The best stories are usually about the flaws of the characters, which may be why we have always been fascinated by the anti-hero. In fact, it’s this particular fascination that has led to the ascension of Deadpool as the voice for so many fans from all sorts of demographics, a popularity culminating in the release of his first live-action, big screen debut this Valentine’s Day weekend.
Anti-heroes are not your traditional heroic archetypes. Rather, they are people who lack certain heroic qualities yet are still liked and even favored by the audience. Sometimes this is because they manage to do the right thing regardless of being driven by greed or selfishness like Han Solo, Indiana Jones, or Catwoman, whose escapades we can thankfully still catch on local channels and streaming online. Sometimes their personalities are so compelling it doesn’t matter that they are terrible people like Don Draper, Frank Underwood, or Walter White. And there are even times when the anti-hero is struggling with situations outside of their control like Batman or Michael Corleone. Deadpool is a little bit of all three of these things.
While there are certainly a number of modern examples, the trend of raising up the anti-hero is ancient. From Odysseus that could have avoided 10 years of sailing had he not been so arrogant as to announce that he blinded the cyclops, to Oedipus who refused to see his own flaws until it was too late, Greek myth is littered with imperfect heroes.
Another time period that was rife with anti-heroes was the 1930s and 40s when film noir presented violent, drunk detectives with more than a little misanthropy. These men in most cases had grown weary of the facades we put up in order to interact in society, having spent so much time seeing through the faces we show the world to the seedy underbelly of human nature. We respect their honesty even as we loathe their cynicism.
Similar types of heroes can be found throughout genre work from zombie films to Westerns. They became incredibly popular again in the mid-1980s due to the influence of the big budget action film in movies and the release of both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in comic books. It’s the intersection of these two media that brought us Deadpool.
What works about Deadpool is that he is not only violent, but so over-the-top violent that – combined with his wisecracks and fourth-wall-breaking humor – we can’t help but laugh. His backstory is tragic, but he uses humor to hide his pain in the same way that many in the audience joke about the things that hurt them most. Moreover, his stories are personal, not epics about battling manifestations of human folly that cast us as villains. Deadpool, for all the rapid healing, katana wielding, and high flying acrobatics, is easy to relate to.
Being able to relate to the character is part of what makes the anti-hero so appealing. We often don’t see ourselves as being capable of holding to the standards of traditional heroes, especially ones with rock solid principles that guide their actions. Those heroes are aspirational, but anti-heroes are more like us. They are often only good at one or two things, they don’t always have their emotions under control, they sometimes make mistakes, and often they just don’t care. We’re not always sure that we could arrest the crook instead of kill them, especially if they hurt somebody we care about, so it’s a nice to think that you can still be heroic even when you don’t live up to the standards of a Superman.
The marketing for Deadpool has been sure to highlight that this is not Captain America. He is rude, casually violent, irreverent, and covered in tumors. But despite all of that, we want him to succeed. The part of him that is us, with all of our flaws, is what we connect with and ties us to a long tradition of people who win even if they aren’t perfect or even very good.