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Anti-Heroes: What Makes Them Different? - Troped!

VO: Eric Cohen

Written by Justin Giglio

The term "Anti-Hero" gets tossed around a lot, describing a diverse set of characters from Deadpool to Larry David! But where does this term come from, who were the original anti-heroes, and what separates these characters from their counterpart, the traditional hero? On this episode of WatchMojo's Troped, we'll be going all the way back to Ancient Greece to trace the lineage of this archetype from The Odyssey, to Hamlet, to The Sopranos, all the way to Daredevil and Deadpool! We'll also take a look at why there are so many anti-heroes on TV all of a sudden.

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Written by Justin Giglio

Anti-Hero - Troped

Get ready for some brooding and bad attitudes.
Welcome to WatchMojo’s Troped - the series where we deconstruct the cliches, archetypes, and story devices that won’t go away.

In this episode, we’re taking a look at ‘Anti-heroes’, protagonists who lack many of the common characteristics associated with heroism.

Some of the key characteristics of traditional heroes are Bravery, Mercy, Selflessness, Intellect, and Strength. Anti-heroes tend to have some but not all of these features. They might be brave but not selfless… or strong but not merciful. They do heroic stuff because said heroic stuff is in keeping with their own self interests or self preservation, and not because it’s “the right thing to do” or because they feel a sense of “great responsibility” as a result of their “great power.”

While anti-heroes are more popular and common now than they’ve ever been, this archetype comes from a long tradition stretching as far back as Ancient Greece. From Odysseus in The Odyssey to Don Quixote to Hamlet and Macbeth, there has always been an appreciation for heroes whose flaws prevent them from fitting the traditional mold. Odysseus struggles and makes mistakes where classical heroes would have triumphed: he’s not the best fighter, he’s arrogant, and he’s really, really bad at keeping his men alive. The anti-heroes of old were all about defeating the obstacles within themselves in spite of their flawed nature.

The history of cinema is filled with compelling and dramatically different kinds of anti-heroes, from the Film Noir detectives of the 40s and 50s to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, who stands as the prototypical Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Because of the rise of nerd culture and its collision with the mainstream, a lot of people’s mental image of an anti-hero today probably comes from comic book characters. The Punisher is an example that recently re-entered the public consciousness in a big way with the release of Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil. This interpretation of the character cleverly deconstructs and challenges the notion of the anti-hero, as Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle presents both a physical and moral obstacle for the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. And then there’s Deadpool. The Merc with the Mouth is as fast-talking and witty as he is sadistic and cruel. Luckily his victims tend to be pretty bad people. What distinguishes Deadpool in this tradition is the pure joy and glee with which he disposes of the bad guys.

Outside of comics and the superhero genre, the next haven for anti-heroes these days is “Prestige Television.” Think of the big hit tv dramas of the last two decades. Consider that for almost all of them, the main characters tend to be pretty bad people. Think of the big hit tv dramas of the last two decades. Consider that for almost all of them, the main characters tend to be pretty bad people. From a cold and calculated school teacher turned drug lord to a pill-popping nurse to a family-man-slash-mob-boss to a womanizing alcoholic who doesn’t say “thank you” to a nihilistic undercover cop to an actual serial killer, the best shows of the last decade have been centered around broken individuals motivated by their own self interest who have little issue breaking the rules to get what they want. You probably wouldn't want to be friends with any of these people, but boy are they fun to root for.

Who wants to watch stories about perfect people? What does the 21st century version of a classical hero even look like? Heck, even Superman is all dark and gloomy these days. The rapid rise in the number and variety of characters who fit the definition of anti-hero is a reflection of a culture that’s bored with knights in shining armor. If they aren’t presented with some kind of ironic wink, they just end up feeling dishonest and old-hat. But the other guys, the lovable losers and the criminals with hearts of gold - these characters feel real. Their internal conflict feels real. They’re interesting because they are both believable and unpredictable. While the line between hero and anti-hero is thin in most cases, a hero always does the right thing, so it’s pretty easy to predict their next move. But an anti-hero? They keep you guessing.

So what do you think? Is there room in pop culture for more traditional heroes, or have anti-heroes taken over for good?

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