Humanity has always relied on myths and fables in order to make sense of the surrounding world and, very often, to explain the unknowable. A red thread of these tales is the use of the figure of the hero. In fact, the characteristics of these personages, their attributes and ambitions, position them in a particular period and genre of literature and art. From epic heroes found in Greek mythology, such as Hercules or Achilles, to the more recent figure of the anti-hero that has quickly invaded cinema, television, and advertising, we are left wondering why we relate much more often to a misfit hero, who might not necessarily pursue any good. What is this fascination with the “bad guys” that leaves us applauding otherwise morally questionable actions?
Epic heroes have been a constant element in the tradition of ancient cultures. They often were masculine or gender neutral characters, who would bravely face dangerous adventures and adversities in search of a greater good. In modernity, superheroes have rapidly evolved to embody new notions of honour and bravery: from the flawless, perfectly sculpted bodies of Baywatch, fearless men and women ready to selflessly do good, to darker, nonconformist characters, with a twisted psyche and dangerous plans, as seen on television series like Mr Robot. How can we explain the joy people experience in anti-hero narratives, despite them bordering immorality?
For decades, scholars have tried to explain the joy we find in traditional hero narratives. The Affective Disposition Theory (ADT) is a good interpretation. This theory explains partly the path of moral judgement in a mediated world. In other words, it explains the fact that we enjoy or dislike certain media narratives, because we make moral judgements about what we see. However, this assumption appears limited when trying to understand the joy we find in anti-hero narratives.
In this line, entertainment theorists have attempted to overcome the limitations of ADT to explain why people empathize with anti-heroes. In their article Exploring How We Enjoy Antihero Narrative, Daniel M. Shafer and Arthur A. Raney have compiled a series of recent studies which demonstrate that people can develop an anti-hero story schema. This schema is based on moral disengagement, and leads to the enjoyment of anti-hero narratives. Therefore, Shafer and Raney’s work concludes that, morally speaking, we tend to judge anti-heroes less than we do classic heroes.
Cinema, television, and advertising seem to have realised that the audience can’t find anything “super” in superheroes anymore. It might be that modern disillusion, anxiety, anger, or disappointment lead audiences to seek these unscrupulous, yet paradoxically empowered outlets, as projections of a need for empowerment in their own lives. In the fast-innovative storytelling industries, we are left wondering what the stories of tomorrow will tell. Will classic heroes take over the screen again? Will we need them to? Or, rather, will the anti-heroes prevail, perhaps evolving into something else? As morally disengaged audiences, it’s worth considering what will we, in turn, evolve into.