These days, it’s not enough for the hero to ride off into the sunset. If the number of recent “grimdark” movies and television shows is any indication, audiences have a particular craving for complex, flawed protagonists who live in the moral gray and, for better or for worse, seem to remind us of ourselves.
“Contemporary pop culture, going back into the past decade, is willing to explore so much more than it used to,” says Richard Greene, a professor of political science and philosophy at Weber State University, as well as an editor and contributor to a series of books examining the intersection of philosophy and pop culture.
For a prime example of this, you need not look any farther than Batman, a character who found recent box office success in The Dark Knight Trilogy. Far from the “wham-bang-pow-ness” of the Adam West era, there are many instances in the Batman universe that more deeply explore the themes of vigilante justice, sacrifice, and personal moral codes.
Consider Batman: The Killing Joke, the 1988 Alan Moore graphic novel that is often considered one of the best installations in the Batman mythos. It’s an intense exploration of the relationship between Batman and the Joker, particularly the uncomfortable similarities between their origin stories.
The Joker says to Batman, “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.” The intriguing part about this observation is that it’s true, even though one man is a psychotic mass murderer and another presumably stands for justice.
It also brings us one step closer to the possibility of understanding the Joker, one of the most disturbing characters in the Batman rogues gallery. It’s clearly heinous when he attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane by maiming his daughter, yet it’s also a tragic, twisted plea for understanding for a man who’s completely lost it. “When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot!” says the Joker. “I admit it! Why can't you?”
These villains and antiheroes, though they’re recently receiving a lot of airtime in theaters, have always captured people’s imaginations.
“Rogue-ish characters have always been popular, I think,” says Zack Handlen, a writer for the A.V. Club. He adds, “I've never read Paradise Lost, but the standard joke has always been that Lucifer is the most interesting character in the poem; Shakespeare's plays have plenty of questionable ‘hero’ types.”
Maybe the very crux of the matter is just that: They’re more interesting. They aren’t held by the usual limitations, free to flout moral conventions as they see fit, which lends a certain amount of vicariousness we delight in.
For instance, Bernie, the 2011 Richard Linklater film starring Jack Black, is a black comedy that is eponymously named for its protagonist, an affable Southern gentleman who takes advantage of, and eventually murders, a rich old widow, Marjorie Nugent.
Even though he’s a murderer, Bernie is a sympathetic character: He’s portrayed as kind, generous, and popular, while his victim, Marjorie, is mean-spirited and spiteful. When he murders her, it’s in a scene where she practically nags Bernie to death—or more accurately, she nags herself to death. It summons up a million instances of annoying neighbors or insufferable coworkers in the mind of the viewer.
“Even in the most despicable character, people see a little bit of themselves,” Greene says. “And if they don’t exactly see themselves, they see similar moral situations.”
The stories of characters who can be both naughty and nice are compelling because they reflect the complexity of real people who are neither saint nor devil. They also make people wonder what they would do in those situations or how they would react.
The Boondock Saints, a 1999 cult classic by Troy Duffy, is another high-octane tale of vigilante justice. The movie literally ends with eyewitness-style interviews of people on the street, asking the question of whether or not vigilante heroes are even heroes at all. Some say yes, some say no.
The stories of these morally ambiguous and complex characters are re-imaginings of real-life situations in the extreme, offering enough distance so that we may consider it escapism, yet familiar enough that we can relate to it.
“Pop culture nicely exemplifies philosophical lessons,” Greene says. “They’re well-constructed thought experiments.”
When discussing the very subject of pop culture and philosophy with people, Greene adds that, “One thing I’ve noticed is a lot of people are surprised by how much they know about philosophy. They just don’t know the fancy cocktail party names.”
By presenting recognizable dilemmas in a fresh and interesting way, these stories consistently enable people to explore universal questions and abstract concepts such as justice, truth, and morality in ways that are more accessible.