I have a planned rant on the unfortunately upcoming Ant-man movie, but then I realized that without some context, the rant would come across as baseless hating. I prefer to criticize, not be hating on an artist/writer/etc whose work I dislike and/or think is not good. I have some difficulty even thinking of Henry Pym as a hero, and this is why I have issues with the idea of a movie about him.
So, let’s start with what makes a hero? Or a villain? Or an anti-hero? There is a lot of literary theory on this. Joseph Campbell theorized all heroes are really the same. I’m not really going to go into that because frankly a lot of literary theory is of no interest to anyone except literature majors. So, in general terms, here are my definitions, which I apply not only to what I read but also what I write:
1) A hero – is someone who chooses right (the definition of “right” can vary). A hero also understands that the ends do not justify the means.
2) A villain – is someone who chooses wrong (the definition of “wrong” can vary) and believes that the ends justify the means.
3) An anti-hero – is a bit complicated as the anti-hero can come from either the hero or villain side. If coming from the hero side, an anti-hero is someone who chooses right but believes that the end justifies the means (like the Punisher). If coming from the villain side, an anti-hero is someone who chooses wrong but doesn’t believe the ends justifies the means (like Deadpool depending on who’s writing him; this can also overlap with “even evil has standards”). I understand the point of anti-heroes, although I think they are over-used. I know some heroes have wavered between true heroism (as I define it above) and anti-hero (Batman, of course). I know some villains have wavered between true villainy (as I define it above) and anti-hero (like Magneto or Dr. Doom). Sometimes the distinctions are subtle.
4) None of the above, or “failed hero/villain/anti-hero.” I’ll abbreviate this as “Nota.” This is kind of a new definition for me, but I’m seeing this type of character appear more and more in comics especially. This is a character that does not choose to do right or wrong but is primarily concerned with him/herself. Any heroics or villainy that occurs is the result of the Nota’s generally selfish actions. I suppose broadly this might fall under “anti-hero” but to me each of the three above definitions have made a choice regarding right and wrong. The Nota isn’t concerned with that; the Nota is concerned with him/herself.
I understand that Silver Age style heroics (think the old Superman WWII shorts) have long since gone out of style. This poses real problems for writers tasked with telling stories for those characters with origins in the Silver Age (as well as problems for artists tasked with trying to update their looks). Honestly, Batman really came out of his origin era the best, because he was a much more flawed individual than his contemporaries (like Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Wonder Woman, etc.). I’m not going to argue that a hero needs flaws. That’s what keeps any hero relatable to the audience. Early heroes didn’t tend to have flaws, as such, but they did have very specific weaknesses, which made them both awesome and vulnerable.
With the problem of power creep, characters have gone from awesome to virtual gods (I’m looking at you, Superman) with almost no way to be beaten in a straight combat session. Weaknesses linked to strange space rocks seem implausible so now many weaknesses are more normal human flaws. That certainly can work, and story lines featuring heroes fighting with their weaknesses are dramatic. The story lines where heroes lose their fight are often the most dramatic. In general, a move from concrete, easily definable weakness (like kryptonite), to less tangible flaws is a good thing for the evolution of writing. This also serves for the villains as well, because honestly a hero is really only as good as the villain they face (usually). An omnipotent 5th dimension being with one very specific way to be defeated is fine every now and then, but that kind of villain is not sustainable in any long-term story arc.
But I think in the aftermath of Darkier and Edgier and the inmates running the asylum, and a more cynical audience in general, heroes have become less heroic and more likely to choose wrong. The cynical part of me says that watching a hero fall is always more entertaining and gripping than watching a hero do right. I’m pretty sure the Green Goblin makes this argument in Spider-man, and frankly nothing is more cynically horrifying than realizing anything Norman Osborn says is actually true. More and more heroes are written to make the wrong choice because I guess writers like it or think audiences like it or audiences do like it. Or possibly as the heroes have become more and more flawed, the writing logically follows that they would choose wrong, or start believing the ends justify the means if they choose right. Or possibly someone who always (or almost always) makes the right choice is no longer as relatable (or entertaining) and someone who can’t be counted on to make the right choice. This, I think, is why there are so many anti-heroes. Watching the Punisher take down bad guys with impunity is apparently more entertaining than watching Captain America not do the same, even though he probably really wants to at times. And for the heroes that remain, there’s not a lot of difference between heroes and anti-heroes in many cases. Case in point – Wolverine (of course).
I should not be surprised. Poor Cyclops is pretty much the poster boy for this character development (or assassination). He’s the canary in the coal mine. I will admit my first exposure to comic books was not through the physical books themselves, but through television. Specifically my introduction to Marvel was the 1990s animated “X-men” and my introduction to DC was Tim Burton’s Batman, quickly followed up with the excellent “Batman: the Animated Series.” I was impressed enough to look for the comics, and I think those two shows were pretty decent amalgams of long and complicated histories. To me, those amalgams perfectly represented comic book heroes. But that Cyclops is long gone. Writers tried to give him more flaws to make him more interesting (and more Wolverine-like). The logical extension of more flaws is that Cyclops started making the wrong choice more often. Soon the Boy Scout was more Bad Boy and the descent only continued until Cyclops was making the wrong choice almost every time. He has become an anti-hero or possibly an all-out villain.
Deeply flawed heroes can be appealing, but as exceptions, not the rule. Spider-man (Peter Parker) is a loser. He makes the wrong choices so often that’s as big a part of his character as his witty banter. He doesn’t tell his loved ones his secret. He chooses to fight crime instead of have dinner with his aunt. He chooses to have dinner with his aunt instead of fight crime. What makes Peter a hero (more or less) to me is that a) he is honestly trying to do right and b) the universe has stuck a “kick me” sign to his back so pretty much any choice he makes will have negative consequences (this applies in-universe and from a meta-context. Given his issues with guilt, he will also assume in hindsight any choice was probably the wrong one. By the way, I note that the Superior Spider-man has completely missed this point. The premise is confusing and frankly stupid (I’m sorry, I said I wouldn’t be hating, but this is like Sharktopus levels of unbelievability) but Dr. Octopus has taken over Peter Parker’s body and is going to prove he is a Superior Spider-man and Peter Parker (the best revenge is living well). Except, well, duh. Anyone is pretty much guaranteed to be a better Spider-man and Peter Parker. That’s the whole point of his 616 character. So Marvel can’t even keep their flagship trademark loser hero written right.
The less heroic the heroes become, the more difficult it is to write a villain. The villain is supposed to commit terrible, heinous acts (scaled appropriately to the threat level of the villain). Villains believe the ends justify the means, so if conquering the world requires the death of millions, that’s acceptable losses. A key point of tension in many stories is when the villain presents the hero with a choice between achieving victory but at great cost (however you define “victory” and “cost”). If, for example, the villain will kill a bunch of people if the hero doesn’t let him escape, and the hero decides to let all those people die to catch the villain, suddenly the villain’s actions seem a lot less heinous. The line between villain and hero is blurred, and honestly the logical conclusion to such encounters is eventually the hero will just kill the villain to prevent the villain from doing further harm. In other words, the writer is put in the position of making the villain a credible threat and yet somehow writing the situation such that the hero doesn’t take the logical course of action (i.e., eliminating the villain). For Silver Age heroics, that was easy. For Darkier and Edgier, that’s much, much harder.
You may ask how this ties in with Ant-man. I’ll get to specifics in another rant, but I did research to figure out why people liked this character. I came across a fan who liked Eric O’Grady, the third Ant-man. I didn’t know much about this guy, so I read the fan’s entry, and read up on Eric, and I am absolutely baffled as to why this character was considered a hero in any way. Even the fan admitted the character was deeply flawed. As far as my research turned up, the only difference between this character and that one guy that shows up at a party, drinks too much beer, hits on your girlfriend even after being told by her (or you) she’s not interested, breaks something, and probably crashed the party in the first place, is that somehow Eric O’Grady got the Ant-man armor (and didn’t end up in jail when by all rights he should have). Peter Parker is a loser that wants to do right and often makes the wrong choice in spite of his best efforts; Eric O’Grady is a loser that’s trying to cover his rear end and occasionally makes the right choice in spite of himself (lest you think I’m too hard on O’Grady, check out this Cracked.com article).
It should be obvious which one I consider a hero and which one falls into the Nota category I made up above. I think there is an abundance of deeply flawed characters that are being presented as heroes in the comic book universes. Maybe I’m out of touch or old-fashioned, but I like that element of fantasy to my heroes. By that I mean when I read or see my heroes in a bad situation and I know that I’d make the absolute wrong choice (or at least the most selfish choice), I want to see them make the right one. That’s the fantasy – they are what I wish I could be. Writers do walk a fine line between unrelatable heroism and un-heroic relatable failure and weakness. It can be done, and some comic book writers have managed it with more success than others (sometimes with the same characters).
In short – I want a clear distinction between heroes and villains. I don’t want to see my heroes make the same wrong decisions I make in their place. Or, if they do (I know heroes fall) I want to see them pick themselves back up again and makes things right again. I’m not a super-powered god alien; I’m not a hell-bent on justice terror of the night; I’m not a super soldier out of his own time; I’m not a goddess who can control the winds. Hell, I’m not even a perpetual side-kick or the universe’s favorite whipping boy. When the chips are down, when the situation is at its most dire, when the end appears near and there is no way out, I want to my hero to declare s/he will not go softly into that good night, stand up to the challenge, and prevail.