The Antihero Is Dying, And We’re To Blame
A plea to preserve an important television concept.
By Jacoby Bancroft, University of Nevada at Reno
I sometimes imagine what my life would be like as an antihero.
To live everyday with the weight of my tortured past driving me to do morally ambiguous deeds. I would push everyone away with my brash, unfiltered hubris, but still show just enough humanity to keep them coming back for more.
I would set out on a quest that’s both quasi-decent but still extremely self-satisfying. Maybe I wouldn’t go as far as cooking meth to provide for my family once the lung cancer finally gets me, but it would be something along those lines.
In my antihero fantasy, I would be some type of writer for a Texas-based college magazine. My hard-drinking, sleazy personal life would lead me down a self-destructive path, but the articles I churn out would be some of the best damn stories being written right now.
I would butt heads with my hard-nosed, demanding editor who both wants me to keep giving him gold, but also wants me to get help. Underneath it all, I would be afraid that my bad habits are what fuel my genius and without them I would be nothing, so I have to keep going no matter what the cost.
It’s edgy and risky, but it would make a much better television show than its white bread counterpart, where I’m just a normal college student who enjoys writing entertainment stories in his free time.
I would probably watch the darker version of the show, and by taking a look over television’s rich history, it’s clear that I’m not alone in this. Some of the best shows in recent years have been ones with flawed, antiheroic characters at their centers.
Something about an antihero excites us. We enjoy watching Walter White continue to evolve into a ruthless drug lord. We root for Dexter Morgan to keep killing bad guys. We can’t turn away as the walls that Don Draper carefully built around himself slowly start to crack and collapse. These characters are damaged and flawed, but they win us over. There’s just something inherently watchable about bad people trying to do good.
Years ago, antiheroes were at the forefront of television and they captivated us with their grit and willingness to cross the line in order to get what they want. They dominated the television landscape, but recently something changed. Not only is the idea of antiheroes a dying concept, but I think this college generation is largely responsible for killing it. That needs to stop.
Antiheroes make for compelling television. It’s been that way since the dawn of man. Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure the caveman’s favorite television show was some sort of neolithic version of Breaking Bad.
I imagine the story of a chemistry-teaching Neanderthal who slowly learns to cook T-Rex meat into an addictive drug was enough to distract cavemen from their primitive lifestyles. What I’m trying to say is that antiheroes are a huge factor in captivating storytelling, so if we decide to move away from them, the quality of our programming will suffer.
Before I go further, I should explain exactly what an antihero stands for. It’s pretty straightforward, really. An antihero is a lead character that lacks the normal heroic attributes that you’re used to seeing in a story.
A normal hero would save the world from a dastardly supervillain because of their noble intentions and innate sense of justice, no matter the cost to them personally. An antihero would just as quickly let the world burn for personal gain. Tony Soprano is an antihero. Tony Stark is not.
I mention Tony Stark because I believe that this generation’s love for the superhero genre is what’s leading to the antihero’s demise. In an age where every network is looking to grab a piece of the superhero pie, there’s no room for antiheroes.
We need to be careful, though, because we shouldn’t just stomp out the idea of antiheroes altogether. Part of the reason we shouldn’t exclude antiheroes is that we really can’t—the part of our mind that enjoys watching the bad guys get away with their misdeeds won’t allow it. Audiences are getting bored with the current trends of do-gooder heroes and slowly we’re turning our heroes darker in order for them to remain interesting.
Walter White is dead. Don Draper resolved his issues. Dexter Morgan became a bearded lumberjack or something similarly stupid.
There’s not a lot of relevant antiheroes on television anymore. Rick Grimes, from the mega-hit The Walking Dead, might come close, but his antihero tendencies stem more from the brutal world he lives in rather than being a truly rotten person deep down.
True superheroes have risen up to take their places. Instead of despicable yet likeable lead characters, we now have symbols for hope and justice. It feels like a throwback to the early days of television, where the moral compasses on every protagonist pointed due north.
Though even our infatuation with superheroes hasn’t lasted that long. It’s just not interesting enough when the heroes are frustratingly decent human beings. The superhero craze started with heroes that never would have been tempted to go down a darker path, but look at the landscape now.
Two of the more successful and well-received superhero shows on television right now are Daredevil and Jessica Jones, shows that took the idea of being a shining symbol for hope and twisted it all around. Daredevil fights his inner demons almost as much as bad guys, while Jessica Jones is as close to an antihero that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had.
Even traditional superhero movies are taking a darker approach, which is essentially just taking the long way back to antiheroes. 2016 will go down in history as the darkest year for the superhero film genre. Earlier this month, the mentally unstable antihero Deadpool character finally got his own movie. This March, the two comic titans Batman and Superman will fight each other for supremacy and bragging rights. A few months from now, the Marvel heroes will go to war with one another. And finally, in August, a movie consisting entirely of antiheroes and villains will be released in the form of Suicide Squad.
Out of all of them, Suicide Squad is gathering the most hype as of now, which shows just how excited people are to watch a bunch of bad guys save the world. The hero is limited in what he or she can do in terms of defeating evil. The antihero has no boundaries. Nothing is off-limits and it’s that unpredictability that makes antiheroes so fascinating.
When the hero stands over the bad guy with a gun to his head, we know how it will play out. No matter how much the bad guy taunts the hero, no matter how conflicted the hero looks, no matter what the music score is trying to tell you, we know the hero won’t pull the trigger. With an antihero, the suspense comes from the fact that we really don’t know what’s going to happen. His choice could go either way.
And that’s why we need to preserve the concept of antiheroes, to keep that tension alive. It’s not easy, though. Antiheroes are more difficult to pull off successfully than you would think. You can’t just make your lead character mean-spirited and call it a day. Does anyone remember Rake? What about Backstrom? Those were shows that thought they had a handle on the antihero concept but forgot to give their characters shading or depth. An antihero is mean, but there’s usually a deeper reason that opens up all kinds of intriguing story potential.
I said earlier that I often imagine myself as an antihero, but upon further thought, I don’t think I really want to be one. The main reason we attach ourselves to antiheroes is because we’re envious of their free-spirited attitudes. They can do whatever they want without considering the consequences, but that’s not how we really want to act.
We want to be decent deep-down, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy watching other people indulge their worst impulses. So please, Hollywood executives who I’m sure read my articles on a consistent basis, preserve the antihero!
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