If you have been riding the superhero movie wave for the past few years like me, you probably know that “Birds of Prey,” Harley Quinn’s team-up movie that has been in the works for five years now, releases today. Perhaps you are excited to see it after seeing 2016’s “Suicide Squad” practically carried by her character. Or maybe you find yourself interested by the fun, chaotic energy the trailers give off, similar in nature to “Deadpool” and its sequel. But hey, maybe “Birds of Prey” is not your cup of tea — that is fair! Perhaps you would enjoy something more serious like the Oscar-nominated “Joker,” or maybe something with a good redemption arc like in “Logan” would do the trick too. All of these movies did well overall: in the box office, in reviews, or in both. Even “Suicide Squad,” which is generally thought of as a bad movie, earned quite a bit of revenue and an Oscar for visual effects — yes, really. However, the pattern is not just in that they performed well, no. The pattern lies in the protagonists of these stories. All of these movies are led by anti-heroes, and this intriguing characteristic may just be the key to keeping our appetite for superhero content satiated.
So wait, what is an anti-hero? An anti-hero is not necessarily a villain, but instead is a protagonist that defies the traditional values of a hero. I already mentioned “Logan” as being an anti-heroic tale, so let us use that film as an example. Though Wolverine is typically considered a hero more or less, “Logan” opens with a weak and weary Wolverine, who is always referred to as Logan throughout the movie, who is awakened in the back of the limousine he drives by some carjackers, who he summarily kills. As the main conflict of the movie presents itself, he insists on taking no part in it, but it falls into his hands and he must, begrudgingly, carry the task through, but eventually sees its worth in the end. Thus, Logan fits the description of an anti-hero in multiple regards: he is old and weak, he takes life when threatened without hesitation and he avoids conflict, regardless of justice or honor. The characteristics of an anti-hero provide for much more interesting stories to tell than those of traditional superheroes, as there is more room to explore the human condition and gray areas of morality. Therefore, given the domination of the superhero movie in this past decade, perhaps it is time some new life was breathed into the genre.
We are reaching a saturation point with superheroes much like we did with zombies in the earlier 2010s. Movies, TV shows and video games all capitalized on the craze, most notably spearheaded by “The Walking Dead,” but by the middle of the decade, new entries in the zombie genre slowed down. Now, zombies are out of style and superheroes have come to save the day, only they may have overstayed their welcome. While the most recent Marvel films, including “Captain Marvel,” “Spiderman: Far From Home” and, of course, “Avengers: Endgame” have done very well, people are beginning to tire of the formula that Marvel especially employs. With only a handful of exceptions, most Marvel movies follow the story of a flawed cishet white man who has some sort of crisis, struggles to climb out of it, and must finally confront both his own flaws and the injustices of his usually underdeveloped, minimally interesting rival (see: “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Ant-Man,” “Doctor Strange,” et al.). Of course, interlaced in the story is witty humor, solid supporting roles and intriguing lore, but overall, the cookie cutter formula that superhero movies make use of needs to change. This is where the anti-heroes come in.
I have already described what constitutes an anti-hero and generally why their stories are more enticing than traditional superhero movies, but what makes them so appealing at this point in cinematic history is the diversity they bring to the genre. This is a term I use with multiple intended meanings. On one hand, I do mean that the movies themselves tend to cast actors of different backgrounds, but on the other hand, I also mean that such films are less restricted by the guidelines of the superhero genre and are thus more willing to diverge from the norm. In observing another anti-hero film I mentioned, “Deadpool,” and especially its sequel, sees a series that openly embraces characters of color, queer characters and characters of different body types in, might I remind you, a genre plagued by shredded, white, cishet men. Additionally, the first film was treated skeptically before release due to worries of a limited market and excessive violence and vulgarity, but these breaks in form carried the movie to first place in the ranking of highest-grossing R-rated movies, which was then beaten by “Deadpool 2” and now recently, “Joker.” Because the anti-hero tale is in its nature non-traditional, it enables a great level of creativity, which is just what we need to keep enjoying our beloved superhero stories.
Do not mistake this article for a declaration of “down with the superhero, long live the anti-hero!” I have seen almost every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in Phase Three on opening night, but rather as a hopeful fan’s prediction of a welcome change. I love superhero movies, but boy do we need a break from the same old, same old and anti-hero movies have already proven that they can give us that. So go see “Birds of Prey” this weekend; enjoy the other side of the superhero movie coin, and keep your fingers crossed that there is more where that came from.