The antihero who has influenced decades of science fiction
Byon August 1, 2014
Luke Skywalker may be the Rebel Alliance's shining light in Star Wars, but everyone knows it's Han Solo who saves George Lucas's original trilogy. Harrison Ford played Solo with such a mixture of foolhardy cockiness, unrepentant self-interest, and, most crucially still, a heart of gold lurking beneath it all that he not only remains the saga's greatest character not making weird breathing noises from underneath a black helmet, but an enduring icon of the science fiction genre. An anti-establishment ne'er-do-well who does it his way, pats himself on the back for doing so, and then eventually comes around to helping his friends out when the chips are down, Solo is the embodiment of modern cool.
Solo's legacy is long, from Big Trouble in Little China to Archer. And this weekend, he spawns yet another rogue in Guardians of the Galaxy, an intergalactic Marvel Comics saga in which a band of misfits is led by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a "ravenger" (apparently, that's what scavengers are called in the future) who fancies himself a "legendary outlaw" with the alias Star-Lord. Though director James Gunn's wacko contribution to the Marvel universe makes no direct reference to Star Wars, George Lucas's influence can be felt all over the film, and most directly in Quill, who, among other things, steals precious items and sells them behind his boss Yondu's (Michael Rooker) back for his own profit. He's a scoundrel, but a good-natured one, introduced to the audience dancing along to 1970s pop hits on a mixtape playing on his archaic Walkman. Like Solo, he is prone to fuming, rolling his eyes, and smirking in the face of danger.
Quinn is "a dick," as he calls himself. And as such he is made for our current age, an update of the Solo template. His sarcasm is even more pronounced, married to a self-deprecating streak, and he has a habit of routinely dropping pop-culture references (as does Archer). Pratt's leader is more cartoony than Solo, but he stands as the latest in one of genre cinema's favorite, oldest archetypes: the antihero, which has become a de facto necessity for any tales involving interstellar dogfights, high seas clashes, or supernatural adventures, as vital as swords, guns, and spaceships. Pratt follows in the footsteps of not only Ford but also Kurt Russell, Nathan Fillion in Serenity (and the TV series Firefly), Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element, Mel Gibson in Mad Max, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Vin Diesel in Riddick, Guy Pierce in Lockout, Matthew McConaughey in Rein of Fire, Joseph Gordon Levitt in Looper, and the title characters of Hellboy and Judge Dredd — to name only a few. (That's, of course, to say nothing of the rampant, more cold-blooded, and less lighthearted strain of antihero on TV shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, and Breaking Bad.)
The antihero's vitality is a byproduct of the last half-century in American history. From the Civil Rights movement to Vietnam to Watergate to Iran-Contra to Iraq, the national mood has been at least partially defined by an increasing disillusionment about the virtue of our leaders, the motivations of power structures, and the selflessness of our fellow man. That sort of skepticism begat the paranoid political thrillers (The Parallax View, Klute, All the President's Men) and sci-fi rebel fantasies (Star Wars, Logan's Run, Planet of the Apes) of the '70s, and today manifests itself in an endless parade of pop-culture sarcasm and irony, which comes off like a deliberate barrier against a world apt to disappoint.
No wonder, then, that those qualities have also become an enduring facet of science fiction, which wields futuristic and far-flung stories to reflect and comment on modern outlooks and circumstances. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Star-Lord reacts to every do-or-die situation with a quip and a wry, goofy smile. He laughs at peril because, like Solo before him, he understands that in a galaxy overrun by fanatical terrorists and duplicitous allies, the only thing he can trust — that he can truly believe in — is himself. That idea, of being the center of his own universe, gives Star-Lord an unflappable overconfidence that's endearing, even when (or should I say especially when) it's unwarranted. Like all great antiheroes, Pratt's Star-Lord is not only a smarty-pants with the best bon mots, but a dashing badass who's funny, and shrewd, for recognizing that the only way to confront such a cutthroat world is with a lack of faith and a healthy dose of me-first smugness.
But, of course, that's not all there is to Star-Lord, or Solo, or most of their brethren. Because as Guardians of the Galaxy also ably reconfirms, another crucial reason we love antiheroes so much is that, for all their jaded distrust, they're also, fundamentally, honorable at heart. As Star-Lord learns through the camaraderie he builds with his fellow Guardians Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), going it alone isn't nearly as rewarding, personally or professionally, as being a team player, and sacrificing his own safety for the greater good. That arc, from narcissist to noble altruist, is one tailor-made for the antihero, giving him — and us — a hint of redemption that only enhances the smirk.