At the end of the first act in Shakespeare’s Richard III, the titular king, in true villainous fashion, monologues his sinister plan to capture the hearts of his unsuspecting friends and associates so’s he can see the end of his dastardly plot. The play invites the audience to sympathise, even admire, Richard while they freely admonish his actions; it offers a space for the audience to willingly endorse villainy and deception in a likeable figure. Endorsing Richard’s villainy comes with the implicit expectation that he will become unhinged in the later stages of his plot to kill his way to the throne. The moral of the story is that maybe killing a bunch of folks to get power is bad. The early sympathy for Richard is to establish how corrupting quests for power are. Early on Richard is charming.
My position is that fiction offers a space for audiences to grasp some understanding of a cultural moment of history to connect other moments together and better understand how history creates different living conditions: which I think is valuable in tracing the origin/developments/alternatives to the audience’s own moment in history. Richard’s plot to acquire more power is immoral, we know because we can understand what makes a king worthy and what makes a king just from our understandings of the play at the time it was written and from our own perspectives in whatever moment of history we view it. The mores demonstrated in Richard III don’t need to line up with our own but we can still associate and make meaning out of what’s happening.
So not only is sympathy for villainy useful in appreciating what conditions constitute villainy in a given time and space but it also reiterates the humanity of villains. Sympathising with bad guys reminds us that we have a lot in common with them and the circumstances that lead one person to evil might just lead you or me to be evil as well. Or, alternatively, it asks what point is unforgivable and what measures are necessary to prevent crossing into that forbidden territory, what actions are necessary—or even justifiable—after that last transgression has been made. It’s an opportunity to question the strength of our own moral fabric. Except, y’know, without having to murder your family to claim a throne.
Sympathy for the devil is certainly not a new turn in cultural artefacts. Milton’s Paradise Lost is premised on giving a voice to Lucifer’s feelings as he’s cast from heaven and I’m told Milton is a big deal so if he did it then surely it must be a thing. Anyway, even if anti-heroes, grey hats, vigilantes, vagabonds, and ne’er-do-wells are nothing new, I want to take a step back and look at how they function in more recent popular culture. Firstly, because many of these bad guys like Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Tyler Durden (Fight Club), Gordon Gekko (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), Tony Montoya (Scarface), and Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street) are actually quite admired by audiences, with the consequences of their irresponsibility/anti-sociality completely lost beneath the power fantasy of having lots of money-authority-privilege.1 With the exception of Belfort, these examples are all a few decades old, but still serve as a generation’s figurehead for a similar fantasy.
I’m trying hard not to be curmudgeonly and restrict what fiction should or shouldn’t do because to be so bold as to say anti-hero figures romanticise anti-social behaviour, apologise for evil, endorse moral relativism, or any other broad condemnation is reductionist and completely misses the point of what the trope does. Hell, “the point™” of Fight Club is that Tyler Duden is a monster.2 “The point™” of Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech is that Gekko is an asshole and greed, actually, isn’t very good at all. So while the texts themselves sympathize with these figures without apologizing for them, the subversion of irresponsibility gets lost in the fun of being bad.3 Although I’m not interested in talking about what these figures should or should not do, I do wonder why the last few years have produced so many admirable bad guys, particularly in the fantasy and superhero genres. So with these more established examples as a baseline, I want to look at more contemporary anti-heroism because the subversion of villainy seems to be buried even deeper in the thick of superhero release schedule.
The film Deadpool first turned my attention to this. For those minimally familiar with the character (and I’m describing myself here), the film is about what you’d expect: fun but unremarkably choreographed action scenes between self-referential jokes just barely on the right side of tolerable. 3/5. Would recommend. If there was a surprise in Deadpool it was in its treatment of the character’s “bad guy” streak. Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson/Deadpool regularly emphasises he’s not a good guy but he does so at moments that make him seem cool or aloof. He claims not to be the hero, rather just a working mercenary. But he clearly wants to be a hero. He seems only interested in jobs that protect people who can’t protect themselves. He just sucks at it. He’s shallow, egotistical, insecure, and violent.
When he’s offered a secret government treatment to become a superhero, the deal appeals to Wade not just because it offers him an opportunity to survive his terminal cancer but because, for all his surface indifference, in his mind it offers an opportunity for him to actually be “the good guy.” The catch with Deadpool, both in the film and in the character’s comic book origins, is that he’s not a good person and greater fighting power won’t change the fact that he’s a self-centred jerk: he needs to change internally.4 I’m relying, as I often do when it comes to comic books, on the exorbitantly clever Mike Joffe for his knowledge and critical capacities on this one, but beneath Deadpool’s witticisms is a self-pitying knob who is as tragic as he is unforgivable. But in the worship of the anti-hero, we dismiss the character whose entire schtick is self-aware kowtowing to an audience he assumes is as awful as he is. It seems to be the case that lawful goodness is boring, and only compromise seems to be “interesting” and I can’t help but wonder what happened to make us lose faith in goodness so completely that we can’t even tolerate it in our fiction.
By the film’s end Deadpool kills the villain in spite of fellow hero Colossus’s pleading, gets the girl and sets up a sequel. It’s a fine enough ending. It’s safe, standard superhero stuff by now. But it backtracks on the only thing that distinguished the film from its genre template. He wants to be good, he could be, but he doesn’t actually have what it takes because he lacks the intellectual courage to defer his wants to anybody else’s needs. We get a few winks and nods and promises for more fun and fighting in a year or two. I’m not disappointed because from what I gather that’s usually what happens in Deadpool stories, but it points to the superhero ethos trending toward an uncritical anti-heroism.
Although I think Batman epitomises many of the problems of worshipping problematic heroism, I don’t think beating that dead horse any more would accomplish much.5 Nor would similar comments directed at the more recent attempts to glorify a grittier (read: more tyrannical) Superman be especially helpful.6 This conversation has a frustrating habit of turning into a slap fight about whether DC or Marvel is, in some capacity or other, “better” and I don’t care about that. Even if heroism according to films based on DC characters does seem to be more anti-social, Marvel is at least as shy about engaging with the squickier elements of its characters.
Now would the appropriate time to serve my hot take on Captain America’s new twist as a Hydra agent. For those who don’t know, Hydra is the colourful comic book stand in for National Socialist fascism. The issue with this turn of events is that Captain America is a real-world ideological alternative to fascism written by pre-war Jewish refugees7 who wanted to imagine that an alternative to Nazism, Communism, and the other forms of dictatorship sweeping across Europe was possible in a rapidly modernising and globalising society. Comics were a space where hope could exist, where it was plausible to write that things could get better and that there was a version of America in the frail and flawed people who lived there that actually could deliver on the promise of liberty, equality and fraternity.
The character bounces around between nationalist pandering and optimistic self-reflection across his many years in print but what does it say that now is the time for Cap to turn coat and work for Hydra? Conventional wisdom suggests that the turn comes because it is legitimately shocking; but this is a comic book so there are plenty of shocks the character could have offered: Cap could have revealed that he was a pod person, or a ghost all along, the decision to revise Captain America as a Nazi spy is motivated by something in its moment.
Anymore, faith in the nation-state is either collapsing as global problems and cultures eclipse local ones, or it’s reinforced by an angry, racially motivated urge to recapture the good ol’ days. The idea of a figure who can represent what we idealise, a colourful figure that embodies a goodness we believe we can, on a macro level, acquire, seems outdated and naive. Even the idea that there is a “we” that can exist in solidarity with one another in mutual, pluralistic respect, is outdated. By today’s reckoning, of course Cap is a hydra agent; of course the figure representing our ideal selves is a fascist ruse we allow ourselves to lower our guard to: that’s what you get for believing in something, chump.
We can say that Cap’s Hydra reveal is a schtick to sell more comics, that it will make headlines before disappearing, and that it’s just a comic so really it isn’t something to get worked up over. And to an extent that’s true. It’s also true that comics are just cheap rags that need to sell to be made; that they don’t mean anything more than what people make of them. But I’ll be honest with you (y’know, since it’s just you and me here): I’m a little sad about it. Not angry, just sad. Comic books are silly, fanciful absurdity, which makes them an ideal space for exploring silly alternatives to our dull, anxious, precarious reality.
It may be the case that Cap’s transformation will be an “interesting” one, that the comic will explore the very human material conditions that lead a person to wilfully conduct evil against another person. And for some people it might excuse the betrayal. After all, Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment (where participants believed that the press of a button would send increasingly powerful shocks into a participant’s body) frightening because it explains how a whole country of regular people could allow a genocide to happen.8 We might believe in our heart of hearts that we are good but if somebody with vested authority comes along and tells us to hurt another person, we might just do it. Being a unique snowflake in a world of phonies means nothing when a dude in a lab coat says “the experiment must continue”, or when a jack-booted lieutenant gives the order to teargas the street. The idea that evil is as mundane as going to work is scary because it places us at fault for going through the motions. It makes us active participants, not helpless bystanders, to oppression and villainy. But I don’t think that’s what a lot of the fictional anti-heroism calls attention to, it seems more as though these stories champion the possession of power rather than pointing to implications of its use.
The point I’m getting at is that villainy is more and more framed as a justifiable means. Our art tells us the heroes we look to and the political opponents we abrade with are secretly waiting for that moment of weakness to strike, and only force can protect us and our property. Captain America as a hydra agent feels a little bit like an inevitability in a context where villains threaten existence on a grand scale and anything that defers our absolute obliteration can be excused. In a non-comic book example, watching House of Cards I keep wondering what the main character is after. He’s manipulative and power-hungry and he regularly needs to weasel his way away from his political nemeses but the show never bothers to explain why. He wants more prestigious titles and greater legislative authority in American government but he never really explains why. Power for its own sake is enough and any means are sympathetic to pursue them.
Stories that describe the corrupting influence of power or that expose the monsters under our beds seem more interested in stoking the fear we have of our enemies than in allowing us to recognize what is acceptable. I don’t feel compelled to identify with enemies as other people but as powerful people whose abuses look like a lot of fun. Which not only cheapens villainy but re-asserts an isolationist paranoia that feels more familiar the more the environment degrades and the more the economy profits those born into power.
I won’t say that our pulp needs to get more serious, because its silliness is its power, and I won’t say our heroes should show no flaws because that would be disingenuous. Nor will I say that this kind of trend is universal, in the superhero genre, Jessica Jones’s anti-heroism humanises her and in comedy, characters like Bojack Horseman, Louis C.K.’s stage personality, the women in Orange Is the New Black are all self-interested—sometimes irredeemably so—in service of testing their morality and testing their capacities to grow.
When we sympathise with King Richard as he cackles to himself, we know that his hubris will undo him. It might take someone as frustratingly boring as Richmond to do the right thing, but we can count on something being right. I might be dramatic here, but I don’t know that we can count on Cap or Superman, we can’t count on Deadpool getting what for or for our promise to “never forget” to count for anything when it comes time to reinvigorate the brand.
1 Tovrov, Daniel. “It Must Feel Good to Be as Bad as Gordon Gekko” PopMatters. 1 May 2012.
2 Olson, Dan. “Fight Club and Toxic Masculinity.” Folding Ideas. Nov 13 2014.
3 Fentonizer. “American Psycho and Fight Club.” Fentonizer’s Personal Web-log. Aug 13 2014.
4 Joffe, Mike. “Comic Characters – Deadpool.” Videogames of the Oppressed. May 14 2014.
5 Filipowich, Mark. “The Fascist We Deserve: The Authoritarian Ideology of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilolgy“; “Crime and Punishment: Criminology According to Batman.” bigtallwords. Apr 27 2015; Aug 22 2014.
6 Olson, Dan. “The People vs Clark Kent.” Folding Ideas. Jul 20 2013.
7 Plummer, Jessica. “On Steve Rogers #1, Antisemitism, and Publicity Stunts.” Panels. May 26 2016.
8 “Milgram Experiment.” Wikipedia.