The title of the present article, I suspect, might cause a lot of people to have reactions that may not be remotely measured in relation to what I am going to discuss subsequently. If you are such a person, I’d recommend reading the entire piece before you decide to get upset, and certainly before you decide to comment.
So, perhaps I should just get a few caveats and concerns out of the way before proceeding to my main argument. I am not by any means suggesting that Deadpool is a hero on the cultic level who is equivalent to Achilleus, Herakles, or any of the ancient recipients of hero cultus. I am also not suggesting—as others have in the past (erroneously and under poorly-understood premises)—that comic book superheroes are at all functionally equivalent for modern people to hero cultus, either in localized fashion or as reflected in the larger literary and poetic epics of the ancient world. Whether or not modern comic book superheroes exist as egregores, pop cultural entities, or other such beings, and whether such beings are deserving of honor, worship, reverence, or cultus under a devotional pretense are also not the focus of the present piece, though these may be worthy questions for consideration for those who are interested in such topics.
(Editors note: By way of final disclaimer before proceeding onward into this subject, it is important to remind the readers that this article is a religious and classically focused assessment, albeit of contemporary literary subject matter. In other words, this is not a discussion of comic books or of comics-inspired cinema, but rather of classical heroes as informed by the traditional modes and methods of engaging hero cultus. This is not therefore a discussion of the genre of literary characters called popularly today by the name “superheroes”, but instead an exploration of traditional definitions of heroes, which are often not at all what the common and colloquial usage of the term today would imply. This is important to clarify before proceeding on, because the article utilizes terms drawn from classical religion, rather than contemporary comic books or popular present-day usages, and though these words may be the same, it must be understood that they describe entirely different things. This is, after all, a religious website for religious discussions, rather than other contemporary concerns and interests, however wonderful those may be.)
Now that you know what this article isn’t, and what I won’t be suggesting, let us proceed on to the main discussion.
Of the various Marvel Universe films and other non-print media projects that have occurred recently, Deadpool is noteworthy for a number of reasons. It was one of the highest grossing films in the franchise, and had one of the largest openings of a film of its type in February. It was “proof of concept” that certain more “mature” themes could be treated in a comics-based film…or perhaps merely a sign that somewhat uncouth humor and more profanity is something that people would like to see in their comic book hero films. As someone who only had vague familiarity with the character, and never followed the comics related to him, I was pretty indifferent to matters of whether they were going to “get it right” or how closely they were basing the film on any iteration of the character’s exploits in the comics. I think this detachment and lack of expectations allowed me to enjoy the film on a level that many might not have been able to, and to be that much more surprised and enthralled and even charmed by the surprises that the film had in store. (Strangely enough, despite having rather extensive literary and bibliophilic tendencies, I also prefer to enjoy films as their own form of media rather than to constantly judge them based on their print precursors, and in many cases, Lord of the Rings included, I have not read the books or comics that precede the films. Deal with it, folks!)
As the credits and post-credits scenes were rolling on the film, though, as I watched it in the cinema with a few friends and we were discussing it amongst one another as the last few die-hards were leaving, I said to one of my friends “I think this is my new favorite comic book hero film!” A passer-by, in typical geek know-it-all fashion, came up without introducing himself, and said “Deadpool isn’t a hero, he’s an anti-hero.” The geek in question skittered off before I could respond properly to his…statement? Accusation? Assertion? Interjection? Polemic? Whatever it had been intended as, and no matter how much such a statement might reflect either geeky or conventional wisdom and a somewhat consensus view of the matter, the notion of “anti-hero” is one that needs further consideration in light of a number of things.
Firstly, an “anti-hero” only exists as a category in relation to something which is established as a standard positive valence—in this case, a “hero.” However, what is a “hero”? While the answers to this question will differ widely, one of the only characteristics that unites the heroes of ancient cultus with one another is not virtuous lives, divine parentage, exceptional deeds, or larger-than-life destinies, but in fact the reality of their unusual deaths. By this metric, any hero who isn’t dead isn’t a hero, and can’t be a hero, and thus could be considered an anti-hero. That means that all superheroes whose adventures we follow are, technically, anti-heroes. Does this make any sense as a concept to propagate? Probably not.
The second concern to consider when determining whether a character is a “hero” or an “anti-hero” is that of their tempus, locus, and causa scribendi, to use exegetical terminology. Historical context—the “when” and the “where” of these exegetical questions, as well as the “why” of a particular narrative media’s production is concerned—always shapes a piece of popular culture (or “high culture,” whatever the distinction between the two might be). The “heroes” of yesteryear may be long gone, and are very likely never to return, in their relevance or their appeal for modern and post-modern audiences (much less whatever comes after post-modern, which is probably upon us at present and simply doesn’t have a name yet). No one has to do mental gymnastics of any sort to understand why Deadpool acts as he does, what the basis for his character is, nor does anyone have to question why his behavior amuses and enthralls an audience. No matter how off-the-rails he goes in a given situation, people probably wish they could ignore all the rules that he does, and have that “bad boy” persona that doesn’t give two shits about anything—or, at least, it appears that way—and if a person essentially didn’t have to worry about death or any sort of permanent bodily injury following from their actions, it seems very likely that such an attitude would be not only logical but a preferred option for many people. If heroic fantasies are exercises in wish-fulfillment, then the way in which Deadpool functions in that wish-fulfilling role for modern audiences is a manifestation of what contemporary people are interested in and would prefer.
It may not seem as nice as the heroic ideals we give lip service to so often, but nonetheless, there we are.
However, the realities of behavior in Deadpool’s character and in those of other more well-known heroes from the ancient world are closer than one might think, and thus largely disqualify the “anti-hero” description as well. Herakles, though he was a variety of things and had many different exploits over his rather long (comparatively speaking) life and career, from Labors-completer to Argonaut, he was also not exactly what we would consider “virtuous” on some occasions, nor were some of his actions what we would consider to be worthy of the title “hero” or apt for the descriptors of “heroic.” He did kill one of his wives and children, after all, and no matter what the motivation and situation for this tragic occasion happened to be, it’s still not something that can be easily excused. Achilleus, likewise, is not a hero that one might want to have over for dinner for a variety of reasons. No matter how praiseworthy certain aspects of these figures happened to be, and no matter how memorable they became, it is important to realize—as much for heroes as for Deities—that their narrative actions are not necessarily meant to be models of exemplary behavior. Whether one likes it or not, mythic narratives about cultic heroes are not medieval morality plays nor Protestant ethical sermons and commentaries, nor are they simply metaphors of “the hero’s journey” that are meant to reflect one’s general experiences of life. (The nature and purpose of heroic myth is a question too large to examine in the present context, however!) This is reflected in the film of Deadpool itself, in terms of how Colossus, a “more traditional” superhero with the “Great Power = Great Responsibility” ethos and all of its baggage, both tends to act, to preach, and likewise to be less effective in both of these endeavors in relation to real situations on the ground. The “traditional” heroic ethos no longer seems to be useful when new realities are encountered, and thus those who subscribe to it are less fit to thrive in such situations. Golden-age structures have passed away, and to continue in such mindsets is to misread and misapprehend reality rather than to confront it directly.
In this sense, the “heroic ethos” reveals itself to be a simulacrum—by definition, a thing which only exists in imitated copies, when in fact there is no “original” to have imitated. The heroes of myth and ancient cultus like Herakles and Achilleus and all of the virtues and exemplary characteristics that they supposedly embodied don’t exist outside of the constructed and limited view of the past, heavily idealized and thus distorted, that has been shaped by Victorian bowdlerizations, academic justifications, and cowardice masquerading as piety.
Heroes like Herakles and Achilleus could just as easily be called “anti-heroes” as Deadpool is. These characters—whether from comics or from cultus—are “Great,” but they are not “good” in any moral sense a lot of the time (and remember where a phrase like that has been heard by most audiences: in Mr. Ollivander the magic wand-maker’s description of Voldemort in the first Harry Potter book and film!), nor do they need to be. Of course, we’d like to have figures to admire, look up to, and even imitate in the course of our lives. Politicians and moralists are always expecting any number of role models from religion, popular culture, sports, celebrities, and others to provide a “moral compass” via which others can be guided in their actions. Unless one has been dipped in the River Styx, has Zeus as a father, or had horrific torture performed on oneself such that one is now invulnerable to all physical damage and can re-grow limbs, it’s probably best not to look to Achilleus, Herakles, or Deadpool for a model for one’s actions. The uncommon nature of their own situations should be all the tip-off toward such conclusions which one should require.
Thus, the entire category of “anti-hero” is a dubious one, and really only makes sense if one has an idea of what is “heroic” that fits with a very narrow consensus moralist viewpoint that has more in common with a perfect Protestant boy scout image than with anything that has actually ever existed. As a dubious category, it should probably be dismantled, and whatever descriptive power such a category might have had in any previous periods, it has lost its valence entirely in the modern realities of the twenty-first century, and had no place in the realities of the ninth-century-BCE-through-fourth-century-CE periods, either.
As mentioned previously, the one uniting characteristic for heroes seems to be an unusual or spectacular death; there is no such thing as a “living hero” in the ancient world, as heroic status includes going beyond the mortal condition, still existing and being able to respond and act after death. (Remember, there are infant and child heroes in ancient Greece like Archemoros, Demophoön and Palaimon, amongst others, whose accomplishments in life cannot be said to be virtuous, nor really anything at all other than being a kid in the right place and time to get killed unusually!) In this sense, the living exploits of a given figure, no matter how morally ambiguous or questionable they might be, are not the actions of an “anti-hero,” but instead of an ante-hero: if one is still alive, one is not quite a hero yet, though one might end up being one at a later, post-death date.
Sorry, Deadpool: you may be hard to kill, but then that means you’ll be that much harder to make into a proper hero. But, keep trying, maybe you’ll get there!
There is one other characteristic of Deadpool that is very much like hero cultus in the ancient world, though (despite what I’ve just said about him not being a hero, while also not being an anti-hero, and doing a great deal to help dismantle that dubious distinction). Deadpool is one of the few characters who breaks the fourth wall and goes beyond the borders of the comic he is written in, as well as the film he inhabits. While there have been some interesting philosophical attempts to describe why Deadpool knows he’s a comic book character, there is a more fundamental impact of what this aspect of his character does for the reader. As Philostratus’ Heroikos demonstrates, the reality of devotion to a hero’s cult is that cultic heroes inserts themselves into the realities of their devotees, often in unexpected ways. No matter how much one might put such a hero up on a pedestal, the hero will constantly change positions, get up and down from that pedestal, and perhaps even pull a devotee up on it on occasion, if they don’t also beat them up or have sex with them (or who knows what else!) in the shadow of that pedestal as well. Deadpool’s self-consciousness and interaction with the audience means that there is no passive audience, and one’s gaze and even voyeurism are implicated in consuming that media. Heroes are nothing if not self-conscious—perhaps even to a hyper degree since a motivating aspect of “heroic virtue” is often the desire for eternal fame and glory—and as non-incarnate non-mortals, this aspect of them persists, which may be one reason why those who are hero cultists enjoy such casual and close relations with their ever-eager-for-fame heroes. Just as Deadpool cannot be contained by the panels and pages of his comic, or the frames of his film, so too do heroes—even if they are not on the level of Deities in power—always overflow the containers that human perceptions and religious edifices attempt to place them.