I love anti-heroes. I probably love them even more than I love villains and anyone who knows me is… well, they’re rolling their eyes at my subtle attempt to pretend to be a decent human being because no, I don’t love them more than villains.
But I do love them. Heck, who doesn’t? Society’s love-affair with the anti-hero is why the X-Men movies became the Wolverine show. It’s why Jack Sparrow stole the Pirates of The Caribbean franchise. It’s why Jessica Jones was a Netflix smash hit. Why we all wanted Dexter to remain roaming free despite being a murderer. A literal murderer.
There’s an argument to be made that the concept of the anti-hero is almost obsolete. Try and think of one lead character lately who hasn’t been an anti-hero. We associate flaws with realism and relate to that. In fact sometimes these anti-heroes aren’t just individuals ‘lacking heroic qualities’, they’re the kind of people you’d cross the road to avoid.
In the last couple of years however, there’s been an irritating increase in the concept that to be a real anti-hero, you have to be “edgy” and “controversial” – two words which strike boredom and irritation into the hearts of anyone who isn’t a white cis dude between the ages of thirteen and thirty. It means the audience has to accept that the person they’re supposed to be rooting for (usually also a white cis dude) is going to toss out a racist/sexist/transphobic/homophobic comment every so often.
It’s not just lazy writing. At this stage it’s boring.
Take Rick, from the cartoon Rick and Morty. God, do I love that show. Think Doctor Who, if the Doctor was a bitter alcoholic travelling with a panicky teenage boy.
Rick is an elderly genius, with a penchant for inter-dimensional space travel, booze and crime. He abandoned his family, spent his life on the run, and knows everything about the multitudinous species of aliens across the galaxy. Yet despite this, for some reason he still thinks in terms of binary gender and lacks enough life experience to consider women as anything other than “chicks”.
“I don’t travel with chicks, Summer,” he belches obnoxiously at his granddaughter, who is only occasionally included in adventures.
Of course, obnoxious is the point. “Hear what he just said?” the show is saying. “What an asshole, right? Our hero is a bad person! Let’s explore that!”
Nothing wrong with that. It’s interesting. Rick is a callous asshole with no consideration for the safety and happiness of the people around him. His behaviour stems from his own emotional issues – the show has created a flawed and interesting character. Unfortunately, for some reason they felt they had to flaunt his disdain for women to hammer it home.
Rick is meant to be a rebel. He is so anti-authority that he won’t even listen to the rule of a council made up of Ricks from other dimensions (none of whom are women). He is a character who supposedly rages against the shackles of societal rules. Yet I can’t think of anything more predictable or adherent to the status quo than the casual sexism he tosses out. An old white man telling me I’m a hysterical buzzkill? Yawn. The President of the United States likes to “grab women by the pussy”. Believe me, Rick’s attitude towards women is not ‘edgy’ or ‘controversial’. It’s boring.
We’ve become enamoured with the anti-hero in the last decade. We want the screw ups, the ones with the dark pasts, the loud-mouths who don’t care what you think. We want to see human, flawed characters on our screens.
I am all about that anti-hero vibe. I like my characters to be flawed people, because it makes for a more interesting, relatable story. Heck, I’d go as far as saying I like it when my anti-hero is straight up just a bad person! However, I believe that someone is perfectly capable of being a bad person without being sexist, racist or homophobic. You don’t have to try and push how bad they are by making them bigots. You don’t need to give that viewpoint any kind of voice.
BBC’s Sherlock is an example of a character who was once a hero being written as an anti-hero – ineffectively, in my personal opinion. He routinely belittles and insults the intelligence of those around him which (despite my admitted preferences for assholes) grates a bit coming from a well-off posh boy who probably went to all the best schools. He is also casually cruel – to Molly Hooper, for example, who dares to be attracted to him. He tells her that her mouth is ‘too small’ without lipstick and points out when she’s put on weight. At what point does the anti-hero’s snark become bullying? Sure, Jessica Jones is dismissive of poor love-struck Ruben, but she doesn’t go out of her way to get her jabs in. Moffat and Gatiss gave Cumberbatches’ incarnation of the ultimate detective a whole host of unpleasant personality quirks which aren’t quite backed up by enough substance to make him sympathetic or interesting.
My biggest pet peeve is when people are so used to the narrative of the “edgy anti-hero” that they try and impose it on the perfectly fine anti-heroes we’ve already got. Every time I see a dudebro with Deadpool as their avatar harassing women on the internet I roll my eyes so hard I pull a muscle, as they have obviously come to misunderstand the character. Li Izumi, in an article for Vulture, describes Deadpool as thus: “A lot of queer and minority readers seem to latch on to him. He’s not neurotypical, he’s not straight, he’s a bit of an outcast. Yes, he’s had some stories where he’s very dudebro. But he’s also had a lot of issues where he’s coming to grips with depression or self-loathing.”
Yeah, Deadpool is an asshole. He’s also canononically pansexual, a rape surivor, mentally ill, and desperately trying to be a good guy. If you dismiss all that you suck the third dimension out of the character, leaving nothing but pop-references that break the fourth wall. Which is fine, but why settle for that when you can have so much more?
Alex Abad Santos has also noted how many misinterpret the character. He writes: “When people try to explain fans’ love for Deadpool and the new Deadpool movie, it usually goes like this: ‘He tells dirty jokes, kills shit, and yells stuff about tacos, and dudes love him for it.’ And maybe that’s true for some fans and some iterations of the character. But that’s a terribly compressed view of the hero and his fans.”
Basically, all fedora wearing edge-lords need to stay the hell away from canononically pansexual, failing-but-trying-to-be-a-decent-person Deadpool. Comic #20 from Deadpool’s 2016 run? Ultimate Deadpool, right there. No spoilers.
Listen. Here is my point. You can be an asshole without being a bigot. I am living proof of that fact, or at least I try my best to be. I’m sick of giving those kind of views any kind of voice. We don’t need to hear them anymore. I want them to become unacceptable, especially to the characters that we believe say the things that others won’t. Because frankly, in this day and age those things should sound like ‘black lives matter’.
Thankfully, we seem to be moving away from the concept of the “edgy” anti-hero, and towards richer characters as a result. The previously mentioned Jessica Jones is a joy to watch as she deadpans and drinks her way through the hit Netflix series. Elementary is another Sherlock Holmes adaptation where the obnoxious genius actually learns that other people are pretty awesome, and bonds with the exquisite Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. Even BBC’s Sherlock seems to be learning how to human in the latest series, but then he has been punched a fair bit. The moments where he steps off his ivory pedestal of reason and connects with another person on a human level have been the most enjoyable in the show to date.
We still need more representation in our anti-hero characters, but it’s starting to hit home that in an age where Trump has been elected president, when Ireland is facing a homeless crises and the world is looking a little bleaker every day, one of the most revolutionary acts you can do is try and make the world a better place.
Sure, you might have to punch someone to do it, but hey. Nobody is perfect.