There is something about the traditional hero in American popular culture that we find… lacking. Whether it be the snow-white purity of heart, the absolute courage of convictions, the unwavering righteousness of moral cause — or likely, a combination of all three — we often find such heroic archetypes a bit tiresome.
That totally makes sense. Such heroic figures remind us of our own significant failings, our imperfections, our shortcomings, and our general overall inadequacies. After all, who among us is as noble as Superman, as morally incorruptible as Captain America, or as pure of heart as Wonder Woman?
Because we are not those things, and probably never fully could be, we tend to root for the antihero when we have the chance. This is the imperfect-yet-heroic everyman or woman, who is heroic despite his or her best efforts. The antihero does the right thing when it counts, if not at any other time. This is the man or woman for which we cheer, even though their behavior sometimes makes us cringe.
These are not the Captain America types. They do not seek out justice and truth in all they do. They stumble their way into doing the right thing — most of the time — usually despite their best efforts to mind their own business and ignore the world around them. The antihero is usually a misanthrope, a weirdo, or an outcast. They are often hard-drinking, sometimes partakes of mind-altering substances, and are always dangerous. Despite that, in a fight, you always want him or her on your team. They might not fight fair, but they’ll fight hard as hell, and for you.
So, I hereby submit, for your consideration, my picks for the 10 most badass antiheroes of film, television, and the written page out there today.
The character Frank Castle started out as a Marvel comic book persona, and from the get-go, he was a relentless, savage and unforgiving vigilante. Avenging the murder of his family, he meted out death and destruction to anyone he classified as a bad guy.
After a few failed attempts to bring the Punisher to the big and small screen in a satisfying way, the character has finally been fully and superbly realized in the form of Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle on the Netflix show, “The Punisher.” If you have not watched it, do so now.
Whether going by the name Christian Wolff or when using some other brilliant mathematician’s moniker as an alias, Ben Affleck’s high-functioning autistic accountant is a fascinating and truly unique antihero. The ass-kicking auteur of numbers lives by his own code, as he hires out to provide accounting services for various criminal organizations. He also happens to be a highly proficient marksman and fighter, and is supported by a British-voiced woman-behind-the-scenes who is not quite what she seems.
Wolff can’t stop himself from helping an innocent in danger in the course of one of his jobs, and thus violates his own rule of not getting too involved with clients. He exhibits that reluctance to being the hero that we have come to expect from our antiheroes, even as he sets out to protect the innocent and right a wrong.
Admittedly, I have not always been the biggest Keanu Reeves fan. However, he absolutely kills it as John Wick, the assassin who is trying to leave that life behind in two different movies of the same name. John Wick is on this list not simply because he battles his own inner demons in order to be a better man in honor of the woman he loved. No, he is on here primarily due to his physical proficiency (at least as it appears on-screen) in handling and reloading firearms in a gunfight.
Whoever the technical advisor is on those movies deserves a bonus, as the re-loading scenes alone are worth the price of a ticket. Add to them the slick and sophisticated assassins’ underworld economy and infrastructure in the films, and you have a kick-ass story. Let’s hope there are some more John Wick movies coming our way.
Jones is another Marvel comic book character who made the leap from the page to the small screen. Krysten Ritter portrays the former super-hero, who opens her own detective agency in Daredevil’s New York City, and battles PTSD.
This refreshing and dark take on the superhero trope, focusing on a woman who wishes and struggles to leave the hero lifestyle behind, is also unlike any other superhero story out there. Jones is taunted by a truly evil nemesis who refuses to leave her to her new life, and Ritter plays a perfectly heartbreaking mess who is wrapped inside the body of a super-powered antiheroine.
The Atomic Blond
Another antiheroine who made the leap from the page to the big screen is Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton, a top-level British MI-6 field agent and the “Atomic Blond” of the title. The movie is based on “The Coldest City” graphic novel, and Theron slays it as the vodka-swilling British intelligence operative. She is a ruthless and resourceful brawler, cunning, and her true loyalties are anybody’s guess throughout the film.
Theron plays the role with ferocity and a steely determination to win every fight, and accomplish her mission. She takes ice baths to nurse her bruised body. She pours another vodka to dull the pain. She heads back out to the street, and lays the hammer down all over again.
More so in the Lee Child book series than in the two movies featuring Tom Cruise as Reacher, this former Army military policeman-turned-drifter is a giant, brawling vagabond who wanders across America with nothing but the clothes on his back and the toothbrush in his pocket. Reacher routinely finds himself in all sorts of trouble as he offers his help to various people in need everywhere he goes.
Tom Cruise does a pretty decent job in bringing Reacher to the big screen, once you get past the fact that he is supposed to be an imposing monster of a man who physically pummels his enemies—the true Reacher can only come across in Child’s books. He is a modern-day version of Robert B. Parker’s classic “Spenser,” and lays waste to criminals with ferocity.
Ryan Reynolds plays probably the funniest and most irreverently unserious antihero to ever grace the screen in his adaptation of the Marvel comics’ character. Deadpool mocks the X-Men as do-gooders. He engages in self-pleasure on his couch while his hand regrows after being chopped off. He mocks his elderly blind roommate in her unsuccessful efforts to assemble Ikea furniture. He is the antihero we all need.
Carol, from “the Walking Dead”
More so than lead sometimes-antihero Rick Grimes in the AMC television show “The Walking Dead,” Melissa Mcbride’s Carol Peletier is the truest representation of the everywoman who begins the zombie apocalypse as a victimized weakling, and grows into an epic zombie-slayer and all-around maser of survival and warfare.
Whether she is euthanizing a psychotic adolescent girl for the good of the rebuilding human society, pretending to be a naive housewife to collect intelligence on a settlement of strangers, or simply surviving on her own in a world filled with undead and very alive threats to her well-being, Carol is not afraid to do what it takes for what she sees as the benefit of her group of survivors. We might not always agree with her decisions, but we would definitely want her on our team.
Eleven, from “Stranger Things”
Played by Millie Bobby Brown and variously known as Jane, El and Eleven, this traumatized young woman spends two seasons on the Netflix show trying to come to grips with the real world and her place in it after she escapes a horrifying government program to harness her supernatural powers. Plagued by loneliness, confusion, angst and sadness at her lot in life, she nonetheless strives to protect her new family of pre-teen boys and a small-town sheriff who takes her in from all sorts of evil. She carries a lot on her shoulders and does her best, which is about all we can ask from our antiheroes.
Finally, I am slipping this character from 2005-6 into the list because I hold out hope that HBO will one day wrap up the series “Deadwood” in a movie or final season of the show. The hard-boiled western was a modern TV masterpiece, and that was in no small part due to the performance of Ian McShane as the real-life tavern owner and pimp of the American west.
Swearengen might have been more “anti” than hero, but you will never hear a more eloquent flow of Shakespearean-inspired profanity than that which flowed from Al as he plotted murder and mayhem, all the while trying to drag the town of Deadwood into a bright future. You could not help but love the gravel-voiced Swearengen as he went face-to-face with just about everyone on the show, and usually came out on top.
There you have it: a list of imperfect-yet-admirable characters whom we might not strive to emulate in all respects, but who at least did their best to be the heroes they knew how to be. Contribute your own antiheroes in the comments below, and go out there and be a hero.
All images courtesy of Wikipedia.