The Antihero Trend In Film & TV

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The term “antihero” gets thrown around quite a bit in fiction analysis and commentary, to the point that it’s a pretty easy word to brush over. However, before you ignore the term as a pretentious or meaningless label, you may want to take a minute to think about some of the biggest heroes of fiction from the past decade. When you really think about it, you may be surprised how far many of them are from displaying typical heroic characteristics.

Oddly enough, the modern trend in antiheroes probably begins in what many would call an unexpected place: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy—and no, we’re not talking about the Joker (who was cool enough to root for thanks to Heath Ledger’s brilliance, but still far from hero, or antihero status). Rather, Batman himself, many fiction fanatics’ pick as the ultimate good guy, actually displays a number of qualities that we can only deem worth of antihero status, and which have even helped to connect the character with the viewing, adoring public. He’s known as the “Dark Knight” for a reason, after all.

This topic has actually been covered in depth on numerous occasions, with What Culture having written up a thorough and detailed look at Batman’s antihero qualities, both in the recent films and in comic book lore. The most significant point is that, for all his moral decency, Batman is a vigilante, and at times borders on rebel or fugitive status; he’s uncompromising in pursuit of of what he and he alone determines justice. But beyond these points, Batman, particularly in the recent films, is often seen wrestling with moral dilemmas and pitting his own desires against “what’s right.” Murder his parents’ killer or let the courts do their job? Save Rachel Dawes or rescue Harvey Dent? Surveil Gotham City out of crime-fighting necessity or allow the people to retain basic privacy?

The moral teetering of the character is one of his most fascinating traits, and also one that helps to keep Batman alive in aspects of pop culture well beyond film and comic books. Specifically in gaming, fans simply love to put themselves in the Dark Knight’s shoes (or cape), weighing decisions for the greater good. This sort of issue certainly plays a role in the wildly popular Arkham video game series, and perhaps it’s also why the Caped Crusader is such a mainstay even in casino gaming, where he’s commonly used as artwork inspiration and backdrop for various arcade games online. Even at the Intercasino online gaming arcade you’ll find a Batman themed slot machine (where your moral dilemma is whether or not to pull the lever!). Basically, it seems that Batman’s occasional struggle over what’s right appeals to fans who deal with the same struggle on a day-to-day basi
s, and enjoy seeing the concept played out dramatically.

And if Batman himself can be declared an antihero, are any of our other popular protagonists safe from the label? Recent television would respond with a resounding “No,” as the antihero has essentially become a necessary element of any popular show. It’s not an entirely new trend. Folks like Tony Soprano and pretty much everyone on The Wire were exhibiting antihero qualities more than a decade ago. But it’s certainly more rampant these days than ever before, and as with Batman it seems to work so well because it gives us all something to relate to. A shining, flawless hero is impossible to fully identify with; a flawed one feels more real.

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Some might argue that Walter White in fact exhibits zero hero qualities. After all, he winds up a murdering, drug trafficking, manipulative alpha spiraling out of control and even corrupting those around him. Yet he also follows through, if somewhat despicably, on his plan to provide for his family’s future. He becomes utterly dominant at his trade, and he actually just might be the most evil character in popular fiction who is also completely understandable. Walt is heroic because he continually beats the odds, outfoxes equally or more evil opponents, and (at least at times) protects his family. Yet, his deeply human flaws and maniacal, radical decisions make him detestable. He’s a perfect antihero—someone we root for, even identify with, but don’t want to admit to either. Fortunately, most of us won’t ever face Walter White scenarios in real life!

Beyond Breaking Bad, there are two shows that are even more recent in which the antihero trend is alive and well. The first, as many might guess, is Homeland—the Showtime drama about a decorated marine’s return to the United States after being left for dead as a captive in the Middle East. That decorated marine is Nicholas Brody, and the crux of the show is that while a captive of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, he was turned against his “homeland” (or at least its government). But is Brody a true antihero or just a radicalized villain?

The truth is, just about everyone in Homeland can be described as an antihero, because it’s a show largely about the compromises that go into upholding national security. Brody is the loudest example, because in his case bringing down certain members of the government is part of how he determines that the nation must be kept on a just and right path. But throughout Homeland, we see characters performing heroic duties one day and compromising integrity, secrets, and even lies the next. There’s no one in Homeland who serves as a shining role model or pinnacle of goodness—yet each of the main characters is admirably heroic at times. Oddly, the same could be said of HBO’s Game Of Thrones series, which probably goes to show that George R.R. Martin’s epic medieval saga is more political thriller than fantasy tale.

And then of course there’s Frank Underwood, the lead character of the smash hit Netflix original series House Of Cards. Portrayed brilliantly by Kevin Spacey, Underwood—a U.S. congressman at the outset of the show and ultimately the vice president—may just be the darkest of all modern television antiheroes, Walter White included. The general definition of an antihero is a main character or hero who acts in unconventional ways, or fails to display ordinary heroic qualities. Underwood fits this definition absolutely.

The truth is, an antihero doesn’t necessarily need to demonstrate any “heroic” characteristics. Rather, the term “hero” is used more to describe these people as main characters in their shows or films. Most still maintain some sort of admirable quality that endears them to viewing audiences, as we see in the previous examples. But beyond wry humor and exceeding cleverness, Frank Underwood demonstrates very little in the way of attractive or heroic quality. He’s ambitious to a fault, relentlessly conniving, and unabashedly willing to compromise moral integrity for an end goal. We root for Underwood because he’s in front of us, and because we’re inside his mind, rather than because of any particular quality he exhibits. And though Kevin Spacey himself says (half jokingly) that his show is deemed “99 percent true” by political insiders, we’d like to think very few people out there relate to the ruthless Under
wood.

Perhaps Underwood is a symbol that the antihero has been embraced to the point even darker protagonists can be embraced. It will certainly be interesting to see how the trend continues in the years to come, as new shows and new films make the rounds. But from comic book heroes wrestling morality, to television heroes inclined to adopt villainous means to various ends, the antihero owns entertainment in today’s world. It’s probably made television more compelling than ever before.

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