In the trailer for the summer supervillain blockbuster Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie’s psychiatrist turned psychopath Harley Quinn smashes a shop’s front window to steal an expensive handbag.
“What the hell is wrong with you people?” demands Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the military man tasked with overseeing Quinn and her fellow reprobates. The theft is interrupting unconventional plans to save the world.
“We’re bad guys!” answers Quinn. “It’s what we do.”
In 2016, that’s the clarion call for a new breed of movie anti-hero, one who more accurately should be called a “heroic villain.” It’s a wisecracking creep who is glad to be bad, unlike conventional anti-heroes who are usually misunderstood brooders rather than genuine baddies.
A heroic villain, increasingly common on the big screen, enjoys mayhem and does good only if it serves his or her purpose or yields cheap thrills. Heroic villains aren’t reluctant to carry guns and to kill with them, unlike conventional heroes, such as Superman and Batman, who don’t tote firearms and who vow not to deliberately use lethal force.
The filmed-in-Toronto Suicide Squad, due in August and based on the DC Comics series of the same name, goes by the tag line, “Worst. Heroes. Ever.” Joining Robbie in this deranged and dangerous crew are super freaks played by Will Smith, Jared Leto, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who all look to be having a blast being evil.
So does Ryan Reynolds’ title character in Deadpool, arriving in theatres Friday. He’s a violent mercenary turned super vigilante, a scarred, profane and insane mutant who wants to exact revenge on the sadistic Ajax (Ed Skrein), who robbed Deadpool of his looks, sanity and girlfriend.
“I may be super, but I’m no hero,” Deadpool crows, cocking his gun.
The heroic villain isn’t a new construct — a version of the Suicide Squad first appeared in a 1959 comic book and The Dirty Dozen in 1967 brought Nazi-fighting sociopaths to the movies — but the popularity of good evil characters is on the rise, a development noted by academics I sought for comment.
The current trend started with the first Iron Man film in 2008, says professor Stokes Piercy of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. He teaches courses on film production and writing and critical studies, including one titled, “Superhero Cinema and American Mythology.”
Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr. as a billionaire weapon contractor turned accidental planet saver, was the first Marvel film since the global trauma of 9/11 “that got how to deal with post-9/11 angst right,” Piercy says in an interview.
“It immediately resonated with the psychological climate of America. You had this really opulent, decadent playboy who gets everything he wants, laws don’t apply to him. He gets captured by some terrorists, and through his own wits and ingenuity, he escapes and comes back, and kicks the living s—t out of them. He kills them.”
Downey’s cynical smartass makes him a more popular character than his conventional do-gooder Avengers teammate Captain America (Chris Evans), says Piercy — who adds that if rumours are true that a major character gets killed in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, it won’t be Iron Man. Piercy compares Iron Man to a certain saber-rattling bigmouth currently running to be U.S. president, who equates diplomacy to weakness.
“Heroic villains are powerful, successful and ruthless. They don’t hesitate, because in this conception of doing good, hesitancy is weakness and weakness is bad, in the language of Donald Trump. Weak people are losers. The heroic villain has a will to act and is not encumbered by traditional moral values.”
A disillusioned and disenfranchised public sees heroic villains as colourful score-settlers, with the end justifying the means, says professor Wheeler Winston Dixon, who teaches film studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
“In a world of injustice, where so many feel completely overwhelmed by authority, cheated at work, given short shrift by their respective governments, while swindlers and speculators make a quick killing, the desire to step outside the realm of law and order and take matters into one’s own hand is almost overwhelming,” Dixon says via email.
“How else can one survive in an utterly inequitable era of late stage capitalism, where 1 per cent of the populace control 99 per cent of the world’s wealth, and billionaires routinely flout financial regulations for a quick profit?”
In a global culture largely influenced by the U.S., people have abandoned the notion of the proverbial “good guy,” adds professor Jerald Podair, who teaches history and American studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.
“We celebrate heroic villains today for a simple reason: because we’ve given up on traditional heroes,” he says via email.
“Real, authentic, do-good heroes, the kinds that bring tears to our eyes, can’t survive our cynical social media war zone — the place where kindness, honesty and courage go to die. Heroic villains, who toss us a good-deed bone now and again, are the best we can do.
“ ʻRealʼ heroes? They’re so … 1945.”