Some of their fans may protest, but Milady de Winter (of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas) and Armand Chauvelin (of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy) are not true antiheroes. Certainly, they are sympathetic villains, and it might be interesting how those tales would have been told absent their titular characters. That premise—the missing hero—is the aspect of the antihero examined here.
The recent success of Deadpool, as portrayed by Ryan Reynolds, struck like a shockwave, but should not have been a surprise. Where we admire heroes, we envy the antihero. They seem to be free of many of the constraints we face in daily life. Violations of social convention, immunity from consequences, and political incorrectness are part of their license.
The antihero may be born out of a moral quandary, but they often remain morally ambiguous practitioners of situational ethics. In a sense, they serve as symbols of unfettered liberty. All of this can be very appealing, particularly when we perceive that no one else is following the rules.
They are freedom. And, they’re not exactly new.
The ancient Greek antihero was part of cautionary tales, as personifications of undesirable qualities taken to their extremes. Here was a figure destined for a tragic end. Roman authors continued and modified this tradition with satirical emphasis. They were near-miss heroes, at best, and usually fools in some manner. Only comparatively recent antiheroes have begun to lead in epics.
In the modern expression, tragedy is often the character’s origin, not his or her fate. Though often still comedic, the antihero is no longer the object of scorn, but the source. One of the early foundations for this change may be Lord Byron’s work, including “Don Juan.” Byronic heroes tend to be fallen angels, but they usually don’t come to that status by choice.
Leanna Renee Hieber (author with Tor and contributor to CE) is a pioneer of modern Gothic fiction, and in her Magic Most Foul trilogy, she explores the Victorian theme of the double. Although the example is recent, the literary tradition she reflects had many of its heroes as their own antagonists. This was not a full step toward the antihero, but an important one. The antihero’s progress toward the current expression still saw it as the darker, opposite side of the protagonist.
Then, the Edwardian period gave us Sherlock Holmes. As much as he may intrigue, were he a real person, he would very probably annoy everyone else. His manners are poor, he’s as arrogant as he is brilliant, and he’s frequently portrayed as an addict. The Great Detective almost always wins the day and rarely pauses to care who may be injured or insulted in the process. It is probably more than fair to call him an antihero.
The personality of the antihero is the flipside of the fantasy of hypercompetence. They are ronin, not samurai, and, more recently, possess all the skills of ninja.
The degree of popularity the antihero now enjoys can be traced to the era of Watergate and Vietnam. The social pendulum was swinging back from the Camelot of Kennedy, and as we collectively looked for knights among us, none could be found. Discouraged by leadership and understandably confused and frightened by the times, society turned to the knight-errant—even the mercenary.
Skepticism with government was at extraordinary levels following the fall of Nixon. In novels and film, heroes began to lose. Entertainment followed suit with characters like “the Man with No Name” (Clint Eastwood). Since the early 1960s, there has been an almost unbroken line of icons of disaffection and alienation.
Today’s political climate is ideal fertile soil for a character like Deadpool. As of July 25, the film enjoys a domestic take of $363,070,709. Some might say that guarantees a sequel, but the zeitgeist already had. A social atmosphere in which a sense of powerlessness is prevalent, combined with a perceived lack of equitable behavior, will see a bumper crop of antiheroes.
The darker and more extreme the antihero, the more urgent the criticism of society may be. The antihero vents our frustrations, but his or her scorn may also be interpreted as a criticism of ourselves for our complicity.
The antihero has always been intended as a warning—a harbinger. By taking a position outside the boundaries of society, he or she demonstrates where the borders lie. The antihero presents a public cry about what is wrong and calls for someone to address the ills and injustices. In the absence of a true hero, the intended recipient, the antihero has lately been taking up this call. But, the call is also for each of us.
We never want the real villains in life to succeed. The concept of the true hero is first something we wait for and, if none should arise, try to find within ourselves. Each of us should aspire to be more perfect than the antihero, and where we fall short, it is part of such a character’s role to remind us to do better. This is encouragement under a few layers.
Among those layers may be some remaining flecks of the Romans having painted the antihero as a buffoon. We must look past those to see and hear the antihero’s true message. Liberation from a social convention that is obsolete or too restrictive is a worthy thing to fight for. Defiance is sometimes a noble and necessary act. As individuals and as a society, we should never take ourselves too serious.
And there are villains to fight. Someone has to.
The antihero is a matter of perception and context. They are a measure of our satisfaction with society and how effective we find our roles within it. How many antiheroes we see, and how much we like them, may be among our best yardsticks for human progress.
Thom Truelove is the co-founder of Psych Wing (a group developing short films set primarily in the sci fi genre) and a collaborating partner on future sci fi/fantasy novels with gothic Victorian fantasy author Leanna Renee Hieber (Tor Books).
As an essayist, his work has been picked up by such anthologies as the forthcoming “The Book of Starry Wisdom: Apocrypha of Lovecraft's Cthulhu” (edited and produced by Simon Berman). You are invited to visit Thom's blog, “Surfing the Zeitgeist” at thomtruelove.com.