Why We Love Anti-Heroes

I have a pretty serious confession to make. I don’t like Superman. Before you destroy me in the comments, I know this is an unpopular opinion, but the Man of Steel has just never resonated with me. The problem for me has always been that he is too strong. I mean, one of his primary powers is invulnerability. Talk about a tension killer. The conflict is never if Superman will save the day, only how.

This apparent infallibility extends to his personality as well. He is a character utterly without flaws. The biggest strike against him is that he’s too compassionate, and this can sometimes land him in trouble. That’s the answer you give when you’re asked in a job interview what your biggest weakness is. It’s not really a weakness. 

This relentlessly upright persona and general do-goodery make Superman feel distant. His character is, pardon the pun, completely alien to my own experience. And, if I’m being honest, it’s not all that interesting. To me, Superman is boring. I prefer my heroes to be messier. Characters like Batman, Wolverine and Deadpool feel so much more human. They’re flawed, they make mistakes and sometimes they do bad things for the wrong reasons.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels this way. Over the last two decades, antiheroes have become increasingly popular. In fact, the top three highest-grossing R-rated films of all time are 2019’s Joker followed by both Deadpool movies. But why is this? Why have so many of us turned our backs on characters like Superman and Captain America?

To understand that, we first need to figure out what exactly an antihero is. Unfortunately, as it turns out, this is easier said than done. We all know an antihero when we see one. They’re dark, gritty, usually a bit reckless and make questionable life decisions. However, the term itself is difficult to define. Antiheroes as we know them today are a relatively new concept, and the parameters are fuzzy at best.

At its most basic level, the antihero is a subversion of the hero trope. They are whatever a hero is not. In a technical sense, this means giving them characteristics normally reserved for an antagonist. They might drink and curse, have an abrasive personality or rail against authority. The problem with this description, though, is that its negatively defined meaning is rooted solely in its opposition to something else. This doesn’t tell us what an antihero is, merely what it is not.

This is further complicated by the fact that what characteristics constitute a “hero” vary over time and between cultures. Heroes in the truest sense are meant to represent the ideals of a society. They stand as living personifications of the values that citizens should strive to emulate. However, these ideals and values naturally evolve alongside the beliefs and needs of the population.

This applies to antiheroes as well. Traits seen as un-, or anti-, heroic change based on the cultural context. In 1962, Canadian missionary Don Richardson traveled to Western New Guinea in Indonesia to try and convert members of the indigenous Sawi tribe to Christianity. He encountered some trouble though when his potential congregation identified Judas Iscariot, not Jesus Christ, as the hero of the story.

It turned out that the Sawi people placed a higher value on trickery and deception than sacrifice. They saw Jesus as little more than an unwitting sucker who had been duped by the true hero of the narrative. A better way then of defining heroes and antiheroes might be by judging them based on their moral consistency. Heroes by their nature are morally consistent. They have a strict set of dedicated principles they follow that guide their actions.

Antiheroes on the other hand are morally ambiguous. They operate in gray areas and are more fluid in their decision-making. This ambiguity can manifest either in the antihero’s own personal ethics or in the way that they are perceived by society. Not every antihero needs to be an edgy, homicidal maniac cracking one-liners as they shish kabobs bad guys with katanas.

In fact, the classic antihero archetype looks a lot less like Deadpool and more like your friendly neighborhood Spider-man. I know what you’re thinking: “Spider-man’s not an antihero.” But even by the traditional definition, he kind of is. When Peter Parker is first bitten by a radioactive spider and gifted with superhuman abilities, he doesn’t want to become the savior of New York.

He’s insecure, anxious and wavers in his convictions, even allowing a criminal to escape as an act of revenge against a boxing organizer who cheated him out of his winnings. Over the course of his career, Peter quits multiple times, always questioning whether or not he’s capable of overcoming the challenges given to him and living up to his responsibilities.

None of these are qualities that we normally associate with heroes. Peter is inconsistent, and our perception of him doesn’t align with the image that we have built up in our heads. On the other end of the spectrum, there are anti-heroes like Wade Winston Wilson’s alter-ego Deadpool, who we normally associate more with the term. These are heroes who do the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for the right reason.

Deadpool is firmly in this camp. Particularly in the comics, he is a mercenary first concerned solely with how any given situation benefits him. Even in the films, his story begins as a revenge trip. Yes, his objective is to take down a cartel of human-traffickers manufacturing and selling mutants into slavery, but he’s doing this only as retribution for his own disfigurement. His motivation isn’t to break up the smuggling ring or free the captives, he just wants to fix his face.

To say that Deadpool’s morals are loose is generous. He is entirely self-interested, recklessly individualistic, and more than a little murder-happy. If he ends up saving the day, it’s typically just an unintended byproduct of his actual goals. The key takeaway from this is that antiheroes are hard to pin down when it comes to assigning moral judgments, either because their own ethical code is so nebulous, or because we as a society have difficulty reconciling their personal traits with our own expectations of what a hero should be.

So why do we like these characters so much? Why are we attracted to moral ambiguity? Perhaps it’s because we find it reflective of our own experiences. Very few of us live in a world of simple black-and-white morality. We recognize that life is more complex than good versus evil or right versus wrong, hero versus villain. People are complicated. Our decisions are nuanced and subject to interpretation. No one is purely a villain or even a hero for that matter.

And yet, our culture is dominated by institutions built on the foundation of moral absolutism. This philosophy maintains that human action is inherently right or wrong regardless of intention or consequence. The justification for this is a belief in an all-encompassing and objective morality. Every individual’s behavior is judged according to this standard and determined to be moral based on how closely they conform.

Political and religious institutions are the clearest example of this. They create extensive sets of laws and regulations by appealing to the authority of a higher power, whether that power is a divine being or a constitution. The benefit is that this creates consistent standards which can be broadly and reliably applied to any situation. This helps maintain societal order while safeguarding institutional power.

However, when these laws are violated, it necessitates punishment regardless of individual circumstances. Take, for example, a man who steals medicine in order to care for his sick child. Although his motivation is pure and the act itself noble, theft is still illegal. If he’s caught, he faces imprisonment, if not worse depending on who’s in charge. 

While creating a reliable and predictable framework by which behaviors can be evaluated, the problem with moral absolutism is that it’s inflexible and doesn’t allow for subjective interpretation. Instead, it promotes the idea that there is an objective morality by which every act can be judged. In becoming symbols of societal ideals, traditional heroes serve as the physical embodiment of these absolutist systems.

More than that, they act as enforcers, ready to use violence in order to combat perceived evils and protect the established moral order. This is why I don’t like Superman. Ironically enough, the Man of Tomorrow is a champion of the status quo. He, Captain America, and others like them defend social and political structures as they already exist, regardless of their flaws. 

To his credit, I don’t think Superman would punish someone for stealing medicine for their sick child, but he definitely will protect the systems that originally put that person in that position. By intention, moral absolutism creates a societal binary. There are those who conform and those who do not. Antiheroes are part of this second group.

Their innate moral ambiguity naturally places them in opposition to mainstream culture, landing them in the realm of “the outsider”. These individuals find themselves shunned or even outcast due to character flaws or other traits seen as deviant. It’s not surprising then that most antiheroes come from marginalized backgrounds. Deadpool is widely considered to be  pansexual.

Wolverine suffers from PTSD and alcoholism. Spider-man comes from a poor family and was a nerd before being a nerd was cool. These characteristics place the antihero in direct conflict with normative culture, forcing them to make a choice: either conform or face the consequences. Because of this, antiheroes often find themselves battling for the right simply to exist as they are. This in turn leads them to seek wider societal change.

Whereas regular heroes are inherently change-resistant, willing to violently uphold moral norms and standards, antiheroes by their very existence demand change. They function as living rebuttals to the predominant philosophy created by institutional authorities. This is a convention that actually began not with superheroes, but with cowboys.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, a new type of Western called the “post-Western” began capturing the attention of global audiences. These movies featured morally ambiguous protagonists who were largely distrustful of existing institutions and set out to buck the system. This stood in stark contrast to classic Westerns which featured simple moral narratives where a handsome, white-hatted stranger wandered into town to defeat the black-hatted outlaw and win the affection of the local school teacher.

Post-Westerns turned conventions like these on their head, challenging the traditional values put forth by earlier films. This was reflective of a larger cultural shift happening in America and Europe. The rise of the counterculture movement, along with the chaos of the Vietnam War and other global crises, were contributing to a mass feeling of uncertainty and many people began to question whether or not the ideals of previous generations were still valid.

Post-Westerns captured these sentiments and served as a form of social criticism. By featuring flawed, conflicted characters struggling to find their place in the world, they presented a more realistic depiction of the lives of everyday people. If all of this is sounding a bit familiar, well it’s because we’re in a very similar place right now. Distrust in our political and social institutions is at an all-time high.

Very few of us have any confidence that our leaders are capable of solving complex problems like economic instability, food scarcity or climate change. This has produced a collective sense of doubt and unease that has increasingly been reflected in our heroes. Or should I say our antiheroes? Films like Deadpool, Logan and Joker functionally serve the same role as the post-Westerns , challenging the beliefs championed by earlier generations of heroes.

The superhero stories of the ‘80s and ‘90s largely represented a return to classic Western  tropes including black-and-white systems of morality. This came at a time when the West was running on the high of economic prosperity and the end of the Cold War. Figures like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher advocated for a revival of traditional values which in turn gave rise to a new form of absolutist morality.

It's no coincidence that Reagan, himself a retired actor with a few Westerns under his belt, frequently wore a cowboy hat. But it’s easy to claim that your moral worldview is the right one when everything is going well. Flash forward a few decades and you have 9/11, the War on Terror, the 2008 Great Recession and COVID-19. Crisis after crisis has challenged the fundamental ideals that shape our culture and revealed monumental cracks in the structures meant to guide our lives.

The popularity of antiheroes represents a shift in our collective thinking. We like them because they offer us an alternative to the ethical ideals advocated by the institutions that have failed us. We identify with the struggles of antiheroes because we too reject contemporary values and want to see them replaced with something better. However, this begs the question: what comes next?

The Age of the Antihero will one day end, probably sooner than later, and it’s hard to know what will replace it. Will we once again return to an era of strict absolutist morality, or will we be able to invent something better, something more nuanced and capable of dealing with life’s ambiguities? Whatever it is, let’s just hope it comes with a few less Supermen.