My previous post about superheroes got me thinking about the rising popularity of antiheroes. In attempting to define antiheroes, however, there seems to be some conflict as to whether an antihero is a protagonist who happens to be a villain or just a severely flawed hero. Several film history books (e.g. Richard Barsam’s Looking at Movies, Robert Sklar’s Movie Made America. Actually, I should note that Sklar’s book only implies antihero status, as it does in fact refer to such characters as the “heroes” of their given movies) express the opinion that the main characters in early gangster movies (e.g. Scarface. Little Caesar) were the first antiheroes. This is the first approach I mentioned: the antihero as a protagonist who happens to be a villain. I, however, take the second approach.
The way I usually hear the term used nowadays, an antihero is a character that essentially does do some classically heroic things, but has a number of characteristics that do not match the classical archetype of the hero. In other words, my opinion is that the antihero is a severely (sometimes fatally) flawed hero. Also, the majority of these kinds of characters tend to be highly angsty. On this basis, I would argue that the first antihero was Hamlet. In the first place, Hamlet does have several heroic characteristics. *spoiler alert* Hamlet was attempting to avenge the murder of his father and prevent his father’s murderer not only from corrupting his mother but from ruling his father’s kingdom. At it’s base, this was a classically noble and heroic cause (in other words, his intentions were well meant). However, he also had several fatal flaws which, in my opinion, made him an antihero. For example, Hamlet begins as a rather lazy, complacent, and whiny fellow. Upon meeting with what he presumes is the ghost of his father (as opposed to it’s being a well-disguised demon or a hallucination), who then instructs Hamlet to murder his uncle for revenge, he slowly begins to go insane. At first, Hamlet pretends to be insane, but by the end it’s pretty obvious that he’s totally lost his marbles. Honestly, though, what man wouldn’t go at least a little insane after accidentally killing the wrong man and causing the woman he loved to commit suicide – after having gone insane as well. So, while Hamlet’s intentions were good and his cause just, he did cause a huge amount of damage to innocent bystanders and end up going looney. And, I might add, he’s one of the most angsty characters in the history of drama.
Off the top of my head, a vaguely similar example of the whole Hamlet type character would be the television character Dexter Morgan. *another spoiler alert; seriously don’t read this paragraph if you haven’t already watched every episode* Dexter’s mother was brutally murdered, causing him to go just a little nuts at a very young age. Dexter’s adoptive father trained him to kill serial killers as a outlet for his “urge to kill.” The backstory up to this point is that Dexter has been pretty much alright; he goes around killing bad guys and otherwise leads a relatively normal life. This changes, starting with the first season. When Dexter finds out that his long-lost brother is not only a serial killer but also that he is going to kill Dexter’s adoptive sister, he is forced to kill his brother. During the second season, the guilt from killing his brother starts to make him insecure and vulnerable for the first time and he becomes victimized by a very manipulative and insane woman. It’s around this time that Dexter begins having visions of his father. This is also reminiscent of Hamlet. Beginning with the self-destructively stupid act of allowing himself to get caught in a murder in the third season, Dexter’s acts of foolishness and incidents of taking unnecessary risks increase rapidly until his decision to continually put off killing a particularly nasty serial killer during the fourth season results in the bloody death of his wife. This isn’t exactly like Hamlet, but it’s still remarkably similar. This causes him to lose, perhaps, all but one or two marbles. As far as angst, Dexter usually expresses his through voice-over narration. Unlike Hamlet, the entire police station hasn’t ended up dead. But hey, they just started a new season so who knows.
Aside from the Dexter example, there are numerous other instances of the antihero in today’s cinema/TV. Kind of an odd example of the antihero would be television’s Veronica Mars; a character who occupies the role of a private detective fighting for the “little guy,” but ends up destroying the lives of several innocent people because of her sleazy tactics and manipulative use of men. This character exemplifies why I usually dislike antiheroes. A second odd example is the character Skeeter Bronson in the 2008 film Bedtime Stories. Although the point of the film is that he takes care of his nephew and niece and “gets the girl” in the end, Skeeter consistently behaves as a jerk to almost everyone – including the girl he’s after – and has generally made a mess of his life. Admittedly, this character is not really that angsty, but he’s certainly too flawed to be called the hero of the story. Therefore, he’s the antihero of the story. Not to make a theme of this, but another example would be many of the vampire characters that have come about recently. “I’m a good vampire. I catch bad guys and only drink cow blood… but I’m just so angsty I-I-I, oops I just killed my beloved, darn it! I guess i’ll just have to be angsty some more.”
I’ve heard arguments that the main characters from movies like The Player (1992), Citizen Kane (1941), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) were antiheroes because they started off as normal or even pure-hearted characters and turned into villains during the course of the story. But it seems to me that these are just stories about how villains became villains in the first place. As such, they would fit into the other definition of an antihero, but they wouldn’t fit mine because they do not have good intentions or heroic tendencies throughout their stories.
The reason I bring all this up is that it seems like a good deal of the would-be hero characters in modern media are actually antiheroes. The theory behind this is that having more ambiguous characters is more realistic. However, I disagree with this theory. In reality, all types of people exist: heroic types, antiheroic types, villains, etc. I can accept the frequent use of antiheroes as a current trend, but it’s certainly not a more or less realistic kind of character the the classical hero archetype.