the anti-hero

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I had a great conversation with my dad last weekend – considering it was another one of those “conversations where we try to adamantly disagree with still listening intently to one another.” My dad tried to venerate the old western brawls where the good guy is clearly identified and always wins, and what relief and escape it brings to watch a film that centers on that. However, in my opinion, I (and speaking on behalf of and the 20-somethings of today) simply don’t buy into the simplicity of the archetypal “good guy in the white hat” and “bad guy in the black hat” any more. We just don’t accept heroes the way they have historically been presented, largely due to the disillusionment of my generation with anything resembling those white knights in our real world. It seems that we just don’t want to suspend our disbelief for a movie to watch a hero with no character flaws. We will willingly do it for heroes with seemingly unlimited technological or monetary resources, for heroes from other worlds and planets, and for heroes with unprecedented physical mutations, but not for ones from dear old earth who just seem to have it all together. Please don’t mistake this commentary as criticism, as I find myself firmly placed within this crowd who has no interest in watching the virtuous hero tackle villain after villain, obstacle after obstacle without a speck of dirt on his own crisp, white shirt.

The question, then, is exactly what kind of hero is my generation looking for? If we look at what blockbusters tell us about what sells movie tickets, the answer is clearly still heroes – but in this era they look different than has previously been the case. From the epic Harry Potter dynasty concluding in 2011 with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Pt. 2), to the Dark Knight Trilogy – Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and the Dark Knight Rises (2012), the Iron Man Trilogy – I (2008), II (2010), III (2013), and who can forget the summer chart-topper of last year that was The Avengers! What we delight to spend our hard-earned money on at the movies are heroes with flaws. While this may be a relatively new focus in cinema popularity, the concept is not new. The anti-hero, or Byronic hero, has been around since the beginning of time, but has clearly taken a backseat in popularity to the archetypal white knight hero.

James Bonnet’s article “Exploring the Dark Side: The Anti-Hero’s Journey” describes the difference between the usual “hero” and the less virtuous “anti-hero” by the motivations of a higher or lower nature, respectively. One is motivated by higher, more pure motivations to improve the world and to seize the day. The other, motivated by greed, revenge, or selfishness, still finds him or herself sacrificing for others, just with less selflessness behind those actions. Bonnet goes on to describe another more common occurrence in film for the current culture – the way a villain becomes an anti-hero, namely, by the audience changing their perception when they see then way he/she became a villain, and begins to focus on the humanity of that character. He concludes the article with this quote:

In truth, we owe a great debt to fictional villains and antiheroes. They create the problems the heroes have to solve and that creates the need for a story that reveals the inner workings of the dark side of our selves. Without Darth Vader and the Evil Emperor, there would be no Evil Empire, and there would be no need to save the galaxy. Without Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill, there would be no problem for Clarice and the FBI to solve. And without those problems, there would be no revelations concerning the basic struggle between good and evil, and nothing to report in story. Without the actions of these negative forces, there would be very few stories to tell, and the forces that motivated Hitler and Jack the Ripper would remain forever a mystery to us. Coming to terms with the dark side in story helps us to come to terms with the dark side in ourselves.

Urban Dictionary is a Web-based dictionary of slang words and phrases. Here, the anti-hero is defined as “a flawed hero, and therefore, much more interesting than the more traditional heroes. They can be working on the side of good, but with a tragic flaw, or a horrible past, or for reasons that are selfish and not entirely ‘pure’. They can also be working for the side of evil, but with hidden noble intentions, or other underlying complexities. These darker heroes can be jerks, pathetic, hard, jaded, or mean. However, all anti-heroes must have enough heroic qualities, intentions, or strength (physical including attractiveness or mental) to somehow gain the sympathy of the audience.” In addition, another comment on the subject by UD – “The anti-hero has become more popular with society today because people can identify better with the good-guy who sometimes does the not-so-good things; the hero who does no wrong is outdated and is becoming increasingly irrelevant in this day and age. They are the product of a society in which the line between good and bad is becoming harder to tell.” Finally, one more commenter wrote that an anti-hero is one who “recognizes the world for precisely what it is, harbors no illusions as to his place within it, and adjusts his fundamental character accordingly. Lesser individuals often–and perhaps appropriately–label him a volatile outsider, and though his mind and soul are usually tortured, his heart is generally set to the right frequency. Call him a hero who knows better.

Our younger generation is well-associated with this particular brand of hero. We love our Tony Stark, our James Bond, our Wolverine, our Dark Knight, even our Han Solo. None of these are characters that are new, really. Most are old stories re-done, or comic books re-mastered. But even just the gap of years between my dad and I reveals a group of people who hardly recognize that Luke Skywalker was the hero of that story, rather than his charmingly antagonistic sidekick, Han Solo, who we choose to admire.  We want a hero who is imaginable – one who is reminiscent of real people with flaws, perhaps with great resources or motivation, but one who has made, and continues to make mistakes. The redemption of that hero is hopeful, not simple. It is a message of redemption that promises courage in the face of our society’s woes, and one that is precisely what we need in the darkness of our times.

James: “Why is he running, Dad?”

Commissioner: “Because we have to chase him.”

James: “He didn’t do anything wrong.”

Commissioner: “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So, we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero: He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector… a dark knight.”

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(What about the villains of our films today? Stay tuned next week for a post on cinematic terrors and our favorite villains!)

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