The great filmmaker François Truffaut once said, “There is no such thing as an anti-war film,” arguing that any filmic portrayal of war would be too exciting to work as an effective condemnation. Many people have disagreed with this argument, with some, like Francis Ford Coppola, going so far as to argue the exact opposite, that the terror of war images makes any realistic war film carry an anti-war message. Still, it’s clear there is a risk of audiences mistaking a critical depiction of something as an endorsement, and it would seem any villain or anti-hero charismatic enough will have people viewing them as unambiguously good, regardless of how horrific their actions are.
Not all the characters on this list are purely bad. Some even have many positive qualities worth admiring, but also have too many fans who take away the wrong messages. Others couldn’t be written more evil or sociopathic if you tried, yet for whatever reason — usually sheer charisma or an appeal to real-world sociopaths — end up idolized as role models. This list will try to analyze why these 15 characters from comics, movies and TV are admired by so many fans, and also the reasons why those fans maybe should look for different role models.
Why fans admire him: Because he’s Batman! Fans aren’t necessarily wrong in a measured admiration of the Caped Crusader, because there is much about him to admire. He’s a man trying to make a difference amidst corrupt systems, an ordinary (albeit super-rich) human who can hold his own against alien gods through his brains and discipline. What could possibly be wrong with him?
Why they shouldn’t: It’s not so much that they shouldn’t admire Batman. It’s those who uncritically admire him that are, depending on the Batman story in question, either missing the point or absorbing toxic ones. Batman’s a disturbed and tragic figure, fighting a war on crime his presence only seems to escalate, and often implementing questionable methods. The best Batman stories look critically at his morally ambiguous dilemmas. The worst stories, and too many fans, simply celebrate Batman as a symbol of might-makes-right vigilantism.
14. RICK SANCHEZ
Why fans admire him: He’s a super-genius inventor who can go anywhere and do anything he pleases. If he accidentally screws up an entire universe, he can just pop over to the next one and live life like it was no big deal. He might seem morally wrong, but the universe has no morals, and he understands the universe so well he considers himself above such petty concerns as morality. And he knows how to get riggity-riggity-wrecked, son!
Why they shouldn’t: Rick’s “nothing matters, life’s a party” philosophy might be alluring, but his lifestyle proves itself unsatisfying. Rick’s neither happy nor healthy as a person. His relationship with his family, the only people he seems to care about, suffers because he’s such a jerk. Season 3 of Rick and Morty has had a particular focus on just how dysfunctional Rick is. He’s fun to watch, but not good to emulate.
Why fans admire him: He’s sincere in his beliefs and refuses to compromise. He believes there is right and wrong, and that he’s fighting on the side of right. His convictions lead him to challenge Ozymandias, whose questionable plan for “world peace” involves sacrificing millions of innocent lives. Oh, and his mask is cool, too.
Why they shouldn’t: Rorschach’s inability to see moral grey areas is a tragic flaw, and his attempts to navigate a morally grey world lead to him being a hypocrite. He’s an out-of-control vigilante who bites people’s ears off and slices men’s heads with meat cleavers. Alan Moore wrote him as a criticism of vigilante superheroes and Objectivist philosophy, but tons of people still embrace a character meant to be a bad example.
12. THE PUNISHER
Why fans admire him: Wouldn’t life be easier if you could just kill all the bad people? That’s the fantasy The Punisher appeals to. In a genre where most heroes try to live by some sort of strict moral code or another, and often refuse to kill even in situations where it seems like a lesser evil, Frank Castle’s criminal-killing sprees can look awesome in a twisted way.
Why they shouldn’t: The same things that make The Punisher appealing as a fantasy make him horrendous as a role model. Gerry Conway originally created him as a villain; subsequent writers have been split on whether to treat him as a good man going too far or a psychopath. Some gun enthusiasts have embraced him as a full-on hero, however, which feels uncomfortable to say the least.
11. TYLER DURDEN
Why fans admire him: He’s alluring and charismatic, played in Fight Club by Brad Pitt at peak handsomeness. He speaks out against the vapidity of corporate capitalist culture, and builds a community where men disaffected from society can vent their frustrations. He has a way with words that led him to be quoted in many a high school yearbook.
Why they shouldn’t: He’s literally an unhealthy delusion of a depressed man. His community is a violent cult, as repressive as the society he rails against, and turns into a terrorist cell. As if it wasn’t clear enough that he was a bad guy in the movie and novel, in the sequel comic he’s an attempted rapist AND the founder of ISIS! Somehow his obvious evil has escaped the comprehension of the most obnoxious “alpha male” types who see him as a hero.
10. HARLEY QUINN
Why fans admire her: She’s so awesome! She’s silly but also hawt! Yes, she’s a crazy criminal, but she’s not an irredeemable monster. She means well and is almost as often involved in heroic acts as villainous ones. And her true love romance with The Joker? #RelationshipGoals!
Why they shouldn’t: Ok, Harley is awesome and funny and attractive and a likable anti-hero (though her villainy is sometimes overlooked by fans). It’s the romance with The Joker that too many Harley Quinn fans, especially those introduced to her through the Suicide Squad movie, misunderstand. It is not romantic at all. It’s an abusive, gas-lighting relationship, one she tries to find escape from through her relationship with Poison Ivy. If you NEED to romanticize an insane superhero movie couple from a 2016 movie, Wade and Vanessa in Deadpool are right there not being abusive!
9. JUDGE DREDD
Why fans admire him: With his fellow Judges, he keeps order in Mega City One, a post-apocalyptic America. When democracy has fallen and crime is out of control, surely it can’t be a bad thing for the police to serve as judge, jury and executioner and use whatever means necessary to try to keep the peace, right?
Why they shouldn’t: The actual point of the original Judge Dredd comics was that the excess brutality of Mega City One’s Judge system IS a bad thing, and that society as a whole is seriously messed up. Judge Dredd fell victim to the “satire paradox,” wherein the targets of its cultural criticism either don’t get that the joke’s making fun of them or don’t care. It doesn’t help that the movies have minimized the comic’s satirical aspects.
Why fans admire him: Because tons of comic book geeks love gritty muscular ultra-violent anti-heroes, and they especially loved them in the ’90s. Lobo’s first appearance was actually in Omega Men #3 in 1983, but his own series arrived in 1990 just in time for the nerd world to fall in love with a foul-mouthed, motorcycle-riding alien bounty hunter who is totally intense and serious.
Why they shouldn’t: Co-creator Keith Giffen wrote Lobo not as just another serious anti-hero, but as a parody of characters like The Punisher and Wolverine, who more seriously embodied the trend. Lobo became extremely popular among fans of that archetype, many of whom fail to get that the whole point was to make fun of their beloved anti-heroes. The satire paradox strikes again.
7. SEVERUS SNAPE
Why fans admire him: In the end, he wasn’t a Death Eater! Actually, he was essential in defeating Voldemort! He really loved Harry’s mom! Harry himself called him one of the two bravest people he knew and named his own son after him! Also, Alan Rickman’s beautiful voice renders all arguments to the contrary difficult.
Why they shouldn’t: Snape is not a villain in the end, but this doesn’t make him a good person. Yes, he saved the life of his high school crush’s son. He was still a creep whose jealousy over said crush going out with another guy (however much of a jerk he was at the time) was motivation for him to join the Death Eaters. He was still a bully who treated said son like garbage. Weighing Snape’s sins and virtues is complicated, but he’s not a character to be romanticized.
Why fans admire him: Who the hell knows? While all the characters in Brian Azarello’s 100 Bullets are deeply flawed people, Lono, aka “The Dog,” is singularly horrible. He’s an unhinged sociopath who takes pleasure in torture and rape and will kill people at the drop of a hat. A sequel/spin-off series, Brother Lono, did attempt to explore whether or not he had the capacity for redemption.
Why they shouldn’t: Just from that character description, it should be obvious that Lono’s extreme popularity is a little odd. Azarello wasn’t necessarily surprised by his fanbase, but he was disturbed by it. When asked by Newsarama why Lono got so popular, he answered “I don’t know! That’s something, as a reader, you have [to] reconcile that within yourself, man. I have no idea.”
5. LIGHT YAGAMI
Why fans admire him: If Frank Castle is a jock’s “kill the bad guys” fantasy, Light Yagami is a nerd’s “kill the bad guys” fantasy. Want to enact your will as judge, jury and executioner over human morality without getting your hands messy? Writing your enemies’ names in a Death Note does the trick. People within the world of Death Note worship him as a god.
Why they shouldn’t: If he were a god, Light would make a pretty crappy one. No amount of pseudo-intellectual posturing can paint him as anything more than a megalomaniac, high on his own power and privilege. Many fans went through a “Light was right” phase. The smart ones graduate to realize L was the true hero. The less fortunate go on to make the live-action Death Note movie at Netflix.
Why fans admire him: Trolls and racists love him because he can get away with saying and doing everything they wish they could get away with doing while facing fewer consequences than they actually would in the real world. He says the most anti-Semitic comments imaginable and yet Kyle, who’s Jewish, somehow begrudgingly tolerates his presence. His funniness makes it possible to minimize just how terrible he actually is.
Why they shouldn’t: South Park has to deal with the satire paradox, which is extra difficult to navigate when your satire is less strictly focused and your modus operandi is to make fun of everything. The joke of Cartman is supposed to be that he’s the worst person imaginable (he killed a kids’ parents and served their remains as chili!), but the worst people imaginable in real life now see him as a role model.
3. DARTH VADER
Why fans admire him: It’s the costume and James Earl Jones’ voice, mostly. Everything about Vader’s look and sound screams awesome (well, except when he’s screaming “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” in Revenge of the Sith). His Stormtroopers also have cool outfits, which is why fans in the 501st Legion dress up in for charity. He also kills the Emperor in the end, so technically he’s the hero of Return of the Jedi.
Why they shouldn’t: Vader’s so cool that fans tend to forget he’s basically Space Hitler. The Stormtroopers literally get their name from the Nazi Party’s private army. One heroic sacrifice in the end won’t bring the people of Alderaan or those many Bothans back to life. When certain political commentators try to argue “the Empire was right” without any sense of irony, the celebration of Vader feels a little out of hand.
2. HYDRA CAP
Why fans admire him: He’s a version of a superhero originally introduced fighting Nazis, who become a world-recognized symbol of American values and perhaps the greatest icon of morality for those growing up with the MCU, perverted into a Nazi-adjacent fascist supervillain. Actual Nazis and fascists found this symbolism irresistible and started wearing his iconography at their rallies.
Why they shouldn’t: The reasons his admiring “fans” like him are the exact same reasons why it’s utterly messed up. Anyone who isn’t a Nazi or fascist should be horrified that there are people admiring him. People can debate the quality of the Hydra Cap/Secret Empire storyline, but however they feel about the story itself, in this political climate, it had the scary side-effect of real world bad guys claiming (a version of) Captain America as one of their own.
1. THE JOKER
Why fans admire him: Most incarnations of The Joker have a charismatic mystique to them. Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum portrayal, proposing he has “super-sanity,” carries a similar appeal to wannabe-geniuses as Rick Sanchez does. It’s Heath Ledger’s interpretation in The Dark Knight, however, that has attracted the most admiring fans, articulating the temptations of nihilism and violent anarchy against a skewed system.
Why they shouldn’t: Maybe Ledger’s Joker makes TOO convincing a case for his philosophy. Even though he’s clearly evil and in the boat scene he’s proven wrong in his misanthropy, way too many people came away from the movie with the takeaway that “The Joker was right.” In the past decade, multiple real world killers have cited The Joker as inspiration for their crimes. Combine this with the troubling romanticization of the Joker/Harley Quinn relationship and he’s the number one character people should REALLY stop using as a role model.
Can you think of any other pop culture characters who get respect, but totally shouldn’t? Let us know in the comments!
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