Who are the TOP 5 ANTI-HEROES of all time? Daryl and Jay break down their choices from geekdom. What anti-heroes are on YOUR Top 5 list? Deadpool? Daryl Dixon? Mike Sullivan? (Do you even know who Mike Sullivan is? You will after you listen to the show!)
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The Story Geeks blogger Anthony Holdier responds with an additional perspective to the same questions discussed in the podcast. Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group!
“We’re talking about ‘anti-heroes’? I can already hear the arguments!”
For something as popular as it is today, it’s amusing to see how many different ways people define the term “anti-hero” — especially when those definitions are mutually exclusive! Rather than thinking about an anti-hero as “a protagonist who does bad stuff” or “a good guy that is mean/scary/dark sometimes,” I’m operating from a slightly more technical definition for the term — so, keep that in mind as we proceed. In brief, I think the best way to consider an anti-hero is this:
“A character who is outwardly heroic, but inwardly broken.”
Heroes like Superman or Luke Skywalker both behave heroically and seem to consider themselves as basically good people (or, at least, people who are doing their best). Anti-heroes, in contrast, wear a mask in the psychological sense (in addition to, sometimes, a costume), hiding their inward doubts, insecurities, and fears by putting on a heroic show. If all you could hear was the anti-hero’s inner monologue, you’d have a very different understanding of the character, but I think it’s precisely that disjunction between the character’s self-perception and outward action that makes them so fascinating. With that in mind, here’s my list:
5) The Sarcastic Captain of a Beat-up Smuggling Spaceship
We love a garish rogue, especially when he wears a simple, but unique costume, drives an iconic spaceship, carries a shiny weapon, and surrounds himself with a clever crew! It’s important that he make sarcastic jokes and roll his eyes frequently, lest we (the audience) take things too seriously — the captain gives us permission to laugh, even in the midst of horrible torture sequences or impending doom. Perhaps that’s also why we still love him, even when he’s coldly executing his enemies when they’re not expecting it (whether they’re sharing a table in a bar or standing around too close to a running engine) — whatever evil deeds this anti-hero does, we can be sure that he’s doing it to protect those closest to him.
Wait, was I supposed to talk about someone specific? I’ll let you decide whether Han Solo from Star Wars or Mal Reynolds from Firefly fits better in this slot.
4) Tyrion Lannister
More than just four feet of sarcasm, the Halfman of House Lannister is a brilliant tactician, both in the throne room and on the battlefield. Able to talk his way out of any situation (except for that unfortunate thing with the Mountain), Tyrion’s clever wit has kept him alive (so far) throughout both the Game of Thrones’ book and television series. Moreover, the passion he feels for his friends is an unusually tender trait not often found among either Lannisters or Westerosi nobles in general.
However, Tyrion also carries a deep-seated sense of shame and failure, stemming back to his very beginning: having killed his mother during childbirth, Tyrion’s physical condition has caused him no end of pain, both from the stares of strangers and the disgust from his own family. Estranged from his father and sister, Tyrion often has more cause to fear than love his relatives — at least, he did before he murdered his own father as revenge for a lifetime of belittlement and mistreatment (as well as contributing to several of Tyrion’s broken hearts). Indeed, for all of his outward successes, this anti-hero is, internally, quite alone.
3) Everyone on Supernatural
For a show where angels are evil, God is lazy, the King of Hell is (kind-of) a good guy, and Satan’s son is best friends with the protagonists, it may not be surprising to think that the moral compass of Supernatural is a bit…off. Seen particularly in the case of Sam and Dean (as well as characters like Castiel and Bobby Singer), SPN’s cast is broken inside. It’s understandable: literally all of the characters I just named have died at least once, some spending time in Hell, some spending time in Hell with Lucifer in his brain — if ever there was a fantasy show with characters suffering from PTSD, this one’s it, folks.
That said, for all of their addictions, fears, weaknesses, and father issues, the Winchesters and their friends routinely step up to do what they know is right. Despite their inward struggles, these anti-heroes save people — and that’s all it takes to qualify.
2) The Doctor
This is probably my most controversial pick and a case can really be made against it (at least for some incarnations of the character), but a hallmark of the last ten years of Doctor Who has been to play up the Doctor’s loneliness and proclivity for darkness under certain circumstances — that is, to turn the Doctor into more of an anti-hero. Certainly, when he’s taking the form of the Oncoming Storm, dealing with the Family of Blood, killing the extra Amy Pond, or being “a good Dalek” — to say nothing of his stint as the War Doctor — he’s able to tap into a serious level of calculating coldness bordering on the cruel. Many times, the Doctor’s penchant for keeping friends close has been explained as more than a simple hobby: he needs their presence to keep his hands clean (particularly with the specter of the Valeyard floating around in the mythos).
It remains to be seen what Jodie Whittaker’s exciting new take on the character will be (although the development arc in Peter Capaldi’s final season suggests that a happier attitude might be on the horizon), but at least some incarnations of the Doctor seem to fall comfortably within the realm of the anti-hero.
(Although I am actually quite tempted to leave it at that, I can always say more about Batman: he is the quintessential anti-hero. The yin to Superman’s yang, Batman’s entire persona has grown out of a brutal childhood trauma and operates squarely outside the boundaries of clear moral permission. Many writers and stories have emphasized Batman’s psychopathy, his instability, and his similarities with much of his rogue’s gallery [see Moore’s The Killing Joke, Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, and Murphy’s White Knight for several beautiful examples of this threadline]. It has long been suggested that “Bruce Wayne” is the mask Batman wears — this fact alone makes him the pristine example of the anti-hero in my book.)