Anti-Hero

Posted: November 12, 2008 in Deep Thoughts

The past eight years have been rough.  There are enemies out there that have struck
us with impunity.  Hurricanes Rita and
Katrina savaged the southeastern United States.
Some guys with names I have difficulty pronouncing flew a couple of
passenger jets into the New York skyline.
The Avian Flu, Anthrax, SARS, and Mad Cow all threaten our sanity, if
not our health.  Our own government has
been a knife in our backs.  People are
tired of being wounded and not being able to do anything about it, and I
suspect that is one of the reasons why the Anti-Hero has become so popular
lately.

I recently watched Casino Royale.  I really enjoyed it.  Bond was not his usual classy self; he was a
loose cannon, and vicious to boot.  At
the end, those who struck him paid.  The
Punisher meted out vicious justice on those who had wronged him (and no doubt
many others).  Batman has also enjoyed resurgence
in his popularity.  Meanwhile, the
Fantastic Four foundered, and there really have been no other purely positive
heroes to emerge in the media.

The story of the Anti-Hero isn’t new, but there are a lot of
them now.  In any halfway decent story,
the audience is given a reason why the protagonist needs to right some grievous
wrong, but that same protagonist is no longer installed as a pillar of the
community or some kind of paladin.  It’s
now the average joe who is an absentee father; who is obsessed with some past
trauma; who loses everything but the will to live.  In some cases, that will to live is fueled
only by the burning desire to bite back.

Kenneth Burke had an idea that as an audience absorbs a
story, it is a form of participation.
Furthermore, as the audience participates, the main character’s
successes and failures become those of the audiences’ as well.  All of the accumulated hurt of the past eight
years can be alleviated just a bit when our Anti-Hero does his thing.  Max Payne became an unstoppable juggernaut as
he slaughtered his way to the top of a pharmaceutical company.  As his gunfire perforated the men responsible
for his wife’s death, not only did he succeed in his mission, but we succeeded
in our vengeance on every faceless corporate entity that has wronged us.

Salving our collective wounds is not the only reason I can
think of though.  The Paladin as an
archetype is no longer so easy to identify with.  There are so many monsters in the world that
I, for one, disbelieve the old school pure-of-heart protagonists.  Even more than the tragic hero archetype, the
Anti-Hero is easier to identify with.
Being flawed and on the wrong side of authority is more believable to
me, so that I do join the story as a participant.  If I didn’t care that Tony Stark had an
attack of conscience, his transformation into Iron Man would have been received
with the same enthusiasm that I muster when I find out that the sky will be
overcast tomorrow.  Instead, Tony is a
womanizing, self-obsessed drunk, and I care when he can no longer live with the
way his company is making money.

Sure, none of these movies are going to please the Academy,
but I don’t think they are the target market.
Money and success are acting as a buffer against the slings and arrows
of outrageous fortune that the average person must weather.  Watching someone fail isn’t very pleasant.  Watching that same person return from failure
like the Phoenix and visit her rage upon those who wronged her is far
better.  The Anti-Hero wins, and I win.

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