The Antihero

Written by: Jacob Baggett

  • The antihero partakes in criminal actions in order to perform his/her heroic duties.
  • The antihero can be a villain recast as a hero.
  • The antihero generally suffers from a struggle with the moral ambiguity of his/her actions.
  • The audience can identify with an antihero because of his/her struggles
  • The antihero generally experiences an event similar to the “turning point” of an ordinary hero.[1] Typically, this follows one of two patterns: The use of death as a motivation to force the antihero to use violence, or the use of financial ruin as a motivation.

The antihero is commonly classified as a flawed hero, in particular one who struggles with morality. This struggle constitutes a crisis the character needs to overcome. The antihero might perform immoral actions, such as murder, to accomplish his or her goals. Often an antihero is a repurposed villain. Paradise Lost, published by John Milton in 1667, establishes Satan as the protagonist of the story, which discusses the “Fall of Man” or the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden.[2] Satan is traditionally a biblical antagonist, but Milton recasts Satan as an antihero rather than as a villain. He has no confliction towards cheating, lying, and stealing unlike other antiheros. However, he shares with them the desire to resist authority and seek independence. David Loewenstein claims that Satan’s “desire” to rebel against his creator is his primary fault.[3] This rebellious trait constructs Satan’s identity as an antihero. Milton’s use of rebellion allows for Satan as a antihero in Paradise Lost because other than his identity of a rebel he lacks the usual internal struggle common in the antihero paradigm. Rebellion is common in the antihero paradigm because this type of hero usually has his/her own interests in mind even if he/she is working for the greater good.

One could argue that because Satan is evil that he does not fit

the paradigm of the antihero. However, he believes he fights for the greater good, or at least the greater good that benefits him, and because of this, he can be classified as an antihero. Milton’s Satan is interesting because of this dual contrast. He is clearly a villain, but Milton allows Satan to exist simultaneously as the villain of the Christian religion and as a hero to the demons living in hell. For the reader he is a mix between a villain and an antihero, but it is difficult to hate him as a villain because he is eloquent in his speech, and he yearns for freedom and independence as human beings do. His various speeches are utterly convincing and well written the audiences sympathize with him.

More modern examples of contemporary antiheros include Oliver Queen from Arrow[4]; Danny Ocean from Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels[5]; Walter White from Breaking Bad[6]; and Cole MacGrath from Infamous[7] and Infamous 2.[8] These characters differ from Milton’s Satan because they are not villains recast as heroes. Rather they are ordinary people who often perform less-than-heroic-actions to accomplish their goals. For example, Oliver Queen has to kill in order to prevent his home from being destroyed by the corrupt men and women who attempt to destroy Starling City[9]. In another example, Walter White makes and sells meth to ensure the financial success of his family.

The antihero generally suffers from the moral ambiguity of the actions he/she performs. Antiheros follow a similar path to that of the ordinary or obscure hero. Before he/she becomes an antihero, he/she is an average person until he/she experiences a turning point in his/her story that forces him/her into heroic action. The antihero turning point generally follows one of two patterns, though several other variations of these patterns are utilized in plot formation. The first case follows the hero who experiences a life-threatening situation. The antihero either responds with violence or dies. Oliver Queen exemplifies this as he learns to kill on an island where the only law is survival of the fittest. The antihero can also face a situation where he/she has to act heroically or he/she risks financial ruin, such as in the case of Walter White, who sells meth to ensure the financial success of his family. In another example, Danny Ocean needs to perform the heist of Ocean’s Eleven because he is fresh out of prison and financially destitute. However, he has an alternative purpose to committing the crime as well as financial gain.[10]

The antihero appears to be a common criminal, but he/she usually strives to work for the greater good even if it requires the use of criminal deeds. In Arrow, Oliver has to save the city, but in order to do it he has to lie and kill. Breaking Bad’s Walter wants to save his family from financial ruin, but he has to sell meth in order to do so. However, the antihero’s criminal activities raise the question of why we, as viewers, are attracted to him/her despite his/her illicit deeds. Most antiheroes are designed to be somewhat likeable even though they go outside of the law.[11] For example, Danny Ocean, a professional thief, can get away with most of his schemes because people like him and are willing to help him even if it means participating in criminal activities. Antiheroes might lie, cheat, steal, and kill, but deep down, they are good people who must use illegal actions to accomplish their goals, and the audience is able to appreciate what antiheroes do and like them despite their actions.

Danny Ocean from Ocean’s Eleven courtesy of http://brendanwaldron.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/bag-end/

Antiheroes are flawed and this makes them more approachable because the audience can relate to these characters and sympathize with them as people rather than as criminals. The audience justifies the antihero’s deeds as necessary crimes. Danny Ocean is a thief, but he is charismatic and friendly. This allows the audience to justify his heists because he only steals from those who can afford to lose money taken from them. In another example, Oliver Queen is technically a murderer, but the audience does not view him this way because we saw him tortured on the island for five years. The audience knows he had to kill on the island to survive, and we are willing to accept that fact. Similarly, the audience is willing to forgive the murders he commits when he returns home because they are for the greater good of the city.[12] Danny and Oliver commit crimes that would otherwise ostracize them from most communities; however, because of their flaws and likeable natures the audience is able to overlook the worst of their crimes by justifying them as necessary deeds rather than illegal crimes.

What do you think?
  1. Antiheros are often forced to violence or to financial crimes. The hero forced to violence often has to kill in order to escape being killed themselves, and the hero forced to commit crimes to ensure financial success generally faces destitution if they otherwise fail. Understand that these are simply two common patterns found as the antihero’s turning point, and these can experience various changes throughout storytelling. What do you think some other possible patterns are? Click here to see some sample answers.

[1] A Turning point is an event that forces the hero to heroic action.

[2] This version of Milton is accessible through a database published by Dartmouth College
Thomas H Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton, July 1 2013.

[3] David Loewenstein, “The Seventeenth-century Protestant English Epic” in The Cambridge Companion to the Epic, Catherine Bates, ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 155

[4] Stephen Amell. Arrow. Television. Directed by Guy Norman Bee et al. (Burbank: Warner Brothers Television Distribution, 2012-2013)

[5] George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Ocean’s Eleven. DVD. Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Burbank: Warner Brothers, 2001)
George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Ocean’s Twelve. DVD. Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Burbank: Warner Brothers, 2004)
George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Ocean’s Thirteen. DVD. Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Burbank: Warner Brothers, 2007)

[6] Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad. Television. Directed by Michelle MacLaren et al (Culver City: Sony Pictures Television, 2008-2013)

[7] Infamous (PS3), Sucker Punch Productions (Sony Computer Entertainment, 2009).

[8] Infamous 2 (PS3), Sucker Punch Productions (Sony Computer Entertainment, 2011).

[9] There is an organization in the series that believes that the city can only be saved by destroying the slums and killing thousands of people

[10] His ex-wife is the girlfriend of Terry Benedict, the man he plans to rob. Danny’s plan includes a way for him to win her back.

[11] For a psychological perspective on this idea of why we enjoy antiheroes please see this source: Arthur A. Raney and Daniel M. Shafer, “Exploring How We Enjoy Antihero Narratives,” Journal of Communication 62, no 6 (December 2012): 1028-1046, accessed July 3, 2013, http://ejournals.ebsco.com/Direct.asp?AccessToken=3P-P1XZ811ON2QD0T-DTX1MDES218-NZZ&Show=Object.

[12] Oliver Queen is forced to kill the corrupt men and women because they refuse the correct their error of their ways and continue to hurt the innocent citizens of Starling City.