In most films, you will see good overcome evil. This will usually see the protagonist of the film possess heroic qualities (courage, morality, selflessness, etc.) These characters can be dull and transparent, which is why the antihero character is such a fascinating one. The antihero is a protagonist that is flawed and does not possess heroic qualities (sometimes the opposite), exploring the amoral gray area between hero and villain. The ambiguity of these characters gives them great depth, and often they are more relatable due to them having more human characteristics than a typical Hollywood hero. Contains some spoilers…
11. Snake Plissken – Escape from New York & Escape from L.A.
Like all the great antiheroes, Snake Plissken from Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. decides to live outside societal norms. He was once a heroic character in that he was a brave soldier in World War III, but he turns to a life of crime as an assassin. The system that he was protecting is what turned him down this path, and he is the ultimate bad boy hero who is anti-Government and self-serving, but he also follows his own (loose) code of honor. He has a classic rugged antihero appearance, having shoulder length hair and a scruffy beard, and he is frequently seen drinking and smoking and even has an eye patch. He has the attitude to match, but like all good antiheroes he is just trying to get by and survive, and he will do whatever it takes to achieve this.
10. Harry Callahan – Dirty Harry
Harry Callahan, or Dirty Harry as he is better known, would go on to inspire dozens of antiheroes through his renegade character, hell-bent on delivering their own sense of justice. Harry is a rogue cop who will not hesitate to break the law or act immorally to get the job done, and he has a strong sense of what is right. His approach is “the ends justify the means,” which is not something that your typical Hollywood hero would adhere to. He is portrayed masterfully by Clint Eastwood, who is an expert in playing vigilante antihero characters (more on this later). A number of his classic lines have become some of the most quoted lines in cinema, including “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?” and “Go ahead, make my day.”
9. Patrick Bateman – American Psycho
Most antiheroes have some kind of redeeming feature(s), but not American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. He is a rich investment banker who is shallow, vein, unfaithful, materialistic and smug (described as a stereotypical yuppie). This is just half the story, as by night he is a sadistic serial killer who will strike even at the slightest irritation. Despite this, Patrick Bateman is an utterly fascinating and entertaining character that is brilliantly portrayed by Christian Bale. He is charming and charismatic one moment, and will lash out in a shockingly violent manner the next. The sociopathic tendencies and doubts over his own sanity mean that this could all be in his head, and there are also moments where we see his insecurities and vulnerabilities (he often murders due to feeling inadequate). He is a completely abhorrent character, but also entirely fascinating and it makes for a gripping and highly entertaining story.
8. Leon – Leon: The Professional
Leon is a hitman in New York that lives a solitary life, but this all changes when corrupt DEA agents kill the family of the young girl living next door, Mathilda (Natalie Portman in her debut role). He reluctantly takes her under his wing and soon begins teaching her his skills, as she wants to deliver revenge for the murder of her younger brother. She becomes attached to Leon and even tells him that she loves him, but he initially offers no response. Leon remains a cold killer, but he does protect and rescue Mathilda, and by the end he realizes that she has given him a taste for life. The unique relationship the two have, where they help each other, is heartwarming and makes Leon a semi-sympathetic character. He is still a hitman with few redeeming qualities, however, making him a classic antihero.
7. The Man with No Name – The Dollars Trilogy
Clint Eastwood’s second appearance is for his portrayal of The Man with No Name in The Dollars Trilogy by Sergio Leone. This character would go on to inspire hundreds of antihero characters (and many on this list), making him an important cinematic and cultural figure. Little is known about where he has come from or where he is going, and in each film he seems to appear from nowhere, deliver his own sense of justice (mainly through violence), and then ride off into the sunset. He plays by his own rules, will not hesitate to act violently and only serves himself, but also shows the occasional moment of kindness. Additionally, he is a man of few words which adds to his intrigue, and he has a gruff appearance and voice which is an important antihero staple. The Man with No Name is neither good nor bad, but he is inherently cool.
6. Verbal Kint – The Usual Suspects
If anyone can play the role of antihero, it is Kevin Spacey. His best portrayal is in the 1995 classic The Usual Suspects. Spacey plays Verbal Kint, a smalltime conman that is brought in to be interrogated about his involvement in a massacre and fire on a ship. He is also handicapped, and he is constantly reminded of this and even teased by the police. He tells them a long and convoluted chain of events, and all about the mob boss named Keyser Soze, who commissioned the job. The audience can’t help but feel sorry for Verbal Kint throughout the film, but the ending is one of the greatest twists of all time, and is what lands Verbal Kint on this list. It is summarized by the chilling final line of the film; “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
5. Tyler Durden – Fight Club
The complexities of Fight Club make Tyler Durden a slippery character that is hard to pin down, but he is best described as a modern day antihero. He is anti-capitalism and lives outside the norms of society, actively fighting against these norms because he can. As he puts it himself, “I am smart, capable and, most importantly, I am free in all the ways you are not.” This freedom is first exhibited through the creation of Fight Club, where people meet to fight each other recreationally (although I accidentally broke the first rule of Fight Club there). This soon becomes something much bigger than fighting and is known as “Project Mayhem,” which is an anti-materialist and anti-corporate organization. Tyler Durden refuses to be a part of modern society, and his freedom and fighting against the wrongs in the world also make him a likeable (and, of course, very cool) character.
4. Tony Montana – Scarface
Tony Montana is an iconic character that has remained prevalent in pop culture, despite Scarface coming out over 30 years ago. He adorns the walls of thousands of film fans around the world, and he is the antihero poster boy. The film shows Tony Montana (portrayed by Al Pacino) arriving in Miami with nothing, before rising to become the most powerful drug lord. This sees him play the role of “good guy” initially, but crime and a cocaine addiction quickly descend him into greed, paranoia and violence. This shift makes him a difficult character to pigeonhole, but antihero is the most fitting description, as he remains the protagonist but develops less than heroic traits, yet he is a character that the audience can get behind. Montana does immoral things for moral reasons (bringing his family out of poverty), but a life of crime ultimately leads to his downfall.
3. Alex DeLarge – A Clockwork Orange
Alex DeLarge is one of the most shocking characters of all time, and he possesses characteristics solely that you would associate with the role of villain. Despite this, Alex is the narrator, protagonist and antihero of the A Clockwork Orange story. Alex and his gang go around and engage in “ultra-violence,” seeing them rape, fight, steal and assault innocent people. After terrorizing society, Alex is jailed and becomes a test subject for experimental aversion therapy, which is deemed a success and he is released. The treatment makes Alex incapable of fighting back, and upon release, it is him that becomes terrorized by society. Whilst his actions were entirely monstrous and despicable, this shift from villain to victim blurs the line between feelings of disgust and feelings of sympathy. The ability to make the audience feel this is what makes A Clockwork Orange such a powerful, important and controversial story.
2. Michael Corleone – The Godfather
The character arc in The Godfather is one of the most intriguing in all of cinema, and this is a large reason why the film is widely regarded as a masterpiece and one of the greatest ever made. Brilliantly portrayed by Al Pacino, Michael Corleone starts off shunning the family business and instead wants a more honest life. He becomes a war hero, but shortly after he comes home, an assassination attempt on his father, Vito, forces Michael to enter the world of organized crime. He soon becomes enveloped in the world, and the pivotal moment comes where Michael commits his first murders. He soon becomes everything he shunned, and proves himself to be even more cunning and ruthless than his father. It is a fascinating and utterly gripping journey that Michael goes on, and Coppola’s telling of this is typically tense and perfectly crafted.
1. Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver
A war veteran with post-traumatic stress, Travis Bickle is an outsider who is unable to fit in with modern society. This alienation, and disgust at the immorality and crime he witnesses as a taxi driver, leads him to take violent vigilante action. He is clearly a troubled character who wants to do good, but he is deeply flawed and has a loose grip on reality. This makes him a tragic, frightening and fascinating character. In the film he is described as a “walking contradiction,” which is an accurate assessment as he has moral conviction, but is also full of violence and rage. This blur between hero and villain makes him a complex character, and also the definition of an antihero. Taxi Driver is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, and this is largely due to the fascinating and deeply unsettling character of Travis Bickle.