There's the classic hero and the every man hero. The super hero, the comic hero and the tragic hero. And then there's the anti-hero.
They're always the ones everyone loves to hate or hates to love. The infuriating and interesting. The dark-souled that (almost) all the girls fall for. The tall, dark and handsome men; pensive, callous, rough, proud, passionate, magnetic etc. etc.. All the glooming, romantic, gothic and mythical traits that seems so appealing in the ambigiuous, selfish bad boy-character with the dangerous gleam in his eyes. The 'accidental hero'. The guilty pleasure. (Mind, we're not justifying violence or psychopaths here!). Because we think/feel we can see through the façade of physical and emotional scars, apathetic bitterness and potential skeletons in the closet - and we believe that behind the rough exterior and sarcasm there is a heart of gold. A rough diamond that just needs some love. Which unfortunately isn't always so in real life. Actually, it really isn't all that fair that books and movies keep us dreaming about something that doesn't exist ...
But then again, who cares? It's an (often welcomed) illusion that's hard to wear off, anyway - no matter how clichéd it gets. Well, we love them because of their imperfections, ambiguous moral qualms and their own self-ironic, more or less unwilling conciousness to this fact; that they're gifted as well as cursed. It's one heck of a charisma trigger! Especially, when they're well-spoken, witty and - did I forget to mention good-looking!? And even if they aren't the conventional handsome, catalogue blokes - who can be frightfully boring, by the way - these brooding characteristics have a way of making the person dangerously alluring and sexy-badass, all the same.
Admit it! The bad-boy-turned-good-through-true-love is practically unresistable (well, I'd like to see one try to resist!). Never mind the "occasional" serious case of vindictiveness and cynicism, unscrupulous killer traits, needless egoism mixed with rebellious, self-destructive and violent tendencies, slick opportunism, unquestioning motivations often led by money, guilt or revenge, bad temper or robotic cold-bloodedness, intractable high-handedness, emotionally/socially handicap, not to speak of a blindly frustrating laconic/stone faced behaviour or unwanted, constant sarcastic, cheeky and mocking remarks (borderline-insults) which follow this lack of basic human interaction skills. Oh, don't mistake me, they can 'interact', just not in the so-called normal way. It's the game, the bickering, the chase, the cat-and-dog life that really gets them on. Even better when it's sexually founded (huh, when isn't it..?). And it's basically the same with those of us who are fascinated by them, isn't it?
Not that there aren't any female anti-heroes, yet somehow the characteristics of being brooding, moody, lazy and pessimistic is (unfortunately?) not something often mentioned along with the female sex and that of being a lady. That it's "more acceptable" or just more commonly known for men to be social outcasts and unproductive, lazy hypocrites than it is for women in our modern society. One could question the term for being rather gender stereotypical and only connected to men..?
Deeper into the characteristics
Some can't stand the over-cheekiness, over-grumpiness or over-sarcasm that surrounds the anti-heroes. And it's actually quite understandable, too. The anti-heroes are not only cruel towards those who are instinctly brave and good (and even mock them because of that), they also often play the coward-card themselves. They can be dishonest and disloyal and only have interest in themselves than any specific or righteous cause. Their cynic and dry humor even seems consciously underplayed in order to create sympathy or focus on their own self-pitying misery. A narcissistic pretence that can simply get out of hand in its 'simplicity'. That, in being or trying to be anything but predictable, impressionable or emotionally caring, they may end up trying too hard and the effects backfire. That leaves these characters particularly vulnerable to mockery (their very own weapon), but of a different kind: Private, emotional mockery that can unexpectedly rip up old, burried wounds. This gives them once again even more reason to build up their defences.
And unfortunately, this misunderstanding has been even more simplified in the media and in the general attitude towards troubled, frustrated, pokerfaced men. The anti-hero is often seen being left with the dry, bitter and sarcastic inputs from the sidelines - only functioning as a static counteract - whenever the 'good hero' gets a bit too ahead of himself in all his 'goodness' and optimism. It's not always a fair role that gives enough credit or developement to the character. Perhaps because of this generalization the character ends up being too stereotypically, too predictable portrayed?
On the other hand, the reservation towards the anti-heroes may be due to the fact that they're too complex, too real and lifelike and harder to get than the shining knights in armor? Or perhaps even too simple? Somehow, they encompass all the taboos and misfits of our society; those who don't do anything constructive for society, who are jobless, who have a bad health (smoking and drinking without constrictions), who compromise the young and innocent, who are neither for or against violence, who don't give a damn about authorities, politics or the law but live by their own agenda etc.. And they're not necessarily 'the-evil-guy-who-wants-world-domination'-type, because then they should have the traits of a leader or actually DO something..!
Is the anti-hero really just a man who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a bit like John McClane (the Die Hard film series)? They don't seem to have much luck in life in general - not with their wives, their kids, their bosses, their colleagues. Some often seem to have no other purpose or skill in life than to fight in some sort of way. Or they are thrown unwillingly into it because of unfortunate situations and forced to survive through bitter hardship that in the end makes a bitter man. A reality much more real, gritty and unfiltered than one cares to acknowledge. And then they'll have to try to deal with the consequences of these hardships but only 'till the next fight comes along. They can't really seem to fit into society or any system unless they can be used capitalistically and in this, use their own skills to earn some sort of living whether it's working for the good guys...or the lesser good guys. As long as it's a living.
Oh well. It's not easy to label or generalize a whole group of characters who basically embody all the shameful, yet natural, human 'flaws' that we all share somehow. They can articulate the unsaid without necessarily giving any definite answers. Perhaps that's why they're so frustrating and at the same time fascinating? Because they're really a way to (maybe) understand and explore our own unexplored depth, shame, doubt and inconsistencies. And that, in the end, we can accept this and still be more than just our guilt and flaws.
Many questions, however, are still left unanswered regarding the anti-heroes:
- Are they more real simply because they are more flawed?
- Are they more interesting simply because they have more room to develop/change/realize their own flaws?
- Are they destined to fail or do we want them to succeed?
- Are the term more suited for men than for women?
- Can anti-heroes even be classified as just ONE group or don't all types of (well-written) heroes - good or bad - share some of the same trademarks, somehow?
The classic definition
Although the general conception of an anti-hero spans all of the above, there're different kinds or more or less loose groupings of anti-heroes, categorized especially in literature. E.g. the Angry young men (a group of writers in England during the 1950-60s who passed their critical opinions and frustrations on to their protagonists) or the Byronic hero, where the latter - appearing during the late, gothic/romantic 1800s - typically exhibits several of the following traits/characteristics, besides the ones already mentioned:
- Cunning and able to adapt
- Disrespectful of rank and privilege
- Emotionally conflicted, bipolar, or moody
- Having a distaste for social institutions and norms
- Having a troubled past or suffering from an unnamed crime
- Intelligent and perceptive
- Jaded, world-weary
- Mysterious, magnetic and charismatic
- Seductive and sexually attractive
- Self-critical and introspective
- Socially and sexually dominant
- Sophisticated and educated
- Struggling with integrity
- Treated as an exile, outcast, or outlaw
Well, then. Now to the list. It was a hard task naming and classifying them all into groups - as it always is - but it was fun. Mind, there are no official classifications or categories, as these are my own "made-up" types and very personal selection of characters (some aren't even officially categorized as anti-heroes). I've stated my reasons for picking them under each photo, but you're welcome to judge (and comment) for yourself if you agree or not. BE AWARE: CHARACTER/STORY SPOILERS MAY OCCUR!
So, here are some of the dudes who somehow can't seem to get out of our heads (or is it really just my head?):
The Romantic Ones
From the classic to the Byronic to the opportunistic. There's not much more to say (oh shoot, I could talk for hours!) as they are by now so familiar and classic examples of ambiguous, male characters that you must know about.
They are simply the sh**! ;)
Mr. Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice"
Outwitted by the passionate Elizabeth, the proud,
stuck-up, anti-social Mr. Darcy slowly realizes his
own flaws and becomes a 'whole' man.
Mr. Rochester in "Jane Eyre"
Greatly troubled by his past and a terrible secret,
Mr. Rochester seems like a lost cause until the one day
where he meets innocence - incarnated in the
young, 'plain' Jane Eyre.
The Lone Riders
Or Lone Wolves, Drifters, Mavericks or whatever you'd like to call them since their names don't really matter. Or do they? After all, it's about the legend and mystique that follow these rootless, fast-shooting vagabonds of the desert who always end up riding towards the wide, dusty, sunburnt horisont. They all have extraordinary, unexplainable skills with a gun; a gift as well as a curse, 'cause in the end they don't necessarily end up with the girl, get a medal for heroism or escape completely unscathed. But all that doesn't really seem to be in their interest, anyway. Or what? These characters come and go as dark angels/knights or avenging ghosts, bringing their own moral scruples and end up as ambigious saviours of those in need.
El Mariachi/Manito - here in "Desperado"
The Spanish version of Django, more or less.
And with the typical, bloody Rodriguez touch.
The Adventurous Ones
Captains of the sea, the sky or space, these men do not stray far from the characteristics of the lone riders above. They explore the world without a specifically named destination or goal and - seemingly - any moral code. However, their hearts are not made entirely out of stone, and though they've seen more than there is to see in this world (and other worlds too), everybody has a weak spot - even these unimpressed guys - whether it's a ship (in most cases), liquor, fear, pride or a certain personal relation.
Captain Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean"
The infamous pirate who needs no introduction. Except, of
course, always with a "Captain ..." added.
Illustrative quote from Once Upon a Time, season 3, episode 12 ("New York Serenade"):
- Prince Charming: Where are you going?
- Hook: Listen, mate. The Enchanted Forest is your home. Mine is the Jolly Roger.
- Prince Charming: Hook, you don’t even know, if it’s -
- Hook: Regina told me how that bloody thing worked. It returned all of our belongings to this land as well as us. It means that somewhere out there is my ship. All I have to do is find her.
- Prince Charming: And what if you can’t?
- Hook: I'll just have to take another one, then, won't I? That's what pirates do.
- Prince Charming: Huh. And here I thought you’re gone and changed.
- Hook: I tried the hero thing. Didn’t take.
- Snow White: So, that’s it? Emma’s gone. You’re gonna go back to be a pirate?
- Hook: Back, my lady? I’ve always been a pirate.
The Obscure Drivers
Just as rootless as the lone riders and captains above, these characters have exchanged the horse and the ship with a car; the dry, empty desert and the untamed, never-ending ocean with a dirty, noisy city; drifting the streets with hidden pangs of conscience, an occasional and violent temper (close to truly scary borderline cases), an unknown amount of skeletons in the closet, and getting by through hole-and-corner jobs. They try to conform their fractured selves to the rest of the world, with a desperate hope to do the right thing among all the bad stuff which they've already experienced first hand despite their young ages.
Sure, Iron Man, Batman, Hulk, Wolverine and even Spider-Man are the best known comic book superheroes to have certain anti-heroic traits, yet they've already become outworn as subjects, in my opinion, given all the recent movie franchises. Once again, it's the faceless and much more reclusive vigilantes, keen to keep to the shadows of the city, that hold my interest - and which are marvellously (no pun intended) portrayed on film.
The Impertinent School Boys
Perhaps not typically represented as anti-heroes, yet in these cases, I would make exceptions. I always had a very ambivalent relationship to these characters as a kid, going from being seriously irritated to becoming a softie with minor crushes, and I still hold much affection for them because of their flaws combined with their strengths; in the end overcoming themselves, despite all the obstacles:
When the supposed villian turns out to be the good guy, it's always a big and welcomed surprise among fans - who did or didn't see it coming to begin with. Sometimes it's due to a slow developement and many obstacles or just the right people - or a special and unexpected situation where the 'villian' must face himself and his true values in life... Yeah, it sounds pretty cheesy, but boy don't we love it when they choose to sacrifice themselves - or do something completely stupid and genius - for the greater good and leave it to the hero to make it to the finish line (and basically take the credit)!? Sure, they were utter jerks in the beginning, being really downright nasty, bullying and snide at times, but at least their 'cruelty' were often reasoned to some extent and they weren't afraid of fighting for a cause, even putting their lives at risks or playing double agents if necessary.
Megamind in "Megamind"
Stereotypical villain turns atypical hero without even asking for it?! Well,
that's a synopsis that says something, right?
Prince Zuko in "Avatar: The Last Airbender"
Zuko has some serious father-son-issues, at first only wanting
back his right for the throne by capturing the Avatar, but
ends up conflicted on which side he should fight for.
The Shady Vampires
In a time where one can hardly watch television without bumping into the term 'vampire' - or hear it mentioned in some fangirling context, this category had to come too. If there's anything that shouts sexy, badass anti-heroes, it's vampires. It's fairly good to say that good ol' Nosferatu has taken an U-turn appearence-wise and become a high school heartthrob with a softie conscience. I find it rather interesting that a phenomenon that should represent all the grotesque, murderous, deathly things in the world - all in all, a dehumanized version of the human; a walking dead, part cannibal - suddenly has turned the beast into a dark prince - or should we say Calvin Klein model? Maybe is it a way to make them look more like us and more relatable; a reference to the every-man-looking psychopath among us, or just even more sexier and thus more saleable? However, by making the vampires look human, non-beastly or beastly sexy supergods, doesn't this affect what vampires basically represent? Have we become easier forgiving of their evil traits, continuing murder-rapages and lack of human consideration as long as it comes with a smirk, a wink and a naked torso?
Spike in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel"
Eric Northman isn't the first dangerously handsome, blondie-
baddie-vampire to grace our TV screen: Spike wasn't just
the bad boy-punk-vampire with a soul, sexy British accent
and sarcastic remarks. At times, he also showed true human
aspects and insights that not even the humans were able to
follow. Although, most would claim Angel was more of an
anti-hero, I find Spike far more complex and interesting
in that matter.
Illustrative quote from The Vampire Diaries, season 4 episode 12 (“A View to Kill”):
- Klaus: Ah, yes, for the love of Elena. How is it that she manages to overlook every horrific thing you’ve ever done? Is it willful ignorance, or perhaps something more pathological?
- Damon: Some people are just more capable of forgiveness than others. Bet you score a negative 500 in that realm.
- Klaus: Come on. There must be a secret. It can’t just be the sire bond. What is it? Compulsion? Manipulation? What is it you say to her?
- Damon: I think this has something to do with a certain blonde vampire. I think you murdered Carol Lockwood and I think you’re worried that Caroline’s never going to forgive you.
- Klaus: You’ve done worse.
- Damon: Debatable. See, I don’t mind being the bad guy, because somebody has to fill that role and get things done. You do bad things for no reason. You do them to be a dick.
- Klaus: Debatable.
- Damon: If you’re gonna be bad, be bad with a purpose. Otherwise, you’re just not worth forgiving.
The Thiefs, Smugglers and Conmen
The cheeky-smug-streetwise guys, rascals and cads are most often the rule-breakers. But what can I say? They're still somehow irresistibly lovable, aren't they? (Mind, both Rhett Butler and Han Solo are serving as smugglers for the rebels during their respective wars, but alas, they can't be in every category).
Eugene 'Flynn Rider' Fitzherbert in "Tangled"
So darn smug it hurts - but very charming and entertaining,
I must admit. Especially when he teams up with Maximus
the horse, which causes some hilarious bantering moments.
Illustrative quote from Romancing the Stone:
- Joan: I knew it would happen.
- Jack: You knew what would happen?
- Joan: All you care about is yourself, isn’t it? I knew that from the first moment I laid eyes on you.
- Jack: Was that the first moment when I saved your ass?
- Joan: You see? There you go. You have no finesse. No style. A real man doesn’t have to draw attention to his actions. You’re just … You’re a mondo-dizmo.
- Jack: I’m - What am I?
- Joan: You’re a man who takes money from stranded women. A real man is – is honest … and forthright and trustworthy.
The Fantastical Creatures
Fairy tales cannot be without them, even if they do place themselves between the genre-typical good vs. bad categories, but anti-heroes somehow always fit into the category in the matter of character development. That is, e.g., a development from a secluded loner and temperamental beast with a bit of a vanity complex (to put it mildly) to a loving, self-sacrificing, selfless human being. Literally as well as figuratively. The question of the man, the human inside, is always a biggie and it often takes a female, compassionate character to get to their hearts through all the [onion] layers of fur, feathers and stubbornness. Call it cheesy, but those 'ugly' guys sure are fascinating.
Shrek in the Shrek film series
Shrek wouldn't have become the success he is if he hadn't had
all his flaws and qualities gathered into ONE misunderstood
fairy tale being. One would never expect a troll to have
Arguably The Ultimate Anti-Hero/The Borderline Case
James Bond inhabits almost all of the above mentioned traits and categories. He's one hell of a charmer with the ladies, he's skilled with a gun and at a game of cards, he's officially a Royal Naval Reserve Commander, not to mention, an excellent driver. He can be a school boy or a rascal, a con man or a killer, an avenger or a beast, and he's never afraid of throwing himself into another adventure. Although he is not immediately perceived as the most romantic type, more the careless ladies' man, he's a bit more complex with the whole sexy-tough-guy-thing going on. On the one hand, he's a workaholic and more or less bound to the agent system and M's orders. On the other hand, he can be a vigilante and a rebel and is notorious for mixing business with pleasure - on HIS terms, that is to say. He often displays serious psychotic behaviour when he switch to his notorious, almost natural killer instinct. Yet, mind, James Bond is supposed to be a professional agent and soldier, who kills his the enemies and does his job in order to save the world (not that I condone his methods) while keeping his head cool. However, not entirely without battling with consequences or ethic scruples. He's human, after all, and has his flaws (though it might not always seem so).
HOWEVER, one could argue that Sherlock Holmes is the most quintessential archetype of a modern anti-hero, given his - just as Bond - remarkable adaptability to the modern age way of life and thinking - albeit a bit eccentric, but that is all his own, the good Mr. Holmes. He has come in all sizes and shapes on screen - almost as many as Bond - and have endured remarkably over time, probably because the man is a riddle himself and still serves as a character worth re-analyzing, re-interpreting and discussing. Not only his brilliant, almost mystical mind and intellect is worth admiring, but his wit and eccentricity too; the way he dives into his own world of remarkable deduction, as well as his dry, quick wit and unique skills in all sorts of detective work. However, though the deductive mastermind has a way of seeing through human endeavors in crime and deception and solving mysteries like no other, he is far from the social animal himself. Well, the man is insufferable at his best - not to mention, a loner and steadfast drug-user - alienating practically everyone around him by his absent-minded, enigmatic and, on the surface, rather uncaring or carefree demeanor, while he finds (almost) no mind equaling his own among his fellow human beings. One could go as far as to call him borderline-autistic at times or, at least, somewhat lacking in empathy and sympathy in some aspects. Or maybe people just don't understand him.
But it is here that his unique (and arguably only true) friendship with Dr. Watson becomes all the more interesting. Watson is practically the only one who ever comes close enough to Holmes (besides Arthur Conan Doyle, himself) - or to say, whom Holmes mutually allows to come close. Whereas Bond practically can call himself friendless for most of his life and career - if we don't regard either Miss Moneypenny, Q nor Felix Leiter as more than friendly acquaintances - Holmes has at least a steady companion and friend throughout his run. True, they are more or less each other's opposites, but nonetheless serve as ying and yang, as a supportive feature to one another - although their relationship is complex as much as it is intense. There have been arguments that it is an unhealthy relationship, where Holmes, at times, can act rather neglecting, dismissive and even abusive - verbally and mentally - towards Watson and their friendship. Watson can even give the air of a sidekick, as Holmes do take the focus of the narrative with his brilliance and eccentric behavior.
Nonetheless, Sherlock Holmes serves as an interesting character to the anti-hero spectrum and is always worth discussing in that regard, because could one even talk about him as anti-heroic with a moral tie to his character development? Sure, at one point, there is one woman who proves an equal mind to his and whom he comes to respect, but she never becomes more than that in the original story and thus remains fairly absent in his character arch. Holmes remains enigmatic in his love life and is thus not given the archetypal chance of redemption or change of character from a romantic aspect as many of the above-mentioned nominees have at some point. Even Bond has been through it. Irene Adler becomes the only female influence strong and poignant enough to challenge him and leave a mark - regarded by Holmes as "the woman", romantic or not - but this relationship has, of course, been taken up to value and further developed in the various screen adaptations afterwards. For what is a hero - or anti-hero - without a female counterpart, after all? Or at least a sidekick of opposite character? But why must he (or she) necessarily have a counterpart, romantic or not? Is it so he can mirror/reflect himself and his actions and consequences in the other person? Or is it that it provides a subjective narrative for the reader so that we - the readers - have an outside perspective into the character?
|Arthur Conan Doyle (upper left corner), the man behind|
the man, Sherlock Holmes, here also seen in some of his various
portrayals on screen throughout time. Image from fanpop.
Well, then. That's it.
But these are just my favorites. An even greater list of fictional anti-heroes can be found here, as well, and a further definition/discussion on the subject here. I'm also very open for a discussion of my various definitions of the above mentioned characters, as I'm not an expert on every single subject, and I'm sure not everyone out there agree with everything I've written. Please write me a comment or two. I would very much like to hear what you think.