Best of the Bad Guys: Why We Root for Antiheroes

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Loose cannons. Vigilantes. Wild cards. Mad dogs. Whatever term is applied to them, there’s a breed of cinematic action figures that inspire devotion in spite of themselves. Born from the shadows of film noir and pulp literature, nursed in decades of anti-establishment distrust, and coming of age in a time when systems have failed us, these antiheroes have become some of the most beloved and iconic characters in movies.

From “Escape From New York,” to “The Dirty Dozen,” to “Deadpool,” to the upcoming “Suicide Squad,” audiences love them some amoral heroes who dispense justice on their own terms. But what is it about these figures that inspire such fandom? Why do we cheer for these criminals, psychopaths and murderers who do things their own way? We should be afraid of their unpredictability and judge them for bucking due process, but instead, we are fascinated by their actions, titillated by their attitudes and seduced by their charms. What is it about bad guys that make them so good?

The simplest answer is because we wish we had the moral clarity and independence that these antiheroes possess. Sure, they are horrible people who do terrible things, but we like them because ultimately they do moral Good with an amoral attitude (while they kill capriciously, it usually turns out the people they mow down are even worse folks)? Being outside of the dichotomy of Right and Wrong, indulging in whatever selfish desire they happen to pursue, willing to dole out punishment to the wicked and the annoying alike, all of it is easy to idealize and desire for an audience. Especially for an audience that feels increasingly demoralized, disempowered and disenfranchised by the system they thought they should follow.

That’s why the antiheroes were born from post-war pulp, from a generation of writers that did the Right thing by going to war, but saw a whole lot of Wrong happening over there. That’s why they came of age in the era of Watergate and following the deep divide of the ’60s, because suddenly everything was being questioned and no one could be trusted. That’s why their vigilante brethren flourished in the crime-ridden ’80s, when U.S. cities were open warzone and horrific acts were rampant while law and order types maintained they were doing all they could to control it. They were born from their times, forged in the flames of a people fed up with the hypocrisies and injustices they saw constantly.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because we are facing similar times in the United States again. Divides have sprung up, deep ethical chasms where every side feels wronged, underappreciated and like they don’t have any true power. In the current election climate, both political parties have used language about taking the country back (albeit from different boogeymen and powers that be). So to live vicariously through these gleeful agents of chaos that dispatch objectively bad guys through brutal means is a sense of wish fulfillment for audiences. How nice it would be to not be concerned with the aftermath of one’s actions, to simply do something – however violent and despicable –but know that it’s being done to someone that deserves it and not care about what the consequences would be. These antiheroes are our ids incarnate, albeit ones that are bent towards doing acts of righteousness. They may be loose cannons but, dammit, they get results.

That’s why it doesn’t matter if it’s “Death Wish” blowing away creeps in Central Park or “Inglourious Basterds” dispensing frontier justice on Nazis. When “Suicide Squad” comes out, the villains will be worse than the villainous heroes we’re meant to cheer for; there will be some apocalyptic plot that threatens everyone so the selfish impulses align with the altruistic cause. “Guardians of the Galaxy” trafficked in this same murky morality masked as amorality to great acclaim and box office returns, with selfish thieves suddenly thrust into positions of doling out justice while retaining their devil may care attitudes and lack of concern about things like due process or diplomacy. Conversation has no room in the world of the anti-hero – there is only action and reactions. If there is a discussion, it’s filled with quips and flippant remarks, maybe some philosophical musings about how to live life, but no deep dialogue of feelings.

While a lot of antiheroes are outsiders, there is also a special sub-class of these types, those that operate within the parameters of the law. In real life, when a cop disregards protocol and due process, it’s generally a bad thing. But in the movies, these types become glamorous wild cards that buck the system and are always vindicated in their abuses of power. Theirs is a moral certainty that allows them to perform amoral acts of violence and retribution that would seem excessive and abusive to citizens, but on the screen, it is exhilarating and hard not to cheer for their actions.

“Dirty Harry” was one of the first, if not the highest profile of these films, that acts as a counterpoint to Paul Kersey in “Death Wish.” Callahan flaunts his superiors, the rule of law and even taunts those for whom he has nothing but contempt while dispensing his own brand of justice in the San Francisco streets. “Dirty Harry” would be the forebear to other loose-cannon cops in films like “Lethal Weapon,” “Cobra,” “Point Break” and many others. He represents the side of the law, but it’s the law filtered through a personal brand of justice and morality that doesn’t square up with how legal matters should be handled.

The world will always need these antiheroes, to engage in audiences’ darker and baser instincts while acting within the confines of doing the right thing. Mad Max may not outwardly care about the community he protects from Lord Humungus, but he is nonetheless doing a good deed by helping them out. Snake Plissken cares only about saving his own neck, not the president, but he still manages to help the president out (and then flips off the establishment by undermining them in the end). Viewers will always want the bad guys who do good things on their screens, especially in times of societal turbulence and unrest.

While it’s comforting to have superheroes, to have paragons of goodness on the screen to restore that faith in humanity, it’s equally comforting to see these wild cards let loose on a world we already know has gone mad. At the end of the day, we envy their freedom, their lack of strings attached; the simplicity of their worldview is seductive to us because we can’t adopt it without becoming sociopaths. But when the lights go down and the movie starts to play, we can be transported to a world where we do Good, but on our own terms.

  

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