Beloved (yet morally troublesome) anti-heroes
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Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
The other day, I caught Crank on cable, and realized that even though Chev Chelios is a degenerate, selfish, awful human being, I found myself rooting for him. I had a hard time reconciling this fact. How can I support a protagonist whose ethics and values deeply and sharply contrast with mine? Great cinema and television frequently features anti-heroes, but are there specific characters of this ilk that actually trigger serious cognitive dissonance in your staff? —Todd
Honestly, the biggest one who leaps to mind is Batman. He’s had a lot of incarnations in his time, but the modern one—pretty much since Frank Miller in the ’80s—has taken him away from being a hero and turned him into a grim anti-hero. He does heroic things like saving the innocent, fighting the bad guys, etc., but let’s face it, in most modern incarnations, he’s a bugfuck insane, grossly violent vigilante with little to no real human connection. His endless, obsessive brooding over his parents’ death somehow still drives everything he does, to a psychotic degree. He’s harsh, judgmental, and ruthless, more a spirit of uncompromising vengeance than a man. Every time I see a new Batman movie or read a new Batman comic, I wind up a little uncomfortable over all the retribution fantasy, and thinking “What’s heroic about this creepy guy again?” He needs extensive psychotherapy, and maybe long-term exposure to some people who aren’t a) also bugfuck crazy, b) also billionaires operating on a different plane of reality than most people, c) insane murderous supervillains, d) victims. Maybe then he could rediscover his humanity. Until then, sure, I root for him in his stories, but I’m more than a little disturbed by, well, everything about him.
Tasha, I’d love to talk to you some day about the psychology of Bruce Wayne, and present you with my controversial Unified Theory Of Batman. In the meantime, though, let me say a few words in defense of my favorite comic book anti-hero: Dr. Victor Von Doom. “Wait a minute,” some of the readers are currently furiously typing into a comment box, “Dr. Doom isn’t an anti-hero! He’s a straight-up villain!” Ah, and therein lies the game. Sure, the Fantastic Four’s arch-nemesis was popular enough to star in his own title for a while (a first for a Marvel bad guy), but even then, it was called Super-Villain Team-Up. And Doom can be an evil monster, depending on who’s writing him; even at his most sympathetic, he’s a vain, brutal monomaniac whose ultimate goal is global dictatorship, and whose methods are just shy of the Judge’s in Blood Meridian. But he’s also powerful, charismatic, and brilliant; he’s got a tragic family history and a some genuinely noble goals; and he’s perfectly willing to do good when it suits his purposes, which is more often than not. It’s no secret that the villain of a story is determined by who’s telling the story, and in the classic ’80s FF arc “This Land Is My Land,” the hero team learned that lesson the hard way: They helped overthrow Doom from his position as Latverian despot, only to learn that his successor was a universally despised petty tyrant—and that among his people, Doom was beloved as an enlightened, progressive, benevolent dictator. (I even think he was right about Reed Richards fucking up his experiment in college, but that’s a story for another day.)
It probably goes without saying that South Park wouldn’t have held out as long as it has without Eric Cartman. It isn’t just that he’s incredibly vulgar for an 8-year-old, is greedy, and has a pushover mom who’s also the town whore. I just love the idea that a little kid can be an utter sociopath, but can also have all the normal vulnerabilities, wants, fears, and capacity for childish glee. No matter how awful or evil his schemes (and despite his relentless anti-Semitism), I always find myself hoping he’ll go yet another step past too far, escalating his kid-sized problems into yet more needless unreason and destruction. Even when he’s mindlessly rampaging through Mexican restaurant/themeland Casa Bonita in season seven—hoping to enjoy as much mariachi and shovel in as many sopapillas as possible before he gets caught—you’ve got to share in his triumph as he finally dives off the ridiculous indoor waterfall. Still, the ultimate Cartman episode has to be season five’s “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” in which he takes outsized revenge on an older boy who tricked him into buying pubic hair: After his initial attempts to get the money back (“Hello, sir, my name is Kris Kristofferson, I’m with the IRS”), he tricks the kid into eating chili made out of his dead parents, then humiliates him in front of Radiohead.
So many to choose from! Generally, my favorite anti-heroes are the ones who get all the best dialogue; the mold for me is kind of set by W.C. Fields, whose relentless onscreen ’30s wars against sobriety, marriage, and childhood are perversely endearing. Or how about Joe Don Baker in Charley Varrick? He smacks women (who take this as a cue to sleep with him), torments the weak, and doesn’t even stand for any kind of notable code of self-defined ethics, but he still has an awesome drawl and cowboy hat. Nor let us forget the Firefly Clan of The Devil’s Rejects, who kill without compunction and take particular delight in sexually humiliating people who’ve done nothing to offend them, but still offer the funniest take on Roald Dahl ever (“I’m Willy Wonka, and this is my fucking chocolate factory!” Cue face-bashing). But recently, like so many others, I’ve been totally seduced by Daniel Plainview. He’s a little more justifiable to root for, insofar as pretty much everyone in There Will Be Blood is various degrees of appalling; he’s just the most forthright about his absolute contempt for others. His soliloquies make him something like the 21st century’s Timon of Athens: He’s a horrifying misanthrope, but his reasoning is hard to argue with.
It’s hard to call anyone from The Wire an anti-hero, because there were no regular heroes. Sure, the show’s characters could be heroic, but the Bodymore of The Wire wasn’t the place for square-jawed Superman types. Reduced to the simplest terms possible, it was a cops-and-robbers show, and you aren’t supposed to root for the robbers. But I have yet to meet a fan of that show who didn’t love Omar Little. He was charismatic, clever, dedicated to the ethical code of the streets, and just a total badass. Hearing his ominous whistling sent people on The Wire scrambling and yelling “Omar comin’!” but it filled me with glee. Was I psyched to talk to Michael Kenneth Williams in 2008? Oh, in-deed.
Christopher Nolan specializes in anti-heroes. Leonard from Memento may or may not have killed the very wife he’s ostensibly avenging; The Prestige’s Angier destroyed his life in pursuit of an ultimately pointless feud; and as Tasha pointed out, there’s Batman, of course. But Cobb from Inception is Nolan’s ultimate achievement in having the audience root for an unlikeable guy by sole virtue of him being the central character. Cobb enlists an elite team of dream specialists to help him with a mission, after which he can finally return to LA and see his kids. (Basically: “One last job, then I’m off the force.”) It’s certainly a noble cause, yet his greed is the reason why he’s in the predicament in the first place. Plus, once he finds these people to help him on the mission, he purposely withholds information and drives them to go deeper into the subconscious, endangering the lives of those he purports to care about. Another director might betray Cobb’s character early on. But what I ultimately love about Nolan—and why I cite him as my favorite director working today—is that his characters lie to themselves so convincingly that by the time an inkling of their true selves creeps out, the audience is already totally invested in the film. It’s only when the film ends that we realize we’ve been rooting for a crazy person the whole time, the kind of surprise that makes being on Team Anti-Hero so much fun.
Michael Moorcock’s Elric certainly wasn’t the first antihero in fantasy literature, but he remains the genre’s most groundbreaking and indelible. Introduced in Moorcock’s 1961 novella “The Dreaming City,” the albino prince of the island kingdom of Melniboné is a withdrawn, bookish, arrogantly apathetic monarch who’s despised by much of his court and constituents. More than that, though, he’s actively cruel and decadent, reveling in his society’s slavery, mutilation, and perversion. When circumstance forces him to become a wandering adventurer, things don’t get any better—especially in light of the fact that he’s twice addicted, first to life-giving drugs, and second to the strength passed along by his parasitic, soul-stealing sword, Stormbringer. Few characters in any area of fiction are as morally ambivalent without being utterly devoid of morality. But even at his most bastardly, there’s something so deeply daydreamish and melancholy about him, it’s hard not to feel some empathy alongside the fascination and revulsion.
I briefly considered Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David for this answer, but that would suggest that Larry’s actions (tactless and occasionally selfish as they may be) were in any way ethically compromised, when the truth is, Larry is right most of the time—it’s just that he can be kind of an asshole about it. So then I moved on to his sitcom spiritual successor, Eastbound & Down’s Kenny Powers, a guy whose self-confidence is so perilously out of whack with his actual self-worth that his behavior is almost always unjustified. And yet, as with Larry David, his total conviction makes him so damned likeable. Sure, Kenny is an egomaniac to a disturbing degree, and that means he always ends up hurting the few people who try to help him, as seen in the slow torture of his little toady Stevie, whose absolute worship for Kenny is pathetically masochistic, given all the shit Kenny puts him through, including upending his career, robbing him, shooting him, and most recently, forcing him to get rid of the first girlfriend he’s ever had. Yet it’s easy to see why, even after all that, Stevie still thinks Kenny is so cool: It’s because Kenny remains completely, unflappably convinced that he’s a hero, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that he’s a loser. What better role model is there for an America that’s no longer as great as it thinks it is than a dude who, trapped in a never-ending downward spiral, just says “Fuck it,” slams some beers, and hops on a jet-ski in search of some trim?
It’s tempting to suggest that Deadwood’s Al Swearengen doesn’t qualify for this list, since he’s pretty much the villain of the show’s first season, but over the series’ three-year run, he gradually shifts into just as important a figure at keeping the titular town out of the clutches of ruthless businessmen as its actual sheriff. It certainly helped that Al is played by Ian McShane, who can make just about anything seem charismatic, but the character of the ruthless saloon owner and incipient crime lord who goes good because there’s more money in playing by the rules (and the people around him have grown on him) should have felt far more stoked with sentimentality than it did. Instead, McShane and creator David Milch made Al’s evolution so gradual that it was easy for many viewers to miss just what was happening, until the series’ climax, where Al had to undertake an unspeakable act, and it became an open question whether he would even be able to do it—even though when the show debuted, these very unspeakable acts were what made him such a good businessman. Don’t get me wrong: Al is no softie at any point in Deadwood’s run, and he spends the entirety of the series as the proprietor of a whorehouse, delivering monologues while receiving blowjobs, or while taking evening strolls with the head of a dead Native American in a box. It’s almost impossible to describe Al without making him sound sort of stupid and too consciously constructed, but something about his temper and his sentimental humanist streak rings wonderfully true in the process of watching Milch and McShane bring him to life.
Of all the mysteries at the heart of Lost, few are as perplexing as the popularity of Benjamin Linus. How else to explain how a character whose primary talents are murder and manipulation can elicit such sympathy and become a fan favorite? Ben is presented to us in so many forms—killer, puppetmaster, protector—he covers all the bases. In season three’s “The Man Behind The Curtain,” we’re made to feel sympathy for a young Ben as we witness via flashback the verbal abuse he experienced at the hands of an alcoholic father who blamed Ben for his mother’s death during childbirth. Minutes later, we’re watching in horror as Ben, now grown, commits mass murder. As the ruthless, Machiavellian leader of “The Others,” Ben was set as the series’ main villain early. But that line blurred as the series unfolded and remorse crept in at the corners for Ben, who—in spite of his continued calculating manipulation—seemed headed toward some kind of redemption. And even then, at the heart of his ruthlessness were two underlying aims: protect The Island and the daughter he raised after kidnapping her from her birth mother. This complexity, along with a sharp, dry wit, made Ben the most compelling character of the series. (So did his incredible ability to survive numerous vicious beatings.) Just as The Island had so many mysteries left to unlock, so did Ben: his ongoing battle over possession of The Island with Charles Widmore, his twisted mentoring of John Locke, and his pity-inducing relationship with Island overlord Jacob. Ironically, the show’s primary hero, Jack Shepherd, was someone many fans found unbearable as the show’s run continued, while anti-hero Ben Linus became a fan favorite. And in the series’ divisive finale, the resolution of Ben’s storyline was the one that seemed to sit best with fans.
Originally, I was going to say Larry David was my beloved anti-hero, but truth be told, I think a lot of times, he’s actually doing and saying what we all feel, just in an extremely tactless way. On the other hand, there’s the crew from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. It’s hard to argue on behalf of people who purposefully get hooked on crack in order to get on welfare, have sex with each others’ parents to get revenge on each other, pretend to be handicapped in order to gain sympathy, and generally flip their ideals whenever it’s convenient. Of course, the merry way they go about being so awful, and bounce back every episode like cartoon characters who just have to shake their heads after being hit by an anvil, is what’s so appealing about them.
In real life, I get easily annoyed by bratty, thoughtless, self-absorbed little kids. So why do I like Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes so much? Maybe it’s because cartoonist Bill Watterson often used Calvin to comment on the culture of instant gratification, letting the kid embody the worst part of ourselves. Or maybe it’s that Watterson balanced Calvin’s raw selfishness with the kind of fertile imagination that only an egotist with a heart could muster. (After all, any kid who could conjure up an imaginary friend as sweet as the gangly tiger Hobbes can’t be all bad.) Or maybe it’s that Watterson let Calvin be a mirror, showing how we’re all a little bit awful, so maybe we should be more empathetic to the Calvins of the world. By the way, now that Calvin & Hobbes is no more, my favorite comic-strip brat is Cul De Sac’s Alice, a 4-year-old who rules over her preschool like a queen and sends her parents scrambling with every whim. Like most 4-year-olds, she’s capable of real sweetness, but thinks the world would run a lot smoother if everyone just did what she wants. Kudos to cartoonist Richard Thompson for such a funny, well-observed creation.
I like characters who are hard to like. I think it satisfies a certain quotient of self-loathing in my personality; while I’m not actually all that awful, part of me suspects I am, so I can relate to fictional people who alienate themselves through antisocial behavior. Thomas Covenant from Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever is probably as far as I’m willing or able to go with this. A teacher recommended the series to me when I was in high school, but while he said it was challenging, he didn’t give me much advance warning as to just how awful Covenant could be: a leper who gets hit by a car and wakes up in a fantasy world where everything teems with health and vitality, Covenant is a constantly raging, embittered, complaining dervish of ceaseless mopery and abuse. That alone can be tiresome if you’re not in the right mood for it, but worst of all, the night after waking up in the Land, Covenant rapes a teenager. It’s a brutal, hateful act, and the first time I read the series’ first book (Lord Foul’s Bane), I almost had to stop reading—I felt incriminated in what had happened, as if my initial willingness to sympathize with the character made me culpable in his actions. I kept reading, though, and I’m glad I did. Covenant remains a difficult, off-putting lead throughout the original trilogy, and Donaldson’s over-the-top, fevered writing style isn’t for everyone, but The Chronicles remain one of my favorite works of fantasy fiction because of the books’ unblinking intensity, and because of Covenant’s ugliness. He’s an anti-hero who never gets to look cool for his crimes.
Conventional wisdom holds that The Social Network kneecaps Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard whiz kid who founded Facebook and became the world’s youngest billionaire in the process. The buzz about Zuckerberg was so toxic in the lead-up to the film’s release that the real man donated $100 million to Newark Public Schools in a gesture that was about more than philanthropy. And yet while I recognize the Zuckerberg of The Social Network as a callous, disloyal, unscrupulous, status-obsessed asshole-in-training, I nonetheless rooted for him to beat back the legal claims of Eduardo Saverin, the Winklevi, and anyone seeking their slice of the multi-billion-dollar pie. He’s a man of vision battling challenges from narrow thinkers who can’t wrap their heads around what he’s trying to accomplish; as Zuckerberg snaps at the Winklevi, “If you had invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.” As for his deficiencies as a human being, Zuckerberg, as played by Jesse Eisenberg, comes across as the classic outsider, a stranger to privilege whose desperate need to fit in runs against a social ineptitude he can’t overcome. Doesn’t that make him more identifiable than a pack of Harvard bluebloods?
This isn’t a movie I love as much as I like the lead performance, but I have to confess to sympathizing a bit too much with Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. She knew what she wanted and wanted everyone else around her to help realize that. If that meant stepping on some toes, well, toes are sometimes there for the stepping. Maybe it’s an editor thing, though I also like to think my own editorial style is far enough removed from Streep’s Anna-Wintour-in-all-but-name that my co-workers would never make the connection I made.