The very existence of comic books was founded on the notion of heroes and villains, but as anybody who's ever read a Marvel or DC comic will know, sometimes all that separates a hero from a villain is a snap judgment, a moment of madness, a desire for vengeance, or even a bit of good, old-fashioned brainwashing.
Often, straddling that fine line between hero and villain, the grey area between good and evil, you'll find an anti-hero. Although comic books are awash with anti-heroes, there are a select few whose flirtations with the devil and the angel inside have turned them into bonafide legends on the page and on screen — so let's take a look at 10 of Marvel's all-time greatest anti-heroes, because sometimes it's good to be bad.
There could hardly be a better place to begin a list of anti-heroes than with Frank Castle. The Punisher is possibly the quintessential Marvel anti-hero. In his pursuit of vengeance against the thugs who murdered his wife and children, Frank will stop at nothing, routinely taking out henchmen with a variety of military-grade firearms like a child armed with a sheet of bubblewrap and a very eager finger.
But he's not all bad. In fact, Castle is quite sympathetic — for somebody who leaves so much bloodshed in his wake, at least. Because the Punisher's actions are driven by heartache, comic book readers will forgive pretty much anything. On screen, in Season 2 of Netflix's Daredevil, the Punisher came dangerously close to being a straight-up hero on occasion, and he'll soon have his own series.
Who said it doesn't pay to kill?
Deadpool celebrates his 25th birthday this year, first having been created by Rob Liefeld back in '91 almost as a response to DC's Deathstroke, a guy with anti-heroic qualities of his own. Deadpool, though, is way more fun. It's impossible not to fall in love with a guy who idolises Spider-Man so much he actually has a pair of Spidey-print underpants.
Despite his love of a good, old-fashioned wisecrack, Wade Wilson is, nonetheless, a contract killer whose main motivation is his paycheck. The fact that he's gloriously un-PC and loves himself a few chimichangas doesn't negate his willingness to take a life. And yet, his arc in Fox's Deadpool movie did clearly position Wade as a guy with a very big heart. And the world, it's fair to say, hearts him.
Quite possibly one of the most famous and best-loved Marvel characters yet to appear or even get a mention in the MCU, Blade is not just a classic anti-hero but also something of a groundbreaker. Created in '73 by Marv Wolfman, it took a little while for the writer to get Blade's dialogue down, Wolfman initially feeling he was too much of a black cliché.
Fair to say he came into his own before long, frequently squaring off with the lab-created vampire Morbius, himself something of a villain-turned-hero. But Blade has an inherent cool that guarantees you're rooting for him no matter who he's up against, or how often he wields his double-edged sword. And damn, does he wield that thing like a boss.
Rumors abound that Blade is headed to join Luke Cage, Jessica Jones et al. on Netflix with his own series but, sadly for us, it probably won't be Wesley Snipes in that iconic leather overcoat this time around.
4. Emma Frost
You might call Emma Frost a wildcard inclusion, but to all intents and purposes the X-Men heroine started out as a villainess, businesswoman and drop-dead gorgeous White Queen of the Hellfire Club. Like Xavier, she is a telepath. Unlike Xavier, she looks splendid in a white corset, fur cape and thigh-high boots.
I suppose it's easy to switch sides when that's your chosen aesthetic. Emma's screen outings have been few and far between, the most notable being January Jones' killer portrayal of Frost as a sly femme fatale with a gift for persuasion in X-Men: First Class. In that continuity she died prior to Days of Future Past, but Emma is far too important to the X-Men for that to have been her last stand (so to speak).
5. Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier
With this one, the lines become a little blurry. Created for the first Captain America issue in 1941, it wasn't until 2005 that Bucky was revived and reimagined as the Winter Soldier, a Soviet super-soldier with a bionic arm and some pretty fearsome combat skills designed to kill the kinds of targets Captain usually works to protect.
Of course, being brainwashed by HYDRA (as is the case in the MCU's Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War) is a pretty damn solid excuse for behaving like a merciless kill machine, but the fact remains that the Winter Soldier is an all-out villain while Bucky Barnes is one of the good guys. That duality existing in the same body makes Cap's oldest friend an undeniable anti-hero.
Like Emma Frost, Elektra is a classic seductress who brings a touch of the femme fatale to Marvel Comics, an exotic, sai-wielding goddess whose personality seems to be steeped in sociopathy but who, paradoxically, does seem to have at least some sense of a moral compass — not that she always abides by it.
As with Frank Castle, Elektra's defining screen portrayal came earlier this year when she swung by Hell's Kitchen in Netflix's Daredevil season 2.
There may be an argument to be made that Elektra has too often been defined as Daredevil's love interest, but her own recent run of comics has done a lot to solidify the assassin as one of Marvel's most iconic anti-heroines.
In some ways Wolverine is comparable with the Winter Soldier, although of course the clawed mutant has been around much longer. I grappled with whether or not to include Logan in this list, but chose to for two reasons: firstly, he's one of the most brutal, straight-up animalistic killers in Marvel Comics history, and secondly, he's one of the most brutal, straight-up animalistic— well, you get the gist.
And yes, his brutality is a direct product of the Weapon X programme, but those claws have left a serious trail of blood in Logan's wake over the years. On the flipside, he's just as frequently the hero — in fact, in the all-time classic Old Man Logan arc from Mark Millar, he's basically the only hero left in a dismal future governed by the worst of the worst.
Considering that story is probably a large part of the reason Wolverine remains so beloved today, it seems like an appropriate way to bring Hugh Jackman's long reign in the X-Men movies to an end. Here's hoping they don't screw this one up.
Oh, Erik. You tried so very hard to be good, but sometimes when the shoes don't fit, you just gotta throw 'em out. To be fair to Charles Xavier's lifelong frenemy, Erik Lehnsherr had a pretty traumatic childhood; after seeing his family slaughtered at a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, Erik was transferred to Auschwitz, where his mutant gene began to manifest.
Still, basically everyone in the world of Marvel Comics has dealt with trauma, and not all of them became supervillains. Even Magneto's helmet with its sharp, swooping edges is the visual definition of evil. And yet, Erik is not evil at heart. In the X-Men movies, particularly the new trilogy, we see him grapple with the natural goodness inside of him and the cards life has dealt him. It's the paradox that keeps his friendship with Charles moving in circles.
Erik Lehnsherr will probably never be a proper hero — and that's just fine.