Last week, the lovely Ali gave us an article talking about her love affair with the more noble members of the superhero world. While I respect her view, I personally feel that a world full of this kind of hero would be a bit beige, and that a particular balance is required to bring colour back. To this end, I’m going to represent the other side of the coin and talk about my favourite type of hero: the antihero.
Now, when I talk about the antihero, I don’t mean the emo slacker or Omega Male type of protagonist. My love is reserved for the imperfect protagonist, for whom, the end justifies the means. This type of antihero covers a wide range of characters — from the dark, brooding menace of Batman to the lightly roguish Captain Mal Reynolds — and, although there are a broad spectrum of personalities and motivators behind these characters, there is a common set of three traits that define them.
The road to becoming an antihero typically involves a significant and usually abrupt life-changing event. While this doesn’t sound like a major factor in light of how many heroes are made this way, it is the manner in which the event happens to the protagonist which is significant. Bruce Wayne and Frank Castle both experienced the brutal murder of their respective families, V suffered torture and experimentation, and both Parker and Al Simmons were betrayed by those they trusted.
Again, this doesn’t sound much like a major characterising moment in becoming an antihero (although it is enough for some). Peter Parker lost his male role model and father-figure, Uncle Ben, to a murder, yet he turned out to be a well-rounded and “good” kind of hero. Likewise, Dick Grayson witnessed his family being killed by a mafia boss, but unlike his mentor, Bruce Wayne, he retained his humour and ability to take the higher path in his dealings with villains. So, what is the difference here?
The best kind of antihero are those that tend to have some form of imperfection, whether it is something deeply rooted in their psyche, or something developed in the way they’re brought up as a child. This “nature versus nurture” factor is part of what defines them, bringing an element of darkness or anarchism to their personality. This gives them the ability to skirt the laws of the land; to achieve their goals, no matter how they do it.
But what is it that makes them choose the hero’s path? They clearly have a great deal in common with their villainous counterparts, sharing a number of the same defining traits, so why do they choose a separate path? They each have their own overriding sense of nobility and honour that guides them.
Each antihero has their own particular moral compass, providing them with a sense of what is right and wrong (according to their own standards). While villains may have their own sense of honour, committing small acts of good amongst their crimes, the antihero does what is right at a more holistic level. In similar fashion to the Chaotic Good alignment of role-playing games (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons), the antihero may do bad things to people who are, in their opinion, bad people, if it benefits the greater good. Batman will hospitalise a gang of armed thugs to rescue a hostage, but will go out of his way to avoid killing any of them; Spider Jerusalem will unleash all kinds of anarchy in order to reveal injustice and corruption in his city.
So why is the antihero character so appealing to myself and others? It’s really quite simple… they’re more relatable to us. Their lack of perfection and more grounded personalities ring more true with the average audience member than the unobtainable ideal of the likes of Superman. We feel their pain more when they suffer — both physically, and when they struggle to make the right moral decision. We better understand their sense of honour, feeling it to be more recognisably human than the lofty (and sometimes snobby) nobility of the avatars of good. We put our trust in these dark knights, relying on them to find the chinks in the armour of seemingly-unbeatable enemies, and to have the courage to take the right steps to defeat them.
We need antiheroes in our lives. In a world that seems to be increasingly divided along the lines of black and white, we need the grey to offset the extremes. Even if it’s only a fictional antihero, we still get the reassurance that there are those that will do what’s right, even if a few rules are broken along the way.