

As another antihero, Harley Quinn, hits screens in her first solo venture, and the world gears up to embrace the upcoming big-screen debut of a certain ‘Living Vampire’ named Morbius this summer, we take a look at the appeal of the bad good guy.


‘Antiheroes’ are nothing new, going all the way back to Odysseus in Greek mythology through to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and, today, they’re everywhere. An antihero is defined as lacking some of the typically lauded attributes that we associated with heroes. Heroes are meant to be brave and selfless; an antihero might be cowardly and selfish (Homer and Bart Simpson, or Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean). Heroes should be kind and modest; an anti-hero might be vain and pretty mean, even to his supposed allies (think Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr.’s waspish Sherlocks (Holmes). Heroes should be merciful and value all human life; antiheroes are often prepared, or even have a licence, to kill (TV serial killer-killer Dexter, or MI6’s James Bond).

A true hero is ultimately a beacon of morality. Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996) is such a hero. An antihero might just be an amoral jerk. Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018) is such an antihero. McDormand’s two characters both chase down criminals in very different ways: Marge through dogged, respectful investigating; Mildred through beating up those who cross her and firebombing the police station.

McDormand won Best Actress Oscars for both roles because, in each case, audiences connected with her characters and their causes. We root for these people, sometimes despite, and sometimes even because of their flaws. And that becomes particularly interesting when applied to a format previously known for its largely black-and-white ideas of good guys and bad guys, like the world of superheroes…


So, back to Batman. Sure, he’s a knight – honourable, trustworthy, ultimately a force for good – but he’s a dark knight. Superman would never skulk in the shadows (or dress as a bat) to terrify the criminal fraternity. But this added element of mystery, arguably even sadism, has been a fundamental part of Batman’s appeal from the start, writ large in certain incarnations of the character (Frank Miller’s 1986 groundbreaking graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, or the Batman-as-vampire 1991 series Red Rain).

Christopher Nolan’s trilogy made movie Batman darker than any previous screen versions, though of course, antiheroism is on a sliding scale, from mildly problematic to run for your lives. Part of The Dark Knight is given over to the Joker doing everything he can to make Batman break his one rule, of not killing; an edict that other antiheroes have zero problem with smashing to smithereens.

The same year as Nolan’s The Dark Knight saw Marvel begin their subsequent global domination with a huge gamble that also riffed on the antihero trope. Iron Man’s alias is Tony Stark, a renegade billionaire playboy, a tech genius and weapons and arms-manufacturer. Basically, Stark is a more gregarious Bruce Wayne with added firepower. Powered by Robert Downey Jr.’s arrogant, wisecracking and insolent anti-authority swagger – cleverly playing off the actor’s own chequered past – Stark made for a refreshingly off-kilter lead.

The film effectively became his redemption story when he saw the real-world consequences and damage wrought by his creations. And his damaged heart kept him visibly vulnerable in a way few other superheroes are. But make no mistake, Downey Jr. and Tony Stark’s wild-card unpredictability was the spark for Marvel’s all-consuming firestorm. And the studio cannily exploited this to the max, making Stark/Iron Man the foil to Steve Rogers/Captain America across the ever-expanding MCU.


Which brings us to Birds of Prey [deep breath] and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, or as it has recently been retitled, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. Whatever you call it, it’s the latest high-profile, antihero superhero outing. A spin-off to 2016’s Suicide Squad, it represents Harley’s DCEU big-screen debut. That film was an attempt to turn a bunch of supervillains (Will Smith’s crack marksman Deadshot, Jay Hernandez’s pyromaniacal El Diablo, etc) into an anarchic team forced to save the world: the Dirty Half-Dozen, or the Anti-Avengers, if you like.

Harleen Quinzel is an Arkham Asylum psychiatrist turned loose-cannon gangster’s moll through her infatuation with twisted boyfriend, the Joker. Margot Robbie’s live-wire performance was the only real breakout from the overwrought, undercooked Squad (certainly overpowering Jared Leto’s irritating Clown Prince of Crime). Her day-glo style, both ditzy and dangerous, deserved better. And gets it here, as part of an all-new, all-female crew, a much better fit with her sorority-house-on-acid sense of chaotic fun.

The various Birds of PreyHuntress, Black Canary, rogue cop Renee Montoya and teen pickpocket Cassandra Cain ­­– only really team up in the final act. Until then it’s mainly Harley’s show, as unreliable narrator and central focus, maintaining her unique sense of joie de vivre and live-and-let-die misbehaviour. She’ll adopt a hyena, launch a one-woman assault on a police station, and even, at times, double-cross her supposed allies. Not that any of the other main characters are whiter-than-white, either.

The kick here is in watching them take no prisoners and fight back by any means necessary, usually against the abusive men who have made their lives so tough. There’s a solidarity here that trumps personal misdeeds. “You made me want to be a less terrible person,” Harley wails at one point to her new cohorts. And that may be the key to the antihero…


Harley Quinn, Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey are ‘bad guys’, without being all-bad. “I may be super, but… I’m no hero,” riffed Deadpool, otherwise known as the ‘merc with the mouth’, in his 2016 gleefully offensive, fourth-wall-breaking, self-named first solo outing. This, and the 2018 sequel, were huge hits, sending up the genre and indulging in adult humour and gory violence atypical of most comics-based characters.

It also broke through the assumption that an R-rated superhero movie would limit the core audience of fans. For all its affectionately juvenile humour, there’s a strong argument that Deadpool helped the superhero movie grow up.

If Deadpool is no hero, he’s certainly a romantic who ultimately learns to help others. It just comes with a huge side helping of selfishness and general mayhem. The same can be said for 2018’s big-screen version of Venom, based on the man-eating alien symbiote who started out as a Spider-Man villain. Salvaged from the failed Sinister Six project (a mooted team-up of various web-slinger bad guys), the film shied away from the R-rated, all-out carnage that its source material seemed to demand. Here, when Tom Hardy’s reporter Eddie Brock is taken over by a man-eating space monster, he learns to curb its appetites while fighting Riz Ahmed’s more ruthless human symbiote host. This mix of anarchy and convention made the film, like Deadpool, a massive success and a sequel is already in the works.

Modern-day box-office figures for anti-hero supers dwarf anything that previous attempts – Spawn (1997), Ghost Rider (2007), even the Blade trilogy (1998-2004) – ever produced. The result is that even as marginal a comic book figure as Morbius, the Living Vampire is about to star in his own movie. Michael Morbius is a biochemist whose failed experiment to cure a rare blood disorder turns him into — well, see that title. Struggling with his vampiric bloodlust and attempts to find the cure to his condition, he becomes a night-stalking vigilante. That blend of afflicted human and supernatural curse apparently never grows old.


So before the current movie boom, where and when did anti-hero supers really emerge? It’s no coincidence that in the comics, these characters started to take hold in the 1970s. A turbulent time in US history (the Vietnam War, Watergate, ongoing struggles in the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements), good guy and bad guy demarcations that previously felt so clear cut suddenly started to seem blurred, unpredictable. When the American Way doesn’t seem to embody Truth or Justice, what then? Clearly it felt time for heroes who better reflected these morally dubious times. And 1974 saw not only the debut of Morbius’s own series Adventure into Fear (previously he’d been just another Spidey baddie), but two of the most iconic antiheroes around.

When Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, made his debut in Amazing Spider-Man #129, it was actually as an antagonist, whose mission was to assassinate our friendly neighbourhood web-slinger. An ex-Marine driven (insane?) by the mob killing of his wife and children, Castle sports a huge skull emblem on his chest and qualm-free approach to vigilante killing. And the instant popularity of his menacing, uncompromising, psychologically troubled persona turned him instead into a foil for heroes rather than nemesis, teaming up with Spidey, Captain America and others, and challenging their justice-orientated approach to crime-fighting.

His most recent screen incarnation appeared in Marvel TV’s Daredevil Season 2 and then his own show, with actor Jon Bernthal dispensing rough justice to the criminal underworld, and mocking Daredevil’s more principled stance.


The same year saw the debut of a mutant with retractable adamantium claws and regenerative healing powers. Wolverine had a similarly brooding attitude and inability to play nicely with others as Frank Castle. “I’m the best there is at what I do,” he growled, “but what I do best isn’t very nice.”

Nice or not, Wolverine quickly becoming the most popular of the X-Men, in both the comics and, decades later, portrayed by Hugh Jackman across eight movies in the popular X-Men films and his own standalone series, most notably the critically acclaimed R-rated neo-Western Logan.

An anti-social, cigar-smoking rebel, there’s a certain glee when Wolverine succumbs to his ‘berserker’ rage and turns into a lethal one-man army. Or just generally takes no crap. In fact, you could distill his appeal to his three-word cameo in another X-Men film, First Class. Young Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr (Professor X and Magneto to most of us) venture out, successfully recruiting mutants to join their cause – with one exception:


Human beings are complicated. And while there’s a generally accepted consensus on what constitutes morally and ethically acceptable behaviour, we all slip up from time to time. Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America… they can all, almost always, be counted on to Do the Right Thing. They are icons; the superhero as, well, super-human. And even if Peter Parker may mess up occasionally, we know that his heart is always in the right place.

Which is great on the one hand. And, on the other… a little… boring? (And, as an aside, it’s worth acknowledging how great performances like Christopher Reeve, Gal Gadot and Chris Evans as Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America respectively are, for bringing so much life to potentially limited characters).

Comic book aficionados will doubtless point to several titles where even the noblest of heroes goes rogue. But by definition it’s the exception to their established codes of conduct. And while it’s great to have role models to aspire to, don’t we sometimes want to see someone who doesn’t play by the rules? Someone who will fight for right, but maybe rig the game a little? Who disrespects authority? Who, every now and then, just loses self-control? These are emotions we all grapple with on a daily basis. And when we see someone step out of line and defy the system, it’s instantly relatable. And we can live vicariously, and without consequence, through them.

I’m not advocating that we shouldn’t also admire the most honourable and righteous. But I am saying that, when I was a kid, Star Wars was a lot more fun when space pirate Han Solo’s sardonic cynicism was around to counterbalance boy scout Luke Skywalker’s wide-eyed trust in The Force. I respect Jon Snow’s grimly earnest sense of fair play in Westeros’s Game of Thrones; but I enjoy more the wily ‘Imp’, Tyrion Lannister, when he “drinks and knows things”. Who’s honestly the most fascinating/conflicted character in the Harry Potter series? Young Harry? Or the man whose motives you can’t second-guess across several books, Severus Snape?


And yet… there’s a frequent misnomer for the term ‘antihero’ and I don’t mean the idea of ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ I’m talking about descents into absolute immorality. Evil, even. Whether a character started with good intentions, if by the end, they’re wantonly manipulating, hurting or even killing those around them for their own ends, they’re no longer an antihero. They’re a fully-fledged villain, no matter how convincingly they justify their behaviour, or how charismatic they appear.

Arthur Fleck is the protagonist of Joker, the madman with a clown’s face that he morphs into by the end of the film. But he’s no anti-hero, no matter how much injustice and misery is piled onto, and eventually snaps, his fragile psyche. When your reaction to verbal abuse is to shoot the perpetrator in cold blood, you’ve stretched the limits of antiheroism past breaking point. But it can still be so darkly alluring. Maybe precisely because we know it’s so wrong. No wonder they appeal to us, as much as they appal us. And no wonder actors love playing a good bad guy. Anything goes.

Great characters change over time. In all-time classic TV shows like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, it’s understandable at the outset that audiences empathised with Walter White, a downtrodden chemistry teacher with terminal cancer looking to provide for his family after his death by making and dealing crystal meth. Or Tony Soprano, a New Jersey gang boss plagued by insecurities, a scheming mother and enemies everywhere. The point at which admiration for their ingenuity, sense of humour or even love for their family was overtaken by horror at their monstrously ruthless, selfish actions may vary. And superb writing and the brilliant performances of Bryan Cranston and James Gandolfini certainly muddied the waters.

But if you came to the end of those shows still cheering them on, ask yourself one question: would you want these men around you in your own life? Or are these living embodiments of toxic masculinity simply too dangerous in any circumstance? That’s perhaps the ultimate distinction between a villain and an antihero. Tony Soprano ultimately loses his soul and would take yours without a second thought if you got in his way. Whereas Tony Stark may mess you around for a while, but in the end, he’s got your back. What we get – and need – is proof that he has a heart.

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Leigh Singer
UK-based film journalist, programmer and video essayist. VR avatar probably a combination of Roger Rabbit and Llewyn Davis. But hey, enough of my yakkin'; whaddaya say? Let's boogie!