Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Anti-heroes, the Good? the Bad? or something in between?

We all know in the majority of all storytelling, there are protagonists (whom are typically the archetypal heroes and focal characters of the story), and the antagonists (whom are usually the ‘villains’ or main opposition to the protagonists). Both are prevalent and are usually included in most story genres, including movies. At time however, those typical archetypal roles, can be blurred and not as clear as to whom the ‘hero’ or ‘villain’ is. This is epically true with more complex storylines and the likeness of the characters within genres of storytelling, movies, being no exception. Some do not carry the typical morals of the atypical hero. Some are deeply flawed in personality or by interaction. Some do not always take the moral high road, yet might pick certain heroic traits here and there (though not all of them). As you’re probably aware by now, this it what we refer to as Anti-heroes.

So, what about these anti-heroes? Are they the arch nemesis of the archetypal –type hero, or something else? Well according to the dictionary, an antihero is “generally considered to be a protagonist whose character is at least in some regards conspicuously contrary to that of the archetypal hero, and is in some instances its antithesis.” In comparison to the villain, the definition goes on to state: “Some consider the word's meaning to be sufficiently broad as to additionally encompass the antagonist who (in contrast to the archetypal villain) elicits considerable sympathy or admiration.” So in a nutshell, is the proposed “hero” with deeply conflicting un-heroic flaws about themselves, or the “bad boy” with questionable redeeming qualities, but with with a heart of gold. By the way these types are not limited to just male characters, case in point the “bad girls”.

So why is this particular topic? Well, I have always had a fascination of these flawed characters, whether on the big screen, on television, novels, or on my PC, the antihero to me at least, show a more realistic point of view of the conflictions and hard decisions that people in general make on a everyday basis. I know that sounds sort of off, but let me break it down a bit. Remember just a few years back, when they announced they were going to do a new live action Superman movie, but after its premiere, the reviews were slightly less than the usual expectations of the every growing popularity of comic adapted movies? There were several online and live discussions about that very topic (yeah there are that many “geeks/fanboy-girls” out there, just go to any fan convention).

What was concluded in those discussions, other than the fact that the movie itself was tad too lack luster especially compared to other comic based movies at the time (like Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight), many could not not identify with the character of Superman, mainly because of his near invincibly, is super strength, and overall super-ness. Even as Clark Kent, many had a harder time accepting him as the fumbling mild mannered (yet oddly large and buffed) reporter in disguise. Compare this to the Bruce Wayne/Batman character of the previously mentioned movies. Batman had a traumatic event happen to him (witnessing the murder of his parents) fairly early in life that ultimately personified what he would become later on as an adult, crime fighter, and overall hero..or anti-hero since his approach to making the world a better place might have some similarities to his friend Clark, there are vast differences as well, differences that are very contrast to the archetypal hero, and more in league with the antihero type. Going back to the movie comparison, many seem to prefer and related more to how Bruce/Batman was portrayed in the movies due to the development of his character. Interesting that many would be more interested in someone that looks and in some ways acts more like a villain toward his adversaries (yet is not one). Whether they are dealing with personal issues while being who they are, makes their characters that more interesting. More people can relate to them because they seem more down to earth or more realistic to those who are familiar to them, and even to those (like my cousin remember?) that do not.

I think what fascinates me most about these characters is, that despite the problems, issues, and character flaws these anti-heroes have, for the most part, they do still hold on to the qualities that make them heroes, at least in the general sense. Some good examples of some of my favorites would include;

Blade, of Marvel comics and movies,

Campion, of the novel, movie and TV series Watership Down,

John Shaft of the Shaft movie series,

Zuko of the animated series Avatar, The Last Airbender,

Logan/Wolverine of Marvel comics TV series and movies etc,

Afro, of the anime movie series Afro Samurai,

Richard B. Riddick from the movies, Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick,

Han Solo from the Original Star Wars trilogy,

Mugen from the anime series Samurai Champloo,

Rorschach from the graphic novel and movie Watchmen,

Spawn from the comic and animation series,

“L” of the anime series Deathnote,

Bruce Wayne/Batman of DC comics,TV series and movies.

These are just to name a few which I recommend to check out to get a better idea of what entails my idea of a anti-hero. Whether you agree or disagree with their characterizations of their role(s), you have to admit there is something unique about them that would not be the same in any form of storytelling.

Er, by the way, with all this talk about heroes, anti-heroes and such, does raise one nagging question, is there a distinct line where a archetypal hero or even an anti-hero might cross and become a full fledged villain? Does even that line even exist? And what would make a good or a moderately good character, go bad? Well rather than extending this already too long blog, I think I shall address this in a separate post. (Stay tuned for that one). In the meantime, I welcome all opinions and feedback.


  1. Great topic, M. Wanderer.

    The anti-hero is human, flawed, just like us. We can identify with and relate to a "regular person" who has problems and issues, just like us.

    We can also be inspired - if that "regular, flawed person can aspire to do something heroic, then perhaps I, too, can be a hero.

    I'm late in posting on the Hollywood saviour-type as introduced back in May. You've prompted me to put some energy towards getting it done sooner than later now that you've put this up. Well done!

    One of the reasons Die Hard was such a big hit is that it came out in the 80s, at a time when the "action hero" was defined as a muscle-bound, combat-ready Commando/Rambo/Dutch thumps the Predator. Bruce Willis, on the other hand, was there by accident, and spent his time whimpering about his being in the wrong place at the wrong time, while he yet found the inner consternation to work with the limited resources he had to meet the challenge.

    We cheered for him because he was refreshingly NOT like the aforementioned type heroes; he was the underdog, in over his head, under-equipped, disconnected, misunderstood, struggling in a strained marriage with an estranged wife (again, unlike the type who were usually loners with no domestic inclinations whithersoever...)

    Hollywood made a living on uni-dimensional characters for a long time: the good guys were good, the bad guys were bad, and the plot was simply a matter of driving towards the inevitable point where the good guys vanquish the bad guy, save the day, get "the girl" and all that stereotypical claptrap. Cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians...

    But, there were still plenty of golden-age movies with a protagonist who wasn't particularly likeable. Some of the greatest movies of all time (several by Billy Wilder, such as Sunset Boulevard or Double Indemnity) featured protagonists who were not particularly noble or inspiring at all. The layers of complexity make for much more intriguing and captivating story-telling.

    As for your list, I'll treat Blade (and Neo) a little differently than a standard anti-hero for reasons that will become clear in the treatment. Those two are special at another level.

    In answer to your post title question, I'd say the magic is somewhere in between.

    If the good guy is just plain good, and the bad guy is just plain bad, and neither of them change or slide ever so slightly across the line to the other side, there's little story arc, no growth, and we're left with "a sequence of events that just happened" and nothing to which to connect, emotionally beyond the events themselves. Devoid of "meaning", these events are mildly pornographic, which is what "sex without love" is, kinda, right? Just physical actions with no meaning beyond the gratuity of the actions themselves?


  2. ...cont'd from previous...

    However, if we move the extreme good and extreme bad characters in towards the centre where there's some good in the bad guy and some bad in the good guy, well, hold on a we've got something to sink our teeth into. Now we have dialog to tune into more keenly. There's nuance, there's emotional conflict as we wrestle within ourselves as to what is true and right in the muddled situation.

    And, there, in the middle, are we able to envision ourselves wrestling with the very same struggles in our own lives. Some days were nice, some days we're jerks. Before us, though, is a path with "no fate" (as Sarah Connor would say as she became more machine-like and "the machine" became more human-like, ah, Terminator 2, what a movie...but I digress...) a path with "no fate", no pre-determined end to which we are inexorably destined to reach. No, we feel the struggles in the story, and we recognize that we too must struggle with the vicissitudes of life and (hopefully) find the strength to make the right decisions at the right time.

    This, by the way, is the enduring captivation of the classic tragedy (Pet Semetary and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are two fantastic examples). We watch, helplessly unable to break the fourth wall to slap the doomed protagonist out of the madness, spiralling towards impending failure, and are left to look at ourselves in the mirror and tell ourselves "don't let that happen to you."

    For me, one of the greatest movie experiences ever was when Darth Vader, in The Empire Strikes Back, shocked the world by revealing "No, Luke - I am your fathahhhhh." Up until that point, Darth Vader had been evil incarnate (after all, he even wore all black so we couldn't possibly miss him).

    That he might have been the great Jedi at one point, back in 1980, was unfathomable. Yet, we were transfixed, and had to had to had to find out what was what in 1983's Return of the Jedi. RofJ did not delve deeply into what caused Annakin to go to the dark side in the first place, and Star Wars fans had great anticipation of the prequel trilogy, only to be grossly disappointed by the poor treatment of the back story to one of the greatest and most conflicted good/bad guys in film history.

    At any rate, the simple ending of Star Wars (good Luke, who wore white when we first met him on Tatooine, defeating Darth Vader the bad guy) was exactly that - simple. The Empire Strikes Back took the story to an entirely higher level, as now, the bad guy...had some depth we had to explore, discover, understand.

    The garden variety "hero/villain" formula isn't enough to keep the theatres packed. Hollywood needs to put out some counterpoint in the anti-hero (and, as you mention, the anti-villain as well, that bad guy with whom we can sympathize, that can be difficult to deal with).

    Good post. I'll indeed "stay tuned" for your treatment of whether a hero/anti-hero crosses the line (wouldn't be surprised if you used Revenge of the Sith for this, with its curious mixture of some pretty good dialog and tension to go along with some absolute tripe of the most putrid sort).

  3. Heh thanks for the feedback!

    In regards to your choice of Darth Vader, well I was thinking of adding to him as well, though techicly we (the fans) orignally knew him as nothing but evil...right up till the empire strikes back. Most anti-hero types are usually already protrayed within the first few lines or scenes of the story. Actually nowadays I do admit some arent as easy to establish as they use to be in the past. My guess in order to make the story overall that much more interesting, like what you said, the classic hero/villian doesnt pack the theatres, and this is very true

    Now in regards to the next part of this "study", yes I will be looking at when the typical hero/anti-hero goes bad..and perhaps vice versa. I had a few character from both books and movies and RL people in history in mind for this too. Not sure how to approach it without it sounding to depressing or to overly complex (lol thats rich considering the complexity of the conversations that are discussed here) but I'll try my best.

    And yes I do agree that the anti-hero do seem more human and easier to relate for general folk, thus making them at time more popular and memroble than the typical "hero", espically when there are both in one story.

  4. Hi Folks,

    While I don't dislike anti-heroes, I think I have the opposite opinion of heroes as you guys do. Some of my favourite characters are Superman, Optimus Prime, and Aslan, and I've never liked any anti-hero half as much as I've liked these. They all represent powerful characters who feel a selfless burden of responsibility upon themselves. They are paragons of the virtues that I value, and in victory they exalt those virtues.

    I also like Spider-man, but to a lesser extent, because I can actually relate to him more easily, and so don't look up to him as much.

    This is the reason why I felt that the Lord of the Rings movies were great, but they fell a bit short of the glory of the books. In the books, Samwise Gamgee was driven by a selfless love for his friend Frodo. It was so powerful that he was the only character in the books who did not hesitate to relinquish the ring. It was perhaps the most important revelation in all the books regarding the power of the ring. Yet in the movie they made him hesitate, and spoiled that notion that unconditional love conquers all.

    Something is lost by trying to make things "grittier", as is often the case when you try to make things relate-able to more people. In the process we lose sight of the fact that sometimes the more beautiful things are not initially always the most attractive or enticing.

    Looking at it another way, I think to an extent that anti-heroes are more believable to people today because the morality of today is darker. People don't trust absolutes (eg: the ridiculous line in Star Wars Ep3). They have become jaded to the world by life, and to some extent they can't see how anyone who was paying attention couldn't be jaded. If they see someone who isn't somehow tainted by life, they assume they must be somehow naive, wishy-washy, or just plain ignorant. I tie this to the death of hope and redemption in our culture. People without hope seek their salvation in lesser things.

    This is just my opinion. I remember talking to a girl about Superman, and how she didn't like him as much as other heroes because she wasn't into guys who were "all good" (too boring I think she said). I found that very interesting, since it might explain some of her life experiences. Suffice it to say, she's not the only one who thinks that way. To each his own tastes, but in my case a hero must be more than someone with a cause: he/she must also be someone with character.

    My regards!

  5. Hey Lancer,

    Always nice to hear from you, mate. Your thoughtful comments prompted to quick responses from me.

    First, I never read the book Lord of the Rings, but from the three big screen installments, I finished my viewing saying "Samwise Gamgee is my hero". So, your insight here let's me know that the producers didn't spoil him too much - his heroism got through to me. I'll come back to him in a sec.

    Second, I absolutely love Optimus Prime, the word that rushes to the top of my mind when I think of him is "honour." He rules, man. Having said that, "character" is something that someone must express by having to make difficult choices and with something to lose. (Like when, in that atrocious movie, he's willing to take the cube into his own chest, surely meaning his demise for the deliverance of the "humans that were beneath him", they had to put that in so he had something to lose.

    One of the fundamental problems with the great hero Superman, which is well-documented, is that he's nearly invincible. What's he got to lose? (that kryptonite thing was silly to me). He's also not human, so how can he be tempted to do the wrong thing, the overcoming of which displays his "character"?

    This is the axis upon which people make a claim for Batman - the Dark Knight is just a guy with money and a lot of issues and anger. Having developed the ability to get away with pretty much whatever he wants, he chooses the better part, which is the expression of real character.

    In other words, anti-heroes have flaws over which they must triumph in order to do the right thing. And, that's what makes them heroic, even if they didn't appear heroic in the first place.

    Looking again at Samwise Gamgee, he's certainly no "king" like Aragorn; he's not tall, not dark, not handsome. He's got no special skills or "hotness" like Legolas, no powers like Gandalf; he's not royalty like Boromir, can't fight his way out of a wet paper bag... but they write his character to be the one, ultimately, upon whom Frodo must depend to get his job done. Surrounded by so many more deserving candidates yet setting himself apart by nothing more than his decided deportment and commitment to the task at hand, Samwise Gamgee is your ultimate anti-hero!

  6. Hey there guys!

    very nice feedback from both of you. Thanks!

    In regards to Samwise Gamgee...hmmm I dont think I ever considered him for a Anti-hero..but both of your statements intriges me to look at him further...
    Oh a side note, I loved that part in the movie (RotK) when he after thinking that Fordo might be dead, went after those goblins with absolutely no fear, attack and beat every single one of them! So yea he may not have the more noted skills of the other fellowship members, but when the chips are down, hes got it where it counts!

  7. Hey Folks,

    Perhaps we have slightly different ideas of what is an anti-hero. I tend to think of it as someone who's motivations and methods aren't necessarily the best. Ie: revenge, anger, etc. I'd distinguish between a surprise hero like Samwise Gamgee, and say Han Solo. Han Solo was in it for himself until he had a change of heart. Samwise was always in it for his friend, and the change was how his love for his friend made him brave. In my mind, I keep those two separate and distinct, so I wouldn't have personally considered Samwise as an anti-hero.

    Interestingly, Batman seems to have a lot of noble motivations. I guess it's mostly his methods that are questionable. Of course, I know him only from movies and TV, not the comics, so my opinion is slanted that way. In most cases, his goal was to bring criminals to justice, not kill them, but supposedly this wasn't always true in the comics. Still, I think the anti-hero label fits him, since the persona of Batman is not winsome and congenial, but fear-inducing and solitary. He's not out to be a role-model; he's out to do a job. Despite the many admirable qualities about him, there's a means and ends issue.

    My regards!

  8. They there again!

    Lancer, you're right about Batman's nobility. He always stated he did what he did for justice. Not for praise or money, for justice and (in his reasons) because there are criminals too dangerous for ordinary police to deal with. And like you said even though his methods (compared to Supermans in particular) are more "applied" and harsher, but never really crossed that line of fact there had been only one incident in the comics (so Im told) that he might have had no choice but to at least atempt to kill..and that was with Darksided (one of Supermans main foes) In the graphic novel "Final Crisis", which didnt come to be, but did end up supposbly dying (though not really) doing what he did best, which is why I like him!

    BTW DA, that "Final Crisis" novel I mentioned is a continuation of that other one I showed you last year, "Idenity Crisis" in case your interested.

  9. Lancer - Yep, I dig your distinction between a good egg like Samwise and a scruffy-looking nerf-herder like Solo. Samwise was "go from jump", Solo kinda got dragged in, kicking and screaming.

    By the same token, Wanderer's working definition of an anti-hero being someone with clearly not the traits we typically expect from or associate with heroism. So, both still fit - Samwise is not your buff, invincible, wise, tall dark and handsome dashing debonair get the girl at the end guy...and Solo is not interested in any of that stuff (except the get the girl part), and frankly doesn't care if we aren't happy with him. "The Force?! Meh. Just give me a good blaster."

  10. I think that at times with more "straight arrow" type heros, I feel can ethier too good to be true (making then harder to relate to ie Superman) or sometimes a tad too naive to whats happening around them. One good comaprison would be Cyclops(Scott Summers) and Logan(Wolverene) both of the X-men. Both have lead the group, both have earned a great deal of respect from their peers and elders (like Prof. X) and (ironicly) both share a strong intrest in fellow X-men Jean Grey(Phoenix/Dark Phoenix)And yet dispite those simular interests, they are nearly polar opposites in personality and character..even to the point(at many times) where they have a mutual dislike for each other as shown many times in film, comic print and animation. One is more the striaght arrow by the book go geter, and the other more the bad-boy/renegade with the heart of can figure out whos who in that.
    Whats interesting about this is, dispite all of the issues they have with each other, they both typicply show a mutial repsect for each other when it counts...sure they proably never will be friends (espically with that love triangle happening) but do try to co-exist for the sake of the team when its needed. Too bad some of us in R.L. can't do the same when theres a confict of interest of a clash of personalites and such..oh well.


What do you think?!