Misconception of the Antihero

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At one point I took a class on antiheroes. I don’t remember why because I didn’t even go to that school but there I was all the same. Pretty interesting stuff leading me to do my own research and from much of that research came the realization that the majority of modern-day characters referred to as anti-heroes aren’t antiheroes at all.

You think you know. But you have no idea. This is the diary of the antihero.

 

The night is dark and wet. Rain hits the pavement like an abusive couple causing a scene in public, embarrassing themselves and making things awkward. Two goons run around the corner to find a makeshift home made of cardboard and trash bags. Before they’re even comfortable, they dump out what they’ve got in a purse that, until recently, belonged to a wealthy woman who had been married to the former manager of the Gotham National Bank. He wouldn’t be needing her anymore. He was dead.

But before all the booty can be counted or even appreciated for all the momentary highs it’s going to bring in the near future, a shadow darker than the cover provided in the alleyway looms ahead. It can’t be. Not tonight. Not them. They were nobodies.

But there he was. The dark knight stood there, menacing scowl and all. The dark antihero was there to serve a hot, steaming plate of justice to these two scumbags.

"EAT MY STEAMING JUSTICE, PUNKBAGS. Wait-"

“EAT MY STEAMING JUSTICE, PUNKBAGS. Wait-“

Except he’s not really an anti-hero.

Seems anytime a character with a taste for vengeance shows up and they don’t look like Superman with a spit curl and sparkling teeth, he’s labeled an antihero. When in fact, when you get down to the core of what it really is to be an anti-hero, you might not think they’re all so great. Most of them sure, but not all them. It’s not directly cool to be an anti-hero for the sake of being an antihero. You’ll see what I mean if you’re not already familiar with the subject.

The criteria for being an antihero is as follows.

  • An “ends justifies the means” approach to their goals. This doesn’t mean like Batman’s “dress up like a bat and beat people up” shtick, but closer to Catwoman’s way of doing whatever she sees fit to get the job done.
  • Few positive qualities that the hero traditionally will have.
  • Aside from few positive qualities, the antihero will have many negative ones. Amorality, apathy, etc.
  • These qualities will often be similar to the ones that the villain has as well, giving them more in common with the antagonist than a hero.

Generally when an antihero is brought up in literature, this brings to mind characters that don’t have a righteous goal in mind at all. Maybe they end up doing something good but even then it’s not in the way that we’re used to seeing; the guy who’s known what he’s needed to do all along finally decides to be the man and do it! Often times with a real antihero, they don’t have any goal in mind and might accidentally end up doing something right.

The classic antihero can be traced as far back as Thersites. During Homer’s The Iliad, Thersites is described as being particularly ugly and bow legged. He isn’t any kind of royalty as the majority of the main characters are. All this on top of being a bit dumb as well as vulgar. The whole package, right? At one point, the heroes even beat him up for interrupting an assembly where he spoke out against King Agamemnon.

But look at him, don't you kind of want to hit him?

But look at him, don’t you kind of want to hit him?

In another story, Achilles ends up killing Thersites for taking out the eyes of a fallen enemy after Achilles had already killed her.

So what makes him an antihero at all? Because when he spoke out against Agamemnon, he was saying what everyone else was thinking but just wouldn’t say. Sure he was disgusting and dumb, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have a point. And while the antihero has become something much more dramatic in its modern interpretation, the main characteristics of someone with a weaker code of morality are still there along with the other traits that set them apart from the real heroes.

An antihero sounds great and all when you’ve got their scarred face scouring as they fire two guns in midair but what about when it’s a character who looks and acts like Woody Allen, stammering his way through a monologue justifying their love of a minor? Because that would be antiheroism.

Another example of a previously titled antihero who, especially nowadays, isn’t- Spider-Man. While some of you might say “Oh of course he isn’t!” back when he was first created, you could have called him that. He was a zit-faced teenager when heroes were thought of as, well, like Superman.  He let the power go to his head as soon as he got it and it’s this arrogance that his uncle was killed. Not to mention the inherent creepiness of his powers.

Now he’s put up there with a shining example of what a hero should be, even given all his problems.

Though no, he's not the traditional hero.

Though no, he’s not the traditional hero.

The point is, an antihero isn’t as simple as “He smokes a cigarette and he’s kind of a jerk.” It goes deeper than that and it seems the only way to make a real antihero these days is to make them unlikable. Too many people can sympathize with Punisher’s need for vengeance or Han Solo’s laid back, money-loving ways. So maybe the misconception doesn’t stem so much from not understanding what an antihero is, but not understanding why we’re drawn to those characters in the first place.

We idolize characters that are written with intentionally negative qualities only to eventually have them written as the standard hero and the original heroes look like boy scout snobs by proxy. Really taking in what the character is doing (Han Solo really was going to allow a rebellion to fail because he had already been paid/The Punisher actually takes the lives of those he deems unworthy of life) will give us deeper insight into the mindset of a character rather than glossing over it as “cool” or basic hero play. We’ve gone from seeing certain traits as negative to wishing we could be that guy. Sure, we all want to do what we want, but that’s always changing.

Understand what a hero does, and what an antihero does; the story really comes into focus and from this, the depth of the characters deepens as opposed to “the cool one and the lame ones.”

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