What’s that you say?
A wealth of films and television shows featuring dark, brooding, unhinged protagonists who don’t play by the rules are on the way? AND they are expected to conquer the box offices?
WHAT?! Deadpool is the most successful R-rated film of ALL TIME!!?!
Why is it that we, the media consuming public, are entranced by these bad boys (and girls)?
Deadpool reference aside, this same article comes about every couple of years. The world seems shocked that we are interested in anti-heroes across mediums. This particular iteration is sparked by the popularity of the films such as, the aforementioned Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), the forthcoming Suicide Squad (2016) and Venom (2018), as well as The Punisher getting his own Netflix show following an acclaimed arc on Daredevil.
Usually, I would be game to speculate on the reasons for the popularity of this type of film and type of film characters. Maybe I would reference the current social climate and how we, as a society, feel distrust for those sworn to protect and lead us. One only has to look to the high rates of police shootings and political corruption for why people would be drawn to the films where the protagonists stand up against the establishment.
Believe me, I usually would love to dissect the changes in film due to changes in society (it’s basically what I went to college for, much to my parent’s chagrin).
The thing is: I’ve done this all before.
It was only a few years ago, in 2012, that I was writing a similar “rise of the anti-hero” article at the height of the television shows, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. I was tasked with, similarly to how I am here, with figuring out why, all of a sudden, the populous was entranced with these protagonists who leaned slightly to the left of hero. Again, I referenced the tense socio-political climate of the time as reasons for people’s inclination to the villainous protagonists. People saw Walter White or Don Draper, and saw the person they could be if they didn’t have to deal with the daily drudge that was their current life.
And as I wrote this article, I thought: I’ve done this all before.
Years before that, in 2008, I wrote a paper on Joss Whedon‘s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog. As a less than stellar writer at the time, I assume the title of the paper was “Why Dr. Horrible is Actually the Good Guy.” Horrible title or not (unintended), the content of the article didn’t stray too far from the content of my articles mentioned above. Certainly less nuanced and informed, but my freshmen college self was still able to put forth the idea that it was our own society that caused us to empathize with Dr. Horrible, despite him being an outright villain. Dr. Horrible said it best, “…it’s about disrupting the status quo, because the status is not quo.” In a world where the good control the masses, being bad is the only heroic option.
Now: seeing that I have written the same article 3 times over the past decade, I have come to realize that “anti-hero” popularity isn’t a trend; it is something viewers have always loved.
Like I referenced earlier, every few years it seems like “the rise of the anti-hero” articles seem to appear in every magazine, website, and blog. However, these articles always make it seem like “anti-hero mania” is a new trend, like it is something indicative of the current generation of movie-goers.
To rebut this claim, I submit:
Though this collage is not all encompassing, it does a pretty good job of proving a point. From Orsen Welles in Citizen Kane (1941) to Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler (2014), the collage showcases anti-heroes throughout the years, and I am not editorializing when I say that these anti-heroes are some of the most iconic faces throughout cinema. Most of them are cheaters, liars, killers, or all three, but that didn’t stop them from becoming Hollywood legends and box office gold.
And when you delve into literature over the years, the list of anti-heroes is almost endless. James Bond, Huckleberry Finn, all the way to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the morally compromised have been present (and loved) in the arts for hundreds of years.
What this all culminates into is the truth that we always have loved anti-heroes, and we always will. Anti-heroes often can be a response to the social climate, be it Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a response to post Vietnam politics and a crumbling New York City, or The Punisher, going rogue due to a system which let him down, but our love for these anti-heroes isn’t dictated by the times, it just is.
So I ask not the question of “Why are anti-hero movies so popular right now?” but “Why are movie studios just realizing we really love these movies?” With the upcoming slew of anti-superhero films coming up in the next year, it seems studios are finally listening, but it is only a matter of time before we fall back to wholesome heroes. Anti-heroes, by their very nature can’t stay for too long because when anti-heroes become the norm, then what really is anti about them? It may be all about Suicide Squad (2016) this summer, but soon wholesome heroes will return, and the cycle will continue.
With that said, maybe I will save this article for the next time I have to write it.
What do you think? Anti-heroes are just fads, or is it really something we always love? Sound off in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!