There’s simply no denying that two of the highest grossing movies in 2016 were superhero films wherein the characters weren’t heroes. Hollywood has done this sort of thing in the past, disparate studios releasing movies with the same basic thrust at the same time, accidentally creating a kind of phenomenon. For me, the idea of antiheroes becoming the norm is an interesting idea for our current atmosphere. Let’s discuss.
Let’s start by defining the term antihero. Merriam-Webster gets right to the point: a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.
So let’s define protagonist, just to be perfectly clear:
a : the principal character in a literary work (as a drama or story) b : a leading actor, character, or participant in a literary work or real event
I want to point out that “principle character” and “leading” don’t mean “good”. It means the one we’re following, our main focus for the story. The terms that would define moral standing are “hero” or “villain”. Antihero falls in that gray area, where lawful good and lawful evil have no place. Someone who despite appearances, deeds, and even their own protests against holding any goodness in their hearts manage to do something right.
Let’s start with Deadpool, because he’s by far the easiest character to slip into this category. He insists he’s no hero. He kills people and shows no remorse. He’s quick with insults. What do we love about this guy? I’m sure the answer for some people is going to be that he’s funny, for starters. Also that he represents the human id unleashed. He has no filter, and he doesn’t know when to stop so he just doesn’t. He does whatever he wants. That’s appealing in its way. That’s what escapism is for really, to give us those tastes of things we don’t experience ourselves.
I think Deadpool’s mad success goes deeper than that. He’s a tenacious figure who is beaten, scarred, left for dead and never gives up. The film itself is one of those rare times when I can say it really does have everything. It’s funny, it’s horrifying, it’s action-packed, and there’s a real, raw romance at the heart of it that isn’t the Hollywood version sprinkled with sugar. These are all things you can do more easily with an antihero, mixing their story up in a blender, because the same tropes aren’t expected of them. I think blockbuster filmmakers are finally starting to see that, and Deadpool has paved the way.
This is where we get into Suicide Squad, which is a different animal. Another trope of the antihero is the dark past, and while Deadpool has that, the amount of humor they pump into the movie almost makes you forget. Suicide Squad has its own brand of humor, but it’s used more for comic relief from the darkness, illustrating that the darkness is very much still there. Some audiences find this exhausting, I think, especially when every character in your ensemble cast has a reason they’re there, and it isn’t pleasant. For me, I think both approaches are valid, and depending on who you are is whether Deadpool seems awesomely fun or trite. Or Suicide Squad seems grimdark or properly dramatic. Awesomely fun and properly dramatic are both allowed to exist in a world where there’s entertainment of all shapes and sizes.
Suicide Squad is also where we get into semantics. Some people would say that movie wasn’t peopled with antiheroes. It’s peopled with anti-villains. TV Tropes is the best source for a definition of this term. The nuance of the term really becomes a substitute for “lawful evil”. Someone who does evil things but what they intend is “good”, or rather their definition of it. It posits that everyone’s definition of good is different. Magneto is an anti-villain. Darth Vader. Loki. People who see their side of the argument as reasonable even as they’re cutting people in half. This is especially enhanced when they have personal stories that involve tragedy and trauma.
The eponymous Squad call themselves villains because they don’t adhere to the status quo and have sketchy pasts, but ultimately they band together and save the day. They don’t show overtly heroic traits, but they stumble toward correct choices. That’s unquestionably antiheroic to me. Overall the movie is entertaining with good introductions to characters I’d love to see more of, and there is a reason it did so well at the box office.
There was actually a time in the 90s, mainly in comic book culture, that the abundance of antiheroes made readers feel bogged down. It was quickly becoming a cliche and therefore unwelcome. Nowadays there are sites dedicated to laughing at Rob Liefeld, who I hate to break it to you created Deadpool, and ripping his terrible artwork to shreds. Every new hero and even old ones were given darker stories, grittier action and dialogue, until they weren’t just living on the edge, they were about to tip over it.
So after everyone agreeing that was tiresome, how do two antihero-driven movies become the biggest sensations of 2016? Because we’re all exhausted and disillusioned. It’s been said that whenever there is a Republican in office, the apocalypse becomes a popular topic in our media, with the central reason for the end of the world usually being zombies or vampires. Things that eat you alive and drain you dry of your vitality. That’s pretty telling.
What happened in 2016? An election where no one was satisfied on any level with any part of it. Deadpool was released very early in the year, while Suicide Squad, the darker of the two films, was closer to the middle of the action, but we all knew what was ahead. Uncertainty and nationwide nervousness abounded. Every four years, we hear about how there are no good choices, and people twist themselves into knots. However you voted or spent election day, everyone can admit that this entire process was a hyper-emotional mess where the concept of “what do I do?” was amplified times a thousand.
Superheroes are appealing when you’re faced with these choices and their effects. Antiheroes seems even more appealing in their way. Rock the system. Reject it and make your own rules. Live your way. Be a rebel. Or in realizing you can’t actually do any of that, watch a bunch of other people do it while having the time of their lives. As I said, they have their appeal.
Thank you for reading. If you have thoughts on what I said here, leave them in the comments. I’m always interested in discussion and being challenged about my own opinions. As always, happy geeking!
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