In movies and television series, all attention tends to sway toward the heroes of the plot — our valiant knights in shining armor; the perfect protagonist living in an imperfect world. The heroes are the champions we fervently root for at every point of the story, to achieve their innate goals or conquer an external villain. However, while the attention on the flawless protagonist is natural and justified, another integral contribution to effective storytelling that often gets the shorter end of the stick is their similar counterpart: the anti-hero.
The journey of anti-heroes tends to be underappreciated. That is, if they are even understood. The logic behind their motivations is usually neglected, and their story arcs are dismissed. But why? Is it because they are irrelevant? If not, how essential are they to cinema? More importantly, how relevant are anti-heroes in our culture today? We shall review this, but, first, let’s define an anti-hero.
The line between villains and anti-heroes is a blurred one. One that the audience must conclude within their right. But according to Chris Heckmann (via Studiobinder), “An anti-hero is a narrative protagonist who is defined by their self-interest. The anti-hero often feels rejected by society and veers down a self-destructive path that results in isolation or death.”.
Unlike virtuous heroes, who must achieve their righteous goals the right way, anti-heroes are morally gray characters who fulfill their goals with a little bit or a great extent of compromise. The typical trait of an anti-hero is their unending cynicism, layered with good intentions. Anti-heroes are complex characters that tend to go against accepted morals and laws. They are realistic individuals with unresolved internal struggles who show little or no remorse for their bad actions. The anti-hero is more concerned about the big picture the typical hero may struggle to see. What differentiates them from villains is their decision to act within a boundary, contrary to villains who only have malicious intentions.
The anti-hero has existed since classic literature. However, it was a concept on television once film noir detective protagonists of the 1940s, like The Maltese Falcon, or in classic westerns, such as Dollars Trilogy, stepped into the spotlight. The main characters for these films became the prototype for more modern anti-heroes like Deadpool and The Punisher.
In today’s age of cinema, names like Thomas Shelby (Peaky Blinders), Travis Bickle(The Taxi Driver), Walter White (Breaking Bad), Amy Dunne(Gone Girl), Marla Grayson(I Care Alot), The Underwoods (House of Cards), and other titular characters are accurate portrayals that come to mind when we hear the term anti-hero. But although these names fall under the same umbrella, they are distinct in their unique ways.
The Protagonist Anti-Hero: Certain anti-heroes have no antagonist except the society around them. A great example is Todd Phillips Joker. Unlike other versions of the psychopathic clown, who have The Dark Knight to worry about, Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning rendition of the comic character is a perfect portrait of a typical anti-hero fed up with society’s ills and who decides to adapt to its debased social system. These kinds of anti-heroes eventually leave the fence and end their storylines on one side of the moral line.
The Anti-Gero Who is Not a Hero: Batman is a vigilante hero who upholds the morality of Gotham City while also breaking the law. His history further contributes to his anti-hero status as it is similar to a villain origin story. Although Batman’s plot has evolved, early cases depicted him carrying a gun and killing people he thought were wrong — this would make Batman a confirmed anti-hero.
The Corrupt Anti-Hero: Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy), the WWI veteran in Peaky Blinders, is a prime example of a corrupt protagonist. His actions are mostly driven by his ruthless ambition to ascend to the top. However, when Thomas crosses some moral lines, he deems his actions appropriate because he lives in a capitalist society where everyone acts in their best financial and political interest. Another example of a corrupt anti-hero is the House of Cards power couple, Frank and Claire Underwoods.
The Reluctant Anti-Hero: This anti-hero is morally upright and is aware of right and wrong. They are quite pessimistic, though, and think they are unimportant. They act when something fascinates them and wait to join the villain’s cause until it is necessary. When they finally sign up, it is because they believe they will benefit from it or that failing to do so will result in some loss.
For example, Doctor Who, from Doctor Who (1970), is caustic and has a temper; thus, he does not think of himself as a hero. Despite this, he takes significant risks defending others when he notices they require assistance. This anti-hero’s ambiguity stems from the reality that they are prepared to dismiss laws and moral principles if the ultimate result is favorable.
The Anti-Hero Villains: These anti-heroes are hell-bent on executing unimaginable visions, but defend their ideology with reasonable logic. A great example of an “anti-hero villain” is the Mad Titan Thanos, who eliminates half of the universe as a solution to overpopulation and depletion of environmental resources. His arc in Phase 3 of the MCU triggered the “was Thanos right?” debate that’s yet to be settled today. Another example is Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. He is frustrated at Batman’s self-righteous codes and aims to prove society’s natural order is chaos. And this leads us to explore anti-heroes’ impact on culture beyond a motion picture.
Firstly let’s start by stating the obvious: anti-heroes act as obstacles for the main characters to overcome. In some movies and series, the anti-heroes play their role in the same act as villains, and in others, they are the main characters whose inner conflict steers the plot. However, anti-heroes are more than vehicles for cinema. These are some reasons.
They initiate difficult conversations: A good case study for this, is Todd Field’s TÁR starring Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tar, the film’s anti-hero-esque lead. Following the rise and fall of a renowned music conductor who is canceled after her abusive behaviors are exposed, TÁR‘s subtle yet detailed execution initiated difficult conversations surrounding the necessity of woke ideologies, cancel culture, abuse of power, especially women in influential positions, and the long overdue debate to separate the art from the artist.
Anti-heroes give room for a memorable performance: Some of the most unforgettable award-winning performances are attributed to Anti-heroes. This is because anti-heroes have the freedom of moral and emotional range that can not be easily found in the typical hero protagonist. Anti-heroes are the perfect medium for an actor to navigate the ethics of good and evil of a character within the plot of a film and showcase their stellar subtle or explosive script delivery.
Representation, Relatability & Self-reflection: As much as we need heroes to look up to, we need anti-heroes to relate to. This is because anti-hero characters possess a greater sense of realism about the plights that leads them to their flawed decisions. In addition, because anti-heroes are more candid, they see an unfair society for what it is and play its game rather than to played by it. This is evident in John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal, a slow-burn crime thriller that tells the story of Emily (Aubrey Plaza), a college graduate saddled with college debt. Unable to gain employment, she enters credit card scams after multiple dead ends, acting as a dummy shopper and buying high-value products to resell for profits. Even if audiences disagree with her decisions in this highly-rated mid-budget thriller, it is impossible not to relate and empathize with her plight — and, more importantly, put oneself in Emily’s shoes.
They unify polar sides: In a society divided on so many fonts, anti-heroes and film in general are an effective medium for different sides of socio-political isles to find common ground. In addendum to the previous point mentioned, anti-heroes have a more unifying effect because the themes central to their character arcs are sensitive topics that many would agree, disagree, or agree to disagree on.