Thursday Five: Anti-Heroes

Having discussed five nefarious villains on last week’s Thursday Five, we move on this week to five anti-heroes, those characters who act heroically but utilise questionable means to reach their endgame. It is a regular occurrence that the anti-hero often supersedes the hero, as in these modern times playing the protagonist often means the character is too strait-laced and clean-cut, whereas the audience is clamouring for a character with complex emotions and motivations behind his actions. It’s these shades of grey motifs that allow the audience to invest in a character as often the state of society today signifies a far more relatable character. While this phenomenon has existed for centuries in literature with anti-heroes such as Edward Fairfax Rochester in Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye and even Satan in Paradise Lost, television is developing just as rich a heritage for celebrating the fallen hero.


1. Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel

James Marsters’ portrayal of rebellious vampire Spike started out innocuously enough, his role being that of an entertaining, yet fairly hollow villain. Upon his debut, Spike acted primarily as a thorn in the side of the titular vampire slayer as well as a conduit towards a longer goal of turning Buffy’s love interest Angel against her and to embrace his evil side. This inherently made the character no more than a bit-player in the large scope of war on the hellmouth, yet it was Marsters’ entertaining, humorous and no-nonsense attitude that led to a number of fans preferring him to the more sensitive Angel.

This surge in popularity thrust Spike into a more central role on the show, and thus led to more in-depth deconstruction of the character in a manner that ultimately made him sympathetic to the audience, slowly transitioning from wretched villain to an edgy hero that helped save the day on his own terms. This created a number of compelling situations for the writers to explore, and though this ultimately resulted in the unwise foraging into Spike being Angel’s replacement as Buffy’s romantic interest, it was perhaps the only misstep in this example of an organic turn from villain to anti-hero. After all, his noble death in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was met with such a sense of loss with the fan-base that those in charge were forced to resurrect him in spinoff Angel, where his contrast with his old vampire buddy/nemesis was evident again.


2. Bender, Futurama

Bender is an amoral robot who indulges in the finer/sleazier things in life, dependent on your perspective. He is loud, crude and selfish to the point of obnoxiousness, yet in Matt Groening’s Futurama universe, he is potentially the most popular and most recognisable face of the show. Despite his obvious flaws as an individual, Bender is extremely comfortable with his existence, perhaps shown most prevalently by his blatant conning of the adoption process, adopting a bevy of children in order to claim an inordinate amount of benefits for his own personal gain. And yet, the audience still loves him, despite his obscene disregard for others.

There are numerous reasons for his heroic stature, reliant mainly on just how funny he is, but also through the knowledge that the detestable side of his character is merely a front to hide the sensitive creature on the inside. Bender is actually a delicate character, desperate for attention and adoration for all around him, as emphasised from the best line of season six when he admits that he hasn’t felt much of anything since his guinea pig died. Moreover, his relationship with Fry is the greatest example of a modern bromance before they were cool, and his jealousy and overwhelming desire to be Fry’s one and only friend drives a lot of the early episodes’ drama. In any other context, Bender’s evil would far outweigh his good, yet what gets him on this list is that the audience can see through the mask to the decent hero within.


3. Alex, A Clockwork Orange

Delving into the world of film for a change, Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of Alex from the 1971 adaptation Anthony Burgess’ novel makes it onto this as it’s the weight behind the message of the film that establishes his characterisation as an anti-hero. Mired in a crumbling version of futuristic London, Alex slowly sees his life spiral into oblivion through the hopelessness of drug abuse, sexual misconduct and extreme ultra-violence in a keen view of the growing politic of revolution and social instability that was rising.

What follows are scenes that seem almost lifted from what the mind of the late George Orwell must have envisaged when creating Nineteen Eighty-Four; violent policing mixed with experimental psychological techniques are designed to break down the criminal in menacing visions of the future, yet we know that Alex is merely a shattered cog of society, destroyed by the very system that is attempting to fix him. It’s in this sense that we understand the character, and through all the disturbing imagery and even through his heinous actions, we just want him to break out of the system and find peace in himself.


4. Walter White, Breaking Bad

In stark contrast to the Spike example discussed earlier, Breaking Bad’s Walter White starts as an overall decent and relatable character, but after being diagnosed with cancer, he sees his respectability plummet as low as it can go. Having been broken the bad news at the beginning of the show, White turns to crime and gets involved in a wealth of unsavoury activities. The ray of light within the character however is that this action is motivated entirely by a noble and righteous cause, in that he is endeavouring to secure a future of financial stability for his family in the face of his impending death, which would well be considered an heroic act.

However, this gallant ambition is inevitably complicated and muddied as the situation soon spirals out of White’s control, and leads to a wide array of problems for the character. Considering his delving into the crime world, the nobility of the background of White’s decision consolidates him firmly in the anti-hero category, as we can derive that his outwardly evil actions are driven by good intentions and the desire to preserve his family. However, the growing rage issues and the depths to which White is sinking are causes for concern in later seasons, and blurs the line for the character between anti-heroism and absolute villainy.


5. Sawyer, Lost

It wouldn’t be a list about anti-heroes without Lost’s Sawyer, and it’s clear that his role set the bar for anti-heroes over the last decade. Starting out as the only tangible antagonist that wasn’t a giant smoke monster thing, Sawyer’s abrasive nature meant that conflict within the camp was normally driven by the redneck. His penchant for bestowing nicknames on his fellow crash victims and obnoxious selfishness meant he became the self-appointed hate figure for the islanders, and revelled in the role for the entire first season as well as intermittently for the next few.

However, as we learnt to understand Sawyer and discovered his backstory as having adopted the name of the man who he blamed for his parents’ deaths, we warmed to Sawyer and he slowly transitioned into one of the elite heroes of the show. His conflicts with surgeon Jack Shephard that perpetuated a love triangle with Evangeline Lilly’s Kate were one of the main plot points through all six seasons, and the contrast between the characters of the aforementioned Jack and Sawyer was one of the more intriguing examples of character study in recent memory. Their feud preceded the interminable Team Edward/Team Jacob Twilight fiasco, and it’s in this context that one thing is made clear: Jack is the strait-laced hero who always must do right while Sawyer is the bad boy who gets what he wants by any means necessary, thereby being the perfect example of the anti-hero.


That rounds us off for this week’s Thursday Five. Be sure to let me know what you think in the comments section below and take note of the official RhettMedia Twitter account on the sidebar. Next time on Thursday Five, I’ll complete the set and look at five examples of heroes.



~ by jrhett on February 16, 2012.

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