A wiseguy walks into a psychiatrist’s office. A high school chemistry teacher transforms from Mr. Chips into Scarface.
From Tony Soprano at the start of the decade to Walter White each Sunday night, the protagonists of our oft-cited “Golden Age of Television” tend to be antiheroes. That is, they might be heroes with three parts virtue to one part overwhelming character flaw, or they’re unconventional underdogs, or they’re just a different point of view or change of scenery away from being villains themselves.* We see shades of the phenomenon not only in critically acclaimed television dramas, but also in many of 2012′s blockbusters: selfish, arrogant Tony Stark in The Avengers; Daniel Craig’s thuggish take on James Bond in Skyfall; the desperate, brutally pragmatic Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games trilogy; and Batman as a brooding, past-his-prime recluse in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.
While old-fashioned white hats are still wildly popular and antiheroes themselves are hardly novel–Odysseus and Achilles both qualify when removed from their original Mycenaean context–they’re more prevalent in our culture than ever before. And for the sake of making our dramas more enriching and our social mores more nuanced, I think that’s for the best.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, though: when done wrong, antiheroes can be as artistically vapid and morally questionable as any trope. Even a show as wreathed in glory as The Wire had Jimmy McNulty, a stereotypical cowboy cop who was invariably the least interesting part of the show (while Ziggy Sobotka wasn’t around, anyways). In the hands of poorer writers–I’m looking at you, Frank Miller’s career since I’ve been alive–antiheroes can just become vehicles for adolescent fantasies. Thematically, in moving toward edgier territory, writers often lose the forest for the trees. Painting on more layers of gray can enrich the text, but it can also create a relativistic quagmire if you’re not careful, a common complaint leveled (unfairly, I should add) against the Coen brothers.
Fundamentally, antiheroes appeal to a dangerous instinct in our nature: our respect for and awe of power. Antiheroes can do things that regular heroes simply can’t. Anakin can strangle people with space magic and sever their hands, but Obi-Wan can only make them look for other droids. It’s the same reason Pauline Kael controversially decried Dirty Harry; dispensing justice without any need for courts has dangerous fascist overtones. Whether it’s Jack Bauer torturing an Eastern European or Middle Eastern terrorist (depending on the season) or Dexter Morgan turning the tables on a predator, antiheroes can appeal to a bloodlust with political ramifications. Even less extreme or apolitical characters, like Don Draper, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, and Justified’s Raylan Givens, are admired at least in part because they impose their will on others. Whether it’s administered through a trenchant pitch, a perspicacious monologue, or down the barrel of a gun, they all exude an aura of control.
Even with those fears in mind, though, it’s not difficult to see why writers are so drawn to the trope. From a simple plot perspective, the very real possibility of failure facing antiheroes, rather than just a predestined setback on the path to eventual victory, makes for much more interesting stories. They also make for more interesting character arcs because they have real demons to battle, such as Don Draper’s alcoholism or Dexter’s psychopathy, and those are battles they might lose. In capable hands, antiheroes can become more human and relatable than someone we happen to run across in the middle of their quest. Fate sends a winged chariot down to aid the hero; it pours burning pitch down a parapet while the antihero clambers up the wall. The reality of misfortune and misery, of genuine struggle, rings truer for the antihero. Potentially, then, the antihero is more accessible for the reader.
The antihero can also be a powerful moral example, thoughtlessly violent and vile though many antiheroes have been. The traditional hero is given his mission, often as a divine directive. The only thing pushing an antihero to be just, to use their power wisely and well, is their own moral compass. Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective Philip Marlowe is a perfect example, as are many of his noir counterparts. As Chandler once wrote, they’re people who walk down mean streets, but who are not themselves mean. I don’t think anything explains the appeal of antiheroes today better than the fact that they’re people, usually underdogs, faced with impossible choices and given nothing to guide them but themselves. In other words, they’re just more human than traditional heroes, failings and all.
On the other hand, antiheroes are also useful as deconstructive tools: they might walk and talk like heroes, but they can challenge our most basic notions of heroism. Last year’s instant cult classic Drive is the finest example of the tactic I can think of besides John Ford’s The Searchers. Stylized within an inch of its life by director Nicholas Winding Refn, Drive seems to be another action movie that owes a huge debt to Michael Mann’s synthesizer cool and the glossy veneer of 80s nostalgia. In fact, the nearly silent and anonymous Driver, played with terrifying, coiled physicality by Ryan Gosling, is a sociopath who just happens to be fighting for the good guys. The extent of his brutality–and man, is it extensive–undermines the aestheticized, bloodless violence of the movies Drive appears to emulate. In a movie consumed with the question of what it means to be a “real hero,” we get plenty of reminders that sharks playing at being good guys are still sharks. The scorpion still stings the frog.
Even in a movie as dark and challenging as Drive, the audience still gets confirmation that character is destiny. In that sense, antiheroes don’t change the foundations of old stories, but they do allow great writers to push those stories into challenging and thrilling territory, a frontier peopled with realistic characters who remind the audience of themselves. It’s the artistic allure and human appeal of that frontier, and not any pop psychology diagnosis of post-9/11 trauma, that explains why antiheroes are thriving. And it’s why, as long as there are writers to meet the need, they will endure.
*Walter White has since become an outright villain protagonist, likely beginning with a pivotal decision at the end of Season Two. Tony Soprano, of course, was a villain from the start, a monster who charmed his audience into forgiving the unforgivable.