Who are the top five anti-heroes of all time? What does it even mean to be an anti-hero? The Story Geeks blogger Ashley Pauls responds with an additional perspective on this week’s podcast topic. Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group!
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I find the anti-hero archetype in fiction super fascinating, but I have to admit that “anti-hero” as a term is not necessarily easy to define. Not quite a traditional hero yet not quite a villain, anti-heroes operate in the gray areas of our favorite franchises. Their motives and actions are complex, and sometimes challenging to predict. Fans don’t always agree on who or what an anti-hero is, either.
I found an interesting list on Wikipedia of famous fictional anti-heroes, and somewhat surprisingly (at least to me), it includes Han Solo, whom I’d argue is a straight-up hero if you look at his character arc as a whole across the films (or possibly he’s merely a hero in denial). 😉 Do some of Tony Stark’s choices make him an anti-hero? Will Kylo Ren/Ben Solo be an anti-hero by the time his character arc wraps up in Star Wars: Episode IX? How do we draw the line that separates heroes and anti-heroes, or anti-heroes and villains?
I’m still pondering some of those questions, but for right now, these are some of my favorite anti-hero characters from some of my favorite franchises, along with why I think they’re great characters.
5. Severus Snape
I’m actually fairly new to the Harry Potter fandom, and after I read the books and watched the movies a couple years ago, I just assumed that everyone loved the character of Severus Snape. 😉 I’ve since come to find out there’s quite a bit of debate over whether Snape is a hero or not. He’s done some terrible things, and his treatment of the students at Hogwarts leaves plenty of room for criticism sometimes. Yet to me, Snape’s story arc is powerful and tragic. His brokenness pushes him down a dark path, but eventually his love for Lily Potter brings him back to the light. And even though he may not even like Harry Potter, he dies while working as a double agent, trying to protect the Boy Who Lived. I love redemption arcs in fiction, so maybe that’s why I’m drawn to anti-heroes; I love characters who overcome their struggles and choose to do the right thing, even after everyone else has given up on them.
If you look at Qi’ra’s character journey in “Solo: A Star Wars Story” on a surface level, it’s easy to label her as a villain. She betrays her friends and chooses to get more involved in the criminal syndicate, Crimson Dawn. However, Qi’ra’s more complex than that. Her tragic past has restricted her choices, and I choose to believe she took Dryden Vos’s place in Crimson Dawn so that she could protect Han. She doesn’t want Han to take the same path that she has. I don’t know if they’ll make another “Solo” movie or not, but I really hope we get to see more of Qi’ra’s story in the Star Wars universe. I also hope that we’ll see more female anti-heroes in film as Hollywood continues to explore a wider range of female character types.
I don’t think the character of Sherlock Holmes is an anti-hero across the board. I haven’t read all the original stories, but the written version of the Sherlock Holmes character doesn’t necessarily strike me as an anti-hero. However, I do think that the character from the modern BBC retelling, “Sherlock,” is played as an anti-hero. One of Benedict Cumberbatch’s best performances, this version of Sherlock is sometimes selfish, tone-deaf, and self-absorbed. Martin Freeman’s John Watson does have to put up with an awful lot. Yet I love how the show peels back Sherlock’s prickly facade and demonstrates just how much he cares about his best friend. The third and fourth seasons of the series are a bit hit or miss, but the first two are a fascinating character portrait.
I don’t know a lot about the Punisher comics, but Jon Bernthal’s performance was so compelling in the second season of Marvel/Netflix’s “Daredevil” that I couldn’t wait to watch his own series (in fact, I’d argue that Bernthal’s Punisher was the best part of that “Daredevil” season). The Punisher’s solo show is challenging and thought-provoking, and sometimes difficult to watch. But I appreciated the way that it explored real-world issues like gun violence and the treatment of veterans after they return home from duty. I’m also glad that the show did not glorify the violence it depicted and portrayed Frank Castle/Punisher as a flawed but nuanced character. I don’t have any idea where the show will go in the second season, but hopefully it will continue to dig deep into these important issues.
I also list Loki as my favorite Marvel villain, but I think by the end of his character arc in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he’s definitely more of an anti-hero. He’s charming and funny, but there’s also this hint of tragedy to his character as well. He’s always felt trapped in Thor’s shadow, and I think he both loves and resents his brother. Loki has done some truly terrible things (see: “The Avengers”) and some truly heroic things as well (coming back to save the Asgardians in “Thor: Ragnarok” and risking his life to try to stop Thanos). He’s always got a trick up his sleeve, and while sometimes (okay, many times) he acts merely in his own interest, I think he really does care about Thor and Asgard. As much as I love Loki, I do hope his death in “Infinity War” is not a fake-out. I like the idea of Loki’s character arc wrapping up with him officially on the “light side.”