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Why Superhero Movies Need More Heroes and Fewer Antiheroes

Antiheroes are just dicks who act in self-interest; heroes are the guys who actually get shit done.

Look at this guy. What a dick. Via Flickr user Kevin Dooley.

One of the biggest priorities in storytelling is motivation. The audience likes to know why characters do what they do. This is all well and good when we're learning the backstory of a character we're not supposed to idolize, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, but it becomes more problematic when you realize a character universally considered to be a hero is only doing heroic stuff for personal reasons. In other words, when you give a hero a reason to fight crime other than "the public good," it becomes clear they're acting out of self-interest, just like the villains they're toiling against.


Once selfish motivations have been established, the hero becomes an antihero. He doles out justice with a generous dollop of violence on the side, qualifying his actions with a drizzle of some heinous tragedy that happened to him many years before. "Since I experienced [insert trauma here], I will not REST until evildoers feel my wrath," the antihero says. Antiheroes are constantly attempting to fill a void inside themselves by wearing body armor, teleporting, or shrinking to the size of an ant, and then fighting crime.

The antihero doesn't truly care about saving someone else's life; it's a function of the job, but not a mandatory vocation. Like screenwriter Max Landis said about Man of Steel and the first Avengers film, over 100,000 innocent people die in these cities during the final battles, and yet no one is devastated by these casualties because the greater threat is vanquished and the overall city is "safe" again. The antihero thrives in his vague sense of morality, which often runs counter to law enforcement and the ideals of normal people in the universe he inhabits.

Because an antihero doesn't care about others, he's liable to accept collateral damage in the service of killing his enemies. That doesn't provide much comfort for Joe Sixpack who's watching on the sidelines while his house gets blown up so some guy in spandex feels better about his childhood.

Read about Phoenix Jones in Portrait of a Superhero on FIGHTLAND.


The most obvious and ubiquitous filmic antihero started in 2005, when capital-f Filmmaker Christopher Nolan took a stab at rebooting the Mattel commercials that were the Batman movies of the late 90s. The result was Batman Begins, a great film even a decade after its release. It's a study on symbolism and the building of powerful myths. It asks how, exactly, does a billionaire playboy turn himself into a modern-day knight? Simple: have Morgan Freeman use his fortunes to tinker on ass-kicking accessories while Bruce learns to inject his fear and dread into low-level mob goons. Through isolation, media manipulation, and seven years spent mastering all kinds of cool fighting techniques, the Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins chisels himself into the most dedicated instrument of punishment.

Still, Batman isn't a superhero. Strip away the cinematic mastery of Nolan, and you're left with a story about a goddamn sociopath with a trust fund. If you need proof of this, check out the new Batman vs. Superman trailer. New Batman (Ben Affleck) sees Relatively New Superman (Henry Cavill) and thinks to himself, I MUST STOP THIS GUY! Apparently, Superman violates Bruce Wayne's personal code of morality—by being a guy with powers greater than his own, apparently—even though as Batman, Bruce Wayne violates the very public Gotham City code of laws on a nightly basis. He destroys property, hinders police investigations, and attracts the kind of criminals who will blow shit up just to get his attention. He's a huge pain in the ass to the police, even to his lone ally Commissioner James Gordon, because he refuses to partner with police officially. He'd rather meet secretly to extract information and "get the job done" by illegal means. His rationale is that most Gotham police are corrupt, but maybe they wouldn't be so corrupt if there wasn't a guy running around in a bulletproof cape who was basically a magnet for evildoers who might turn otherwise straight-laced cops crooked?


Captain America. Much better. Via Flickr user Andy Roth.

Pain is the only real thing in Batman's entire life. In case you've forgotten, the new Batman vs. Superman trailer gives you a quick glimpse: Bruce Wayne's innocence was snapped the night his parents were murdered for no reason. Batman is the agent of Bruce Wayne's turmoil, the dread and loneliness and guilt he refuses to let go.

Modern superheroes are intoxicating characters to read about; to dress up like; to spend £10 and watch them lay waste to maniacal villains on summer afternoons. But you wouldn't want your child to become one. That would involve you, that child's parent, dying in some sudden and violent way at the hands of an irredeemable criminal. The ten-year scourge of antiheroes has made me aware of what we're so sorely missing: an ACTUAL hero.

While watching the latest Avengers movie, it occurred to me that Captain America—specifically Steve Rogers, the first guy to assume Captain America's identity—has become my favorite superhero. What can I say, the guy's incorruptible. Cap carries with him the idealism of the Greatest Generation, as explained incredibly in this TED Talk with Simon Sinek, or summed up by me here: Steve Rogers's life is built around a sense of purpose not centered on himself. As a young man, he donated his puny body to science for an experimental super-serum to beat the Nazis. This was a true, noble cause because his intention was never to become a superhero—his body limited his military eligibility, so rather than go home and put on a mask to stop purse snatchers, he literally handed over his life to his country for an experiment that had never been done before.


When the war was over, the world became a more complicated place. There was no universal enemy to defeat, and because of this, there was no more use for Captain America in the halls of Marvel Comics. His character was taken off the shelves in 1954. When he was brought back into the comic book world, having been thawed out from a block of ice by the first Avengers in 1964, he wasn't bitter about having missed Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, and he didn't turn heel to get revenge for waking up just in time for Rock 'N' Roll to happen. Instead, he yet again found a purpose greater than himself: he led the Avengers, a collection of powerful, dysfunctional people who had no business working together.

Noisey thinks that Ice-T is the antihero feminism needs.

Steve Rogers realized Captain America isn't just a PR tool of the president or the war department, but a representation of the idealism of America, something greater than himself. During the Nixon years, he became Nomad—"A Man Without a Country," complete with a motorcycle and long hair—because he didn't agree with the draconian politics of the times. In the late 80s, Steve Rogers became "The Captain" after he resigned as Captain America due to governmental corruption he encountered. He fought Tony Stark in the Civil War series, an arc about superheroes self-registering with the government, over the serious threats posed against loved ones and innocent people connected to each hero due to invasions of privacy. You know when Batman first let someone else wear the cowl? When his back was snapped in half by Bane.

This is the marking of an actual hero—a person whose only priority is service to others. Chris Evans's portrayal of Cap in the Marvel Cinema Universe is thoughtful, grounded, and likable. He also has a backbone and a shield from the 1940s as his only weapon. And he's the leader of a team with a Norse god, an unstoppable green monster, and a billionaire scientific egotist. (Management skills: also extremely heroic.) Cap carries regrets and grief, namely about his partner Bucky Barnes getting captured, brainwashed, and turned into a Russian killing machine known as The Winter Soldier. In the last Captain America movie, he tries to save Bucky's life while BUCKY IS TRYING TO KILL HIM.

As a soon-to-be Millenial Father, I can't relate to Batman. I don't have time for antiheroes and their issues. I have bigger things to take care of as a grown adult. I want to strive for strength and compassion, integrity and toughness, character and action. I want to be Captain America because he deals his pain privately and doesn't take it out on the world. The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the citizens of the United States don't have time to deal with Steve Rogers' personal shit, and he knows that better than anyone. My wife and my son will need me to be there for them, always, as my best self, even when it's hard and I'm down and out. But a real hero doesn't act on his worst impulses. And that's why I need more heroes to look up to.

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