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Beyond Good and Evil: The Allure of Anti-Heroes in Modern Cinema

Breaking Bad

Spoiler alert for Breaking Bad

An antihero is a central protagonist of a piece of fiction who does have the typical qualities of a hero. These qualities are things like bravery, humility, kindness etc. and instead have qualities like cowardice, selfishness and brutality. A classic cinema example would be Han Solo, or at least Han Solo at the beginning of Star Wars, certainly not a “bad guy” but after money, kills people without it troubling his conscience and pours scorn on the idealism of others. Luke Skywalker is a good example of a traditional hero – honest, noble and idealistic. An anti-hero will usually have a good aim but use methods that your typical hero would refuse to do, Deadpool was a recent example where the title character explicitly pushed away from the hero label, leaving a trail of bodies in pursuit of his aims.

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad // Credit: Sony Pictures Television

In recent years antiheroes are becoming more and more common and their “anti” hero status becoming more and more extreme. Breaking Bad gave us one of the all-time great anti-heroes in Walter White, the seemingly pleasant and mild chemistry teacher who upon diagnosis of cancer decides he needs to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible to provide for his family once he has died. So he starts making crystal meth. Now the goal of providing for his family is laudable, and at first, he is not concerned with treating his cancer, but helping those he loved. Walter’s anti-hero behaviour certainly crosses into just plain villain territory, with much debate as to when that happens, as well as making and selling an illegal and dangerous drug Walter kills people, uses violence and intimidation, works with truly terrible people who do terrible things. Throughout the show, Walter repeatedly states that he is doing this for his family but in the final episodes, he confesses that ultimately it wasn’t about that, that it was for him, for his ego. This could mean he was never an anti-hero – always a villain.

Loki

Loki //credit: Marvel Studios

Both in film and television Loki is a villain who has been gradually pushed into anti-hero status. In Thor, Loki conspires against his brother and father and is charming but clearly a villain. In Avengers his goal is simply to take over Earth, classic villain behaviour. But perhaps simply because of the character’s charm and Tom Hiddleston’s excellent performance fans really took to Loki and slowly but surely been pushed away from outright villainy. Looking at the tv show Loki the character clearly adopts more traditional heroic behaviours, in caring for others and not simply looking out for himself.

Why Do Audiences Like Anti-Heroes

Deadpool //credit: Marvel Studios

The ideal of the movie hero, say various depictions of Robin Hood, is not something that really exists in reality. And often even movie heroes are boring. It’s telling that in the recent Marvel films, it was Iron Man, the sarcastic, hedonistic, cynical character who became the leader, over the far more traditional hero of Captain America. Even the best of people in reality and complicated and flawed and audiences want to see that in characters (at least some of the time). Two types of heroes from classic cinema are “cowboys” in Westerns and police officers who are often seen as daring, brave, loyal and decent people. But immediately people recognise that both of these archetypes are complicated, the days of assuming police officers and the organisation as inherently noble are long gone, and to say the world of cowboys is morally complicated is a vast understatement. Also, they can be more interesting and fun, Deadpool is fun, and James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is fun.

Like so many things in culture, these things are trends and at some point, audiences will yearn for more typical heroes. One of the nadirs of anti-heroes was Dexter, not for the performance of the actors but for choosing someone so utterly reprehensible as the anti-hero, often worse than the “villains” he targeted. It’s hard to imagine getting any deeper into the barrel of a character not possessing the traditional attributes of a hero. Perhaps soon we will the trend change and heroes become more obviously heroic.

Also Read: The Evolution of Female-Led Superhero Films

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Posted by
Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.