Antihero

Travis Bickle

In fiction, an antihero is generally considered to be a protagonist whose character is contrary to that of the archetypal hero, yet typically retains many heroic qualities. Some consider the word’s meaning to be sufficiently broad as to additionally encompass an antagonist who, in contrast to the archetypal villain, elicits considerable sympathy or admiration.

The antihero has evolved over time, changing as society’s conceptions of the hero changed, from the Elizabethan times of Faust and William Shakespeare’s Falstaff, to the darker-themed Victorian literature of the 19th century, such as John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ or as a timid, passive, indecisive man that contrasts sharply with other Greek heroes to Philip Meadows Taylor’s ‘Confessions of a Thug.’ The Byronic hero also sets a literary precedent for the modern concept of antiheroism.

The traditional hero type is classically depicted to possess an image that is larger than life. They are generally expected to be more physically attractive, stronger, braver, more clever or charismatic than the average everyman. Unlikely heroes are simply characters who may not be conspicuously flawed, but simply ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Unlike traditional heroes, antiheroes are not as fabulous as the traditional ones. They are generally corrupt, oppressive, etc. They usually fight villains, but not for the reason of justice. Their actions are motivated by their own personal desires, such as revenge. For example, an antihero may steal, vandilize, and perform other ‘bad’ acts but may do so for a good cause.

Modern-day heroes have enjoyed an increased moral complexity. In 1930, The Shadow was fully developed and transformed into a pop culture antihero icon by pulp writer Walter B. Gibson. Mid-20th century playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard showcased antiheroic protagonists recognizable by their lack of identity and determination. Pulp fiction and noir detective stories of the mid-20th century saw characters such as Sam Spade, who lacked the glorious appeal of previous heroic figures, become popular. Influenced by the pulps, early comic books featured antiheroic characters such as Namor the Sub-Mariner (who would just as soon conquer humanity as try to save it).

Marvel Comics most prolific antihero is perhaps The Punisher, who is more than willing to kill those who he views as deserving of death. Sergio Leone’s ‘spaghetti westerns’ showcased a wandering vigilante (the ‘Man with No Name’ played by Clint Eastwood) whose gruff demeanor clashed with other heroic characteristics. Frank Miller said that ‘Sin City’ character Marv is said to be the story’s equivalent of an antihero. One of the more famous female antiheroes is Catwoman, who was historically a supervillainess foe of Batman. Her usual crime was burglary, but she is not evil as she has her own moral code, and abhors killing. Catwoman has even, on occasion, helped Batman fight crime and villains in East End.

Many modern antiheroes possess, or even encapsulate, the postmodern rejection of traditional values symptomatic of Modernist literature in general, as well as the disillusion felt after World War II and the Nuclear Age. The continuing popularity of the antihero in modern literature and popular culture may be based on the recognition that a person is fraught with human frailties, unlike the archetypes of the white-hatted cowboy and the noble warrior, and is therefore more accessible to readers and viewers. This popularity may also be symptomatic of the rejection by the avant-garde of traditional values after the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s.

In the postmodern era, traditionally defined heroic qualities, akin to the classic ‘knight in shining armor’ type, have given way to the ‘gritty truth’ of life, and authority in general is being questioned. The brooding vigilante or ‘noble criminal’ archetype, seen in characters like Detectives Vic Mackey and Dirty Harry, is slowly becoming part of the popular conception of heroic valor rather than being characteristics that are deemed unheroic.

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