In Deadpool, heroism gets a bad rap. “You’re my hero!” a teenage girl tells the loutish mercenary Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) in an early flashback, to which Wilson ripostes, “That I ain’t.” After undergoing a mutation that turns him into the costumed Deadpool, Wilson weighs the pros of being a superhero—getting your own movie, for one—against the big con: “They’re all lame-ass teacher’s pets.” Over a shot of Wilson spearing one of his enemies, his cheeky voice-over belabors the point: “I may be super, but I’m no hero.”

These repeated attempts to underscore the protagonist’s antiheroism are strategic. Just as antiheroic leading men became popular in cable TV dramas in the early aughts, comic book movies have also begun to skew their heroes darker and edgier, to similarly successful results. In contrast to Tim Burton’s cartoonish and phantasmagoric Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-’12) portrayed the Caped Crusader and his native Gotham City as realistic, gritty, and bleak. In 2008, Disney scored a megahit with Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, a conceited billionaire whose misanthropic wisecracks proved irresistible to moviegoers; his character became the catalyst for two sequels.

Despite this recent rash of unsavory characters helming blockbuster films, the antihero—i.e., a protagonist who lacks such conventional heroic qualities as integrity and compassion—has long been a popular figure in movies. Citizen Kane (1941) and various crime films from the 1930s through the ’50s featured antiheroic leads, though not until the end of Hollywood’s moralistic Production Code in the late 1960s did more brazen antiheroes emerge in such landmark films as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Dirty Harry (1971), and Taxi Driver (1976). Perhaps the best-known antihero of the New Hollywood era was Michael Corleone, who morphs from hero to antihero in The Godfather (1972) and from antihero to villain in The Godfather: Part II (1974).

This cultural shift in the 60s and 70s to a kind of antihero worship has trickled down to big-budget action films in more recent years, most notably with the dishonorable Captain Jack Sparrow steering Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and comic book movies—a fertile breeding ground for undesirables and degenerates—have naturally followed suit. What sets Deadpool apart from Pirates or Iron Man, however, is how aggressively it emphasizes the antihero archetype and how overtly it lays out and follows through on the three factors that define an antihero.

First, the antihero may lack conventional morality, but he must have some personal code of conduct, as loose or eccentric as his scruples may be. (The cult cable series Dexter centered on a serial killer who snuffed only fellow serial killers.) In The Godfather, Michael’s moral code—which he shares with his beloved father, Vito—is to protect his family at all costs. Michael abandons this code in The Godfather: Part II when he orders a hit on his brother Fredo, and becomes the villain of his own story. Michael swings back to antihero status in The Godfather: Part III by showing remorse for that act, but the Godfather movies prove there’s a line that even the dodgiest antihero can’t cross without becoming a full-fledged villain.

In Deadpool, the title character’s rage and subsequent violence are justified. He slaughters countless baddies, though mostly out of righteous vengeance against the Big Bad, Ajax (Ed Skrein), who fried Wilson’s flesh and then kidnapped his fiancee, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), just to rub it in. Wilson sticks to his moral code throughout: “I only give a guy a pavement facial if he deserves it.” At the end, when another mutant urges Deadpool to spare Ajax’s life and use his powers for good, Deadpool snaps: “If donning superhero tights means sparing psychopaths, then I don’t want to wear them.”

Second, the antihero must be vulnerable. Viewers are more attracted to characters that are dimensional and penetrable. The antihero seldom considers himself to be either the hero of his story or the villain, just a flawed individual with valid reasons for behaving the way he does. Moreover, the antihero needs to have some kind of soft spot—a girlfriend, a family member, or some other meaningfully connected person that makes him more relatable. In the Godfather movies, Michael is made vulnerable by several factors: fear for the life of his father and, later, the lives of his wife and children; hunger to prove that, as the youngest Corleone brother and a “nice college boy,” he too can command respect and inspire dread; and a sincere longing to fulfill Vito’s wish for him by one day making the “family business” legitimate. When those weak spots are pressed, Michael becomes emotional, which allows the audience to identify with his struggles and root for him to prevail.

Wilson, despite his mordant veneer, is a vulnerable character as well. He can be rude and even cruel, but also funny, especially when he gets knocked down a peg. He can be brutal and merciless toward his adversaries, but he also has a sweet and hilarious relationship with his best friend, Weasel (T.J. Miller), and a deep, weird love for Vanessa that is made even more appealing by their abundant sexual quirks. Wilson earns the audience’s sympathy when Ajax melts his face into a Freddy Krueger-like consistency and then sneers, “Guess you lost your shot at homecoming king.”

Finally, an antihero must be ambiguous. Heroes are white and villains are black, but an antihero, like the vast majority of the audience, lives in a gray area. In the case of Michael Corleone, his ambiguity is what makes him compelling. He is both a gangster and a philanthropist; a cold-blooded killer and a loving family man. He is generous to other characters, particularly those in his inner circle, like his sister, Connie, and adopted brother, Tom; but if he feels he’s been betrayed, as with Fredo or his wife, Kay, in Part II, he is pitiless.

Reynolds made his debut as Deadpool in the 2009 release X-Men Origins: Wolverine, though in that instance the character was appreciably more villainous, his mouth sewn shut and his demeanor consistently pissed. In Deadpool he’s a more ambiguous figure—a witty bundle of nuances and contradictions, spouting sardonic zingers and mile-a-minute pop-culture references. He also speaks the language of the Marvel fanboy and -girl, breaking the fourth wall to guide both diehards and newcomers through the Marvel Universe. As the latest in a long line of cinematic antiheroes, Deadpool toes the line of goodness more than the movie’s vulgar ads and red-band trailer might suggest. He may flirt with villainy, but he never fully embraces it. He’ll probably never be a hero in the traditional sense, but that doesn’t matter; his fans like him just the way he is.  v