Why is every character suddenly an ‘antihero’ now?

Last October, a user in the subreddit for the Amazon show The Boys posted a picture of their daughter dressed up like Homelander, the show’s fascist Superman parody. “No, she has not watched the show,” the caption read.

The post was then shared on the subreddit r/OkBuddyFresca, a fast-growing subreddit for making fun of the wildly tone-deaf content regularly shared to The Boys subreddit. “Serious for a sec,” the user in r/OkBuddyFresca wrote. “This person is honestly an asshole.”

In space, no one can hear you scream — but that doesn’t stop an evil-doer from trying. This week, Polygon celebrates all forms of sci-fi villainy because someone has to (or else).

The original poster, who eventually took their posts and account down due to backlash, inadvertently kicked off yet another round of debate across multiple subreddits about the ethics of cosplaying as a character as despicable as Homelander, who is a violent racist sociopath and, ostensibly, the villain of the show.

And every time a debate like this happens, without fail, users push back against the idea that Homelander is a true villain, instead, countering that he’s an antihero. In fact, the word “antihero” is so often, and incorrectly, deployed by The Boys fans that it’s become a meme on r/OkBuddyFresca.

But it’s also indicative of a trend across all of fandom at the moment. Science fiction, fantasy, and genre entertainment of all kinds is suffering from serious antihero drift, a general flattening of heroes and villains into morally gray but also fairly interchangeable characters that don’t have clearly defined or consistent motivations. Not only do we have three movies exploring Darth Vader’s early years as a hero and his fall to the dark, we now have an Obi-Wan Kenobi show that documents his own middle years between movies spent as a gritty wanderer trying, and often failing, to do the right thing.

We, as audiences, are told that this makes these characters more dynamic. It’s a sort of postmodern reinterpretation of what a hero or a villain is, in an effort to create more complex stories. But what if we’re losing, in the process, coherent characters and storytelling with real stakes? If no one in your story plays by the rules, can you even claim to have any in the first place?

More troubling, seeing as how so many genre entertainment properties right now are owned by large monopolies and distributed via a never-ending string of in-universe spinoffs and sequels, at what point do we have to admit that perhaps there are more cynical financial reasons at play for never defining your characters? A traditional hero’s journey or your classic villain’s downfall requires some kind of ending to remain believable. But antiheroes, it seems, can stream forever.

Dwayne Johnson strides toward the camera in a form-fitting black suit with a glowing lightning bolt on the chest as the title character in Black Adam Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

According to Erik Voss, the host of the New Rockstars YouTube channel and someone who has as close as you can get to a god’s-eye view of all of fandom, you can see the market value of an antihero acutely with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Black Adam movie. Johnson has explicitly used the idea of an antihero in the marketing for the film.

“I think The Rock understands that him coming into Black Adam as the antihero — he’s really [tried to] put that entire title, and the whole DC Universe, on his shoulders,” Voss tells Polygon. “And I think he looked at this as well like, You know, if I’m an antihero, it gives me an option to come in as a hero and a villain — however the universe chooses to use me in the future and whoever they want to match up against or team up with.”

In other words, if you’re trying to secure a multi-picture deal to play one character within a sprawling comic book universe, you’re better off picking a character who, to borrow terms from Johnson’s previous life in pro wrestling, can be the face or the heel.

Voss calls this general phenomenon the “Loki effect,” after the character who has switched sides more often than maybe any other Marvel Cinematic Universe character at this point, most recently leading his own Disney Plus spinoff.

“My theory behind it, at least, is that it’s a product of studios wanting to build spinoffs and franchises and sequels off of every title,” Voss says. “Like every title is really a trailer for some future title. And they want the option and the opportunity to spin off a character into a sequel.”

Interestingly enough, Johnson’s turn as Black Adam was not successful enough to help him hold on to a place inside the always-changing maelstrom that is the DC Universe. As of November, filmmaker James Gunn is now co-lead of DC’s entire universe of movies, TV, and video games, and it seems like Johnson will not be returning any time soon to play Black Adam.

But as versatile as antiheroes are for studios to churn into endless content streams, they’ve proven somewhat confusing for fans, to put it nicely. Last summer, posts from The Boys’ subreddit went viral after users tried to argue that characters like the aforementioned Homelander and a Blue Lives Matter-supporting character named Blue Hawk weren’t actually villains. And, shortly afterward, the subreddit began arguing again about whether or not Stormfront, a character revealed to be a neo-Nazi and one literally named after the oldest neo-Nazi message board on the internet, was an “antihero” or not.

A screencap from The Boys of a close up on a TV showing an old black and white photo of a wedding couple with the chyron “Stormfront Nazi Pictures Leaked” Image: Prime Video

The Boys showrunner Eric Kripke told Rolling Stone at the time that, yes, Homelander is the villain and absolutely meant to be a Trump parallel, but the fans of the show, at least the ones who spend all day talking about it on Reddit, don’t seem to understand that. Seeing as how despicable the good guys are in the show, it seems it has attracted a fan base that either doesn’t care enough to think through the complex political satire of the show, or actively ignores it because it’s cool and edgy. Kripke declined an interview for this piece through a representative.

But we also might be feeling the effects of antihero overload more acutely right now because there’s an entire generation of fans coming of age at the moment who have never known a world without mainstream antihero leads like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Tony Stark, Deadpool, John Wick, Wolverine, Rick Sanchez, the Joker — the list goes on and on. And it’s absolutely not an accident that all of these characters tend to be both white and male, though even Taylor Swift has recently declared herself an “Anti-Hero.”

Ian Carlos Crawford, the host of the long-running podcast Slayerfest 98, which primarily focuses on Buffy the Vampire Slayer but has, more recently, expanded out to cover more fandom properties, tells Polygon that the antihero trope has been around for a long time, of course, but the drama it’s causing online definitely feels new.

Carlos says he’s had issues recently with fans of the Buffy character Spike. “Those fans will attack, attack, attack,” he says. “They are the most toxic fans in the fandom.”

He says he recently had a guest on his show who expressed discomfort with the character arc of Spike, who first appears in the show as a villain and attempts to sexually assault Buffy Summers. The character is eventually turned into a more complex antihero and has become a fan favorite over the decades. Those fans are extremely vocal to anyone who disagrees.

“They’re the worst people in all the Buffy groups. They attack everyone,” he says. “And these are mostly younger fans, and most of the accounts that are attacking or getting mad about that stuff are like, in their bio, it says they’re 20 or 21.”

Spike and Buffy looking backward in the season 6 episode “Once More, With Feeling” Image: 20th Century Fox Television

If you’re curious who the very first antihero character was, there’s not a super clear consensus. Some argue it’s Kaoru Genji, a character from an 11th-century Japanese story called The Tale of Genji. Others say it goes back further with the character of Thersites, who appears in multiple Greek epics from Homer. But broadly, an antihero is a protagonist that lacks the qualities of a typical hero — courage, moral fortitude, clear motivations. Captain America is a hero; Iron Man is an antihero.

In the age of corporate fandom entertainment and inescapable genre franchises, the antihero has grown from something that subverts tropes and expectations to something inseparable from these kinds of stories. Thanks to big team-up movies like The Avengers, we know that the heroes won’t get along at first. They’ll argue. Make some mistakes. And, ultimately, in the third act, where the CGI budget allows it, they’ll put aside their differences and rise to the occasion. Only for all that teambuilding to go out the window for the sequel so they can do it all over again. They can fight a “civil war,” but the “endgame” is clear.

And as these entertainment universes go on, the more characters get a chance at being redeemed or turn evil. Case in point: Even Thanos, the inevitable snapper of half the universe’s population, gets to be a good guy in an alternate reality episode from Disney Plus’ What If…?, and poor Wanda Maximoff started off as a villain, spent three movies becoming a hero, was unraveled in a spinoff TV show, and reemerged as the big bad in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Still, some see the current age of the antihero as a positive.

“If you’re trying to do something really interesting in an oversaturated space, one of the ways to do that is to kind of lean into this antihero effect that creates more conversation,” writes Julia Alexander, director of strategy for the audience-demand tracker group Parrot Analytics, over email. “Versus trying to do the black-and-white good person/bad person storyline, which is kind of almost overdone in the genre space.”

A good example would be House of the Dragon, HBO’s recent Game of Thrones prequel, that dominated streaming last fall and has been lauded for its complex and flawed cast of characters, none of whom could be called classically good or bad. Coming off the back of a mainline show that devolved into a battle between honorable Jon Snow and genocidal Daenerys Targaryen, House of the Dragon is a show where every character is Cersei Lannister. And it makes for undeniably good television.

“We saw this in the early-to-late 2010s, when all of a sudden every TV show was based on an antihero,” Alexander says. “You had Breaking Bad, you had Mad Men — starting with The Sopranos. And we’ve kind of moved away from that a little bit on the TV front. On the film side, what you’re getting, what you’re seeing happening is, a genre once considered juvenile is entering this moment of adulthood.”

But as cyclical as these trends seem to be, you do have to wonder exactly how much longer fandom entertainment can reliably bank on the antihero as its chosen protagonist. In fact, when Henry Cavill was asked about his now scrapped return to the character of Superman, he said that contrary to the grimdark Zack Snyder-architected Superman he played in Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and (two cuts of) Justice League, the next time around his Superman would be “enormously joyful.”

“I think what he’s saying is that he wants to be able to play a superhero that’s, at its core, a fundamentally human figure,” Alexander says. “And he has not been able to do that. That would be my bet on what he’s saying with that.”

Of course, we now know that movie won’t ever see the light of day, now that Gunn is in charge. That said, it seems telling that Gunn is now in charge. The filmmaker has had the chance to helm two superhero franchises so far, the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Suicide Squad. And, wouldn’t you know it, both feature morally gray antiheroes who bicker their way through their respective films only to come together just in time to take down the bad guy. Only so they can do it all over again next time.