Hugh Jackman and James Mangold’s Logan is about to make its debut in theaters, and with early reviews in, this sounds like the Wolverine stand-alone movie fans have been clamouring for. Wolverine is a beloved comic book character and has been taken to new heights with Jackman’s performances spanning multiple X-Men and stand-alone movies.
But he’s also an anti-hero, which makes his rise to fame that much more interesting. What is it about Wolverine, and anti-heroes in general, that make them so endearing? Investigating this question, there are specific qualities anti-heroes have that not only make them anti-heroes but also warms them up to the hearts of fans the world over.
Here’s a look at the anatomy of an anti-hero as found in comic books, movies and television shows.
Most anti-heroes begin their hero’s journey on the peripheries of society. Starting with Wolverine, he begins Bryan Singer’s X-Men movie making a living fighting inside a steel cage in a seedy Alberta bar. It’s only until he meets Rouge that he leaves that life as an outcast and moves toward a life a part of the collective, or in Logan’s case, as a card carrying member of the X-Men.
Keeping with films featuring Marvel Comics characters, virtually the entire main cast of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy are outcasts. Peter Quill, Starlord to his close friends, begins the film as a thief, stealing an ancient orb, one that lands a bounty on Quill’s head. Ensuing, Rocket Raccoon and Groot, two bounty hunters try capturing Quill, only to be thwarted by Gamora. The entire band of misfits are eventually arrested and sent to prison, where they run into their final member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Drax. All five members of the Guardians of the Galaxy are outsiders, all living above or beneath the law, and all eventually being put behind bars until they band together to break out.
Stepping away from comics, Mad Max in George Miller’s The Road Warrior begins the movie as a lonely drifter, completely cut off from society. His life consists of scavenging old vehicles for a few litres of gas, and eating dog food from rusty cans. The successive movies, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and the recent masterpiece Max Mad: Fury Road, find Max still roaming out in the wastelands, an outsider looking into a post-apocalyptic society.
Women are not immune to the outsider status either. In Netflix’s Jessica Jones, our favourite leather jacket wearing anti-hero works as a private investigator, working outside the law. Her fledgling P.I. company, questionable business practices and foul mouth keep her on the periphery of New York society, never fully able to be a part of what society would deem successful.
The reluctant nature of many anti-heroes is another common quality. In The Road Warrior, Max wants nothing to do with the resistance fighting against the goalie mask wearing Humungous. He only wants gasoline for his car, and the bare essentials of survival. As events unfold, Max is reluctantly pulled into the fray, but it’s not out of the kindness of his heart.
Everyone’s favourite space smuggler in a galaxy far, far away falls into this category as well. When we first meet Han Solo in A New Hope, he is hired by Obi-Wan Kenobi for passage to Alderaan. After coming out of light speed, there is no Alderaan and the Millennium Falcon is tractor-beamed into the Death Star. When Solo finds out Princess Leia is also aboard, he wants nothing to do with her rescue. It’s only through dollar signs that he decides to help. Nearing the film’s climax, Han leaves with his loot, not wanting anything to do with the Rebel’s attack on the Death Star. But fear not, reluctance only lasts so long with anti-heroes – Han plays a major last second hand in giving Luke enough space to destroy the Death Star.
For many anti-heroes, there is a side to him or her that no one wants to be on. That side is vengeance. In George Miller’s first introduction to Max in Mad Max, he wasn’t the drifter we know of him today. He is a loving family man. A police officer whose wife and child are run down by an Australian motorcycle gang. This pushes Max over the edge, and leads not only to Max turning to vengeance in that film, but in the film following. In The Road Warrior, Max’s dog is killed by Humongous’ gang – this loss of family is once again the thing that pushes Max to murder and mayhem.
Running with the dog theme, Keanu Reeves in John Wick, turns into a vengeful killer, one that would make Charles Bronson jealous. Wick’s car gets stolen and his dog is killed. The result is a vengeful body count done so well, a second instalment was made and is presently in theatres.
The Punisher’s entire existence is built on vengeance. First appearing in The Amazing Spiderman #129, the Punisher was a vigilante who readers fell head over heels for. Through the comic years, it was revealed that Frank Castle’s family were all murdered by the mob. As a result, this war veteran enacts his own brand brutal and systemic justice on New York’s worst.
In last year’s smash hit film Deadpool, Wade Wilson’s entire film existence is built upon vengeance when he is mutated and modified to have superhuman regenerative capabilities. Deadpool goes after the mastermind of his altered state and becomes one of the most beloved anti-heroes ever on screen through vulgarity, violence and of course, vengeance.
And we couldn’t have a vengeance category without writing about V from V for Vendetta. Much like Deadpool, V was created by a bad experiment gone horribly wrong. The Guy Fawkes mask wearing V makes it his life’s mission to avenge what happened to him and put the power back in the hands of the British people by eliminating evil doers in government.
This is where audiences get to fully enjoy the dark nature of the anti-hero. One of Han Solo’s most loveable qualities is his irritability. Whether it’s a way of masking sexual tension between himself and Princess Leia, or his general disdain for droids (one distinct golden rod comes to mind), Han is at his best with his sarcastic and irritable sensibility.
Guardians of the Galaxy member Rocket Raccoon is beloved for more than being a furry, talking animal. His prickly personality makes him that more loveable. He’s irritable and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s constantly at-wits-end with Groot, and takes great joy in the misfortune of others. There is something endearing about an irritable anti-hero.
Heart of Gold
For the anti-hero to be redeemable in an audience’s eyes, he or she must have something deeper – they must have a heart of gold. When the chips are down, they need to put others before their own selfish needs. A great example of this is Han Solo. Throughout the original Star Wars Trilogy, Han lets us into the size of his heart. He comes back to help Luke destroy the Death Star in Episode IV. He opens his heart up enough to fall for a certain princess. He sacrifices his own self-preservation by joining the Rebellion.
Throughout his time on screen, Wolverine has had perhaps the biggest heart of all. He’s been protective of Rogue, and eventually for all of Professor Xavier’s students. He fell for Jean. To save his mutant brethren, he went back in time to right wrongs in Days of Future Past. Logan protects his heart with his anger and resentment, but that just makes him that more irresistible.
Much of the anti-hero’s motivations are done out of love. Sure there is vengeance and anger, but the anti-hero also wants to right wrong – wrongs that have hurt his or her heart. Deadpool fights to save the woman he loves, V terrorizes the British government to show the people they don’t have to live in fear, and all the Guardians of the Galaxy decide to band together and do something good, keeping the orb away from Ronan and saving the people of Xandar.
In all, the anti-hero is a complex individual. And these complexities have allowed many of them to have a place in popular culture and in fans’ hearts the world over.