While the concept of the anti-hero is nothing new, the popularity of this archetype in recent decades certainly seems to be. Found as far back as ancient Greece and Rome, the anti-hero is simply someone who operates under some sort of moral ambiguity or who has some character flaws that keep him or her from being seen as a traditional hero.
Yet, for all of these flaws, we as an audience are drawn more and more to this type of character in everything from a watered down version in Disney films such as Tangled to hardcore offerings through television shows such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones – just to name a few. With the movie Deadpool currently in cinemas, we can give some new love to this most recent inductee of the anti-hero club.
Television, in particular, has offered up some of the darkest and scariest places and storylines of its history, with audiences eating it up and screaming for more. An anti-hero such as Walter White in Breaking Bad is someone we are simultaneously repulsed by and drawn to. Being forced to deal with a flawed healthcare system is something most of us can relate to fairly easily, and we applaud a character for fighting back in what he sees as the only means available to him, even while disagree with the lengths he goes to within the series. We sympathize with Walter, even when we don’t always agree with his choices.
The same holds true for anti-heroes of past decades, with audiences embracing the concept of “The Man with No Name” from the Clint Eastwood spaghetti western Dollars trilogy of the 1960s and Michael Corleone of The Godfather fame. These characters are accepted along with their flaws because there is something about them and their situation that we can relate to and sympathize with. It’s the same reason that Han Solo tends to score higher on lists of the most popular Star Wars characters than Luke Skywalker, the series’ traditional hero, and why the original trilogy often tops lists of the best of the franchise.
Apparently, the double standard is alive and well within the anti-hero popularity phenomena, though, with audiences much more willing to accept men with flaws than women with them. We expect our female characters to support their flawed male counterparts and be instrumental in their development, but to not need someone else to develop themselves. Catwoman is one of the few exceptions to this idea, remaining a popular female anti-hero and thankfully still available for viewing through Netflix and DTV.
Marketing behind Deadpool plays on our sympathies and our curiosity by playing up the flaws in conjunction with the strengths. We can sympathize with the idea of someone previously used and rejected making a comeback with witty and sarcastic humor and some serious fighting skills. The character Deadpool gets to say and do what many of us would like to have the nerve to say and do to those that abuse, reject, or ignore our potential, turning his Special Forces skills to a mercenary lifestyle.
From Mad Max to Deadpool, our love for the anti-hero continues to grow as we’re given more opportunities to vicariously live out our fantasies of living in a complicated and conflicted world by acting according to our own flawed moral code – regardless of the legal or moral expectations. As long as we continue to fight the current structures of our society, the anti-hero will likely remain our favorite hero of choice, taking a stand and doing things we wouldn’t dare do ourselves but wish that we could.