Moana
"Moana"

As 2016 begins, there appears to be a shift afoot when it comes to how heroes are portrayed in movies.

The 21st century might have initially put our fates into the hands of the youthfully innocent trinity of Frodo, Harry Potter and Spider-Man.  But that was before the events of 9/11 and their aftermath muddied the waters when it came to distinguishing right from wrong, causing anti-heroes to rise in popularity. No one epitomized this bad-boy appeal more than Johnny Depp’s scalawag seafarer Capt. Jack Sparrow of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. Comic-book crusaders also entered the moral gray zone with the appearance of Christian Bale’s conflicted Batman and Robert Downey Jr.’s waggish Iron Man.

It was hardly a coincidence that the dark-souled “No Country for Old Men” and Javier Bardem’s coin-tossing mad killer Anton Chigurh ruled the 2007 Oscars along with Daniel Day-Lewis’ ruthless oilman Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” and Tilda Swinton’s underhanded corporate lawyer Karen Crowder in “Michael Clayton.” Hollywood went overboard for the underhanded. 

But there’s been a change of late when it comes to our rooting interests. Consider “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Who is in the Dark Side’s corner? The petulant and patricidal Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, a dour drag with an adolescent penchant for property-destroying tantrums. Meanwhile, Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the first real female action hero in the decades-old intergalactic saga, is refreshingly charismatic, scrappy and intuitive while proving to be a natural at handling a lightsaber. If the Force held a prom, she would be a shoo-in for queen. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Then there is “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The baddies definitely take a backseat to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and Tom Hardy’s Max as the pair uneasily become not foes but allies, both seeking redemption for their past mistakes while leading a vehicular uprising. “The Martian,” meanwhile, is populated with nothing but heroes who rely on their brains instead of brawn. But they also think with their heart as they risk all to save one of their own, Matt Damon’s stranded botanist Mark Watney, whose never-say-die mindset, immense fortitude and ingenious survival skills would do any science geek proud.

And take Disney’s highly successful live-action revival of “Cinderella,” starring Lily James. Instead of being an embittered rebel who acts out at those who have wronged her, the put-upon orphan holds fast to her late mother’s credo: “Have courage and be kind.” This belle of the ball’s superpower lies in her ability to express empathy, understanding and caring for others, including Cate Blanchett’s horrid stepmother.

It isn’t just fairy tales that are eschewing the need for edginess and attitude, however. Look at “Brooklyn,” in which Saoirse Ronan’s smart, good-natured and all-around swell Irish shop girl, Eilis, wins over the New York borough in much the same the way that TV’s spunky sweetheart Mary Tyler Moore once turned the world on with a smile.  

And compare and contrast David O. Russell’s giddily vicious con vs. con games in “American Hustle” with his current uplifting tale of a home-shopping savant housewife made good in “Joy.” And if “The Wolf of Wall Street” was a party-hearty ode to excess in the form of sex, booze and drugs bankrolled by ill-gotten gains, the similar “The Big Short” instead celebrates those financial wizards who had the smarts to cash in on the investment sins of others as a housing-market collapse loomed, even as they express remorse in benefitting from a situation that brought misery to many.

Joy

Not that vestiges of anti-heroism don’t continue to thrive on the big screen as well. Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to go against the warmth-is-the-new-cool grain with the cacophonous carnage of “The Hateful Eight.” But he is one filmmaker who can afford to ignore the prevailing cinematic wind by preaching to a sizable built-in choir of worshipers who revel in his indulgent bloodletting and F- and N-word spewing.

There is no better test to see whether audiences are still invested in anti-heroism than the latest round of upcoming superhero adventures. Arriving Aug. 5 is “Suicide Squad,” about a creepy gang of twisted supervillains from the D.C. Comics universe including Jared Leto’s Joker, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and Will Smith’s Deadshot. Marvel is offering up its own anti-hero in the form of “Deadpool,” starring Ryan Reynolds as an unhinged disfigured mercenary in pursuit of vengeance (Feb. 12).

But if any comic-book titan can be counted on to cut through the negativity, it’s Marvel’s most idealistic and gung-ho fighter in “Captain America: Civil War” (May 6) with Chris Evans reprising the role in his third outing as the World War II soldier reborn in a modern-day era. This time, he finds himself butting heads with the least upbeat Avenger, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, as the group splits into factions.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to tell whether “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (March 25) will tilt towards the Dark Knight’s vigilante style of justice (as personified by Ben Affleck) or the Man of Steel’s more Boy Scout-like approach to keeping humanity safe (with Henry Cavill once more donning the red cape). One can only hope that these comic-book superstars at least become the best of frenemies by movie’s end.

But judging from many of the releases that have staked a claim on the 2016 calendar, the trend towards positivity looks as if it might continue for a while. Here are 16 titles with heroic characters that promise a more uplifting outlook. 

"Finding Dory"
"Finding Dory"

Family friendly do-gooders

“The Jungle Book” (April 15): Disney’s live-action and CGI version of Rudyard Kipling’s fantasy adventure, directed by Jon Favreau, follows brave man-cub Mowgli, who was raised by wolves, as he goes on an eventful journey alongside his animal pals, wise panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and  bouncy bear Baloo (Bill Murray). Warner Bros.’s live-action and motion-capture “Jungle Book: Origins,” directed by and starring Andy Serkis, will open in fall 2017.

“Zootopia” (March 4): How cute is it that Ginnifer Goodwin speaks for Officer Judy Hopps, a rabbit cop that has been described as a cross between Pollyanna and Furiosa as she patrols the titular mammal-inhabited metropolis? In this animated Disney action comedy, she must convince a scheming con-artist fox (Jason Bateman) to cooperate with her in order to locate a missing otter. Think “48 Hrs.” but with more fur. 

“Finding Dory” (June 17): Let’s see if one of the most lovably cheery animated sidekicks ever, Ellen DeGeneres’s forgetful regal tang from 2003’s “Finding Nemo,” sinks or swims as the top fish in a Pixar tale as she searches for her own loved ones.

“The BFG” (July 1): Author Roald Dahl’s big friendly giant (voiced by Mark Rylance, of “Bridge of Spies”), who helps a young girl ward off behemoths of the not-so-friendly variety, has the potential to be the new “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” what with that 1982 film’s director (Steven Spielberg) and screenwriter (the late Melissa Mathison) as the talent behind of this live-action fantasy.

“Moana” (Nov. 23): A Polynesian teen girl (Auli'i Cravalho), the daughter of a chief who comes from a long line of navigators, sets sail to an island to find her family while assisted  by demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson).  What’s not to like about a Disney animated  musical  with apparent echoes of “Whale Rider” and “Lilo & Stitch.”

RACE
"Race"

Real-life heroes

“The Finest Hours (Jan. 29): The true story of how most of the crew members of two World War II-era tanker ships that sank during a 1952 storm in the waters off of Massachusetts were valiantly rescued by the Coast Guard. With Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Eric Bana.

“Race” (Feb. 19): The first of several expected projects centered on the athletic feats of Jesse Owens recounts how the African-American track-and-field star overcame hurdles to win a record-breaking four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics during the rise of the Third Reich. With Stephan James as Owens, Jason Sudeikis and Jeremy Irons.

“Eddie the Eagle” (Feb. 26): Meet the Jamaican bobsled team of the slopes. Learn how the first British ski jumper to compete in the Olympics became a beloved underdog during the 1988 Games in Calgary, Alberta. With Hugh Jackman, Christopher Walken and Taron Egerton as Eddie Edwards.  

“Sully” (Sept. 9): The sizable target audience for director Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” will likely also embrace his biopic about a less controversial hero, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. The humble pilot defined grace under pressure when he safely landed a troubled US Airways aircraft on the Hudson River in 2009 after both engines failed. Pulling off this re-enactment of the “Miracle on the Hudson” is Captain Phillips himself, Tom Hanks. You can feel the tears welling even now.

“The Founder” (Nov. 25): What better holiday season gift could there be than Michael Keaton as Ray Croc, the foresighted entrepreneur who, in the 1950s, convinced the McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch) to turn their Southern California hamburger joint into a nationwide fast-food dynasty. The man who would forever change America’s eating habits when he bought the company in 1961 was known for his aggressive business practices and intense quality control. The script by Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”) has been compared to “The Social Network,” a not particularly flattering portrait of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. But director John Lee Hancock (“Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Blind Side”) has shown a knack for bringing out the best in even the pushiest of personality types.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Apocalyptic derring-do

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (Feb. 5): This adaptation of the popular mashup novel that pits author Jane Austen’s characters against flesh-eating fiends re-imagines independent-minded Elizabeth Bennet (“Cinderella” star Lily James) as an early 19th-century ninja who deals with matters of the heart while battling an undead invasion spreading across the English countryside.

“Independence Day: Resurgence” (June 24): The aliens whose butts got thoroughly kicked 20 years ago in one of Hollywood’s most flag-waving sci-fi blockbusters are back and need to be taught a lesson again. Blowing up buildings of national importance isn’t what it used to be, but we will see if returning stars Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum can re-generate the rah-rah spirit with input from Liam Neeson, the current elder statesman of high-impact action, along for the ride.

"Ghostbusters"
Columbia Pictures "Ghostbusters"

Comedic crime-fighters

“The Brothers Grimsby” (March 11): In this spy spoof, a British black-ops assassin (Mark Strong) joins forces with his gleefully idiotic football-hooligan brother (Sacha Baron Cohen) after they are forced to go on the run. What could be more touching than reunited siblings fighting bad guys with a dash of silly (and oh-so-naughty) shenanigans?

“Ghostbusters” (July 15): The original lads step back (save for cameos) and let the ladies (a fab foursome consisting of Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and “Saturday Night Live” regulars Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones) get slimed by evil spirits this time. Director Paul Feig (“Spy,” “Bridemaids”) definitely knows his female funny business. Exhibit A: Hiring the bro equivalent of a bombshell, Chris Hemsworth, as the paranormal extermination crew’s receptionist. Here’s hoping the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man has undergone a sex change, too.

Magnificent Seven

Heroic revivals

“Ben-Hur” (Aug. 12): Yes, faith-based films are the rage now and there are several coming out in 2016, including Renee Zellweger’s “Same Kind of Different as Me” (April 29). But none attempt as ambitious a feat as remaking the 1959 best-picture Oscar winner starring Charlton Heston as a Jewish prince who is forced to become a Roman slave. Leave it to Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who executive- produced the 2013 miniseries “The Bible,” to attempt this daunting redo. Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”) takes over the chariot reins while Morgan Freeman is his trainer for the big race and Rodrigo Santoro makes an appearance as Jesus.

“The Magnificent Seven” (Sept. 23): The classic 1960 Western, based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese masterpiece “Seven Samurai,” should be classified as untouchable at this point. But there is much to be excited about in this remake, which centers on a gang of gunslingers who are hired to protect a town from a devious gold-mining baron. Such as the fact Denzel Washington has the Yul Brynner role of Chris, who is in charge of recruiting the sharpshooters. And that this is the first time that director Antoine Fuqua, Ethan Hawke and Washington have reunited since 2001’s “Training Day.” Add a solid cast that also includes Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Ornofrio and Peter Saarsgard as the villain and a score written by the great James Horner before his death in June, and it sounds like a new classic in the making.