“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane, quite insane, with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have left at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.” So speaks Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Doing what’s right is not a matter of waiting until the moral question is severe. Morality comes from resolving beforehand to do what is right. Without discipline, right action is not forthcoming. Doing what’s right takes practice.
Tony Stark seems to live in defiance of this reality. Marvel’s armored hero is licentious, a drunkard, disrespectful to all around him, and seems only to be outraged when people tell him to temper his tongue. Despite his complete lack of moral practice, he still manages to sacrifice himself time after time for the world. It seems that for Tony Stark, when it comes to small problems in life, morality can be disregarded, but when large problems (like alien invasion) present themselves he will be able to pick up his morality where he left it, saving the world with selfless honor. The same goes for Peter Quill of Guardians of the Galaxy. Undisciplined, unprincipled, and promiscuous, he runs around the galaxy committing small crimes until a real threat surfaces. When Ronan the Accuser rears his wicked head, Quill suddenly doffs his morally dubious coat and acts with enormous courage and self-discipline. This act continues until he selflessly sacrifices himself for the lives of others. After this he reassumes his criminal self and flies around the galaxy having learned something about friendship but little else. While both of their actions end up commendable, I cannot help but scratch my head at how they got there. After displaying a rampant lack of discipline in life I would expect and reality would demand that Stark or Quill would be nowhere near capable of the discipline required to put their own necks on the chopping block. Stalwart and righteous people have faced great difficulty conquering themselves enough to make the sacrifice that these protagonists somehow stumble into. Stark and Quill’s sacrifices are the most unbelievable parts of the Marvel universe, a universe sporting a talking raccoon.
The anti-hero has been a part of literature for a long time. Characters displaying characteristics not heroic or admirable can create good stories, but these stories will fail to portray truth if vices do not act as vices. In what seems to be an attempt to make characters seem more “real,” writers have created strange combinations of cowardice and heroism, lust and honor, discipline and addiction. They have created righteous heroes without the moral strength of a righteous hero. Marvel doesn’t have a monopoly on these inconsistent anti-heroes. Films, particularly ones sporting strong male leads, tell the stories of protagonists living lives of immorality and vice in all matters except for matters of great sacrifice.
The unrepentant anti-hero is often billed as “real”; a hero with vices and virtues like a normal human. But when these vices in no way affect the character, (Peter Quill’s womanizing is shockingly irrelevant to the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy) they become an embarrassing example of wish fulfillment played out in a massively budgeted way. James Bond is cynical, disrespectful, has all of the sex he desires, and butchers the people he comes in contact with all while being heroic, brave, and disciplined. He isn’t a character; he is the daydream of an adolescent boy longing for sex, power, and heroism while maintaining his reputation. We need to ask more of our characters. Wicked actions have wicked results. While crude quips and anti-social behavior can be pleasurable momentarily, they will have consequences on how you act and are treated. Righteousness takes work. Characters who instantly become righteous after a life of iniquity are portraying a faulty understanding of morality.
The unrepentant anti-hero has clear exceptions in film. One contemporary example is Interstellar’s Cooper. This character demonstrates a consistent and hard-won care for humanity, particularly his daughter. His care is a firm theme in the film and figures significantly in the development and exposition of Cooper’s character. His righteousness is upheld as hard-won and proven. It is this very love that ends up saving humanity. I do not want to see virtue that comes from the general innate goodness of undisciplined humanity. Show me virtue weathered from experience, rising out of countless trials and hardships.
Heroes like Cooper do not sport the flaws of the anti-hero, but there are well developed and created heroes who exhibit deep flaws. What separates these characters from the unrepentant anti-hero is that the flaws act as flaws. They either deeply harm and torture the hero or give the hero an internal villain. Overcoming flaws requires the flaws to be recognized as vices. In perhaps one of the greatest films ever made, Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence relentlessly battles his sadism, a difficult prospect when in the middle of a warzone. His internal struggle creates conflict that is impactful and meaningful. His sadism is by no means brushed aside or regarded simply as a part of his character, but is a demon he must fight. Dorian Gray’s carnal lusts lead him to horrid ends in The Picture of Dorian Gray, presenting a real and raw picture of the danger of uncontrolled vice. Han Solo must learn to overcome his desire for money and freedom in order to properly protect and support his friends. There are many heroes who overcome or are overcome by vices in good literature, but in these examples vices are realistically portrayed as inhibiting, tempting, and painful.
People overcome by their carnal lusts, the fleshly Quills, Bonds, and Starks of the world, do not rise up and sacrifice themselves for humanity. Untested morality, corroded by vice and lack of discipline, creates not a stalwart hero but a flaky wretch. The true anti-hero is vividly seen in Tuco (or, “the Ugly”) from The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Tuco holds the same licentious, drunkardly, cowardly traits that plague our contemporary macho-men, but these vices manifest themselves more realistically. When the time comes to act honorably, the unweathered morality of Tuco gives way to his looming desire to satisfy his own appetites. Tuco is a mess. Tuco is what every unrepentant anti-hero is.
But why do we suffer this kind of character? Where does our unrepentant anti-hero spring from? Perhaps we create this hero because we have recognized our own vice and lack of discipline, and want to reassure ourselves that when push comes to shove, we will be good. Maybe we have looked down into our soul and been terrified by the prospect that the coward we see peering back at us will assume control when great things are on the line. Perhaps we do not make these characters because we find them attractive, but because we are afraid. But these characters will not change the reality that vice begets vice. Our addictions and lack of discipline will torment and tear at our moral fabric. Art is formative, and art that caters to moral cowardice allows us to rationalize our flaws as we sink away from the righteous and into the animal. When the hour of decision comes and we are faced with a great sacrifice, will we be able to look at our art and see moral strength or weakness? Will our heroes stand with us in moral discipline and courage? Or will they run away, dragging us after the carnal?