Cinema has always grappled with the concept of good guys and bad guys. It seems that morally compromised protagonists or antiheroes have drastically taken over the screen, leaving their mark on the audiences’ hearts. With the release of DC’s The Suicide Squad and the recent Marvel’s Loki series, I can’t help but wonder how we come to admire and adore these mischiefs, where their appearances sometimes even outshine the actual “good guys.” And do our interest and liking in these less-than-perfect characters reveal something about human psychology and our personality as well?
The Imperfect Not-So-Good Guys
But first, we need to make the distinction between protagonists, villains, and antiheroes. In a typical story, the protagonist is the main character who often embodies righteousness that fights against evil. Meanwhile, the antagonist or the “villain” is the “bad guy” who hinders and challenges the protagonist’s path and can sometimes play a critical role in catalyzing the protagonist’s growth and development. However, motion pictures featuring antiheroes flip this traditional model upside down, where the “bad guys” occupy the “structural position of the protagonist” but can hold immoral and ulterior interests and actions, Dr. Aaron Taylor, an Associate Professor in the Drama Department at the University of Lethbridge explains. After all, they are not entirely good in nature; they can save the world and, at the same time, burn it down any second. So how else do devilish antiheroes differ from their angelic counterparts? Well, antiheroes are not afraid to use aggressive means and violence to achieve their goals and annihilate any obstacles along the way, staying true to their core of “selfish and antagonistic attitudes and behaviors.” Lastly, antiheroes are pretty much self-aware that they are not the “good guys” and are only merely thrown into situations and circumstances that force them to take on the role, rejecting that stereotypical hero label to the maximum.
Go Wild, Go Crazy
these fallible characters sometimes represent a tiny dark spot deep inside our minds that is just not strong enough to make us act on our impulses.
But we would not simply fall in love with these characters if their story arcs only limit them to being badass. Since antiheroes take the protagonistic role in the films, their backstories and journeys are explored in-depth to explain and justify their pursuit. Their mania is often a result of years of suffering from childhood trauma, abusive relationships, adversity, loss, and betrayal. They cannot care less about being outcasts and choose to live in their constructed lawless world, segregated from the unwelcoming society. Think about Joker, a psychotic villain-turned-antihero whose lunacy stems from the disappointment in and rejection of Gotham society. And I’m sure that at least once in our lives, we have felt like we don’t fit in and our values do not necessarily align with society’s standards. That’s not to say that we are all becoming mad clowns and plotting a killing spree. But these fallible characters sometimes represent a tiny dark spot deep inside our minds that is just not strong enough to make us act on our impulses.
Furthermore, sometimes people just get tired of perfect, spotless individuals as it seems almost too unrealistic and unidimensional to have someone this courageous, able, and invincible. At least for me, I have grown to embrace flawed antiheroes more than problematic yet perfect superheroes. According to anthropologist Levi-Strauss, “no archetypal figure is accidental” as these entities have been manifested in reality one way or another. Therefore, these characters can sometimes hit close to home because they represent an aspect or extension of ourselves that we may not be entirely conscious of.
Liking or Understanding?
Many of us have adored antiheroes over the years, such as Deadpool, Harley Quinn, Loki, Walter White, and more. In a way, we are attracted to them, where our fascination is drawn into these fictional characters through their “exoticism, charisma or dynamism, sense of humor, diabolical intelligence, or other ‘non-moral’ traits.” However, do we always sympathize, agree with or even understand their questionable actions? Well, the answer can be opaque and muddled. While we don’t necessarily always see eye to eye with their behavior, we understand the reasons and justifications of their doings due to how the story is set up. Moreover, as the narrative follows the antiheroes’ perspective, we can explain their decisions given their personalities and circumstances and not based on our moral compass.
According to Mina Tsay-Vogel and K. Maja Krakowlak, two associate professors in communication from Boston University and the University of Colorado, we are more likely to view antiheroes positively if they commit a negative action that serves an altruistic purpose or results in a positive outcome. For instance, John Wick is violent and vengeful – but he has his agenda in destroying the real bad guys. But, ultimately, we still cling to the idea of “goodness” and not completely chuck our moralities out the window.
you tend to sympathize with characters that represent you one way or another because you understand their thought process and actions to a varying degree, similar to the way I can identify with Deadpool’s dark and twisted humor.
But our liking can be taken to a whole different level where we concur with the antiheroes’ ideals and personality traits: the more we identify and perceive some similarity with the characters, the more we will be able to justify and empathize with their actions. These elements altogether add to one’s enjoyment of the film. After all, you tend to sympathize with characters that represent you one way or another because you understand their thought process and actions to a varying degree, similar to the way I can identify with Deadpool’s dark and twisted humor.
It’s Time to Log Off our Brains
However, another significant predictor of appreciation for antiheroes lies in the process of moral disengagement proposed by the infamous psychologist Albert Bandura, where we “alleviate cognitive and affective discomfort” caused by someone we favor violating our moral standards. It is not the same thing as being blinded by love; in this case, you consciously and actively choose to disregard ethical considerations and overlook the flaws within the antiheroes for the sake of entertainment. In a way, moral disengagement is comparable to ignoring cognitive dissonance – we know it’s bad, but in the end, we don’t care because we just want to enjoy the gore, the bloodshed, and the badassness at that moment. The thrill is irresistible, and watching antiheroes punishing the bad and kicking ass can be weirdly cathartic.
In addition, watching antiheroes in their twisted element and action can unexpectedly make us feel better about ourselves. The same research by Tsay-Vogel and Krakowlak shows that morally ambiguous characters can make people become more at ease about their actions in real life. The term “morality salience” is based on this observation, where audiences become aware of their moral actions based on the antiheroes’ actions. I’m not too sure if I would feel any better about myself after watching Harley Quinn madly laughing and shooting people, but I do know that I would never commit the crime. A possible silver lining, then?
All in all, antiheroes are popularized figures that deviate from the norm and fresh air for audiences that want to take a break from over-idolized and over-glorified heroes. But for me, the admiration for antiheroes can also link to our most profound insecurities – we are flawed individuals who are often “losers”. We have lost in many things but also lost many things, sometimes even ourselves. Unlike the “winners” or the superheroes celebrated on their pedestals, antiheroes often suffer disproportionate pain and reflect the somewhat dark reality we live in. Not to say heroes themselves do not go through great struggles, but antiheroes are the ones rejected and abandoned by society who have stopped trying to change themselves to fit in with the majority. They are a proud and reckless minority that does not give a s**t about the world that renounces their identities. And honestly, we are just living to see it.
Cover: Image by Chetan Dhongade from Pixabay
Edited by: Rajal Monga