You ever notice that we tend to like the bad guys better than the good guys? I mean, let’s face it – Darth Vader is way cooler than Obi Wan or Luke. Luke only gets cool when he starts wearing black and force choking Gamorreans who piss him off.
Same goes for comic books. Who’s your favorite: Wolverine or Cyclops? Everybody picks Wolverine. Never mind that he’s irresponsible, violent, rude, and bloodthirsty – Cyclops looks smug. We can never forgive smug. Batman Vs Superman? Clearly the violent vigilante trumps the boy scout in blue. Every single time.
In The Oldest Trick, I’ve got a pretty bad guy as my main character. Calling Tyvian a “scoundrel” is putting it very mildly. He’s a petty, conceited, manipulative narcissist who thinks nothing of throwing other people to the wolves for the sake of his own comfort (comfort, mind you – not even his safety). You really ought to hate his guts.
And yet we don’t. From Frank Castle to Hannibal Lecter, from Dexter Morgan to Lucifer himself, we’re always willing to give the jerks, the creeps, the psychos and the villains the benefit of the doubt. Weird, isn’t it?
Here’s my thinking: Antiheroes (and I use the term loosely, as it can be defined in many ways – here I basically mean someone who is an amoral, immoral, or ‘dark’ protagonist) appeal to us in three major ways.
They Do What We Dare Not
Have you ever wanted to spill coffee on someone because they were being a jerk to the barista? Have you ever wanted to chew out your boss in front of everybody? Have you ever wanted to smash flat some jerk in a BMW who ran a red light and almost killed you? Well, guess what? The bad guy will do it for you.
In a world full of petty (and not so petty) frustrations, there is catharsis in those who simply break the rules to inflict what we see as justice on those we dislike. We refrain ourselves, of course – unlike the villainous personality, we are functional members of society – but we do so enjoy watching the wicked get a taste of their own medicine from those even worse than they are. Heck, this is the entire underlying theme of the Saw franchise, right? Those jerks deserve what they got on some level. We show up to watch them get it.
They Make Us Feel Like Better People
There is also a certain joy in realizing you are a better person and a better judge of character and situation than these otherwise exceptional people. For Example: Hoo, boy – are we ever glad we aren’t Walter White, right? Man, I mean, he’s pretty awesome and what-not, but he just keeps making decisions that’ll get him in deeper, doesn’t he? Were it me, I woulda walked away way, waaay earlier than that. I could do it. There has to be a way, right?
Shakespeare trades heavily on this notion in his tragedies. Iago and Othello keep digging themselves deeper and deeper and deeper and, oh man, you know what’s going to happen, right? That’s what makes it awesome. The good guy – the guy who keeps doing the right thing – he’s dull (or so we think). Captain America is never going to lie to his girlfriend. That makes us feel inferior. You know what the most common criticism levied against Superman is? He isn’t “identifiable.” This I take as code for “he wasn’t a fuck-up in high school.”
Sure Supes is identifiable. He grew up as a farmboy in middle America. It’s not his Kryptonian heritage you find alien. It’s the fact that he never set his dad’s car on fire while trying to re-enact a Jackass stunt. With Batman – brooding, obsessive, loner Batman – you never have that problem. You got it together compared to that nutjob.
The Hope for Redemption
This last one is a bit rarer, but it comes up a fair amount. We all love a good redemption story. We like to think that those crazy villains that we (secretly) admire can, one day, clean up all their bad habits and become good people like us. The whole of the existing Star Wars movies, for instance, is just one long story dealing with the fall and subsequent redemption of one Anakin Skywalker. We eat that up. Likewise, the journey of Tony Stark from playboy to superhero is the most compelling aspect of the MCU at the moment. His character’s personal journey is the one we love best.
See, as much as we enjoy the antics of those antiheros doing what we dare not, we also realize that their lives are not happy ones. Batman is a tortured, tragic soul in many ways. Wolverine is fundamentally alone. Conan the Barbarian lives an empty life. That sad music played at the end of every Incredible Hulk episode for a reason, guys. Being the antihero sucks. Even Lucifer has a rough time of it.
So we watch in the (sometimes) vain hope that they can pull themselves together. That, even in their tortured hearts, the darkness can be pushed back and good can prevail. Even if only for a moment, before they plunge back into shooting mob bosses and blowing up corrupt politician’s cars.
As you know, if you read this blog, I will be attending ITVFest in Dover, VT on September 24th-27th where I will be giving a talk about World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction on Saturday, 9/26, at 11am. Go and check it out!
Also, The Oldest Trick will be coming out in Mass Market Paperback on September 29th! Pre-order your copies now!
Finally, watch my Goodreads page for the possibility of a giveaway of some The Oldest Trick e-book copies! I plan on doing it as soon as I figure out how!
I’ve been watching Sherlock lately, making good use of the doohickey my wife got us that lets us stream stuff over the television. I love the show, and I particularly love Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, a ‘high-functioning sociopath’ who’s particular hobby horse is the resolving of mysterious crimes. Were I to meet this Sherlock in real life, however, I would almost certainly find him intolerable. He’s an ass, simple-as. Granted, we might see him as somehow psychologically damaged, but that doesn’t absolve him of his ass-itude.
I find it interesting how much the anti-hero has become the standard in recent years. Between Sherlock, Walter White, Dexter Morgan, Frank Underwood, and others, we who watch television dramas bear witness to a veritable who’s-who of antisocial behavior and destructive personality complexes. Let us cleave through the fawning praise of their abilities for the moment (though they are extensive): these men are broken, psychologically unsound, and often amoral or immoral. By many measures they are bad people. People we would not like to know, with whom we ought not really sympathize, and whom are both dangerous and unstable. Really.
So why the love? Okay, yes, the antihero is an old trope. There is fascination to be had plumbing the depths of our dark souls (look at Macbeth, Othello, Medea, and so on), and no argument there. Walter White’s descent is compelling drama, like all good tragedy. What I wonder at sometimes, however, is the lionization of these characters in popular consciousness. By all accounts, Dexter Morgan should make us uncomfortable. His brand of ‘justice’ is cruel and without the ennobling spirit that the word ‘justice’ implies. Dexter would be killing people, one way or another, so he may as well kill people society deems reprehensible. We shrug and say ‘well, they were bad people anyway – who cares if they’re cut up and sunk in the Gulf Stream.’ We are okay with him. Similar with Sherlock – he is cruel to people, he is disinterested in the public welfare, he is gleeful at tragedy. Still, we admire his power and his intelligence and forgive him his (substantial) faults.
This should be concerning on a social level, if not a moral one. What does it say about us that we admire these creatures? I wonder this as I read student papers analyzing a hero of their choice – many of them choosing Dexter or Walt – and applying no more stringent criticism of their behavior than to say ‘they might seem bad, but they really care about their family.’ This, I suppose, makes it okay. Dexter is a serial killer who on a couple occasions murders people who do not deserve it, but we forgive him this by dint of the fact he throws birthday parties for his infant son. For the most part, my students apply words like ‘strong’ and ‘determined’ and ‘smart’ to these characters and leave it at that – such qualities are sufficient to secure admiration, regardless of context.
Context, though, is crucially important for considering what these characters indicate about the audience they appeal to. Without exception, all of them are powerful. For all their failings as people, as devices they are perfection itself. Perhaps this is evidence of the divide our society has placed between one’s life and one’s work (if you’re screwed up in life, you aren’t a failure so long as you are successful at work). Perhaps it means we have a broader understanding of worth (the world takes all kinds, yes?). Perhaps it indicates a certain disenchantment with the absolutism of moralists (this guys isn’t ‘good’, but look at all the good he does!). Any and all of those are potentially interesting threads of analysis. Still further there is another one, but it gets a little meta: the hero’s journey as satire. We love Dexter, but we’ve been suckered into it. The writers have stacked the deck, have given us a window into the mind of the ‘monster’, and now taunt us with it – you are cheering for the murderer, for the jerk, for the liar, for the criminal, you fools! Perhaps we should be taken aback by our enthusiasm.
Regrettably, I am not certain that is the case. I think it, perhaps, more likely that many of us have come to expect ugliness from our heroes just as so many have come to expect ugliness from our world. Our heroes are cynical ones, broken just as we, perhaps, are. We travel with them in the hope that somehow, by some artifice we have yet to devise for ourselves, they can find their place in the sun, warts and all.