Some characters in fiction always do the right thing. Superman has always been kind to children, respectful of the government and willing to work as a part of a team. Batman (who easily could be on this list, but that just seems obvious) is the one who’s reeling in a billion dollars at the box office, however. There’s a very good reason for this.
We root for out-and-out heroes. We want to believe that good will triumph over evil. But it gets pretty boring watching or reading the rote tale of virtuous heroes walking down the straight and narrow toward their victories. Ask any English or writing teacher what a story needs and they will tell you conflict. But conflict isn’t always good guy vs. bad guy. Especially not with an ensemble of characters on the side of the angels. We need the morally compromised, the loners, the trouble makers. Sometimes our heroes need to be jerks. These are the five biggest jerks in the sci-fi universe:
Jayne Cobb (‘Firefly’)
Malcolm Reynolds may have seemed rough around the edges and a bit mercenary, but no one was more vocally in favor of the easier and more lucrative path than the hulking Jayne. Appropriately played by a Baldwin, Jayne broke up the sweetness of Kaylee, the exotic empathy of Inara and the understated wisdom of the Shepherd, Book. Jayne’s selling out of River and Simon actually make us sympathize with the milquetoast Doctor.
Jayne is the gun-loving, macho comic relief of many episodes. However, perhaps more than any other character besides River Tam, Cobb really earns the love of fans. When we find out he’s sending money home to his mother or when we see him shed a tear, it’s a much bigger payoff because of the callous eye-roll-inducing exterior front that the big man puts up. For all the real bastard moments Jayne has in the series, we really want him on board the ‘Serenity.’
Guy Gardner (Justice League Intl, Green Lantern Corps)
The “New 52” Justice League is reuniting DC’s most heavy hitting iconic characters…and Cyborg, but in the late 1980’s, editor Andrew Helfer and multi-tasker Keith Giffen found most of the classic roster unavailable to them. On the first page of the first issue of 1987’s ‘Justice League’ we see a brooding Guy Gardner planning his speech on how he will lead the new team. Gardner wreaked havoc. He kept a micromanaging Batman good and angry, and the rest of the team regretting their decision to join up. He was utterly despicable and he was absolutely the reason the series worked so well.
With Gardner there to make us laugh and create conflict for a team of mostly B-List heroes, this would make the Justice League International one of the most fondly remembered eras from the world’s premier super hero team…and all without Superman. His finest moment? Getting knocked out by Batman. More than any hyper powered villains the League would face, Gardner was the man fans wanted to see go down in the worst way. Nowadays he’s hanging out with fellow Earth lantern, John Stewart, in ‘Green Lantern Corps’ but he’s been toned down quite a bit from the red headed stepchild that manhandled Martian Manhunter and terrorized Black Canary
Lately, the best there is at what he does has been rebuilding a school for mutants in upstate New York, but Logan hasn’t always been the mature headmaster type. Wolvie is at his best when he’s at odds with the boy scoutish Cyclops, whether that means hitting on Scott’s girlfriend or making an inappropriate gesture with his trademark claws (one claw in particular).
While many fans look back fondly on his mentorship of Kitty Pryde and Jubilee, his most recent father-daughter relationship has been with Armor. There is no better example of how Wolverine makes a team book work by being a jerk than Warren Ellis’ run on ‘Astonishing X-Men.’ His back and forth with the irreverant Armor and his unapologetic assertion that African leaders are “all the same” are what give Storm and Cyclops and Emma a chance to shine. In the “Xenogenesis” arc, Logan is back to his beer swilling, jerky best.
Spock (Star Trek)
How can an infinitely intelligent and logic worshipping man who encourages others to “live long and prosper” be a jerk? Easily. And to hilarious effect. The antagonism between the logical Spock and the emotional and idealistic “Bones” McCoy is the backbone of the original crew’s adventures. Spock is the smartest kid in the class, the friend who’s always right but annoyingly so.
‘Stark Trek IV: The Voyage Home’ may not be the most critically acclaimed of the franchise, but the film uses Spock wisely (perhaps because the man with the ears, Leonard Nimoy was directing). Recently resurrected, this incarnation of Spock insists on calling his old friend “Admiral” instead of the usual “Jim” and does a poor job of blending in with twentieth century San Franciscans. It is Spock’s unabashed honesty that leads to his best and jerkiest moments, such as when marine biologist Gillian Taylor asks if Kirk and Spock like Italian. The Vulcan does not and says as much, to the consternation of a Kirk trying to turn up the charm. “You’re not exactly catching us at our best,” says Kirk. “That much is certain,” agrees Spock, at his infuriating best.
Han Solo (Star Wars)
Everyone knows Han’s response to a Leia confessing her love at the end of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (“I know”). Before that immortal line, however, Han was the jerky glue that held the ensemble of ‘A New Hope’ together. Luke got along with everyone. He revered and respected Obi-Wan, he was nice to Leia. Han Solo on the other hand, was the older more popular kid at high school. With his hot rod and muscle bound friend, he had no respect for the Force or Kenobi and he was in it for the money.
We always knew that Luke Skywalker would do the right thing. He wanted to rescue the Princess and help blow up the Death Star. And we know in our heart of hearts that the hero normally wins. The tension in the first ‘Star Wars’ came courtesy of Harrison Ford’s Solo. Han argued with the Princess, called a Jedi master a “fossil” and set out to leave as soon as he got his boxes of cash. He also mucked up the classic romantic storyline. It ended up saving Luke from an embarassing incestuous relationship, but in the first film, we kind of wanted the damsel in distress to go for the pirate instead of the young hero anyways and that’s a significant part of what makes Star Wars memorable.