COLUMBUS, Ohio — In today’s day and age, when it comes to superhero lore, it certainly seems like it’s good to be bad at the box office. But, whatever happened to good, old fashioned truth and justice? Surprisingly, a new study conducted at Ohio State University finds that, while movies that center around anti-heroes and villains seem to thrive in Hollywood, at the end of the day, people still want their heroes to know right from wrong.
The Joker, Thanos, and Deadpool. Besides being homicidal maniacs, what do all three of these characters have in common? They’ve each produced hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office over the past two years. Joaquin Phoenix’s unsettling yet sympathetic portrayal of the classic Batman villain is already one of the most talked about films of the year, and despite the fact that Thanos killed literally billions of people in the mega-successful Avengers franchise, all it takes is a quick search of social media to see that he has just as many fans as any one of the iconic heroes he faces off against.
There is no denying that anti-heroes and morally ambiguous characters like Walter White from Breaking Bad, or Spider-Man’s frenemy Venom, are more popular now than ever. However, head researcher Matthew Grizzard says that morality and likability are still very closely connected. In other words, just because these characters are popular and get people talking, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are universally “liked.”
“In the 90s we started to see antiheroes get popular in our culture, in TV shows like The Sopranos and NYPD Blue, for example. Characters did bad things, but people still rooted for them,” Grizzard says in a release. “That got us thinking: Does character morality not matter anymore? Or does it matter and we’re just not seeing the whole picture?”
So, researchers gathered 262 college students and asked them to list a few characters they liked and a few characters they disliked. More specifically, each student was given three different character type descriptions: heroes, villains, and morally ambiguous characters. Then, they were asked to name a character from each of the three groups they “really liked” and then name another from each of the three groups that they “really disliked.”
As far as characters from all three groups that participants liked, Batman and Superman were popular heroic choices, Batman and Deadpool were well liked morally ambiguous characters, and Joker and Voldemort were listed as agreeable villains. Conversely, Batman and Superman were also listed as disliked heroes among other participants, while Dexter Morgan (from Dexter) and Spider-Man were listed as disliked morally ambiguous characters, and Joker and Voldemort were again popular choices but this time as disliked characters.
Each student rated how much they liked each character on a scale from one to seven, and also indicated how moral they believed the character to be on the same scale. This, according to researchers, put the participants in an awkward position; they were forced to name a villain they liked and also name a hero they disliked.
“If there is really no connection between morality and liking, we should clearly see it here. But that’s not what we found,” Grizzard comments.
Overall, disliked heroes were rated as less moral than liked heroes. Furthermore, liked villains were actually ranked as more moral than disliked villains. Ambiguous characters displayed the same results; liked antiheroes were rated as more moral than disliked antiheroes.
“The more moral a character is, the more I like them. The more I like a character, the more moral I perceive them to be. It is nearly impossible to separate these factors,” Grizzard explains.
The research team say it was most difficult for them to predict the relationship between morality and likability among morally ambiguous characters. With this in mind, they say a blanket statement that characters become more appealing the more moral they become may not be accurate.
“This middle ground where the characters are somewhat good and somewhat bad are harder to predict. But even then, there is still some relationship between morality and liking,” Grizzard elaborates, using Walter White from Breaking Bad as an example. While Walter is acting immorally throughout the series, his main motivation is to provide for his family. This, coupled with the fact that there are numerous characters in Breaking Bad much more immoral than Walt, provokes viewers to end up rooting for the chemistry teacher turned drug cook.
“It is a relative morality. Because all of the other characters are worse than he is, we have something to compare him to. We don’t exactly like him, but he is the best we can hope for in this show,” Grizard concludes.
The study is published in the Journal of Media Psychology.