Friday, September 16, 2016

The Anti-Hero Question

Since the 80s, there has been a certain type of protagonist that has taken the spotlight from the traditional role of heroes and villains. It's not the reluctant hero, or the reformed villain, but the hero that isn't really a hero at all. He still reigns supreme today.

I'm not sure what brought about this change, except for certain audiences love of moral ambiguity, though these characters soon ended up choking out a lot of the fun of comic books. Reading lighthearted fare like Whizz Comics now is next to impossible without an intolerable dose of "irreverence" and winking humor. It's pretty much grimdark, or obnoxious comedy, with no in between.

But that's not what I'll be talking about here.

I want to talk about the most popular examples of this type of character, and what makes them so well-liked. What makes them work, and if they are really heroes at all.

The first is one of the most popular examples of an anti-hero.

Jon Bernthal as "The Punisher"

The Punisher is the most popular example on an anti-hero. The Netflix Daredevil series had possibly the best portrayal of this sort of character that I've seen. Well, next to Paul Kersey in Death Wish, where he was not touted as anything but a vigilante. The Punisher is usually treated as invincible and unstoppable. He was clearly certain writer's and audiences favorites as he won battles he never really should have. The Netflix version was different. The Punisher there was portrayed as broken, and very fallible.

Now, he wasn't portrayed as a broken, weepy ball of wussy who won't do anything. That's a different sort of anti-hero. He was portrayed as a desperate man, hitting back at the injustice of the world in the only way he knew how. He became a different sort of soldier, to fight a war that he had every intention of dying in. It was a suicide mission.

He isn't a hero. In the Netflix series, he actually comes very close to being a villain at many points. There's no ambiguity about it. He almost kills innocents, he has no value for life, and he teeters on the edge of self-destruction. The Punisher is just a murderer with a vendetta.

The difference is that as the series goes on we learn more about Frank Castle the person. We know that he isn't as dead inside as he thinks. He is still a human being. There are still flashes of the good man he once was. But he buries it deeper and deeper into blood with bad decisions. It becomes a question if he can ever truly find his way out again.

That makes him interesting as a protagonist, but not as a hero. And it's not because he kills people. Not totally, anyway. Sometimes, it is the right decision to make to kill a threat that cannot be stopped by other means. Would the Punisher kill the Joker, for instance, I don't think many would argue it the wrong decision. It depends on the context. But going out and murdering every two-bit thug in the city is not heroic. Shooting a purse snatcher is hardly the paragon of retributive justice.

I like this version of the character better because he is not treated as someone to look up to. He's not treated as invincible. There's a very well done courtroom scene where several people try to paint Frank Castle as a hero with pretty speeches, and it clearly bothers him a lot. This eventually boils over at a particularly heated moment. His reaction to what they say shows a very clear 180 degree turn from where he was at the start of the series. He knows what he is, and it's not something anyone should aspire to.

But the Punisher is merely the most popular example of an anti-hero. Are there other types of anti-heroes beyond this? I can only really think of one, and I'm not sure if I can call him an anti-hero. You'll see what I mean.

The Shadow

The Shadow is a vigilante. But he's a different sort from the Punisher. He is a being who steps out of the corners of criminals' minds. He faces them down with the reality of their deeds and though he might murder them, it is something he must do for justice itself. He punishes the unrepentant so that the innocent may remain so. Is he an anti-hero?

This is where an argument can be made. Nobody knows what the Shadow actually is. Is he a person who made it his job to take on crime? Is he some being that has been tasked with judging the guilty and sending them to Hell? There is no canonical answer to these questions. To me, that's what makes him a fascinating character, and more than he first appears.

Is he the physical manifestation of Justice? It's never explicitly stated what he is, but that is a possibility. If he is, then is he really an anti-hero? It's hard to argue that he is, if his Justice actually does transcend man's law.

But it can still be argued. That's what makes his case an interesting one.

This was actually one of the problems with the Alec Baldwin movie from the '90s. Along with some sex jokes that didn't fit the tone, The Shadow's abilities were given a sort of origin (as opposed to the men of Kent Allard and Lamont Cranston, who are separate from those issues) robbing him of mystique and power in the process. He still has much mystery, but the Shadow was humanized, and it hurt the character. It remains the weakest point of the film.

The Shadow has agents who work for him, all in special roles, to destroy the evil gripping the city. They are saved by him, and in turn work for Justice itself. They do not question what they are fighting. They know it is evil of the worst sort.

When he confronts villains, he tells them straight out what they are, everything about them, and they are always the unrepentantly evil type. He confronts evil to crush it, not to let it slither away. They are like if Batman lets the Joker walk away. How many lives would be saved if they were stopped from their deeds to poison the lives of men?

This makes the Shadow a far more interesting character than the Punisher, at least as far as heroics are concerned. The Shadow faces evil itself, and extinguishes it, so the light can shine. He has a very specific purpose. He reminds villains of the eternity that awaits them, before he delivers them to it. There aren't really any other heroes like the Shadow.

But all this avoids my question. Is the Shadow a hero, or an anti-hero?

I think this would depend on what your view on a hero is at his core.

A hero is a champion of the people, someone that can be looked up to as an inspiration, or a symbol of justice. But what is the right way to be that hero? What is the right way to administer justice, keep mercy alive, and fight the darkness without succumbing to it? That makes for some good speculation.

The Shadow is a force beyond us. We can't be the Shadow like we can be the Punisher. He is a pure being of Justice, who administers mercy to the truly lost and empty (see the first novel), and is looked up to as a symbol of hope that this world can reach daybreak and escape the night. He may not be what heroes are known for being today, but he has many of the best qualities of the best heroes.

But then we get to the murder issue. This is not something that used to be a problem, even Batman used to kill, but as comics have gotten older, so has the debate on this issue grown. Suffice to say, we have ask if killing is ever permissible.

The argument would be that because the Shadow kills, that makes him an anti-hero. Does it? As alluded to earlier, and pointed out in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, this is not a black and white issue. Not when you are fighting on the side of justice against evil. How many would have been saved had Batman (or the justice system) killed the Joker instead of bringing him to the police over and over? Is that really justice to let unfettered evil walk away with a slap on the wrist, and free to continue their ways? We know the Joker will never repent. So why should he live to murder hundreds of others? That is not justice.

It must be noted, again, that the Shadow is not Batman. He's not the Punisher. The Shadow does not hurt or kill innocents, he does not hunt the truly repentant, and he knows more about the villain than most heroes know about their villains. He knows exactly who he is pursuing. Would he kill someone who truly would throw away the sword and reform? I'm not so certain he would. Of course, I haven't read every Shadow story, but as an administer of Justice, he would have bigger fish to fry than chasing down such a person. This is a man who went after Nazis, for crying out loud. He knows what evil is.

That's a long way to say that you could make a case either way. He could be read as a hero, or an anti-hero. And it's what makes the Shadow such a fascinating character to speculate about. I personally consider him a hero, a being of Justice, the Reaper himself, coming to extinguish the night so the dawn may rise. He is a being quite separate from us.

But you could argue it the other way just as easily. The Punisher is really only one thing, and there is little debate about that.

The difference between these two characters is purely in execution. Quite literally. They both make the reader ask questions of the concept of heroes and villains. What really is a hero? Is he someone who fights evil without succumbing to it? Or is he someone who destroys evil without destroying himself? Is he an upholder of Politically Correct values, or does he fight for something more noble, and far older than himself? This is the question the reader must ask himself.

The only conclusion I can come to it that evil exists, and it must be fought. How we fight it can always be argued, but it should never be argued that it exists. Should we fail to recognize it, we will lose ourselves to it. It will never truly disappear as long as existence stumbles onward, so we must remember to be vigilant. There is a line, and no mater how blurred we might try to make it, it is always there, and waiting for us to cross it.

Live in the hope that one day the weed of crime will finally be uprooted. Until then, keep digging.

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