Captain America is brave and charming. Atticus Finch is honorable and intelligent. Frodo Baggins is loyal and wise. But how would one characterize Jack Sparrow, a drunk and a thief? Or Scarlett O’Hara, who was manipulative and self-centered? Sherlock Holmes, Severus Snape, or even Batman?
These characters are heroes, but they are not so easily defined as their more traditional counterparts, like Superman or Nancy Drew. These characters are flawed: they lie, they kill, they steal, but it’s all for the greater good. At the end of the day, the world is saved.
They are antiheroes, whose red capes and golden hearts are hidden beneath layers of grime and trauma that prevent them from being seen the way “good guys” are typically defined. They lack the morality that heroes typically possess, and the archetype has been used for centuries, dating back to ancient Greek theatre and Renaissance prose.
The early antihero was used to contrast the upstanding protagonist – not quite the villain, but also not incorruptible or ethical by any means. Some scholars say that America’s first antihero was Huckleberry Finn, a character who cheated and embezzled his way down the Mississippi River. Since then, the archetype has somewhat evolved – and grown in popularity.
The morally gray character rose to fame in American film and literature after World War II, largely because the characters were far more complex than the black-and-white of typical heroes. These characters asked questions and antagonized villains, offering both realism and escapism in their relatable failures and their unthinking dauntlessness.
Antiheroes captured the zeitgeist of the post-war era, where people were more cynical of their government and apathetic to enmity, having just been through the trauma of the Second World War. Over time, popular antiheroes have gotten more and more tragic, with flaws like alcoholism and anger issues morphing into full-blown violence and blatant hypocrisy. For example, compare Han Solo (1977) to Walter White (2008-2013): both characters are fighting for the greater good, but one is merely greedy and selfish, and the other is outright vengeful and torturous. Is the change a sign of the times, or is it just the natural progression of storytelling? After all, consider the events that took place between the 1970s and the mid-2000s: the war in Vietnam, the Chernobyl explosion, the Cold War, Monica Lewinsky, Y2k, September 11 and the war on terrorism… gone is the hopefulness of a post-war nation, and in its place is a derisive consumer base that gets more accustomed to violence with every advancement in the digital age.
Antiheroes are not bad, though. Arya Stark of Game of Thrones may have been a skilled assassin, but her overall goal was to end the tyranny that rules Westeros. Marvel Comics’ Wolverine is violent and arrogant, but he is willing to fight alongside the X-Men to protect innocents. At some point, the question of “should I be cheering for this character?” is asked, but eventually motives are understood and the day is saved.
Some antiheroes do the wrong thing for the right reasons, like Lady Macbeth fueled by her love for her husband, while others do the right thing for the wrong reason, like Deadpool who kills for money. Either way, audiences love the fine line that is walked between good and bad, and several television experts believe that mortally gray protagonists are going to get much darker in a post-coronavirus world. Does that mean the true hero – the Wonder Woman, the Harry Potter, the Odysseus – will be gone for good? Absolutely not. But postmodernism has proven that “golden retriever” characters fall flat in comparison to complex, questionable characters that exist as a foil to the typical hero, making both stand out more vibrantly than they would on their own.
Antiheroes have existed in their own way for centuries, and they will continue to in the years to come. Though sometimes it can be tough to defend a character that fits into the antihero archetype, consumers will always be drawn to them. Yes, even when they wreak havoc on both fictional worlds and audience emotions alike, those selfish, chaotic little characters worm their way into the hearts of consumers, no matter how terrible – on the surface – they may be.