A few months ago, I wrote a post questioning why nowadays, both in print and on screen, so many of our stories seem to eschew the more traditional hero for the antihero, or even eschewing the concept of heroism entirely in favor of outright villainy. (Are Tony Soprano and Don Draper even antiheroes? Honestly, I’d say no. But I welcome dissenting voices on this point!)
You love me ’cause I’m sooo bad.
Now, I was painting with a broad brush, I’ll admit. Heroes abound, even in cynical, postmodern Hollywood, where Superman is making a comeback and traditional comic book heroes keep popping up like mushrooms. (Of course, we could debate about the retelling of some of these stories, and the reshaping of some characters with more overt antihero attributes.)
I’m thinking of making this post the start of another series, in which we delve into characters of print and screen, determining who our heroes are, and what makes them so heroic and desirable. The same goes, of course, for the often more interesting antiheroes.
But first, a few definitions. The term hero is probably easiest to define (hopefully). You think classic hero, either from literature or pop culture, and you think Superman (or at least I do). Not too tough, right? Strong, morally upright, virtuous, has an Achilles’ heel (in Superman’s case, kryptonite; in Achilles’, well, his heel), sacrificial, loves his family, etc. Now, from literature, especially classic, Greco-Roman literature, the term gets a little muddy. Odysseus is the hero of The Odyssey, but by today’s standards, he’s no, well, he’s no Superman.
Dude, what happens at sea stays at sea. Don’t tell my wife.
In Medieval literature, it was muddy too. I remember my Medieval Lit course from college, in which my professor told us how the supposedly chivalrous Sir Lancelot was rarely so (stealing wives, treating women poorly, at least by today’s standards, etc.).
So yes, the term hero can be, well, nuanced. Still, when you hear the term, a certain image likely comes to mind. It’s Superman, or Katniss Everdeen, or Marshall Will Kane (from High Noon).
Now, our antihero is something different–or at least sometimes so. Ask two different people, and you’ll likely get different examples of antiheroes from literature or film. Some will say that the antihero is just a darker, more human, more flawed version of a hero. It’s Batman more than Superman, a hero motivated by revenge, for example. Or it’s someone rather unpleasant, difficult, amoral or even immoral, who still fills the role not merely of protagonist, but hero. Think Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Harry Callahan from the Dirty Harry films.
Call him an antihero, get a bullet in the face.
The trouble I have in defining the term antihero is the inclusion–too often, I’d say–of very obvious villains in any given antihero list. One wonders if some people even draw a distinction between antihero and villain. Hannibal Lecter, for example, Thomas Harris’ eloquent, genius cannibal, is a villain. Harris’ last Lecter novel, Hannibal, transitions the killer psychiatrist into the role of antihero (Harris is desperate for readers to root for Lecter by the novel’s end), but it’s a position that never fits, thus helping to sink the rather mediocre thriller. It never fits because, at least to me, I know I’m never supposed to root for him. He is, after all, a cannibal.
And that’s one element of the antihero that I think is important: good or bad, unpleasant or not, he or she needs to do something, as indirect and difficult to perceive as it may be, that calls out a moral good, a standard. And said standard or moral good needs to be key to this character. Tony Soprano helping an old lady cross the street on one occasion doesn’t count. But Dexter Morgan, the serial-killing crime fighter from Showtime’s Dexter, adhering to his father’s moral code in ridding the world of murderers, would.
I’m bad, just not bad bad, you know?
Anyway, enough definitions. What do you think? Am I right in my interpretations, or way off?
Now, on to specifics. My next post will delve into a few of these well-known characters, what makes them tick, and what it is about them that makes us tick. So keep checking in for that!