Is This The Age Of The Anti-Hero?

IMG_Superhero“Who’s your favorite superhero?” the kid asked me. Like Jason Lee in Mallrats, that should be a philosophical debate.

I choked on my answer. “I don’t have one. What about yours?”

“My favorite superhero is Deadpool,” he replied.

I was aghast. Deadpool? The masked creep from Marvel Comics with all the guns? Well, that’s just not right.

I blame Greek mythology. That’s where character development began in Western civilization. The super-beings of Olympus veered from any perceived nobility and wildly interfered with the human population. Some godly spells became curses. Some curses became blessings. Their brutality or kindness, lessons in disguise, encouraged lowly mortals to survive. This love-hate relationship between Greeks and Olympians must have made things hard. After all, how could you respect mighty Zeus when he could scorch your harvest with a couple of bolts?

Let me put it another way. In the Greek mythos, good and bad deeds ran together like tracks on a railroad. In modern fiction, we’ve known villains that fit a definite pattern. They lurk in shadows, keep hidden lairs, orchestrate treachery, and carry hateful vendettas. But once in a while, a villain becomes suggestively heroic. Their predilection for violence is flipped with saving a life, helping others, or working with an enemy to defeat a greater foe.

Comics are full of such examples. Catwoman’s clawful antics are often ignored by Batman in some nocturnal encounter. Enjoying the theme of rooftop romance, Marvel even introduced their own bad kitty, the Black Cat, whose criminal tendencies went on the back burner whenever she flirted with Spider Man. And like the wisecracking assassin known as Deadpool, some villains switch sides altogether. Sandman, one of Spidey’s classic enemies, had filtered into hero land. Magneto was once a headmaster at the Xavier School for a brief spell. (Unless you’re a geek, you’ll have no need for these references.)

Rogues, pirates and scoundrels also set the tone for the anti-hero. Their lives are made up with scraped knuckles, lucky escapes, alley fights, and stiletto danger. Yet like Jack Sparrow, they exhibit rare moments of chivalry and fellowship. When we first meet Han Solo in a booth at Mos Eisley, he’s arranging transport for one geriatric, a farm boy, and two stolen droids—without any passports or customs forms. The smuggler is on his way out when a bounty hunter arrives to collect his head. When Solo decides that polite conversation is over, he pulls a John Wayne and sends Greedo to hell. Along the way, his sense of self-protection spreads out to his friends, loved ones, and the Rebel Alliance. He shows up as Luke’s wing man at the Death Star. He rescues Luke in a blizzard. And just before a dip in the carbonite chamber, Solo insists that Chewbacca protect Leia. Chivalry and fellowship are pouring out his ears in that unexpected moment.

Let’s face it:  this is one of those moral paradoxes that makes our species so interesting. And for the foreseeable future, characters that use a wrong to right a wrong and make it right will fascinate us in any medium.


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