The popular culture scenario has recently witnessed the booming of the so-called superhero films. This relatively new genre, however, presents a very unstable set of characterizing features and has therefore been described as “something of a provisional genre, still very much in the state of becoming” which seems to have not yet “found [its] real voice” (Bukatman, 2011: 118-119).
The reason for this instability is probably related to the transposition of the original material from comics to the screen. This operation was made particularly difficult as it called for both a process of selection from the vast and highly variable comic productions and one of adaptation in order to suit modern audience’s taste and perception of reality. Among the various features susceptible to variation, perhaps the most striking is the one concerning the very core of these narrations: the perception of the hero. In particular, his acceptance and popularity among today’s audience seem to be granted by completely different traits in comparison to those which characterized the classic superhero.
The very idea of superhero was born in the 1930s as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster developed and started publishing the first Superman comics. In 1933, their first prototype version, The Reign of the Superman, was rejected by major comic publishers as its protagonist was “a lawless, superpowerful individual” which represented “a threat to values of law and order” (Andrae, 1980: 92). In fact, in this early story the ‘superpowerful individual’ is the vagrant Bill Dunn who acquires his powers at the hands of the rich Professor Smalley’s experimentations. Far from becoming a hero, Dunn starts using his powers to gain personal power and wealth and eventually plans to trigger war on a global scale. Just before condemning the world, however, Dunn foresees his immediate future in which his superpowers have worn off. He realises how pointless his evil doing has been and how much better it would have been if he had operated for the good of humanity. It is probably from this last epiphany that the official Superman was born. In an interview, Siegel explained how much influence marketing had on his decision to turn his superman into a hero:
“Having him a hero would be infinitely more commercial than having him a villain. […] with the example before us of Tarzan and other action heroes of fiction who were very successful, mainly because people admired them and looked up to them, it seemed the sensible thing to do to make The Superman a hero” (Siegel, 1983).
Contrarily from Dunn, Superman became a champion of justice. After this first fundamental conversion, his initial profile as an outlaw fighting against social injustice underwent further corrections:
“Siegel was told to make Superman operate within the law and to confine his activities to fighting criminals. All controversial social issues were to be avoided” (Andrae, 1980: 100).
This process was even amplified when Siegel joined the army leaving his creature into its publishers’ hands. With this final transition, the image of Superman eventually became the one of the spotless hero, morally beyond any possible critic.
Regardless the complexity of its original creation, today’s cinema production about Superman tends to assume only this last version of the superhero as the canonical one. Films as Man of Steel present therefore their main character as characterized by a highly idealistic and altruistic profile, willing to collaborate with the government and ready to sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity. To complete this messianic picture, there comes the ghost of his father disclosing Superman’s life mission: guide humanity towards goodness and give them hope. This image of a man above other men, defender of the earth and its inhabitants, but somehow alien from them, constitutes a quite recurrent representation of the classic hero.
The Batman of the Dark Knight Trilogy by Nolan shares many of these classic hero traits: like Superman, as Bruce Wayne can be considered an alien living on morally higher standards compared to the people of Gotham. The theme of the social and moral distance between the Wayne family and common Gothameses is repeatedly addressed by various characters, from the patronizing Thomas Wayne who describes Gotham’s citizens as “people less fortunate than us” and lets his company be run by “better […], well, more interested men”(Batman Begins) to the mob boss Carmine Falcone with his admonishment to the young and vengeful Bruce: “You’ve never tasted desperate. You’re Bruce Wayne, the prince of Gotham; you’d have to go a thousand miles to meet someone who didn’t know your name. So don’t come down here with your anger. […] This is a world you’ll never understand” (Batman Begins). The relationship between Batman and Gotham constitutes the backbone of the whole trilogy, a conflict that finds a partial conciliation only at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, when the city finally accepts the Batman as its hero and Bruce Wayne accepts a true Gothamese, the cat burglar Selina Kyle, as a partner.
In this perspective, The Dark Knight offers quite an interesting confrontation between the noble hero and the ultimate son of Gotham, The Joker. In fact, if Nolan’s Gotham can be described “as a corrupt, crime-riddled, mob-run Sodom, dirty and almost worthless, but also fragile” (Tyree, 2009: 32), The Joker is certainly its most faithful incarnation. It is not surprising that this battle is ultimately lost by the hero, both on screen and among the audience. On screen, it is the city itself that defeats Batman by tainting of blood his formerly spotless figure and forcing him to a shameful retreat. In fact, Harvey Dent’s madness, even though facilitated by The Joker, is a direct consequence of Batman’s choices and his faked guiltiness is therefore not totally undeserved. Out of the screen, instead, it is humanity that takes its revenge over the too perfect, godlike character of the classic hero.
The triumph of Ledger’s Joker is deeply related to his helplessly human frailty, rooted into his character far beyond the script itself. His madness, his violence, his demons, as fundamentally unexplained as they are, become universal. As the monsters “hidden away […] in the forbidden recesses of our mind” (Cohen, 1996: 20) described by J. J. Cohen, The Joker is our son, the final product of a human and inherently faulty society, asking to our imposed saviour if mankind is actually willing to accept his holy predicament of justice and order.
Another film about the relationship between heroes and villains is Unbreakable which presents the theme in a way that is at the same time similar and opposite in respect to The Dark Knight. The main opposition lies in the fact that the villain predates the hero instead of being a form of reaction to him. The principle is in fact reversed: humanity, again represented by the villain, is here not rejecting the hero, but seeking for his coming. On the other hand, the relatability of the villain is once more achieved by a characterization strongly focussed on the theme of frailty.
Mr Glass is the purest incarnation of fragility: not only his bone structure is seriously endangered by a rare disease, but his loneliness from childhood and his social status both as unappreciated intellectual and as black man from the lower classes are all elements meant to enforce the sense of vulnerability that surrounds the character. The strongest connection between Mr Glass and the targeted superhero film audience, however, is represented by his being fundamentally a geek. The link between these two elements, frailty and the geek phenomenon, is highlighted by A. J. Regalado who describes the average comic book reader as characterized by “marginality and loneliness that often results from the outright rejection of mainstream values” (Regalado, 2007: 128). Villains often embody these features: the praise to chaos paid by The Joker in The Dark Knight, for instance, can be regarded as a radical rejection of the mainstream value of established order openly marked as unfair.
Conversely, even though they may experience hardships and loneliness, classic heroes apparently need to be felt as trustworthy and are therefore not allowed to infringe any moral rule. This characterizing feature seriously affects their ability to create bonds with the audience. It is probably to tackle this particular problem that antiheroes were born. In fact, antiheroes cover an intermediate position between heroes and common people: like the heroes, they are usually provided with special abilities and skills, but differently from them they typically lack idealistic aspirations or ideologies. In films, however, they usually end up fighting the villains and protecting the common good exactly in the same way as classic heroes do. The main difference between the two character types lies in their motivation: in order to have them fighting, antiheroes’ personal interest needs to be clearly involved. Self-interest is in fact the most typical and conspicuous attribute of antiheroes and this is the reason why they are usually embodied by thieves, bounty-hunters, mercenaries or individuals seeking their personal revenge.
The goals behind their choices are generally immediate and self-evident, their actions are barely planned. This is a difference that distances them from classic heroes as well as from villains. In fact, it is pretty typical for both heroes and villains to fight for an ideology which basically involves a long-sighted plan to achieve the imposition of a certain vision of the world over the current one: both Superman and Magneto, among others, share the dream of upgrading the average human society, the first through his own good example, the second with more radical means.
Given this set of common features, the subgenre of antihero films presents however a further diversification. In some films, as for example Guardians of the Galaxy, the antihero eventually becomes a hero by choosing to launch himself into a mission whose balance between risk and personal gaining is not favourable to him anymore. In other cases, the protagonist simply carries on with his original plan which incidentally brings benefits to the whole community, as in The Crow. This second option seems to be, however, less popular and productive. In some respects, the increasing popularity of antihero narrations can be considered as a by-product of the “almost obsessional preoccupation with origin stories” (Brown, 2016: 133) demonstrated by the superhero film industry since they usually display the transition of the main character from being an average human being to becoming a proper hero. The fact that often, even in standard superhero films, “the first films for each character focus on the protagonist becoming the superhero” (Brown, 2016: 133) makes the distinction between heroes and antiheroes rather blurry.
An interesting example of modern superhero film able to blend together characteristics of the proper hero and the more human antihero is represented by Iron Man. Far from being a godlike figure, Tony Stark begins his journey as a member of the upper class, completely uninterested in the destiny of humanity and successfully integrated into the “mainstream values” (Regalado, 2007: 128) system: as he himself proclaims, he is “not the hero type” (Iron Man). As in antiheroes films, the main focus of the first part of the Iron Man trilogy focuses on the protagonist’s psychological transformation from a particularly selfish individual into a hero devoted to the common good. This process, however, never seems to reach its full completion. The great majority of his battles, in fact, are maintained on a strictly personal level. This is quite a recurrent feature in Marvel’s film production: also in The Avenger the sole element able to spark the team solidarity is, as the team name correctly sums up, the desire of vengeance after agent Coulson’s death. In the same way, in the Iron Man trilogy all the hero’s opponents are more or less directly prompted to action by Tony Stark himself. The lack of any ideology behind Iron Man’s actions is even openly stated as, while publically challenging the villain for personal reasons, Stark declares that “there’s no politics here it’s just good old fashioned revenge” (Iron Man 3).
Also the issue of frailty is developed throughout the whole Iron Man trilogy. There is a direct correlation between Stark’s becoming a superhero and his developing a series of both psychological and physical fragilities. Most prominently, his heart problem is strictly linked to the Iron Man’s suits as the cardiac device is the first part of them to be built, the last to be dismissed and the one that undergoes the more relevant and sophisticated alterations.
The centrality of the heart device is underlined by the symbol of the light circle in the chest that constantly represents Iron Man: the dancers at the Stark’s Expo opening ceremony in Iron Man 2, for instance, are meant to resemble the superhero’s suit as they wear a red costume with light circles in their hands and in their chest. Also the psychological fragility of the character shows the same correlation: throughout the story, Stark experiences progressively more severe panic disorder attacks as side effects of his superhero activity. His fear of death and his anxiety attacks deeply affects the plot itself, as they act as primary motivation behind Stark’s apparently reckless choices and actions. His acting as a hero represents at the same time one of the main causes and a symptom of his frailty. As the character himself admits, “[his] armour was never a distraction or a hobby, it was a cocoon” (Iron Man 3) and scenes as the one of his first anxiety attack in Iron Man 3 seem to confirm this view.
In conclusion, I would explain the phenomenon of the recent growth in success of the villain’s and antihero’s characters as a direct consequence of the rejection of the godlike figure of the classic superhero which, by the way, was itself a product of marketing choices that brought it far from the original idea of the superhero. Bound to unnaturally high moral standards that often prevent him from showing his humanity and his flaws, the spotless hero has lost much of his appeal. The attempt to create more relatable characters has led the film industry to give more space both to villains and new hero-types such as antiheroes. Both these categories are usually characterised by physical and/or psychological frailty in contrast to the stereotyped image of the strong hero. In addition to this, the antihero typically displays the trait of self-interest in opposition to villains’ and heroes’ tendency to develop ideologies. In this perspective, Marvel’s heroes are undergoing an interesting ‘humanizing’ operation as they progressively assume antiheroes’ features.
This new human hero type seems to be the most successful of our times and it may even represent the main cause of the recent revival of superhero’s narrations: the reappropriation of the “fundamental elements of loneliness and despair, which serve as important cornerstones for both the superhero genre and superhero fandom” (Regalado, 2007: 128) as well as other ‘human’ features, such as selfishness and personal interest, is reaching again the audience’s interest and sensitivity.
By Margherita Martinelli
Andrae, T. 1980. From Menace to Messiah: the Prehistory of the Superman in Science Fiction Literature. In: Discourse, Vol. 2, Mass Culture Issue (Summer, 1980), pp. 84-112.
Brown, J. 2016. The Superhero Film Parody and Hegemonic Masculinity. In: Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 131-150.
Bukatman, S. 2011. Why I Hate Superhero Movies. In: Cinema Journal, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Spring 2011), pp. 118-122.
Cohen, J. J. 1996. Monster Culture (Seven Theses). In: Cohen, J. J. 1996. Monster Theory. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 3-25.
Regalado, A. J. 2007. Unbreakable and the Limits of Transgression. In: Gordon, I. Janovich, M. and McAllister, M. P. 2007. Film and Comic Books. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, pp. 116-136.
Tyree, J. M. 2009. American Heroes. In: Film Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 3 (Spring 2009), pp. 28-34.
Batman Begins. 2005. [film] UK/USA: Nolan, C.
Deadpool. 2016. [film] USA: Miller, T.
Guardians of the Galaxy. 2014. [film] USA: Gunn, J.
Iron Man. 2008. [film] USA: Favreau, J.
Iron Man 2. 2010. [film] USA: Favreau, J.
Iron Man 3. 2013. [film] USA: Black, S.
Man of Steel. 2013. [film] USA: Snyder, Z.
The Avengers. 2012. [film] USA: Whedon, J.
The Crow. 1994. [film] USA: Proyas, A.
The Dark Knight. 2008. [film] UK/USA: Nolan, C.
The Dark Knight Rises. 2012. [film] UK/USA: Nolan, C.
Unbreakable. 2000. [film] USA: Shyamalan, M.
 Even though it actually already existed in the past, this genre had never known such a great success and proliferation.
 The complete interview was originally published on Nemo, the Classic Comic Library #2, this statement was reported in Regalado, 2007.
 It is worth noticing that also the father’s (or uncle’s) mandate is a characteristic feature recurring in this hero type representations (Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman, maybe also Star Lord, …).
 Even their names seem to suggest this interpretation: traditionally, while the knight is a noble defender belonging to the noble class, the joker, or jester, represents the sole commoner who, specifically because of his particularly low status, is allowed to openly attack the king.
 I am referring here both to the choice of saving Dent instead of Rachel and, more generally, to the plan of making him the new hero of Gotham.
 Which, by the way, his suicide proved to be even more real than expected.
 It is worth noticing that this film seems to be fully aware of the fundamental contradiction between the current image of the faultless superhero and its less spotless origins. Over the choice of the surname Dunn for the super-gifted protagonist lies the legacy of the first, evil superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (see paragraph two, The Reign of the Superman).
 In the classic image of the hero, however, any possible hardship is usually overcome by the protagonist who finally re-establishes his strength against all adversities.
 Furthermore, these characters’ status within society allows them to also embody the sense of marginalization and opposition to mainstream values discussed in the previous paragraph.
 Even though he proclaims himself different from “the schemers” and more similar to “a dog chasing cars” with no precise goal (The Dark Knight), also The Joker shows to have a clear ideology, the ideology of chaos, that motivates and guides his actions towards a specific direction.
 A society that, in both cases, they are not part of.
 This is also related to marketing reasons: a personal vengeance plan, for instance, does not guarantee a sequel.
 Tyree, however, notes that Stark can also be described as “the tech-nerd version of Peter Pan, and derives his pleasures from 3D robotics imagery and the jokes of lab rats and engineers” (Tyree, 2009: 29), therefore as a strongly marginal figure only apparently fully integrated in society.
 In fact, the Iron Man trilogy ends with Stark’s cardiac operation.
 See Iron Man 2.
 I am here mainly referring to The Avengers’s characters, such as Iron Man. Other Marvel’s films, such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, directly display antihero protagonists.