The Best Antiheroes Of All Time And What Makes Them Great

Antiheroes have a long history, interesting characteristics, and a unique place in culture. What makes antiheroes such an enduring archetype and who are the best?
source: overthinkingit

What is an antihero?

An antihero is a central character archetype that lacks typical heroic characteristics. While these characteristics vary between cultures and times, common qualities that an antihero might lack are courage, compassion, altruism, and even a sense of morality. This doesn't mean that they have to be without virtue, it simply means they aren't as squarely heroic as typical heroes.

With this simple definition, it can sometimes be tempting to see certain villains as antiheroes. But one important facet of the definition makes this impossible. The antihero must be a central character. This means that the audience must receive the story from the perspective of the antihero.

The Joker is a prime example of how the similarities of a villain and an antihero can blur the line of distinction. For nearly all of the character's appearances he takes the role of a villain. Batman is the protagonist through whom the audience views the story, while the Joker serves as opposition. While his motives might be expanded on to lend understanding, the story's point of view is always heavily subjected to the point of view of Batman. 

While in almost all other interactions the Joker stays firmly in the role of villain, in 2019's Joker, the character took up the mantle of an antihero. This comes down to one important fact: Arthur Fleck who became the Joker over the film was the subjective point of view that the audience saw the narrative through. Simply by being the main character the Joker transitions from what would be a villain to an antihero, because the change in subjectivity allows for the audience to engage with Arthur's heinous actions in an honest way built on understanding rather than judgment.

But antiheroes might not always be villainous under other circumstances. Some simply lack certain traits that keep them from being true heroes. What this means is that antiheroes as a whole exist on a spectrum of morality, ranging from the flawed good guys to outright repugnant characters with perhaps a single bit of decency if any. While their actions can often be unforgivable, the audience understands how and why they were made. It's for this exact moral grayness that antiheroes make for some of the most interesting characters of all time.

Why are antiheroes so popular? 

Image Source: thoughtco

When I was a child I found a wallet with forty dollars in it on the ground. I rushed home and showed my newfound riches to my mother. It was the most money I had held up to that point in my life, and I thought I could make it last forever. Much to my dismay, my mother said I had to return it to the owner who happened to live down the street.

She explained just how bad it was to steal, and how losing the wallet could affect our neighbor in ways I had never imagined. I understood what she was saying, and had no intention of keeping any of his identification or credit cards. But on the walk to his house, I couldn't shake the feeling that I deserved the forty dollars. After all, I was returning things to him that in the wrong hands could have hurt him far more than losing forty dollars. In my mind, I deserve to keep the money as a reward for not doing the worst thing.

In the end, he thanked me and closed the door, leaving me feeling like an absolute loser for handing the money over. I walked back home with my head down and wondering how doing the right thing could feel so wrong.

Within a month I sat with my father far past my bedtime to watch a movie I was far too young to watch, Goodfellas. Ever since the opening lines of Ray Liotta’s narration have stuck with me. Because in that instance I realized I wanted to be a gangster.

Gangsters in the movie did exactly what I wanted to do, they took what they wanted, and did what they wanted. They didn't listen to the rules others made up, and I was instantly enthralled by the characters being bad guys, yet making it seem so great.

My views on morality have changed a lot since I was in kindergarten, and I understand why people shouldn't behave the way Scorsese's mobsters do. But I understand the appeal of the characters, and why they're so interesting. The appeal comes from the fact that somewhere in most if not all human beings, there is a bit of bad that can relate to the deeds of antiheroes.

Long before I watched Goodfellas in Superman pajamas, antiheroes were being used in stories as far back as antiquity. Hercules killed his music teacher's brother in a fit of madness, Medea killed her children in an act of revenge against her husband Jason, and Theseus abandons Ariadne on an island after she helps him defeat the minotaur. Later Faustus would sell his soul to the devil for knowledge, Macbeth would commit regicide for power, and Milton's Satan would defy God out of pride and jealousy.

In the modern age, it seems that the roster of antiheroes is expanding at an even greater pace. Films are littered with morally dubious icons we come to understand and even revere. Comic books in the nineties had an explosion of antiheroes often gravitating towards the ultra-violent. At the turn of the twenty-first century, some proclaimed a new golden age of television, which boasts some of the most notable antiheroes of all time, many of which are credited with making the broadcasting renaissance possible.

With such an impressive legion of characters, it is strange that often the antihero is thought of as some caricature of what the archetype is. All too often the antihero is only thought of in terms of extreme violence and shock value. But what this long-running archetype has to offer is a cast of characters diverse enough to warrant several sub-archetypes to fully show the breadth of personalities that fall under such a broad label.

But no matter the antihero they all serve the same function, to be an analog to emotions and thoughts that the audience has had even if they don't align with the audience's true morals. By doing this they act as an outlet, to show the course such actions would take touching on some small part of subconscious fantasy in the mind of the audience, or to serve as a cautionary tale.   

Here are the antiheroes of all time:

1. Vigilantes: Vigilante antiheroes embody ideas of vengeance mixed with righteousness in the face of an unjust world.

Vigilantes are useful in showing the flaws in systems that everyday people see as unjust, or broken. But they are also equally important for showing that an individual taking violent measures is never the answer. There is always a shred of righteousness behind any antihero taking the law into their own hands. However, as soon as they begin to enact the measures against whatever the perceived wrong is, their flawed humanity shows through more than the issue they set out to fix.

On the most optimistic side of the spectrum, audiences are given Robin Hood types, thieves who rarely kill or harm but still take less than honorable measures to right the wrongs of their society, but they never make any meaningful impacts to the greater system. On the opposite end, we are given vigilantes like the Punisher who so brutally kills criminals that his actions leave viewers realizing there is no justice in his actions only maddened rage. 

So with grievances however justified they may be, and a dose of power fantasy vigilante antiheroes work through the complexities of justice, right vs wrong, and violence. Just a bit of fair warning, it never really works out for them.

Rorschach, Watchmen

Rorschach Watchmen
Image Source: inverse

Comic books are filled with vigilantes. Pretty much all superheroes in some way are vigilantes. But while most embody classically heroic qualities, there is a whole cast of antiheroes as well. The most famous character of them to be considered an antihero is Batman. But the character often steers closer to his classically heroic peers, with notable exceptions.

Other comic book antiheroes delve into the darker tendencies of vigilantism, like the Punisher who operates solely in the shadier parts of the grayscale driven by rage more than anything. But Rorschach stands out for a simple reason. He is a deep dive into what exactly makes the vigilante antihero tick, and the nuances they overlook.

Rorschach as a character is an absolutist. He sees only good, and evil with no middle ground. In turn, he sees himself as the one to punish the evil. While this is very much in the same vein as the Punisher, but the Punisher sees the gray of morality. It is a small difference but one that makes a massive impact.

Rorschach's absolutist views give his character a unique flavor. He comes across as part apocalyptic preacher and part brutalist crusader. In his unyielding persecutions, he tortures for information, doles out cruel punishments, and is willing to sacrifice not only himself but everything in the name of his ideals. 

The ideals of his character are also of importance because they're incredibly disturbing. Being a moral absolutist, he sees any perceived wrong as pure evil. This leads to him rage against his landlady for having multiple children by different fathers, and being on welfare while owning rental property in the same way he rages at actually heinous crimes. This lumping together of all wrongs, bound up in his morality, yet justified by a radical philosophy turns him into a terrifying zealot.

This zealotry is exactly the purpose of his character. He serves as a critique, and study of antihero vigilantes and their unquestioning persecutions. Rorschach takes a vigilante’s self-perceived righteousness to the logical extreme, and in turn, sheds light onto the deeply troubling aspects of such extreme self-belief.

Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Salander
Image Source: polygon

Armed with expertise in hacking, genius intellect, and a unique morality Lisbeth Salander is a highly effective vigilante. Hyper focusing on men who hurt women, Lisbeth uses her traumatic life as fuel to enact her sense of justice on those who fit her criteria.

One of the unique aspects of Lisbeth's character in comparison to many other vigilantes is the restraints placed on her agency. Due to her status as a ward of the state and her past commitments to mental institutions, she faces severe restrictions by the government on her personal freedoms.

This creates an interesting dynamic for a vigilante. Oftentimes vigilantes work outside the law, or against the corruption of the law through overtly illegal means. But Lizbeth's situation forces her to use her expertise to maneuver far more carefully than others to obtain freedom through the very system that would oppose her actions.

What stems from this is the development of a particularly covert vigilante, who must find ways around obstacles rather than beating them down and moving on. This doesn't mean that she doesn't enact vigilante justice per her own philosophies, in fact, she has a particularly sadistic style to her justice. But what it does is add extra weight to her skills beyond retribution.

The perfect example is her revenge against her abusive guardian. After the man strips her of her freedoms, he uses them as leverage to sexually assault Lizbeth. As horrible as this situation is, Lizbeth understands the predicament and videotapes the assault to use as leverage against the man and win back her freedoms. On top of this, she enacts one of the most sadistic yet fitting punishments a vigilante has carried out in recent memory.

It is this element of her struggle that makes her driving force such a potent one. While many vigilantes suffer some injustice, or see injustice and thus act on it; Lizbeth continues to face hardship at the hands of systems and individuals alike. While this makes a compelling and sympathetic motivation for her character, it also lends an understanding to her often extreme actions.    

2. Criminals: Criminal antiheroes reflect wants for power, success, and self-realization in the face of laws and societal norms. 

Where vigilantes take the law into their own hands, criminals turn their back on the law altogether. If the vigilante fulfills dark desires for justice, the criminal satisfies ours wants for power and success at justice's expense. 

Criminals so often are framed as the villain and many criminal antiheroes can be misconstrued as such. But it is important to remember that antiheroes' actions are always done for the right reasons. But these reasons might not follow conventional morality. A trope often used for the criminal antihero is that they do what they do for their family.

But the family could be replaced with the criminal organization they work for, in a criminal version of patriotism. Similarly, they could work to expand the criminal empire, mimicking any story of a start-up company but theirs doesn't pay taxes and can't call the police if they're robbed. The reason could be as simple as pursuing their passion the way an artist might despite the world telling them it is foolish. 

The important thing is that the character pursues their goals for a reason and that the audience understands the motivation and holds some empathy for the character.  

Yuri Orlov, Lord of War

Yuri Orlov Lord of War
Image Source: slantmagazine

What would you do if one day you discovered you have a talent for something that very few have the penchant for, and even fewer consider moral? That is the question at the heart of Yuri Orlov's character. His talent happens to be selling guns, to very questionable people. 

Like so many criminal antiheroes, Yuri is shown to come from humble beginnings and want more from his life than his current lot. Throughout the film, he rises to unimaginable heights yet loses everything close to him. So far it would seem Yuri is par for the course of any criminal antihero.

But what sets him apart is his unrelenting love for what he does. Where many criminal antiheroes are good at what they do but love the power and money more, Yuri’s criminal enterprise is his true passion in life. He gets the woman of his dreams only to lose her just as he loses his family, but he takes a kind of solace in the fact that he not only gets to do what he loves, but he’s the best at it.

What he does happens to be a trade that causes death and suffering for untold numbers of people, and the film doesn’t shy away from this, Yuri doesn’t even shy away from it. He openly acknowledges it and states that it is a necessary part of the way governments work, a necessity that he fills and enjoys doing so.

This combination of strange passion, raw talent, and honesty is what makes Yuri so enduring. Because although his life’s work is the wholesale of murder and war, for all intents and purposes Yuri Orlov is a realized man. Despite losing everything an individual holds dear he seems to only gain a clearer view of the world through his version of stoicism.

 By the end, Yuri seems soulless yet the viewer understands how passionate he is, the viewer knows how vile his trade is but knows the creativity it takes to do it. The viewer learns to hate and admire Yuri in equal measure, wanting to never be in his shoes yet wishing they could do what they loved.

Walter White, Breaking Bad

Walter White
Image Source: cheatsheet

Walter White is no stranger to discussions relating to great characters. The character is often situated along with the likes of Tony Soprano and other criminal icons of cinema and television. At this point, it’s a cliché. But there are multiple aspects to Walter White’s character that serve to illustrate the potency of the criminal antihero’s place in storytelling.

The fact that Walter begins as an ordinary but unsatisfied man puts him in a perfect position of relatability. The addition of a cancer diagnosis adds sympathy, but it also creates motivation for his coming criminal activities. 

But with this firm basis of relatability, sympathy, and understandable motive the show never tries to paint Walter as a solely good man. Instead in ways, both large and small the show reinforces the fact that Walt is driven by ego and a lust for power. Two things that had been neglected for most of his life became deciding factors in his decision-making.

This ego-driven character grew over the seasons committing increasingly shocking acts to keep his power. From killing Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend to keep power over Jesse, to poisoning a child to manipulate Jesse, Walt increasingly sinks lower and lower in his pursuit for power and egotistical satisfaction. 

But the reason why audiences stuck with Walter was a mixture of the initial sympathies and relatability along with their awareness of Walt’s capabilities within the story. It was always hard to argue that Walt was a good man but he was good at what he did.

Ultimately when the character sunk low enough, he finally admits what the audience had been realizing for years. He admitted that beyond providing money for his family after his death, he did all he did because he liked it. 

While vile, this admission was completely understandable. He was a skilled chemist who left a successful company out of pride, now he was able to regain that missed success by using his talents in the methamphetamine trade and satisfy his ego. Where he was once a  passive man in a life where he had little control, he was now a powerful man with control over the lives of others. In the end, Walter White is effective because he was an individual who finally satisfied all that he wanted to be. Like Yuri Orlov, he became a realized individual through criminal means.  

3. Self-made Men: Self-made antiheroes shed light on seemingly legitimate characters to reveal the dark necessities for success in an unfair world. 

Titans of industry, visionaries, and those who have made fortunes have fascinated audiences for years. But with much more action-oriented antiheroes abounding, what does a self-made man with a few secrets have to offer? 

Similar in many ways to the criminal antihero, the self-made man or woman antihero serves as an analog for desires of success, albeit through what society considers legal avenues. But the ends in many stories involving antiheroes of this sort are often closer to the drastic actions of a criminal than an upstanding member of society. 

These characters can be charlatans using their charms to advance their business interests, hard workers who lack moral qualms, or ruthless opportunists. But there is always an element that they are not what they seem to be. Often the veneer of success hides a darker truth.

Balram Halwai, The White Tiger

Balram White Tiger
Image Source: indiewire

Balram is the antihero of the rags to riches story who rises from poverty to become a successful entrepreneur in India's booming economy. But while Balram is the founder of a car service, he hides the fact that the seed money for that company was stolen from his former employer whom he killed.

Early on The White Tiger shows the many facets of poverty and how India's class divisions are designed to keep large segments of the population under the thumb of the elites. Balram faces hard work for next to no pay, a family that drains any hope of financial freedom from him and being stripped of his education for his family's need of his labor. Not to mention the ridicule and degradation he faces at the hands of his employers.

But Balram is no saintly victim. His first move when he becomes a driver for a wealthy family is to usurp the lead driver role from another servant who secretly practices Islam. He exposes the man's faith to their anti-Islamic employers and successfully fills the role once the man is fired.

While Balram expresses a modicum of sympathy for the man, his willingness to exploit any and every weakness of those in his way is a defining characteristic of his character. Later most of his exploits target his employers, who are mostly despicable people with the notable exception of Ashok; who is still a morally dubious person as he willfully exploits the poor although he sometimes has the semblance of sympathy. Still, these sympathies come across as patronizing.

Nevertheless, Balram continues to work for the family, swindling them in several ways until he finally capitalizes on a moment and murders Ashok. Afterward, he starts his car service and looks after his young relative while teaching the boy to be as exploitive as he is. 

It is at this time that the audience learns that Balram's killing of Ashok most likely leads to the retaliatory killing of his entire family, something that doesn't seem to bother Balram at all.

Overall, Balram is a deeply self-centered character concerned only with financial and socio-economic gain. This is best illustrated when one of his drivers runs over a young man, and as compensation, Balram offers the family's son a job. The fact that he believes a job can replace the life of a loved one shows just how highly he values monetary gain, and how little he values life.

Despite these devious characteristics, Balram's story is relatively inspiring. All the ill that he does is matched by the hardship of his circumstance. Not to mention, that his employers use violence or the threat daily to maintain their position of wealth. In the end, Balram's roguish attributes seem more like a man seeing past a grand illusion and doing what is necessary to rise above a life of misery. Balram ultimately killed his masters to become the master of his destiny, and one can only look on in appreciation of the struggle. 

4. Misanthropes: Misanthropic antiheroes stand apart from society and speak grievances individuals might have but would never say, yet the misanthrope ultimately comes to find hope.

Misanthropy is a strong dislike for humankind, and there are a host of antiheroes who are misanthropes. This misanthropy is usually a coping mechanism born from trauma created by the worst aspects of humanity or the human experience.   

This characteristic serves to emphasize the antihero's status as an outsider. Yet the characters who are misanthropes also tend to be in professions or positions to protect or better society and individuals. It is also common for these characters to change throughout their arch to value humanity more or form some sort of hope for the species. 

The appeal of these characters is that they voice many of the frustrations humans have about our fellow man and our general nature as a species. From war to pollution, violent crimes to neglect there are plenty of ills humans bring into the world, and these characters cut past societal norms to criticize our species. Despite this catharsis of admitting collective guilt, audiences also enjoy seeing characters so disenfranchised in the end find hope meaning that the viewer can also. 

Rustin Cohle, True Detective

Rust Cohle True Detective
Image Source: rollingstone

The most striking part of Rustin Cole's character is his extreme misanthropy. There is hardly an exchange between him and any character that isn't drenched in nihilism, pessimism, and his disgust with the human species. This character goes as far as to say the only moral thing to do is for humans to stop breeding and willfully fade into extinction.

But extreme views aren't enough to make a character, even if they lead to some of the best dialogue put to television. Like many other misanthropic characters, Rust dedicates himself to his job. Rust shows himself to be the most dedicated of the detectives shown in the show. He spends long nights combing over evidence, he's the most skilled interrogator, he never stops thinking about the cases, and when any red tape arises he bypasses it all in the name of solving cases.

This extremely lopsided work-life balance is brilliantly shown in his apartment. The apartment is sparse with only a mattress and a table for furniture, and a small pocket mirror pinned to the wall. In contrast, another wall is covered with evidence for the show's main cast. Rust dedicates an entire wall to see his work, but a small pocket mirror to see himself.

This monumental commitment to work serves his character well by ingratiating him to the audience, who when presented cases as disturbing as those in the show, quickly admire the dedicated if prickly Rust.

But in a show so laden with trama, Rust's misanthropy is over time indirectly dissected to show a man who copes with the loss of a daughter, and years of deep undercover work by putting the world at a distance. In turn, his self-imposed isolation has bred resentment towards humanity. A trait that clashes with his job to catch a serial killer who harms a species he supposedly dislikes.

By the season's finale, Rust sorts through this clash and airs on the side of stark optimism after fifteen years of unrelenting pessimism. This change in character combined with the triumph over what seemed like an eldrich force rather than a serial killer serves the same purpose as most misanthrope arches.

Rust airs grievances with humanity that the may audience holds to some extent, creating a kind of catharsis. Then his character, who harbors hopelessness as the audience might feel to an extent, finds hope and thus shows how even the most lost and jaded of humanity can bring themselves back from the darkness. 

5. Obsessives: Obsessive antiheroes are consumed by a drive for perfection or achievement, but show the dangers of such intensity. 

Obsession is never seen as a positive characteristic. It denotes instability, a penchant for extremity, and a self that is deeply wounded in some way. This can take the form of a stocker, or of an individual who identifies too much with what they do. 

This character is always using the obsession in an attempt to fill some aspect of their life that is damaged or nonexistent. This can only end in two ways. Either they have a reality-shifting realization and move on from their obsession to fix what is wrong, or they delve too far and lose everything. 

These antiheroes serve as analogs of extreme passion and ambition. While audiences can relate to these drives, the obsessive is almost always shown in a tragic light as the audience can sympathize with them but rarely ever do they wish to be them.

Nina Sayers, Black Swan

Nina Sayers Black Swan
Image Source: popsugar

Nina lives for the ballet, and that is an understatement. Every aspect of her life is ruled by her need to be the best ballerina in the company. This need is connected to her childhood as every ounce of admiration and affection from her mother came through Nina's achievements in dance.

When a spot as prima ballerina opens, Nina sees this as her chance to finally have the limelight she obsesses over. But her position as top of the company is threatened by a newcomer who perfectly fits the role Nina desires.

What ensues is a twisted friendship and race towards warped perfection that sees Nina destroy her body and psyche as she embraces her dark side to become the coveted black swan.

In the end, Nina dies on stage from a self-inflicted stab wound, inflicted so that she would die on stage the perfect ballerina. The worst part is that she succeeds. In the end, her art is perfect and she dies with a tragic peace knowing that she destroyed herself and achieved perfection.

The message is clear, her obsession as all obsession with perfection leads her to her ruin. This combined with the fact that what is usually considered impossible is achieved leaves the audience with questions of what the price for excellence is. 

So often our society exalts those who achieve so much higher than the common person. They are held as beacons we are all to aspire to. Nina does this, she rises from greatness to perfection and it disintegrates her sanity before taking her life. If we are to aspire to be Nina, then are we to ruin ourselves and what for? Is it for a grand ideal of triumph, or to be consumed as an icon by those watching our story?

In the end, as with all obsessives, Nina's story serves as a cautionary tale. Her story is a tragedy that warns of living for the standards of others and losing your self-worth in the shadow of unrealistic perfection. 

If humanity was left to our own devices we would probably just eat chicken and watch movies, I know I would.

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