Villains vs. Anti-heroes

I recently read this editorial on Polygon talking about why every hero seems like a villain these days. It specifically points out Homelander in The Boys, Black Adam who was marketed as an anti-hero, and Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I think the problem is that people are mislabeling villains as anti-heroes. The line is blurry, but there is a line. And it’s very easy to cross.

An anti-hero does the wrong thing for the right reason. The Punisher dismantles the mafia and corrupt cops by brutally murdering them. Batman stops crime by inflicting fear and suffering instead of gathering evidence or kidnapping a criminal who fled to Hong Kong regardless of extradition treaties. They are killing the spiders instead of saving the butterflies.

A villain does the wrong thing for the wrong reason. There are obvious ones like criminals and corrupt officials who do heinous acts for greed, gluttony, lust, wrath, and other fun sins. They kill the butterflies. They gain pleasure or fulfill desires from the pain of others (usually good people).

Thanos is a villain, not an anti-hero. He’s a sympathetic villain, but still a villain. The thing he’s trying to do (kill half the population of the universe) is wrong. His reason (to remove consumers of finite resources) is also wrong. Though it seems noble to him, it involves no sacrifice on his part, just everybody else’s.

His motivation is that his planet died because it had too many people and not enough resources. But is our only source of information on this matter. I have a feeling there’s more to this story he’s not telling us. There are steps you take before committing widespread genocide–one-child policies, birth control, artifically grown resources like lab-grown meat or hydroponic vegetables, expansion into space. Some parts of the planet with high populations–China, India, America–are already experiencing resource fatigue and no one’s considering widespread genocide.

It’s already been proven that his plan won’t work. This is not a plot hole. His reasonings are the interpretation of a madman who does a good job of making it seem like it’s the only solution. (A “final” solution, if you will. Eh, Hitler?)

Homelander is not an anti-hero. He’s a villain. He’s never portrayed as doing good things. In this world, superheroes have been a blight on humanity. They’ve Disneyfied the world while covering up the horrible things that they do. They have no accountability because there’s no one who can hold them accountable. All the government can do is pretend to exert control using PR. That’s because their absolute power has corrupted. Also, Homelander is the one standing in the way of our protagonists — Hughie, Billy Butcher, Mother’s Milk, etc.

Billy is most definitely an anti-hero. His entire MO is stopping/killing Homelander and any other superheroes. His reasons are both personal and general. He uses any means necessary–kidnapping, cold-blooded murder, explosives in the butt, injecting himself with Compound-V so he can go toe-to-toe even though it shortens his life. His character is similar to The Punisher, except he’s only interested in killing superheroes.

Homelander kills and exerts his power because he can. In the first episode, he destroys a plane because it contains a whistle-blower for Compound V, killing dozens of innocent people. He dabbles with becoming a Nazi in season 2 (and never clearly renounces it). In the last scene in the last episode of this third season. Homelander introduces his son to the world. A disgruntled fan throws a can at the boy. Homelander eye-lasers the fan to death, in cold blood, in front of everyone.

At first, no one’s sure how to react now that the curtain’s been drawn. But then one person cheers. And following mob mentality/fear of being lasered themselves, they all cheer. To them, he’s the anti-hero. But to us, the people watching at home, he is the villain. He’s done the wrong thing (unmeditated murder) under the guise of “protecting his son”, when he’s wanted to indiscriminately kill everyone for a long time.

To a lot of people, Trump was an antihero. He swore he would drain the swamp, lock Hillary up, build a wall between us and Mexico, repeal national healthcare, and other empty promises. He promised to dismantle the system, but all he did was take advantage of the system. That’s his selling point. That’s why they love him. He gets away with shit. He tells the IRS to fuck off. He spends all his time on the golf course. He does no work. He sexually assaults women and has affairs. He gets away with it because he has cash and power. There’s a dark part of ourselves that wish we could have that much cash and power. His fans admire him because he has that cash and power. They would be just like him if they had that much money.

Superheroes get away with shit. We all wish we could get away with shit. Superheroes have massive cash and power. (Most of them. Some have both, like Batman. Some only have power, like Spider-Man. Some eschew cash because they have so much power, like Superman.) It’s how much accountability you hold onto yourself that determines whether you’re a hero, an anti-hero, or a villain. No wonder so many right-wing militants and white supremacists adopted The Punisher as a mascot/symbol. (See this 99% Invisible podcast for more information.) They want to get away with it.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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