From folklore to myths and, nowadays, superhero stories, there have always been two sides to the fight: good and evil. Two sides that fight each other bitterly in order to preserve, destroy, prove a point, get their ideas across, and to conquer and everything in between. Rivalries such as Reverse Flash and Flash, Spider-Man and Green Goblin, Superman and Lex Luthor, and Batman and The Joker have been the recipients of this narrative trope. It has clearly painted a line of who is good and who is not. But, there is room, perhaps too much room, to live in between that line. The Anti-Hero is one that thrives in the gray area, and many are buying property in that territory.
An Anti-Hero, to put it bluntly, is a hero-like character who does the good thing for selfish reasons. They are not boy scouts, not doing good deeds for the sake of doing good. They save a child because they just happen to be in the area. They stop the bad guy because the bad guy was simply in their way. They may even save the entire world from plummeting into the sun because someone paid them to do it. Or, violently, sometimes lethally, put an end to the villain and/or their operations. For the true-and-through good ones, anti-heroes are a pain to work with and are sensitive, uneasy allies. They operate by their own rules, their own customs, and are not tied down to any strict cause other than the one they see fit. A few examples are Catwoman, Wolverine, Spawn, Rorschach, The Punisher, Deadpool, and John Constantine. Yet, why must there be a definition? Because seeing is believing, right? For the past several years, in books and film, the era of Anti-Heroes is on the rise.
Loki has fallen prey to this. In the books, he is cutthroat, manipulative, cunning, bold, cold-blooded at times. A true villain. One worthy of being a true threat to Thor himself and the Avengers as a whole. The MCU began with him on this path, but with each outing, Loki has been on the road to redemption. He has helped Thor a few times, attempted to kill Thanos before Thanos was on his way to obtain more Infinity Stones, and tried to persuade a variant of himself from completely destroying not one timeline but ALL the timelines. By many definitions, that isn’t something a villain would do. Those are heroic acts.
Someone just needs to look at Venom to get a sense that he should be a villain! He is muscular. Has ghostly white eyes. Heavy abundance of sharp, jagged teeth. Oh, and his nickname, is LETHAL protector. And…he is named after fluids that are potentially fatal. Add that up, you should get a villain, right? Right? But, in the books, and the latest films, he is an anti-hero who borderlines being a true one. He is no longer a villain to a hero he shares a symbol with because Venom is a hero in his own right *clears throat* anti-hero who eats the heads of bad guys.
Harley Quinn has received the greatest transformation. She was by The Joker’s side for many years and was along the ride when he committed atrocious acts. Committed some of her own, laughing the same tune as him. Harley is as crazy as The Joker and has a drive to prove herself to everyone and anyone. That is a potent mix. Whether she is by his side or acting on her own to step away from The Joker’s shadow, Harley is never too far from mayhem. She seems to thrive in it, crave it. Yet, DC has spun it around for her. Quinn has been able to use chaos to her advantage for a force of good, or at the least, chaotic good. In her latest outings, no matter which medium, she is seen as something that straddles between a tragic hero or an anti-hero. Bonus Round goes to Harley’s new lover, Poison Ivy. She has at least stepped away from villainy in recent. DC has even dropped the Poison in her name.
Then there is Red Hood. Former protégé to the Dark Knight. Trained by him and perhaps by the League of Assassins. Adept in firearms, bladed weaponry, explosives and close quarter combat. Skilled in battle strategy and tactics. Knows Batman’s methods, locations, allies and perhaps most importantly, his identity. And Red Hood is not intimidated to take out Gotham’s worse criminals permanently. After all, he did put the severed heads of a few drug dealers in a bag and delivered them to their bosses. Absolute perfect formula for a great Batman villain. But again, over the years Red Hood has become more of an anti-hero. Even being welcomed back to the Batcave and the family. He still keeps up with his more aggressive tactics when it comes to fighting ,however, he fights for the side of good. Although he rather punish than protect, that could still be viewed as a twisted sign of noble work. His signature is using guns, as insult to Batman’s disproval to them. His turn has gotten so spun around, the bullets he uses now are non-lethal in some cases. There was an opportunity to make him a great one among Batman’s world-famous rouge’s gallery yet Red Hood is now the reckless son. Perhaps with the launch of the DCU, Red Hood has a chance to reclaim his villainy role.
Thanos has not escaped this treatment either. In the Infinity Gauntlet storyline, Thanos wanted to please a personification of death by eliminating half of the life in the universe. He was smiling at the mention of it. Rejoicing at the mere thought of doing it. He muted his brother so his brother could see him perform the act with no pushback. Allied himself with Marvel’s version of the Devil, Mephisto. Thanos truly lived up to the mad in his nickname of Mad Titan. When the MCU tackled this storyline, Thanos was portrayed as an antagonist with a questionable but somewhat understandable morality. Even though he still wanted to eliminate life, he valued preserving the other half in doing so. A life for a life. In the film he felt remorse, guilt and even sympathy at times during his quest to take out life. A far departure from someone who is called mad.
Those are a few examples of course but it raises a question; why the sudden interest in favoring anti-heroes? Is it because it gives more room for the writer to explore the character? The story? Is it playing it safe? Perhaps there is an assumption that fans are not willing to see the bad guy win since majority of anti-heroes now have gotten a larger role in their respected domain. Or perhaps it is a creative way to push the comic book genre into newer territory. Keep them fresh. Many factors go into making these changes for characters. But the changes are becoming not only frequent but in close proximity of each other. As quick as the originality has come, it is quickly vanishing. Instead of feeling like it’s something unique, it feels like a fad, a trend. Creativity could easily be forgotten when trends are followed. Villainy can still be interesting and captivating. There is no need to abandon it to favor anti-heroism. Anti-heroes are good, but once everyone starts adopting elements of it, there will be no anti-heroes.