There is a saying about stories: “Everybody loves a good villain.” It certainly makes sense, especially since a hero needs a good foil for which to balance the film and explore their morals, values, and choices. I would, however, like to amend that old adage to: “Everybody loves a good (usual) villain with a relatable, soft spot.” I know it does not sound as catchy, nor as straightforward, but it is a view that stories – movies, films, books, video games, etc. – have explored quite frequently as of late.
Especially in comics, but certainly not limited to them, superheroes and supervillains have occasionally been recast in various different archetypes. Generic good guys and bad guys seem to be a thing of the past, deemed too cartoonish and stereotypical. Tragic villains are certainly not a new concept, nor are villains who have a last-minute change of hearts, but turning them into antihero protagonists is something different entirely.
One of the biggest examples of this occurrence is the case of Shadow the Hedgehog. Made by the antagonist Dr. Eggman as a clone of Sonic the Hedgehog, the titular protagonist of the series, Shadow the Hedgehog debuted as an opponent of Sonic and a villain in some of the early video games. However, due to his massive popularity among fans, Shadow turned from enemy into rival, usual ally, and almost always a protagonist of some degree. Eventually, Shadow even got his own game, Shadow the Hedgehog, which played off of his changing role, allowing Shadow to either be the hero or the villain depending on his (the player’s) actions throughout the campaign. Nowadays, Shadow is among some of the most popular and well-known video game characters ever.
The character of Magneto, of Marvel Comics, has received this treatment a bit as of late as well. Despite previously acting as a frequent antagonist to the X-Men, he currently has his own comic series of which he is the protagonist. Moreover, in the movie X2: X-Men United, he aids the major protagonists for much of the story, only to turn on them once the major antagonist had been vanquished. Lately, under Michael Fassbender’s tenure in the role, movies have made efforts to explain how he became the “villain” that he is and why he behaves the way he does. He often blurs the line between antagonist and antihero, while Ian McKellen’s portrayal of the older version of Magneto in Days of Future Past makes him a wholesale protagonist.
With the arrival of Suicide Squad(SPOILERS AHEAD), audiences of the movie are forced to cheer for the usual villains, who by manner of Amanda Waller’s leverage become the protagonists of the film. This then is perhaps in accordance with the movie’s slogan: “Worst. Heroes. Ever.” With the case of the movie, director David Ayer had to find a way to turn the villains into antiheroes. To help with this, he made the main supervillain an apocalypse-hungry, merciless, greedy, and purely evil witch, Enchantress. Almost all of the boxes in the “villain checklist” are marked off with this one.
To further help garner sympathy for the Suicide Squad, Ayer played off a version of the comics in which the members were constantly under threat of death due to an explosive placed inside of them that could be triggered at any time Waller wanted. Rather than humans, the members are treated as assets only to be eliminated if necessary. Furthermore, this iteration of the Suicide Squad incorporated an actual superheroine, Katana, and a special forces operative, Rick Flag, to help further bolster the protagonist nature of the team.
However, it is Ayer’s depiction of Deadshot, as played by Will Smith, that really sells the team as antiheroes. The key to this outlook is Deadshot’s relationship to his daughter, his one redeeming element. In the movie, it is revealed that it is through his daughter that Deadshot gets captured by Batman. Later on, after Waller watches Deadshot’s testing of his abilities, his primary concern as dictated through his “price” deals primarily with helping out his daughter. At the end of the film, his primary concern is being able to see his daughter again.
Perhaps the best evidence of this character change is Flag’s changing view of Deadshot. At first, he considers Deadshot to be a psychopath, a “serial killer who takes paychecks,” and one that will run from battle at the very first shot. But when the first signs of conflict come, it is Deadshot who nearly singlehandedly fends off the enemy attack. And by the end of the film, Flag seems to have grown to even respect him, allowing Deadshot to visit his daughter, under his watchful eye of course. And when security comes bursting in to put him in handcuffs after his time was up, it is Flag who holds them back to allow Deadshot the time to say goodbye to his daughter.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe also, in part, took on this narrative with the movie Ant-Man. The main character of the movie, Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd, is an ex-burglar turned superhero that saves the world from a greedy, sort-of arms manufacturer who intends to market the Ant-Man technology to the highest bidder. The local law enforcement treats Lang as the criminal that his record shows him to be; however, they rely heavily on humor and light-heartedness, which is why I prefer what Suicide Squad has done. The latter is much grittier, darker, and more realistic.
Nevertheless, it is likely that superhero Hollywood will continue producing heroes with tad askew moral compasses, due to the commercial success of movies such as Suicide Squad, Ant-Man, and Deadpool. Moreover, it is likely that the antihero will continue to play a role in all media genres, providing depth to both familiar and unfamiliar narratives. Whether it is their unpredictability, their dark side, their often “badass” abilities, or their serious nature, antiheroes and unusual or accidental protagonists are likely here to stay. You can also probably expect another popular villain to turn babyface at some point in the near future.