The Antihero, and Why We Love Him

an·ti·he·ro
ˈan(t)ēˌhirō,ˈan(t)īˌhirō/
noun
noun: anti-hero; plural noun: anti-heroes; noun: antihero; plural noun: antiheroes
  1. a central character in a story, movie, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.

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Antiheros have been around for quite some time, and they are not confined to any particular genre. They are the protagonists that are deeply flawed, and who cannot seem to escape who they are.

In noir, often the conventional heroic attributes that are lacking include morality and idealism. These are quite often replaced with apathy and disillusionment. Instead of a courageous hero who acts on his principles which are founded on a set of noble ideals, we have a hero who is apathetic to a life  which failed to be as good as society advertised. These disillusioned protagonists resonated with post war audiences of noir film and literature, just as they do today. As humans, we identify with the deeply flawed character of the antihero, and like him, we have some mistrust in the good of society as a whole.

Still, these faults of the main character make us feel empathy for him, especially in stories that reveal how our hero became the way he is. We start to understand his shortcomings, and love him despite his violence, pessimism and moral ambiguity. Nothing is without a cost, however, and our noir antihero must pay for his character flaws. In noir, these flaws tend to surface at the most inopportune moments possible, and often arise due to the antihero’s counterpart, the femme fatale. She takes advantage of his moral ambiguity to seduce him for her own gain. Whether conscious of her manipulation or not, the noir hero cannot overcome his flaws as an ordinary hero might. Instead, the cynical, world-weary protagonist finally fights for something, and it becomes his undoing.

Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Body Heat are all great examples of stories where a protagonist gets caught up with a femme fatale and she uses his flaws and eventually ruins him. The final ruin of the antihero is not fundamental in noir, however. A few Humphrey Bogart characters were able to make it out of their stories no worse for wear. The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep are notable examples of this. Still, it can be argued that truly great noir shares this this theme: A flawed hero who cannot escape his own character.

-Anderson Ryle

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