Since the beginnings of Batman, pop culture has embraced the figure who lives on the boundary between law and lawlessness. With truth and justice now seemingly up for grabs, do those stories still make sense?
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
In the popular Amazon Prime series “The Boys,” Hughie, an irrepressibly earnest young man who runs with the title group of misfits, is forced to decide — several times — if he’s willing to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for justice. And by “the devil” I mean Billy Butcher, the ruthless, potty-mouthed leader of the team of soldiers and assassins devoted to fighting, extorting, torturing and killing superheroes.
Hughie’s our Everyman — our well-meaning protagonist who gets thrown in with Butcher’s crew and serves as his moral compass. While Butcher viciously feeds his vendetta against “supes,” Hughie tries to fight for justice without shedding more blood.
In the inside-out world of “The Boys,” which just concluded its third season, Hughie discovers that there are no moral absolutes. The superheroes who are Butcher’s targets? Murderers, rapists, and (in the bland smiling visage of Homelander) a proto-fascist. Clear-cut understandings of who’s a hero and who’s a villain fly — like a bird, like a plane, or like a Superman — out the window.
And with them goes the longstanding comic-book archetype meant to split the difference: the antihero. The old model — the brooding, traumatized crusader in black who toes the line between good and evil, whom we root for even as he descends into moral (and too often, literal) darkness — has become a gross parody of itself.
Once a contradictory figure meant to represent both the fresh sins of a modern world and a righteous crusade for justice, the antihero is too often written to such base extremes that it negates the very reason he first became a popular trope — because antiheroes can exist only in a universe in which idealized notions of heroism, and the concept of good and bad, still exist.
Plenty of observers have argued that prestige TV reached this impasse, too, when the warped values represented by such beloved characters as Tony Soprano, Walter White and Dexter Morgan grew tired, giving way to the cheery “Ted Lasso” and the family of outsiders in “Pose.”
In the comic-book-spawned worlds that, for better or worse, dominate popular culture, creators have tried to resurrect the antihero, to varying degrees of success.
There’s more to their struggle than fluttering capes and face-contouring masks. Comic book heroes reflect the morals of our society; the antihero has become a symbol of our muddled ethics and the contradictions we embrace under the guise of justice.
How did we get here? We need to talk about that billionaire with the bat fetish — Batman, the quintessential antihero.
It’s 1940, just months after his comic book debut, and two goons are escaping in a truck. Into his Batplane our hero goes: “But out of the sky, spitting death the Batman!” one panel reads. In the next he grimaces from the cockpit as he looks through the sight of the plane’s machine gun. “Much as I hate to take human life, I’m afraid this time it’s necessary!” he insists while the bullets fly. He’s only a threat to Gotham’s criminals. He’ll bend the rules but won’t break them.
The campy 1960s TV series rendered him into a milk-drinking do-gooder, in keeping with attitudes about violence and ethics in children’s television of the time. When the film franchise began, the directors Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher introduced the dark and garish Gotham. Still, their portrayals were threaded with loony humor and irony.
In Christopher Nolan’s movie trilogy, based on the comic book writer Frank Miller’s gritty Dark Knight reboot, Gotham gradually crumbles, the rubble and squalor are palpable, the impact of a crime-ridden city meaningful.
In three hours of listless dolor, Matt Reeves’s oppressively dour “The Batman,” which came out this spring, turned its hero into a comically emo Bat-adolescent. Though Bruce Wayne was traumatized by witnessing his parents’ murder, the film focuses so heavily on his forlorn expressions and tantrums that his pain seemed merely ornamental.
It’s why the barbs delivered by a parody like “The Lego Batman Movie” hit their self-serious target. “I don’t talk about feelings, Alfred,” the Lego-block Batman declares while caught mournfully looking at his family photos. “I don’t have any, I’ve never seen one. I’m a night-stalking, crime-fighting vigilante, and a heavy-metal rapping machine.”
In the 2018 movie “Venom,” Eddie Brock is a dogged investigative reporter who loses his job (and his relationship) for refusing to compromise his ideals while reporting on the shifty doings at a major corporation. Then he’s infected with Venom, a sentient alien being that controls his body and gives him superhuman abilities. Venom wants to kill and eat people; Eddie wants to help them.
“Venom” is one of several recent films and TV series that make the antihero into a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure, caught between his worst inclinations and best intentions.
In this year’s “Morbius,” the title character is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist on a search for a cure for his chronic illness. He combines his DNA with a bat’s and becomes newly healthy, but a feral human vampire. He regrets his research, deciding he’s made himself into a monster. Yet when his best friend steals some of the serum for himself, he transforms into an even more vicious beast whom Morbius must stop.
That’s another trick to keep the antihero in play: Throw in someone who’s worse than our protagonist. Morality is relative, so at least for a moment, while there are worse villains in the world, we can have something that resembles a hero.
Another way the culture industry has kept antiheroes popular is by lacing their stories with a dose of often self-deprecating humor. Deadpool, Harley Quinn and the Peacemaker — in the movies and TV series built around them — break the rules and kill rampantly, yet still save innocents.
All the while they get distracted by zany side-quests, pal around with odd sidekicks and preen narcissistically. We laugh because they remain fully aware of the pitfalls of hero worship and the ridiculous notion of a bad hero; they either embrace the gray area between good and evil or all but erase it completely, acknowledging that the world is rarely that simple.
The Peacemaker, a character who appeared in James Gunn’s 2021 film “The Suicide Squad” and this year got his own spinoff series on HBO Max, starring John Cena, is a dimwitted, misogynistic Captain America-esque hero who fights for justice — even if that means killing women and children.
In “The Suicide Squad,” his teammate Bloodsport calls out the inconsistencies in the Peacemaker’s moral code: “I think liberty is just your excuse to do whatever you want.” And in the series, other characters point out his glaring biases, like the fact that most of the “bad guys” he confronts are people of color.
It’s worth stopping to point out that some of the disparity in how antiheroes have evolved can be attributed to the different philosophies of competing franchises.
In the family-friendly Marvel Cinematic Universe (owned by Disney) the antihero can be rehabilitated. Black Widow, Hawkeye, the Winter Soldier, Scarlet Witch, even “The Avengers” antagonist Loki all get redemption arcs, despite the wrongs they’ve committed in the past.
The challenge — and it’s a big one, as the franchises morph and blend and reboot, to keep going and going and going — is maintaining any sense of coherence or moral logic.
In 2016’s “Batman v Superman,” DC’s miserable Batman fights a miserable Superman over who has the authority to be the hero. In “Captain America: Civil War” from that same year, Marvel’s Captain America and his allies fight Iron Man and his friends over whether or not their actions should be regulated by the government. These battles are equally inane.
If one hero is a vigilante on the run for protecting his assassin best friend, and one hero is pro-government but made his money selling guns for warfare, who has the moral high ground? Is there really any difference between a hero and an antihero if everyone is making rules up as they go?
As I’ve been talking about antiheroes, I’ve been using the pronoun “he.” That’s intentional, because the antihero is so often an avatar of traditional markers of masculinity. He broods over his past. He muscles his way through his obstacles, almost always with a six-pack and bulging biceps. He’s a rapscallion who can fight the law because coded within the archetype is a male privilege that depicts him as an unstoppable force; he is his own judicial system.
The female antihero (as scarce as they still are) resists being a cookie-cutter figure. She is less emotionally opaque than her male counterparts, but she can be devious. She is willing to break the rules because she realizes the rules weren’t created for women like her anyway.
Take Harley Quinn. She arrived on the scene as the girlfriend of the Joker in an animated “Batman” series. But thanks to Margot Robbie’s dotty performance in “Suicide Squad,” her popularity led to her own film, “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).” As its lengthy subtitle suggests, the movie frees the character from being a sidekick.
The brutally hilarious “Harley Quinn” animated series from 2019 does the same work; it begins with another female villain, Poison Ivy, helping Harley Quinn to realize that her self-worth lies outside of her toxic relationship with the Joker. She can make for herself a life of both high jinks and crime.
Jessica Jones, the title character of the Marvel series of the same name, offers a useful contrast to what Batman has become. She, too, witnesses the death of her parents. In her case, it’s caused by an accident that leaves her with superhuman abilities.
She is an alcoholic and a loner with trust issues, who for years was assaulted and manipulated by the mind-control villain Killgrave. Her suffering is gender-specific, and when she uses her powers in ways that are less than heroic, she feels utterly human.
In a widely seen photo of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, a Proud Boy jumps the railing in the Senate chamber; on his vest, printed over an image of the American flag, is a white skull.
This is the logo of the popular comic book character known as The Punisher.
The Punisher has been featured in three live-action movies and, most recently, a Marvel TV series starring Jon Bernthal. He’s a Marine-turned-vigilante who begins a vicious war on crime after his family is killed by the mob. Murder, torture, extortion — the Punisher’s methods make Batman’s worst throttlings look like playful slaps on the wrist.
He is also the character who makes most clear that if not handled with care, the ambiguity and sympathetic back story granted a violent antihero can offer real-world cover for despicable actions.
For years police and military officers have embraced the character as a can-do man of action. But more recently he’s been adopted by the alt-right Proud Boys, the skull image showing up at the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville as well. Both Bernthal and the character’s creator, Gerry Conway, have publicly chastised the alt-right fans who’ve heralded the Punisher as a hero and adopted him as a model of justice.
In fact, this year Marvel Comics has officially moved the Punisher to the dark side; he’s now an enforcer in The Hand, an underground syndicate of supervillains.
“The Boys” is especially shrewd on this dilemma, explicitly satirizing toxic fandoms. As the so-called heroes got even more brazen this season, lying and committing crimes in public, their fans grew more enamored with them. What used to look like an engaged fan community was perverted into an incipient fascist movement.
In the original “Boys” comics on which the TV series is based, everyone is equally corrupt and equally punished. It’s a thoroughly nihilistic vision.
The TV version, now that we’re three seasons in, is more optimistic, contending that people are as good as they challenge themselves to be, redeemable when reckoning with their wrongs.
In the beginning of this season, Hughie seems to have found a middle place in the war between Butcher’s crew and the superheroes: He leads a government agency set up to regulate the behavior of heroes who’ve stepped out of line.
Butcher scoffs at Hughie’s career move, and turns out to be right. Hughie soon discovers the job isn’t what he thought it would be, and the challenges are more than bureaucratic: There’s corruption on this path as well. So Hughie decides Butcher’s brutal approach has been right all along: stopping the superheroes by any means necessary.
Butcher, meanwhile, bends his absolutism, occasionally granting supes mercy and even looking after Ryan, the superpowered child who accidentally killed his wife.
The categories of hero and villain — and, yes, antihero — don’t do the job in “The Boys,” which is why the series is so arresting. We’re left with complex individuals breaking from the simple archetypes these scripts so often place them in.
Such labels are certainly letting us down, and not merely in the world of the comics. Tales of heroes and villains feel, right now, like the stuff of fables. Mass shootings, climate change, human rights, women’s rights — each has been twisted into a narrative of right and wrong that suits the needs of the storyteller, whether that’s the politician, the judge, the voter, the media.
About halfway through “The Boys,” one do-gooder supe tries to convince a corrupt corporate henchwoman to do the right thing, but she replies, uneasily, that she doesn’t have superpowers.
How can she help save the day? The hero replies, “You don’t need powers. You just need to be human.”
Forget the capes, the masks and the powers. We need humans — being good, being bad. As for heroes? They’re the ones who make mistakes and atone for them, who try — and fail, but still try — to stay honest in a broken world.