Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked at antiheroes at the movies. Antiheroes are distinct from villains. Villains are usually in the antagonist position and they are bad in intention and in deed. An antihero is a protagonist who does not possess the qualities we usually associate with heroism like courage, honesty, and integrity. But the narrative usually unfolds from the antihero’s point of view and their stories are often morally complex or at least morally ambiguous.
Alex, A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange was based on Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel. The story focuses on Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, a young man who loves classical music and violent crime. Alex and his friends engage in some grotesque violence but the story unfolds from his point of view and the film employs a madcap style. A Clockwork Orange was quite controversial at the time. It was alleged to have incited copycat criminals and the version originally released in 1971 was rated X. The version available now is the slightly censored R-rated cut.
Clint Eastwood made a career out of playing antiheroes. His two most famous characters were The Man with No Name from A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as well as Dirty Harry from the eponymous first film and its sequels. Both The Man with No Name and Dirty Harry were gunmen. The Man with No Name pursued paydays in the Old West while Dirty Harry brought justice to the streets of San Francisco while disregarding politics and procedures.
Snake Plisskin, Escape from New York
Snake Plisskin was introduced in the 1981 dystopian action-adventure movie Escape from New York. In this film, the Big Apple has been walled off and turned into a prison. The President of the United States becomes stranded behind the barrier and the government recruits Snake Plisskin to rescue him. Plisskin is played by Kurt Russell as a tough, sneering, antiestablishment loner and Escape from New York has become an often-imitated genre staple.
Gangster films are home to many antiheroes. The genre is built around them. The gangster character is attractive because he lives out a version of the American dream. These stories are often about characters from the lower class pulling themselves up by their bootstraps but doing so with violence and unscrupulous cunning. The gangster pictures of the Production Code era channeled real life gangsters, namely Al Capone, but filmmakers were forced to make the character recant his criminal ways in the end, as seen in the original 1932 version of Scarface. Al Pacino played the two most popular gangster antiheros, first Michael Corleone in The Godfather series and then Tony Montana in the 1983 version of Scarface. The two characters have radically different dispositions but they’re both characterized by a ruthless ambition that’s central the gangster archetype.
Comic Book Antiheroes
Comic books have inspired a number of antiheroes including The Punisher, Catwoman, and The Suicide Squad. The most successful comic book antihero adapted to film is Deadpool. The character exists within the X-Men universe and he acts as a foil to the seriousness and social consciousness that defined that series. The two Deadpool films starring Ryan Reynolds had a Dadaist quality that satirized the superhero genre and was gleefully anarchic.
The Spider-Man villain Venom was given his own series of films released in 2018 and 2021. The character was brought to the screen as an antihero but in a way that’s a little different from others discussed here. His antihero status is partly derived from Venom’s appetite for people but he rarely does that. Instead Venom and Eddie Brock’s anti-heroism is rooted in their uncoolness. They are bound by their shared messiness and loser status which makes the pair unique in the superhero film canon.
Spawn was one of the most popular comic book characters of the 1990s. Created by Todd McFarlane (who also co-created Venom), Spawn was an assassin for the United States military who was betrayed, died and went to hell, and returned with infernal superpowers and seeking vengeance. Spawn was adapted into a very successful and very explicit HBO animated series and a less successful PG-13 live action film. A new live-action Spawn movie is in development.
Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood
Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood is one of the most vivid and complex antiheroes to be found in recent cinema. The character is an early twentieth century oil speculator who is consumed by his single-minded determination to build a petroleum empire. He’s very much like a gangster but Daniel Plainview also has sympathetic aspects to his life, namely his relationship with his son. But even that relationship is tainted by Plainview’s inability to compromise.
Hannibal Lecter is another of the great antiheroes of American storytelling. The character is a psychiatrist who is also a murderer and a cannibal. However, Lecter didn’t start as an antihero. As originally introduced in the novel Red Dragon, Lecter was a side character. Starting with The Silence of The Lambs, Lecter gradually moved toward the center the action, finally becoming the focus of Hannibal and the prequel Hannibal Rising. In the course of that transition, Lecter became less obviously villainous and his victims went from female college students to organized criminals and child molesters. This change was enacted so that the audience could enjoy the kills but it also deflated what was so interesting about him. The Hannibal television series rectified this a bit and restored Lecter’s villainy.
James Bond was originally conceived as an antihero and in fact when the character first showed up on cinema screens in Dr. No he was somewhat controversial because of the film’s mix of sexuality and violence. As 007 has gone through his various incarnations, the character has frequently been softened to make him more accessible and conventionally heroic. The Daniel Craig era leaned into Bond’s antihero status with Casino Royale but also gradually rehabilitated him over the course of that series, culminating in No Time to Die.
Tom Ripley is another dastardly but charming character. Ripley originated in the novels by Patricia Highsmith which have been adapted to film multiple times. The original book was adapted as 1960’s Purple Noon and 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ripley Under Ground was turned into a 2005 film and Ripley’s Game was filmed in 1977 with the title The American Friend and again under its original title in 2002. The character is expected to be the subject of an upcoming televising series. Tom Ripley is a psychopath and a compulsive liar but he possesses that key quality of successful antiheroes – Ripley is so charming that he makes the audience want him to get away with it.
Lisbeth Salander orignated in Stieg Larsson’s books The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The character is an antisocial computer hacker who uses her technical knowhow to disrupt and expose sex abusers. Lisbeth pairs with Mikael Blomkvist, a muckraking journalist who has a much more accessible (if bland) personality and together they uncover a ring of abuse that reaches the top of Swedish society. Lisbeth Salander has been played by several actors in various projects but Noomi Rapace’s performance in the Swedish television miniseries adaptation remains the touchstone against which every subsequent incarnation will be judged.