Sunday, April 19, 2015

Antiheroes in the MCU

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When it comes to heroes and villains, they can come in many different varieties.  Some heroes, like Captain America, are pillars of virtue who would never do something morally questionable, even if it is for the right reasons.  These are not blind followers, but they have a respect for authority.  Others, like Hawkeye and Black Widow, are doing the right thing now in an effort to atone for the sins of the past.  These characters are a little more willing to do things that are morally questionable, because they’ve done so in the past.  Looking at villains, some are like Red Skull or Ronan:  Willing to do anything—including genocide—to achieve power.  Others are more like Ivan Vanko:  They are villains because circumstances pushed them in that direction.

Heroes and villains come in a variety of forms.  However, there is one indisputable fact about true heroes and true villains:  you can tell which category they are in.  You take one look at Red Skull and you know that he’s a villain; you take one look at Captain America and you know that he’s a hero.  However, there is a third category of characters:  the antihero.  Though the MCU has explored heroes and villains at length, it has not done so to the same extent with antiheroes.

Wikipedia defines the “antihero” this way:  An antihero or antiheroine is a main character in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, and morality.”  In the world of comic books and superheroes, this definition is generally expanded to include a certain amount of “doing the right thing.”  An antihero will generally do the right thing, but not all the time, and not for the “right reasons.”  An antihero might be more interested in getting a payday than in helping people—he still helps them, but only when there’s money involved.  An antihero might not look too different from the villains he is fighting.  In fact, he might even join the villains for a while—whether because they pay or because they give him an opportunity to carry out his ultimate plan or even just because it’s fun.  And it is these qualities that make him so interesting:  we expect heroes to conform to certain expectations, expectations which the antihero does not meet.

When I look through the MCU, I see very few examples of antiheroes, and most of the examples there are have not been explored in depth.  Here is my list of antiheroes in the MCU, going through the movies in the order of their release

Iron Man – Tony Stark isn’t an antihero.  He fits more into the category of a hero who is trying to atone for his past actions.

The Incredible Hulk – I might take some flak for this, but I don’t think the Hulk is actually an antihero in the MCU.  He is misunderstood and hunted down by the legitimate authorities, but that doesn’t necessarily make a character and antihero.  The Hulk has qualities like morality and courage, even though they are less visible in him than in someone like Captain America.  It takes a great deal of courage to jump in front of an attack helicopter to save someone!  Ultimately, I would put the Hulk into the category of a misunderstood hero, not an antihero.  If anyone in this movie is an antihero, it is General Ross, but they don’t really build him up as an antihero.

Iron Man 2 – Tony Stark is an ass, not an antihero.

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Thor – Thor is definitely not an antihero.  The closest thing to an antihero in Thor is Loki, who is lacking in many heroic qualities, but still trying to do the right thing.  Sort of.  However, in Thor he is not quite yet an antihero; that comes later in his story.

Captain America – No.  Just… no.  Moving on.

The Avengers – None of the characters in here are really antiheroes.

Iron Man 3 – Iron Man still isn’t an antihero.  Maybe when we get to Civil War he will be.

Thor: The Dark World – Thor is definitely not an antihero in this movie.  Loki is more of one:  he is willing to help Thor, despite Thor’s mistrust.  Ultimately, in the end Loki helps Thor, but at the same time he is helping himself.  That is closer to the definition of an antihero.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Captain America and Black Widow are not antiheroes.  However, depending on where the Winter Soldier’s character goes from here he could certainly become one.  He is clearly on a path to redemption, but the first step could be as a morally-ambiguous antihero lacking in courage and idealism.

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Guardians of the Galaxy – The Guardians are the closest thing to antiheroes in the MCU movies so far—but not all of them.  Peter Quill, aka Star Lord, is a clear antihero:  he doesn’t care too much about doing the right thing most of the time, but when push comes to shove and the universe is in danger, he is willing to fight against Ronan and his forces.  Rocket likewise has very little in the way of morals; he is interested primarily in money and in his own survival.  However, the other three Guardians fit into different archetypes.  Groot possesses all the qualities of a hero—particularly loyalty to his friends.  Drax possesses heroic attributes; he fights to avenge his family.  Gamora also possesses some heroic qualities, which led her to rebel against Thanos and Ronan and push the Guardians in the direction of doing the right thing.

Based on all of this, I think there are only two or three true antiheroes in the MCU movies:  Star Lord and Rocket Raccoon, as well as Loki.  Looking at the three TV series released thus far, there aren’t too many more antiheroes on them.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – There are a lot of different characters explored on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., at least a couple of which could fall into the category of an antihero.

  • Raina has been something of an antihero ever since she was introduced:  she is primarily looking out for herself, and doesn’t really care who she has to work with to get what she wants.  And yet, she’s not exactly a villain:  she’s not really interested in power or conquest for herself; she’s trying to find out who she is in the world.
  • Mike Peterson, aka Deathlok, can also fall into the category of antihero at different times.  When he was first introduced, he was a confused man given super strength.  His attempts to do the right thing in the AoS pilot fall more in line with the actions of an antihero than a traditional villain.  His actions as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent are those of a traditional hero.  As an eye-controlled minion of Garrett, Deathlok is more of a villain, though his personal struggle makes him a sympathetic villain.  Once he breaks free of Garrett’s control, Deathlok becomes more of a hero along the lines of Black Widow—everything he’s doing now is his attempt to atone for his past actions.  At this point, Deathlok is not a true antihero; he’s closer to being a hero.

Agent Carter – None of the characters on Agent Carter really fit the definition of antiheroes.  In the future Dottie’s proto-Black Widow could become an antihero, but in season 1 she was simply a villain.

Daredevil – Matt Murdock is not an antihero, he’s just a hero.  In fact, of all the characters, the only one who could be considered an antihero is Wilson Fisk:  Fisk is trying to do the right thing for the city, but he does it without any thought for how his actions affect other people.  However, in the story he is far more of a traditional villain than strictly an antihero.

So through all of the MCU media so far, there are really only three antiheroes:  Star Lord, Rocket Raccoon, and Raina (and perhaps Loki).  There are some other characters who could become antiheroes in the future, but at this point there are either traditional heroes or villains.

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The one character I have not talked about yet is the subject of this week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode, “The Frenemy of My Enemy” (2x18):  Grant Ward.  Ward started out as a hero and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent—or so we were led to believe.  In reality he was working for Agent Garrett the whole time as a Hydra mole on Coulson’s team.  After the Hydra uprising in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ward came out of the closet and revealed himself to be working for Hydra.  After coming out as Hydra, Ward starts to fall into the role of antihero:  He is lacking in morals, betrays those closest to him, and kills without showing any remorse.  In “Beginning of the End” (1x22), Garrett was defeated and Ward was captured.  Ward started Season 2 in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, offering information to Coulson and Skye on Hydra in a bid to gain their trust.  After his escape he returned to Hydra, but only to use Whitehall to get close to Cal (Skye’s father) and fulfill his promise to bring Skye to him.  Since then, he’s turned on Hydra, been shot by Skye, and teamed up with Agent 33.

At this point we don’t know what Ward is up to, only that he is not working for either side.  This makes him very dangerous to either side, but also a possible ally to both sides.  This is something we haven’t seen yet in the MCU:  a character who is unaligned with both sides and can viably join the fight on either side.  Loki in Thor: The Dark World acts similarly, but is ultimately fighting on the side of evil by the end.  This makes Ward—and “The Frenemy of My Enemy”—pretty unique in the MCU.  I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how Ward develops in this episode and then moving forward.  At this point, Ward is the best example of a traditional antihero in the MCU.

Are you looking forward to this coming episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?  What do you think Ward and Agent 33 are up to?  Who is your favorite Marvel Comics antihero?  Different question:  What antihero available to Marvel Studios would you like to see get his/her own movie in the MCU?  Sorry, that doesn’t include Deadpool.

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