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i need an anti-hero
for now, i'll take johnny depp
by alex b (@Lexistential)


Yes, I have to say it. I am a Pirates of the Caribbean fan who adores Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. He is my eyeliner-wearing manly man, boozy drunk-walking yet surprisingly able swordsman, and nonsense-mumbling font of wisdom. Though an actual relationship beyond thinking, “Wow! He’s so hot!” will bring an enormous amount of fights, heartache, and troubles with sea monsters and the English government alike, Captain Jack is my man of the moment. I love him.

Once again, I am drawn to the amoral anti-hero over the golden one. I dig Han Solo way more than Luke Skywalker, Batman instead of Superman, and Lost’s Sawyer over Jack. Con artists played by George Clooney and Brad Pitt appeal to me more than any of their sweet, lovesick alter egos. Villains aren’t factors in my equation; none of my dreams involve Darth Vader, power-hungry megalomaniacs like Lex Luthor, or murdering psychos in Bret Easton Ellis novels. But when a man has a sense of anarchy along with integrity, I’m there.

Although anti-heroes are more likely to give me a migraine instead of a stable relationship, they're virtuous nonetheless. Golden characters such as Luke Skywalker fight on a grand, spiritual scale on behalf of society’s values, while anti-heroes like Han Solo struggle on a smaller one for individual integrity. Jedi Knight Skywalker fights to destroy the Empire and redeem his father; mercenary Han Solo abandons his shady life to risk his alongside Skywalker as part of the Rebel Alliance. Luke Skywalker goes on to topple the Empire, rescue his father, and save the world—but Han Solo is the man who never sold out.

Then there's the fact that anti-heroes have more realistic lives than their golden counterparts. Heroes like Harry Potter and King Arthur are usually predestined by gods and sorcerers for marvelous lives, while anti-heroes such as Les Miserables’s Jean Valjean and Homer Simpson are given loads of lousy odds to transcend with no divine help whatsoever. The golden hero is charged with saving the world; in order to redeem themselves, anti-heroes are directed to prevent themselves from sinking into the ghetto section. Anti-heroes typically lack the fabulous life of a golden one, and have every right to yell at God for leaving them on the D-list. But give me a choice between someone who dedicates his life to looking for a Holy Grail, or someone who helps me cope with the world when it’s in a septic mood, and I gladly choose the anti-hero.

Perhaps the most striking thing about anti-heroes is that each comes to choose honor freely while their golden counterparts seem to include guilt and obligation in the process. When characters like Aragorn from Lord of the Rings are given decisions to make, large scales of life and death dangle as he reviews his options. They accept their missions and continue fighting for the right things, but also because saying no signifies cataclysmic destruction and blood on their hands. (Urg. Bad.)

On the other hand, heavy issues of universal destruction don’t force anti-heroes like Captain Jack Sparrow or Hugh Grant’s defiantly shallow bachelor Will from About A Boy in decent directions. Nuclear war and the second coming of New Kids on the Block wouldn’t make these men blink an eye. What instead resonates is whether to keep leading a life of self-serving convenience, or to acquire an existence with accountability and selflessness as part of the package. Ultimately, anti-heroes choose the second option without pressure. Nor do these rascals, liars, tricksters, vigilantes, and rogues do it in the name of Grayskull—they do it for honor.

Maybe I’m not being entirely fair to golden heroes. Perhaps I don’t have enough faith in the mythical figures that have climbed mountains for a burning bush, or belief for contemporary ones. I could just be foolish, far too left-wing, happy from Cheech and Chong's countercultural legacy, or in dire of need of having my head checked. But the people cast as my generation’s golden figures seem to be made of fool’s gold. The king in the big white castle appears to have the I.Q. of a gnat, while the man who tempted the gods in Top Gun looks like he's lost all his marbles. In the meantime, knights on white horses are televised wearing rented tuxedoes and offering flowers and pithy lines on The Bachelor.

Somebody send me Mad Max, and oh God, do it fast.

Thus, contemporary pirates, vigilantes, and other anti-heroes are an absolutely welcome relief. They aren’t likely to shove an extreme version of my religion down my throat, or ask me in simpering tones why I'm not married. They don't hide who they are at all, nor do they torture me with Z-grade television. Most of all, they don't ask me to join Conservative Match’s dating pool of repressed sharks.

Instead, they'll ask if I've ever heard of the Matrix, volunteer to watch Heathers and Trainspotting with me, or offer to loan me some new Wolverine graphic novels. They'll nitpick my opinions, engage into a few heated debates with me, and expect me to know what I'm talking about. They may even follow Rhett Butler's example in not giving a damn about what everyone thinks of them, and hey—I don’t expect them to care about that. What I want most from an anti-hero in this day and age is some understanding and the prospect of wreaking a little havoc together. I know I can be patient, and that all I need is the right attitude.

But while I'm waiting, I'll be at Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.


An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.

more about alex b


all about my mother(s)
13 moms with meditations i've come to love and understand
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topic: humor
published: 5.15.09

as long as it isn't babysitting
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published: 8.16.11


tracey kelley
7.21.06 @ 11:15a

Wow, this is so spot on. We desire to see the change in someone, even if it doesn't quite happen.

brian anderson
7.21.06 @ 11:33a

I once had a friend tell me that "you know you're growing up when you start preferring Han Solo over Luke Skywalker." Alex, you made a really good point in that flawed characters are more sympathetic. We recognize, in them, human beings, like ourselves. In the world of lit, it's been a cliche for centuries to say that Satan is the "hero" of Paradise Lost, but he really isn't: he's the most human, the most compelling, since he embodies all our flaws.

alex b
7.21.06 @ 4:59p

Thanks Tracey.

Brian, your points about Satan are on the money. As someone who makes mistakes, commits sins, and doesn't center her life around a noble cause, I can relate more to Satan than I can with a being such as Buddha. I take it for granted that, in my pursuit of happiness, I will screw up somewhere, but I don't see myself achieving enlightenment or withdrawing from the world. I'm not a perfect human being, nor do I consider myself obliged to be one just because a bunch of Italians tell me to. But I believe I'm supposed to try. (And I love your friend's quote).


mike julianelle
7.21.06 @ 7:35p

So, what's the working definition of anti-hero? Someone who does the right thing but only under duress? Someone who does the right thing for reasons aside from the obvious "save-the-world" cop-outs? Someone who doesn't want to be a hero but ends up being one anyway? Someone whose selfish motives end up coinciding with the golden boy's by accident? Or simply a main character that has shades of grey? Or even a villain who becomes the focus of a story and forces the audience to root for him, regardless of his intentions, by virtue of the fact that he is the main character?

I assume Rick, in Casablanca, is an anti-hero, because only late in the game does he finally do the right thing, and at the same time, that "right thing" contradicts his personal happiness? And Laszlo is the golden boy hero who can do no wrong and fights for the greater good without thinking of himself?

But what about Hannibal Lecter? He helps Clarice save the day and prevent the murder of the Senator's daughter, but not for any real reason other than his own enjoyment of the game.

It's easy to prefer a complex character over a white hat, but that doesn't mean the anti-hero is automatically preferable. Everyone seems to prefer Batman over Superman because he's tortured and a wacko and a vigilante and has demons, while Superman has no choice but to use his powers to help mankind. Please. Unless you're playing within the realmof destiny, which is stacking the deck anyway, everyone has a choice. Would Superman be a more attractive character if the only reason he saved the world was to get into Lois' pants and he occassionally said fuck it?

mike julianelle
7.21.06 @ 7:46p

FYI, Merriam-Webster defines "antihero" as "a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities."

So, it can simply refer to the main character who was never intended to be heroic; or to a character that does heroic things without being a conventional "for the greater good/destiny's child" kind of guy.


robert melos
7.22.06 @ 4:57a

Lacking in heroic qualities? The problem with that in context of characters like Jack Sparrow, Hans Solo, Colin Farrell (Yeah he's real, but seems to fit this) is that honor is a heroic quality.

Alex, excellent take on anti-heroes.

alex b
7.22.06 @ 5:27p

Hi Mike, you pegged an anti-hero right: guys you would never expect to perform acts of heroism because of the "conspicuous lack of heroic qualities", but who do honorable things for reasons that are entirely their own (and not for "save the world" cop-outs). Al Bundy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's hell-raising Spike, and the enigmatic V from V For Vendetta are other examples, along with Hannibal Lecter, Lestat, or Revenge of the Nerds's Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity. I don't always agree with their methods or motives, but they do the right things along with the white hats.

I don't prefer Batman automatically over Superman because he's a tortured vigilante. However, I relate to complex guys like Batman more than Superman because he has no unnatural powers, and circumstances of isolation and grief are more common than being designated to save the world. If Superman were to limit his motives solely for Lois's pants and say fuck it here and there, he wouldn't be more attractive. Instead, he just wouldn't be a symbol of perfection.

Hi Robert! Honor is a heroic quality, whether with anti-heroes or golden ones. Each taps into honor differently. Golden ones do so because they know they're supposed to do it; anti-heroes do it because they'd like to.

And though Colin Farrell is one cute, rampantly partying import, I have yet to see an instance of actual heroism. Especially because Alexander was bloated, boring, and bad with the blond hair. :-)


russ carr
7.23.06 @ 12:28a

Let me say that the only reason Spike did anything heroic was because Marti Noxon was Mary Sue-ing like crazy for three and a half seasons.

I think the attraction is, we're attracted to those people who deep down have a strong sense of justice, but whose willingness to act to that end comes reluctantly, or at the very steep price of trading the freedom of detachment for the chains of participation. V, Spike, Batman, Jack Sparrow, et al, are more intriguing because of who they are when they're not being heroic. (See also Bill's speech about Superman/Clark Kent in Kill Bill Vol. 2.)

They have the advantage of transcending themselves, not just their situation. Superman, he's already transcendent. He's gotta dumb himself down just to get by around us fragile humans. That's the big reason I've never been a huge fan of the Blue Boy Scout — not because of who he is, but because he's always got to be diminished for the sake of the story.

When the anti-hero finally takes that decisive action, it usually isn't because he or she feels the need to BE HEROIC, it's usually because it's the classic "if you want it done right you've got to do it yourself" attitude mixed with the character's overwhelming desire to get back to being left in peace.


alex b
7.23.06 @ 6:22a

Hiya Russ, I think we also pay rapt attention to folk like Jack Sparrow, V, and Spike because they personify an existence of ultimate freedom- one where they're free to be and can do as they please, and one that's also free from obligation, rules, and redundancy. Deep down, I believe we wish we had that ultimate freedom, and are captivated because we don't. (Personally, I'd love to be a catsuit-clad jewel thief).

Thanks for mentioning transcendence, because it's hard to get past (and easy to give into) our barnacles of human nature: selfishness, doubts, fear, loneliness, grief, anger, or hatred. Hence, I am more moved by people who transcend themselves because it's a struggle to be good and unselfish. When these guys choose honor, I get floored because they have everything in the world as they like it- and they direct their freedom into choosing the right thing. Again, I might not agree with how they live or who they are, but I'm moved that they make the choice.

Though I dig Superman, he doesn't spark me as much as Batman does because he's already transcendent- and will always remain so. Like Buddha, he's a noble icon, a character who represents who we could be if we directed our lives around a great purpose or sought enlightenment. But since he has no human imperfections, no one can relate to him.

And uh... what's filking?


russ carr
7.23.06 @ 8:41a

Sorry, Alex... my addled brain grabbed the wrong term last night. I should have said (and have corrected) she was guilty of Mary Sue-ing: elevating a character far beyond (his) original position, often because the writer wants to live out their vicarious fantasies through them.

Filking is writing spoof songs, a la Weird Al.

alex b
7.23.06 @ 6:13p

Ah, thanks for the explanations.

Though Marti Noxon's Mary Sue-ing is a case of writer fantasy, it indirectly touches that four-letter word: love. When we ideally and romantically love an anti-hero, we wonder what they would be like if they weren't so anti-heroic, and imagine golden versions of themselves. We hope they change into socially accepted and acceptable folk- the very things they consider anathema and selling out. Interesting, eh?

michelle von euw
7.23.06 @ 8:20p

Awesome column, and excellent examples chosen to prove your point. And yet -- in the fictional realms you list, I find myself always on the side of the so-called golden boy. I'm totally a Luke Skywalker girl, and I'd go for Will Turner over Jack Sparrow any day of the week. (My friend Erin and I decided the WB provides plenty of strong examples to proof this exact point: Dean/Jess, Sam/Dean, Dawson/Pacey, Angel/Spike.)

russ carr
7.23.06 @ 8:31p

Yeah, but would you really choose Duncan over Logan?

robert melos
7.23.06 @ 10:33p

Russ, given the definition of Mary Sue-ing, don't the majority of writers do this?

russ carr
7.23.06 @ 11:01p

Bobby, it's usually applied strictly to fan fiction, taking existing characters from someone else's universe and changing their characteristics to meet the author's fantasies. Romantic Star Trek Mary Sue stories were huge in the 70s, before the franchise crawled back into activity. They usually centered around Capt. Kirk doing something heroic to save the not-original-to-the-show character, who was usually female, and usually a thinly-veiled version of the author.

michelle von euw
7.23.06 @ 11:45p

Russ, I kept Logan/Duncan out of the discussion, because it's been determined that Logan is the exception that proves the rule. (And I attribute much of Logan's appeal to the writing and Jason Dohring's portrayal - and the lack of both with Duncan - more than applying hero/anti-hero roles.)

Speaking of Veronica, she's kind of an anti-hero herself, isn't she? I started wondering about the female approach to this question -- the classic would be Eponine v. Cosette, I guess, and I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't prefer the former.

Russ, a lot of Buffy fan-dom thought Riley's wife was a total Mary Sue: someone who instantly won every other character's love and trust within 42 minutes, solved all their problems, then swooped off screen, never to be heard from again.

alex b
7.24.06 @ 1:32a

Jeez, I go watch Pirates for a third time, and all this discussion happened. (Cool!)

Hi Michelle! Thanks for the props! I unfortunately lack the extended knowledge of the WB-verse to make choices except for Buffy. I would actually tag Angel as anti-hero too, because he wasn't above *really* pummelling someone when he felt like it. I think the closest "golden boy" character Buffy ever had was Riley- and between Riley and Spike... oh man. Tough choice. (And oh God, Riley's wife was a total Mary Sue. Bleah.)

I actually didn't write about female heroes because I think they merit an entirely separate column on their own :-)

sloan bayles
7.28.06 @ 8:47a

My all time anti-hero...Jack Burton.

Great discussion going on ;)

dan gonzalez
7.28.06 @ 12:38p

I guess there's a bit of gray between 'anti-hero' and 'non-hero.

My favorite non-Golden boys are Case from the Sprawl Trilogy, and Tyler Durden, the awesome leader of Project Mayhem.

sandra thompson
7.29.06 @ 8:13a

Scott Fitzgerald once said, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."

To which I'd like to add, "Show me an anti-hero and I can write you a comedy."

I think it all depends on whether one's in a mood to laugh or cry. I've been trying to encourage laughter.

alex b
8.4.06 @ 7:24a

Heya Dan, although anti-heroes and non-heroes are both flawed and very human, there's a key difference that stands out: one ultimately exercises a sense of honor, while the other never does. In addition, non-heroes aren't necessarily criminal, but golden figures turned inside out. They're the guys who have a great deal of success and a lot of choices at their fingertips, but do nothing or lead vacuous lives in spite of it. Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt and Edith Wharton's Newland Archer from "The Age of Innocence". They can also be fallen figures who don't see beyond their circumstances, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

Heya Sandra, I'll definitely take laughter over tragedy any day. On a further note, I think anti-heroes are more capable of seeing humor than golden ones. Luke Skywalker is horrified and burdened that his father is Darth Vader; Han Solo would have probably gone, "Oh. Great."

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