The Rise of Antiheroes in Modern Superhero Films

The early X-Men movies had some definite angst around their Wolverine-centered films, political allegories, and unflinchingly unforgettable scene that clearly showcases why Magneto became who he is; however, the colorful blasts and powers still keeps this film, in the eyes of most, from being ‘realistic’. Batman Begins was a first look into a new age, and at the time, separated from the sequels that would feed into the darker genre, it probably would have been seen as more positive: Batman series that sought to remove as many ‘fantastical’ elements as possible, relatively easy for a hero with no powers, and tried to emphasize the human characteristics and ingenuity and corruptions of its universe while remaining true to some of the comics’ most defining writers and story ideas (Batman: Year One in particular).

2008 was the year the genre shifted ‘tone’. Most superhero movies since then have been especially defined by that shift, and the real-world perspective on the related matters.

The Antihero We ‘Need’


Leaving aside the lesser known The Incredible Hulk, that year produced two superhero films, one to be a massive hit and acclaimed in its own right and set a precedent for all future superhero movies (The Dark Knight) and the other to bring its company out of the red and set up a massive and continually expanding franchise (Iron Man).

The Dark Knight set up the classical dichotomy known to all Batman fans, in the movie specifically standing for order and chaos respectively: Batman vs. the Joker. Christian Bale’s Batman is almost ‘second fiddle’ in terms of role and audience perception to his archnemesis, Heath Ledger’s Joker, due to the latter’s excellent (and sadly final) performance and a writing team doing all they could to make this character the villain that proved ‘Slaughter is the best medicine’.

In an era following 9/11, the fear that bled from that event rewired all aspects of ordinary lives and changed most ‘official’ perceptions of characters and tactics. The emotional aftermath of fear, anger, and hate installed in the public created a real feeling of vulnerability, a black-and-white mindset, and a desperation for security; these feelings all returned in full force when the audience sat down and watched the plot unfold, a clear picture of Gotham’s terror invoking memories.

With the audience hooked to our seats, thrilled and terrified of what this madman with a permanent smile would do, it would have been easy to agree with Batman when he says about violating every Gotham citizen’s privacy “I’ve got to find this man”. However, in creating the ultimate evil in the Joker, a new idea is created: that nearly any action, no matter how removed from morality, can be excused on the part of the hero in order to eradicate the evil of the villain. The Joker’s mindset of both ultimate brains combined with ultimate chaos is not as likely as the media seems ready to convince people of; with that in mind, how much can the idea of ‘ends justify the means’ be excused?

Iron Man, and all other solo introductory Marvel movies, were defined by the hero in question. Tony Stark, like Bruce Wayne, is a billionaire genius who dons the mantle of a superhero after a tragedy. By seeing first hand the damage his weapons can do, he vows to stop making weapons – and turns himself into both weapon and defense. Interestingly, although the group that abducts him seems closer to the media-popularized Middle Eastern terror groups, they ultimately play second fiddle to the true villain – our middle aged 1% WASP male Obidiah Stane. Though Tony takes it upon himself to play vigilante initially, Nick Fury appears in the end-credit scene, and the ramifications of having a bunch of people in power suits, as well as those people, begin to consolidate.

The Dark Knight Trilogy played out its final film in 2012, The Dark Knight Rises, which received mixed reviews and opinions: some dubbed it too conservative in its morality, owing to Gotham’s social uprising against the wealthy class, with the underdogs portrayed more as the ‘rabble’ and the upperclass as the victims.. Man of Steel, 2013’s take on Superman, and the take that will be used for the new DC Film Universe, was also very divided in its opinions. The choice Superman makes at the end to kill is so contrary to his character that many fans decried this attempted ‘modernization’ as simply taking away the character’s essential traits that make him Superman.

X-Men Renewed

The year 2011 brought a new old day for the X-Men with X-Men: First Class, and 2014 showed us their Days of Future Past. The franchise, to start anew from The Last Stand, brought us back to day one in the series: First Class recreated exactly at its start the beginning Holocaust scene of the first movie; it then delved further into Magneto’s tragic backstory to give further elaboration, motivation, and – as probably intended – audience sympathy. When we see the more privileged (if lonely) lifestyle of young Charles Xavier as a backdrop for his views of mutant-human equality, compared especially with the damage humans throughout the franchise are willing to inflict on mutants, it’s very hard not to sympathize with Magneto and his belief that there can never be peaceful coexistance for mutants and humans.

Days of Future Past, probably one of the best of the franchise’s films, paralleled the 2003 X2: X-Men United (the other great contender) in many ways, the clearest being: humans and their creations are the enemy (for most of the film) and the X-Men team up with Magneto and his crew to stop the humans. Days showed the clear and devastating future that could come from humans oppressing mutants, which seemed to have been the catalyst for – strangely enough – Professor X and Magneto uniting once more.

In the past, the small X-Team try to stop an assassination that could set this future on course with the aid of Magneto – but, again paralleling X-Men United, Magneto has his own plans to ‘save mutantkind’. This repeated demonstration of Magneto’s black-and-white mentality and – as demonstrated when he turns all cameras towards him – flare for drama show that although he comes from a very sympathetic place that gave him good reason for his mindset, his refusal to compromise and determination to use ‘any means’ (even, in both movies, the humans’ means) to ‘save mutants’ do not create a better world, and in fact are just as likely to lead to a similar devastation for mutant and human alike.

Batman v. Superman

Superhero Showdown

Batman v. Superman seems to seek to revitalize the idea that these two characters must be ideologically opposed rather than ‘World’s Finest’; an idea spawned by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, featuring Superman as a tool of ‘the man’ and Batman as maybe not being all there. And fans who decry the optimism that they perceive as foolishness and seeming ‘invulnerability’ of Superman will undoubtedly cheer for Batman to defy every logical rule in the book and beat Superman in the movie.

This opposition is symbolic of what people are being conditioned to believe, or already believe: that this is no longer an era for compromise and belief. It’s an era for darkness both morally and in the lighting cues.

But is that what the audience wants?

Freedom over Fear


Marvel’s 2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier, setting Steve Rogers in a spy thriller in which the government turns against him, was a critical hit. Captain America as a character represents not really what America is, but what America ideally could be. His first movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, was a period film in addition to being a superhero movie. The relevance of several of the topics presented in Winter Soldier almost makes it a period movie for our day and age. S.H.I.E.L.D and Nick Fury talk about ‘the Battle of New York’ (the alien conflict in The Avengers) having changed everything, and the shift in world and government perspectives symbolizes a post-9/11 mindset. Nowhere is this clearer than in the creation of three Helicarriers – flying machines with the potential to “neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen”. “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime?” Steve retorts.

These creations are a clear parallel to America’s usage of drone strikes, and in the end, they must be destroyed to ‘save the world’. In a crucial move, before destroying the means to kill all potential ‘threats’ to the villains – villains embedded inside the government – Steve announces the truth to all who work inside S.H.I.E.L.D’s building in question. “The price of freedom is high…but it’s a price I’m willing to pay.” This choice makes a very dramatic contrast to The Dark Knight and Batman’s choice to invade everyone’s privacy; Batman doubted the faith of the many, and his sequel turned many ordinary citizens into a mob. Captain America trusted the people, and we saw many of them willing to side with him. “Captain’s orders”, after all.

The Winter Soldier was interesting, and acclaimed, partially for this returning concept: that freedom should never be sacrificed for security.

Holding Out For A Hero

The train of superhero or comic-influenced films shows no signs of slowing down, whatever direction it may be going. There’s definitely a place for superpowers as well as no powers, period superhero movies as well as modern ones; the question is, can we trust our heroes?

In The Dark Knight, one scene set in a restaurant discusses a tangent line of thought, with Bruce Wayne (Batman) siding with his ballet date and against himself as he asks “Who elected the Batman?”

“We did.” Harvey Dent, current Gotham District Attorney and future supervillain responds. “All of us who let scum like Maroni take over our city.” When the matter of democracy is posed, his response is to turn to the history books “When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service.”

His date, and Bruce’s love interest, points out that the last man elected – a man named Caesar – never gave up his power. “Okay, fine. You either die a hero,” the future Two-Face concedes, “or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

There’s a long line of ‘he who fights monsters’ mentality here, and in the film the audience watches Bruce Wayne, card-carrying member of the Caucasian 1%, decide what’s best for everyone to know and invade everyone’s privacy – even if the means to do the latter are destroyed at the end. With all that considered, his ‘moral’ standard of not killing – even the Joker – seems almost hypocritical, and that standard and decision are held without any balances to restrain him.

For a good question, used in another popular superhero comic and film: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Jacque Venus Tobias

    I appreciate your Freedom over Fear section. You call out a lot of what was portrayed in film to past and current and past events in our world which revolve around Freedom and Fear. Thanks for the reflection.

  2. It has been fascinating to witness the massive resurgence of superheroes in the wake of 9/11. Going all the way back to Pearl Harbor, Americans have consistently turned to our comic book superheroes in times of doubt, mistrust, and fear. I can’t help but wonder — fearfully — if the popularity of the Joker in Dark Knight had as much to do with the audience seeing him as the true hero as it did with Ledger’s amazing performance. As we see an alarming rise of mistrust of governmental authority on the part of a growing number of Americans, and the almost rabid anticipation of the Deadpool and Suicide Squad films, where are our heroes — and, therefore, our society — heading?

  3. Yes, putting this into context with Suicide Squad will be intriguing. Also looking at Watchmen would relate to this piece!

  4. Fantastic read

  5. I think film works for certain stories, but often ‘fails’ (I say fails lightly because while they might not tell the best story, it still makes hundreds of millions of dollars) with comic book movies because comic books are a medium with a lot of content and trying to squeeze all that character development into a short movie, rarely works.

    I wish more comic books and books took the route of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead by making TV series out of them.

    • lonetoon

      I made a blog a while back about the virtues of the TV or cable mini-series and considering a Batman anthology series that allowed writers to create different stories. We could have a Batman Noir set in the 40’s, or how about Knightfall and Knight Quest as a televised Mini-series? We could even have Nightwing, Batman Beyond, or something totally original like batman from hundreds of years in the future or a popular Elseworld story from the comics.

      The projects would be in the form of a 3-12 episode mini-series or even a one-shot in some cases. The series could allow writers to use Batman in nearly any form. The beauty of the concept is there will be no pressure to artificially extend it like a regular series, so they could make each mini-series based on audience demand. You can make one mini-series and then make a new one a year or two later if fans want one; that way it’s harder to get tired of them.

  6. Thought-provoking article. There’s a negative aspect to our appreciation of the antihero.

  7. Emily Deibler

    Wow, excellent job comparing Batman and Captain America’s methods when it comes to freedom/privacy vs. security. Also, I’ve noticed a lot of scowling in superhero films, especially in regards to Batman v. Superman. Fantastic insights.

  8. Excellent analysis.

  9. How dare Bruce Wayne try and be a hero.

  10. America

    For most viewers, there is a redemptive hope in watching anti-heroes. However, I think that motive is increasingly more a guitar riff than the song itself. What do I mean?

    In cases where a redemptive outcome is portrayed, say at the end of a film, it seems it can just as easily be criticized as praised, usually as lacking realism, or just rehashing a strident stereotype.

    Particularly within the last half century, especially within western media culture (that could just about include Shakespeare), there has clearly been an increasing embrace of the tragic or unresolved ending as being more weighty or more legit.

  11. This is a good article, although I don’t know about the “rise” of the anti-hero. Perhaps “the return of the anti-hero” might be a better title.

  12. Quite insightful. I never considered the duality between Batman and Cap. I think I may have to rewatch The Winter Soldier now.

  13. Modern writers often do not comprehend and therefore can not write compelling and interesting good people.

  14. tammara

    Great article! I have been very fascinated by the rise (or resurgence) of the antihero.

  15. Jarod Dub

    One of the difficult subject areas to address is ‘what is means to be human’, and this is how they fail. Beyond the good and evil battle, there must be some show of justification that the battle was for a purpose.

  16. Fantastic Read!

  17. I disagree with the premise that the fear factor was caused by 9/11, because the event was seven years removed from the start of when you put the rise of the anti-hero, which you placed in 2008. It seems to be too chronologically distant from the start. I would have made the premise at about the time of the economic crisis in 2007; there seems to be a more direct causation with a 2008 date. Other than this, I see no problems with the article.

    • On a side note, nice touch writing what loosely translates to “Who watches the watchmen?” in Latin.

      • Yeah…that was a nod to That Series/Movie. You’d have to look it up to get the reference, but it’s a shout-out (in addition to being another point I’m trying to make)

  18. Traditional good guys are often scorned, not because we don’t see them as realistic, but because we don’t want them to be. The virtuous tend to make us angry because they remind us of where we fall short. We will just as often relish a good character’s comeuppance, the revelation that he wasn’t as good as we thought, because that takes the pressure off of us to try to become better ourselves. That’s a dark part of ourselves that we have to acknowledge.

    • That exact sentiment always makes me think of I Fight Dragons’ song “No one likes Superman anymore”. It’s not nice to think about, but really good characters only make us feel guilty or inadequate, instead of inspiring us. I think it shows a certain level of ubiquitous cynicism.

  19. Loved the piece. I enjoyed your take on anti heroes, but also on the hero.

  20. scole

    anti-heroes are my favorite topic when it comes to comics or film superhero movies at that, so I appreciated this article a ton!

  21. I’m surprised that this article did not explore why this genre of super hero movies has recently become so popular . It seems that every year we are exposed to a new anti hero and they always seem the most popular. Deadpool (2016) is poised to have a monumental attendance record, due in part to its potential as a comedy, but also because of its promise of general bad- assery and mayhem. Why do we root for these heroes? What is it about characters like the Wolverine that appeals to us? Take, for example, the newest Superman movie: Man of Steel. Cal- El is purely heroic, devoid of any immorality. Yet it did not perform as well as the Dark Knight in terms of box office sales. My hypothesis is that the general audience cannot, as Coleridge posits, “suspend their disbelief”, with these movies. We find their moral perfection improbable. We like the Batman because he has a dark past and we can relate to that. As a result, we can invest more heavily in his character.

  22. I completely enjoyed the concept of this article. Stating that the Antihero makes for a more plausible character, as well as positioning that Antihero as a star, truly gave me food for thought. I have always found the Antiheroes vast in their scope of evil and complex in their pockets of unaccountability. A very readable piece – Thank you!

  23. This article doesn’t break any new ground, but I feel like it’s a good starting point for people looking to enter into an ongoing debate about “grittiness” in superhero movies, or superhero media in general. It hits all the major points and does so in a thoughtful way.

    Since the 90’s, the rise of the anti-hero has always felt a certain amount of push back. Superheros are bright, colourful and often very silly and there’s a lot of value in keeping that traditional tone. Both because superheroes are for everyone, kids and adults alike, and because throwing out the rules is often an effective method of story telling. It lets you cut out at lot of exposition if the Flash can just “run back in time” without having to explain the physics behind it. Or that a bad guy wants to rule the world, because he’s evil instead of because he thinks he needs to oppose the oppressive capitalist state.

    On the other hand, the bright costumes and simplistic stories of early comics don’t lend themselves to more complicated stories with political undertones, or topical allegories.

    I think the good rule of thumb is, if you’re going to go dark and serious, have something to say. Don’t just make it gritty or serious for sake of tone.

  24. I don’t know if I would chalk up the rise of the anti hero to 9/11 specifically, it’s a contributing factor certainly but not the only element at work. To use superhero movies as an example, the Sam Raimi spiderman trilogy was released more into the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and yet rather than present a realistic dark moody tone, the films largely present a positive catharsis and a uplifting mood. I am not saying that your premise is faulty entirely, but I do feel your analysis on the rise of the antihero would benefit from the inclusion of other elements say the recent recession and the wars in the middle east for instance.

  25. Kevin

    I agree with other comments that the resurgence of comic popularity is more due to the economic crash in ’07 than 9/11. We’ve always known we have foreign enemies, and that was not the first time terrorists attacked those buildings, but that crash was yet another time American leaders failed to stabilize their own country. When an entire government lets people down, those people turn to individuals; there’s no face to associate with the disaster, no name, so they look for faces and names that can create equally significant, positive events, even if those are fictitious.

    I also think the rise of anti-heroism in films is due to how many no longer see the world in black and white. Despite the Xavier v Magneto or Bat v Supes dichotomy, we see both sides performing actions that fall into gray areas, especially the latter. Batman refuses to kill even though he’s viewed as a criminal or vigilante by many, which arguably causes more harm than good, but is a distinctly moral decision, whereas Superman is so rigorous in upholding virtue that he’ll sometimes inconvenience or endanger other people in refusing to be immoral or unjust.

    The important part is to look beyond the label or hero or anti. Their actions still have meaning, no matter what side of the morality fence they fall on, and that meaning, from Batman representing a 1% willing to give its life for the common folk, or The Joker destroying a system that many feel no longer serves its citizens, shows just what the audience wants, and in many ways, what it is capable of.

  26. Arazoo Ferozan

    As couple other commentators have pointed out, not only in comic genre movies, but there seems to be an increase in the plot of alternative ways to battle fear and terror in the world. For example in crime dramas, we find officers of the law or civil servants finding ways to “bend” the law without breaking it in order to solve a crime. One may wonder if it is also a response to representation of state policies in many new shows or movies which demonstrate government’s unfair actions or their neglect in bringing order (shows like Homeland vs. Persons of Interest).

  27. This piece is a brilliant review upon the rise of the anti heroes in cinema. However, it begs to ask why films are all adopting more sinister tones. This can be seen from the upcoming hits such as IT (directed by Andrés Muschietti), Venom, Deadpool 2 and many others. Each film shares the themes of loss. Could that be reflecting upon today’s society and the constant fear of loss. Possibly. It would be great to hear your explanation upon why films are becoming darker in nature.

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