Pop Culture by Daniel Blackaby June 7, 2021
A Christian Approach to Anti-Heroes
Anti-heroes are the new heroes.
When Disney remade its animated classics into live-action films, half its efforts focused on villains rather than princesses, including films like Maleficent (2014), Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019), and Cruella (2021).
Star Wars in the 70s and 80s unabashedly divided its characters between Light and Dark. Hyperspace travel to the 2000s, and grumpy Luke Skywalker is questioning the goodness of the Jedi order, and the darker underbelly of the Rebel Alliance is being explored.
Despite being the world’s most famous hero, even Superman is seemingly out of place in today’s culture. Recent attempts to return the idealistic hero to the big screen have failed. Superman Returns (2006) was a dud, and even sequel-obsessed Hollywood culture that has churned out nine Fast & Furious films has never followed up the latest Zach Snyder-directed Man of Steel (2013) with another installment. Instead, anti-hero Harley Quinn got a standalone film, a second Suicide Squad film is already on the way, and even the Joker got his own film (with a sequel in development).
In order for Superman to soar again, a makeover seems to be in order. Man of Steel hinted at this shift, with a “not your grandfather’s Superman” approach that included the controversial neck-snapping of General Zod, which many fans felt was an anger-driven act of violence inconsistent with his virtuous character.
Times are changing. The age of the idealistic hero is over; the anti-hero now reigns supreme.
Anti-Heroes and Absolute Morality
An anti-hero is born in one of two ways. In the first, idealistic heroes are pulled down from their pedestal and burdened with human weakness and flaws. The second type of anti-hero emerges when a villain is pulled up from the depths of pure evil and made into a more sympathetic character. Both types of anti-heroes deconstruct the extremes (on both sides) and reside in the more relatable middle ground.
Some Christians see the rise of anti-heroes as an attack on traditional conceptions of absolute morality. To focus on the morally gray is to challenge the Bible’s ethical standard. This concern is valid. The rise of the anti-hero is at least partially reflective of a culture that has increasingly embraced moral relativism.
At the same time, many anti-heroes embody not a rejection of good versus evil but simply a more nuanced application of it. George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is typically held up as the classic example of the more modern approach to morality. In his books, the struggle is not primarily between supernatural powers of absolute good and evil but merely between different families in a violent struggle for power. When asked about this approach, Martin provided an enlightening quote:
“The battle between good and evil is a legitimate theme for a Fantasy (or for any work of. fiction, for that matter), but in real life that battle is fought chiefly in the individual human heart. Too many contemporary Fantasies take the easy way out by externalizing the struggle, so the heroic protagonists need only smite the evil minions of the dark power to win the day. And you can tell the evil minions, because they’re inevitably ugly and they all wear black. I wanted to stand much of that on its head. In real life, the hardest aspect of the battle between good and evil is determining which is which.”
In other words, the appeal of the “anti-hero” is less about deconstructing the traditional framework of morality than about highlighting the individual implications of that larger struggle.
There is room in a Christian worldview for both of these approaches. On a large scale, there is the cosmic battle—God against Satan, angels against demons. While the outcome of this battle has already been decided, the spiritual warfare continues to play out all around us. There are no “gray” areas here.
Yet, the battleground for that cosmic conflict is not merely in the skies. As George Martin rightly suggests, it also plays out within people’s hearts. The greatest saints are sinners in desperate need of God’s mercy, and the greatest sinners are not too far gone from God’s redeeming grace. As Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).
A Christian Perspective
Is the shift from noble, idealistic heroes to flawed anti-heroes something Christians should affirm or reject? I’m not sure this question has a simplistic answer.
There is immense value in ideals. Good characters acting virtuously and heroically inspire us to live likewise. C. S. Lewis wrote, “Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” Thus, we lose something important when anti-heroes replace rather than complement these noble ideals. Christians should reject anti-heroes who represent a through line of nihilism and moral relativism, reflecting a worldview in which absolute good or evil does not exist, only power and struggle. “Nobody is perfect, so just try to be a good person.”
On the other hand, anti-heroes do not necessarily negate the existence of absolute standards of good and evil; they merely suggest that no person is wholly defined by either extreme. These characters demonstrate that human beings are fallen creatures and not even the greatest heroes among us are sinless. A guy named Paul once wrote something similar to a church in Rome. Shifting the focus of the conversation of good versus evil from an external reality to an internal and personal one may not be such a bad development after all.
If fantastical stories about the cosmic battle between the powers of good and evil remind us of the spiritual reality and warfare around us, then perhaps stories of flawed anti-heroes will show us that our hearts and souls are the battleground for that epic war, and that we must ultimately choose a side.