By Katie Davenport
“Good guys are boring. They do the right thing all the time. But bad guys, you never know what they’re going to do.”
The preceding quote is from director David Ayer, explaining what drew him to the concept of his latest movie, Suicide Squad. Mr. Ayer’s words, though they apply to fictional characters, embody an important aspect of American pop-culture. As a whole, society is losing its taste for heroes—or rather, it is changing what “hero” means. From R-rated action films like Deadpool and V for Vendetta, to stories as lighthearted as Guardians of the Galaxy or Megamind, popular opinion is shifting away from the quintessential good guy to the darker, messier realms of the anti-hero; the misunderstood, the reformed (or perhaps not-so-reformed) villain. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is disconcerting to see the way this rise in the anti-hero coincides with the dismissal of the more traditional hero. Anti-heroes are considered the gritty representatives of the real world, whereas heroes who are good simply for the sake of good are painted as the inhabitants of a naïve, mythical world of wishful thinking. Take the realm of superheroes, for example—the genre has definitely shifted toward the dark side, and even the more traditional good guys who remain are reimagined with a dark side, be that an angsty inner struggle (Spider-man), a dark past (Wolverine), or a charming set of vices (Tony Stark). Though such a change may seem trivial, a society’s taste in fiction often illuminates its views on deeper issues of morality, human nature, and the like. What, then, is one to make of this heroic drift?
One part of this change—and this has less to do with our society and more to do with fiction as a whole—is that good heroes are often harder to create than good villains. We all, whether we care to admit it or not, know what it is like to lie, to desire power, or to hate. To create a realistic villain, all one need do is imagine their own personal dark side, wholly unrestrained. But how many of us could so accurately describe what it means to be brave, to be humble, or to selflessly love someone? While it is one thing to discuss virtue in simple little essays such as this, in real life it is so easy to fall prey to a sort of half-virtue, allowing bravado or arrogance to mingle with courage, or feigned self-deprecation with humility, or our own desire to be loved with our attempts to love someone. If these half-virtues are mistaken for their real counterparts, attempts to recreate them in fiction become skewed. When this happens, the created heroes likewise become somewhat stiff or feigned: smiling, plastic Disney princes, or straightlaced moralizers that we can’t help but find slightly annoying. Villains, by contrast, perhaps because of their role as defiers, renegades, or rebels, often take on a certain strength and power that eludes the pallid, half-virtuous heroes. In such cases, it is natural for people to gravitate toward the more compelling characters—after all, who would want to see a predictable, bland hero with wooden dialogue when they can watch the energy, vibrancy and splendid sarcasm of a villain? In some ways, I believe, anti-heroes are an attempt to remedy this tendency by wedding the appeal of the rebel with the concept of a hero.
The grand irony of many anti-heroes, however, is that instead of being more realistic, they are really just idealized in a different way. Though we all, as I mentioned before, know of the evil present in ourselves, we like to present a more charming version of it in our fiction. This is not a mistake unique to modern fiction. C. S. Lewis, in discussing literary representations of evil, said that “Milton’s devils, by their grandeur and high poetry, have done great harm…. But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of Hell. The humorous, civilised, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.” And certainly, many of our villains—and, by extension, our anti-heroes, are of a Mephistophelian, rather than a Faustian, variety. Characters like Loki or V from V for Vendetta have a definite charm to them—as long as they stay on the big screen. But in the real world, those who manipulate and murder are not the type one would find delightful, regardless of how clever their dialogue is. It’s a rather ironic world we live in that we are angered by the stranger who cuts us off in traffic, but delight in the swaggering self-absorption of a snarky anti-hero.
Likewise, there is a similar, “real-life” way to look at heroes. Though it can be difficult to portray virtue in the abstracted sense, we often recognize it in example. Whether in our own experience, or the story of another’s, we can all recall something that made us turn our heads and take notice, something that we could not help but recognize as good. This may be something we continually associate with a person, or more likely, a sudden flash brought on by some courageous action or selfless gesture. Sometimes it might come from an unexpected place. Take, for example, Oskar Schindler, the war profiteering, womanizing, Nazi party member who ended up risking his life and all that he had to save some 1,200 Jewish people from the Nazis. At the end of the day, what defines a hero is not a certain level of moral perfection, but this conscious decision to pursue and uphold the right thing, regardless of the personal cost. From Aeneas, to Gawain, to Atticus Finch, the best loved heroes are the ones who, whatever their personal struggles, temptations, and failures, grab a hold of some higher good and refuse to let go. If what we mean by “anti-hero” is simply a hero who does this despite his flaws, well and good. But if, as often happens, his flaws are lauded, ignored, or disguised as good things, then regardless of how amusing that hero may be, we have no business characterizing him as “realistic”.
All this aside, I suspect there is another reason that society finds something distasteful about untainted heroes. Upstanding people, even fictitious ones, force us to take a deeper look into our own selves; and often, when placed beside them, we find ourselves wanting. Thus there can be a certain sense of consolation in picking holes in a hero’s image. An example of this—if I may again borrow from the simplified and wonderfully illustrative world of superheroes—is Captain America. Cap is one of the few remaining heroes who wants to do the right thing, simply because it is right. Does he have a tragic backstory that merits bitter, angsty brooding? You bet. But instead of becoming the central, consuming aspect of the character, it is simply one part of a man who consistently tries to be the best version of himself that he can be. There is certainly room to argue whether or not this is successfully done, but I think we can all agree that this is the intended portrayal of his character. This portrayal continued in the recent film Captain America: Civil War, which dared to make the following claim for absolute morality: “Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree besides the river of truth, and tell the whole world – ‘No, you move.'” A lot of people do love Cap for his upstanding, good-guy ways, so it is interesting that shortly after the release of this movie, the current writers of the Captain America comic book decided to reveal that Captain America had actually been an agent of Hydra, the fictional equivalent of Nazism. Even more interesting is the quote by Tom Brevoort, Marvel’s executive editor who approved said story arc: “It means on the most fundamental level that the most trusted hero in the Marvel universe is now secretly a deep-cover Hydra operative…. There should be a feeling of horror or unsettledness at the idea that somebody like this can secretly be part of this organization. There are perfectly normal people in the world who you would interact with on a professional level or personal level, and they seem like the salt of the earth but then it turns out they have some horrible secret — whether it’s that they don’t like a certain group of people or have bodies buried in their basement.” If there are no morally upstanding, good-for-the-sake-of-good people, then there is no reason for us to feel guilty about our own failings; there is no need for us to change. Because to do so is difficult, unpleasant, gritty, real. It is much easier to assuage ourselves with heroes who share the glamorous, sanitized, “fun” version of our flaws, and demand nothing from us.
At the end of the day, however, fiction is just that—fiction. There are very few characters who would hold up if introduced to reality. As long as we keep our minds straight as to where fantasy and reality differ, there is no harm in enjoying the antics of an anti-hero. Laugh at Loki, remember Faust. To Mr. Ayer’s words I counter, in the borrowed wisdom of C. S. Lewis, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.”
Katie is a junior studying English and art.