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.