What is an anti-hero? That’s a good question.
Unlike cowboys with the white hats or all-American football stars, whose wholesome good looks and squeaky-clean image are straight out of Central Casting, anti-heroes are a little fuzzy to define. Usually, they have a dark past, have a crude way with words, and appear as if they just stepped out of a dirty clothes hamper. Nicknames are a plus.
While they don’t look the part, however, anti-heroes deliver results -- even if they don’t get the credit they deserve. But for the anti-hero, that comes with the territory. One thing seems to be certain: Anti-heroes thrive at the box office during times of upheaval in the country.
Anti-heroes stole the spotlight in the tumultuous 1970s. Some were lawmen who didn’t always go by the book, like Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan, Gene Hackman’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in The French Connection movies, and John Wayne’s Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn. Others were likeable law breakers, such as Al Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik from “Dog Day Afternoon” and two memorable roles from Jack Nicholson (as Bobby Eroica in “Five Easy Pieces” and as R.P. McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”). You even had one anti-hero who was out of this world, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo from “Star Wars.” All of those characters earned Oscar nominations for the actors who played them except for Eastwood and Ford -- but their films spawned very lucrative franchises, so don’t feel too bad for them.
What caused this proliferation? Timing had a lot to do with it. By the middle of the decade, the Vietnam War was finishing up, and Watergate forever burned the trust Americans had in politicians. A little-known Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter was the unlikely 1976 presidential election winner. By the end of the ‘70s, the Iran hostage crisis and the Son of Sam murders dominated the headlines.
Comic-book movies arrived in a big way in 1978 with “Superman” – where the Krypton native (Christopher Reeve) registered his greatest achievement by holding his own on screen with Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. Ironically, Reeve’s innocent Man of Steel arguably brought the curtain down on caped anti-heroes for a generation.
Flash forward to 2008 and the arrival of “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man. Prior to his celluloid debut, Iron Man was a middling Marvel Comics character since his inception in 1963. But the marriage of the most perfectly cast actor (Robert Downey Jr.) to the most perfectly cast director (Jon Favreau) created a memorable movie anti-hero, who egotistically revealed his secret identity to a jam-packed press conference at the end of the opener of his solo film trilogy.
In a year where the hip Barack Obama would win the presidency, the cool Tony Stark became the capitalist with a conscience -- but only after he was nearly blown up in the Middle East, turning the war profiteer into a do-gooder and team player.
“It's an imperfect world, but it's the only one we got,” Stark tells a hard-hitting Vanity Fair reporter before bedding her. “I guarantee you: The day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace I'll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals.”
“The Avengers” series produced more conflicted characters, such as scientist/monster Bruce “Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Loki, the God of Mischief (Tom Hiddleston). As the series wore on, however, the crew seemed to settle down, as even Stark turned into (gulp!) a responsible father figure for Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland). I guess you can’t be a bad boy forever.
While half of the Avengers became wanted criminals starting with “Captain America: Civil War,” another Marvel Cinematic Universe band of misfits lit up the screen in 2014 with “The Guardians of the Galaxy” -- which featured a space pirate; the stepdaughter of a galactic killer; a vengeful strongman; a talking raccoon; and a living tree.
The motion picture arm of DC Comics had gotten in on the anti-hero act in 2008, as the iconic Batman (Christian Bale) played the role of martyr at the end of “The Dark Knight,” taking the blame for the murder spree of Two-Face/District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
“Don't talk like one of them. You're not! Even if you'd like to be,” Heath Ledger’s Joker tells Batman in the police interrogation room. “To them, you're just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don't, they'll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these … these civilized people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve.”
Batman went into hiding for years before finally emerging to face Bane (Tom Hardy) in 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” where he reassumed the mantle of savior -- even if it meant a broken back and a presumed death. The movie’s true anti-hero is Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), a master thief and mercenary who displays a heart of gold by helping the Caped Crusader; she leads an exodus out of an endangered Gotham City, then shacks up with Bruce Wayne at the end of the movie.
Unfortunately, director Christopher Nolan wasn’t at the helm to prevent DC from unleashing the messy “Suicide Squad” in 2016 -- proving that a good anti-hero flick occurs naturally and isn’t forced.
That same year, however, as Donald Trump was lobbing endless Molotov cocktails into the political arena, 20th Century Fox and Marvel gave us “Deadpool.” The combination of writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, director Tim Miller and titular star Ryan Reynolds surpassed any previous comic book anti-hero -- thanks, in part, to its well-earned R rating.
“You're probably thinking, ‘My boyfriend said this was a superhero movie but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a f***ing kabab!’ Well, I may be super, but I'm no hero,” Deadpool tells the audience in one of the film’s numerous fourth-wall breaks. “And yeah, technically, this is a murder. But some of the best love stories start with a murder. And that's exactly what this is, a love story. And to tell it right, I gotta take you back to long before I squeezed this ass into red spandex.”
The film was hilarious and dark, as this mutated killing machine sought revenge against those responsible for turning him into something that looks “like an avocado had sex with an older, more disgusting avocado.” Deadpool filets his way through an assortment of henchmen, including a Death by Zamboni, until he finally dispatches the evil Ajax (Ed Skrein) and wins back girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) to the music of Wham!
So, what’s with the popularity of these films during troubled times?
Maybe it’s because expecting a happy and joyous cinematic experience would be unrealistic, and the cynicism that surrounds us on a daily basis would only support relatable material. Maybe such movies show us, “Hey, you think your world is bad now, look how brutal it could really be!”
During the Great Depression era of the 1930s, theaters touted anti-heroes such as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the out-of-control gangster Tony in “Scarface” and the doomed monster in “Frankenstein.”
With an impeached president and a global pandemic topping the list of woe for the past year-plus, one can only imagine what anti-heroes Hollywood has in store for us in the immediate future -- if we ever make it back to the multiplex!
If there’s one thing you need to know about me, it’s that I love writing. While I enjoy reading quality stories, I especially love to put pen to paper (or, more accurately, fingers to laptop keyboard) myself.
What do I like to write about? Well, how big is the sky? I believe a good writer can find an interesting angle or two regardless of the subject matter. For over 27 years, I was a reporter for the Staten Island Advance, a daily newspaper in New York City. Primarily, I covered sports -- everything from high school to the pros. I also worked for a few years in news; I wrote about police and politicians, poker stars and pets. You name it, I did it. (I currently double as a high school English honors teacher and writing tutor, as I look to educate the next generation of scribes.)
Aside from sports, I have a few other loves. One is music. Another is animation. And still another is film. Whenever I got the chance to write about movies, I jumped at it. While the motion picture industry has certainly changed greatly in recent years -- due to the advent of streaming services, and the closing of theaters and delay of movie premieres because of Covid-19 – there is still nothing like sitting without distraction and watching a well-crafted film.
Over the years, I have studied film and written on the subject for the Advance and as a freelance reporter for several magazines. While my time covering sports allowed me to interview the likes of Muhammad Ali, Derek Jeter and Wayne Gretzky among others, the most nervous I ever was to meet a celebrity was when I chatted with legendary animator Chuck Jones about his career, bringing characters such as Bugs Bunny to both the big and small screen. I’ve interviewed directors, production designers, cinematographers, composers and actors. I remember speaking with Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro prior to the release of 2010’s “The Wolfman” and we shared our passion for the classic Universal Studios monster movies of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Whether through interviews or research, I love discovering the thought process of a filmmaker: What makes these people tick … what was the thinking behind choosing a certain camera angle for a shot, or an actor’s approach to a specific scene, or how did the political climate of the time factor into the finished product.
While I look forward to sharing some of my insights and opinions, I’m also going to tell you whether or not a movie is good. That means, is it entertaining? Is it worth investing the two-plus hours of your time -- or, when dealing with pay-per-view titles or movies in the cinema (whenever we return to normalcy), is it worth spending money on?
I look forward to continue our celluloid conversations in this space in the very near future.
-- Stephen Hart