Most of us have heard that the hero of a story can reflect or embody the values of the author or the culture. But sometimes we don’t give antiheroes–those ambiguous, mysterious characters who blur the lines between good and evil–enough credit to do the same.
I touched on antiheroes somewhat in my last post, talking about how even “heroes” and “good guys” in fiction can become antiheroes or villains if the writer invents a story or motivation that will change them enough. Today I’d like to talk more about the trend of antiheroes in fiction, and about what it means for us as writers–and as humans. And, as before, I’ll draw largely from one area of pop culture that I know a lot about: comic book superheroes.
It seems like the ’80s and the ’90s were the era of the gritty antihero, in comics as well as perhaps in film and other areas of culture. Gruff, grim, leather-wearin’, gun-totin’ characters like Deadpool, Cable, and Lobo began to emerge. But, more than that, other characters who were previously either heroes or villains began to cross the line. Characters like Catwoman and Venom, villains up to that point, got their own titles where they were ambiguous protagonists. Batman was temporarily replaced by a more savage version of himself, and even Superman grew his hair out and wore black for a while to make him seem more dark and edgy.
But, in some ways, it seems like this trend has never really stopped. Because what got me thinking about antiheroes so much was a recent Marvel Comics event called Axis. In this story, several heroes and villains teamed up to try to stop the Red Skull, Captain America‘s Nazi nemesis. But, because of a magic plot device–er, magic spell–everyone’s personality was (temporarily) inverted on its moral axis. Thus, the good guys present suddenly had the desire to be bad–and the bad guys actually wanted to be good.
My reaction to this event was also mixed. Part of me wanted to complain. “Really? More antiheroes?” Maybe I read too much into this, but to me, so much blurring of the lines between good and evil seems like it might perpetuate more moral ambiguity. Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes I miss the days when good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and both held uncompromisingly to their values. With the trend I’ve mentioned of making more and more characters antiheroic, sometimes it seems that those clear lines of good and evil are shifting and fading faster and faster.
My last post mentioned several Marvel heroes who have acted as antiheroes or villains in the recent past. Also, even before Axis, a number of Marvel’s major villains were being portrayed as less “evil” and more “misunderstood,” including Magneto, Doctor Doom, Apocalypse, and Loki. For various complicated plot reasons, the latter two had both been reborn into young, teenage versions of themselves (yeah, I know, comics are weird–just roll with it) who want to do good but who may or may not be destined to return to villainy once more. Then, in Axis, the change got even more extreme. Villains like Sabertooth and Carnage, who previously were violent killers for the fun of it, suddenly valued life and made it their quest to do right. On some level I found it a little hard to believe.
And yet, even when I get a little tired of the antihero craze, I have to admit a few things to myself. The first is that antiheroes show us our own values and that of our culture–just as much as heroes do, if not more so. Like, sure, you’ll root for Captain America for being all good and noble and patriotic. But will you also root for the Punisher for bringing violent vigilante vengeance to the scum of the streets? And, if you do, then what does that say about your values? How far can a good guy go and still be considered a “good guy”? How bad does a bad guy have to be for us to think they’re truly irredeemable? Antiheroes ask us to think through questions like these.
One interesting thing to note in the Axis event is that the Red Skull (although briefly shown to be affected by the spell) was never really featured as a hero or as having heroic intentions, even temporarily. Personally, I think that also says a lot about our culture. We can believe that most villains, even a psychopath like Carnage, can turn over a new leaf. But not the Red Skull, a Nazi who embodies absolute hatred, racism, and intolerance. Even with a magic spell in place, we can never bring ourselves to root for him as a hero. What this says to me is that such hatred and bigotry are the worst of evils in the eyes of our culture, utterly irredeemable beyond even senseless murder for fun. The levels of moral ambiguity that we will–and won’t–tolerate say a lot about who we are and what we value.
The other thing I’ve had to admit to myself is this: antiheroes are realistic. Even if they sometimes seem overdone and contrived, they do make for much more complex characters, and often more interesting ones, which is how ordinary human beings really are. None of us is completely good and nice and noble all the time. And neither is any of us completely cruel, heartless, and evil. As Nathaniel Hawthorne strove to show us in stories like The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown,” we are ambiguous, imperfect beings with a capacity to do either right or wrong. No matter how good we might think we are, we’re all antiheroes too in a very real sense, with conflicting desires, motives, and morals constantly shifting around within us. And maybe that’s why we can so often still relate to and root for those characters who seem to straddle the moral line.
As writers, I’d like to issue you a challenge. Take a hero or a villain you’ve previously written into a story. Now write a short scene, episode, alternate universe, or whatever in which this character’s morality has changed drastically. Your hero is now more villainous, and your villain must be more heroic. What cataclysmic circumstances could have motivated such a shift in behavior? How much influence does morality have on your character’s personality, and what will that personality be like when it’s divorced from the values it had previously held to? What will happen if your hero-turned-villain has a sudden confrontation with your villain-turned-hero?
Happy writing, my fellow antiheroes.