Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Maleficent… We could go on and we will certainly find many of our favorite characters from cinema, television, comics or books. Antiheroes fascinate us. Their moral stature is sometimes questionable, if not condemnable, but we are still attracted to their dark side.
For over a decade this psychological profile has continued to assert itself more and more firmly in our culture. For some reason, we are no longer attracted to virtuous figures, the ones that Carl Jung called his hero archetype and who fight against evil. Our eternal saviors, those who bring light to dispel the darkness, have stopped inspiring us.
For what reason? For many. The anthropologist Lévi-Strauss said that no myth, legend or archetypal figure is accidental ; all these entities have their representation in the real world.
We began to feel closer to these fallible, imperfect and sometimes amoral characters. Let’s see what reasons and what inner relief are hidden behind the mask of the anti-hero.
Who are the anti-heroes and why are we attracted to them?
The time of authentic heroes seems to be over. Their reign may end much sooner than we think. Figures like Hercules or Perseus stopped shining a long time ago.
Literature has left us unforgettable characters such as the Count of Monte Cristo, but James Joyce had already reworked this universe with his Ulysses and with that novel which, suddenly, presents us with a group of anti-heroes bordering on the comic and the tragic.
In every antihero we find the same ingredients: the shadow of trauma and the reverse of the comic. Joker is one example; we could put him among the villains, but in his DNA is the antihero gene. Because he has a terrible past and dresses up as a clown, laughs when he witnesses cruelty and paints a smile on a face marked by sadness.
It is easy to empathize with the anti-hero because he is often unhappy, a feeling that is easy to understand in the current times.
The true anti-heroes and the imperfect anti-heroes
It is important not to confuse the textbook antihero with the simply imperfect character. Tony Stark (Ironman) or Batman belong to the latter category. They have lights and shadows, one eccentric and even irresponsible, the other has to deal with a complicated past due to the death of his parents.
Even so, they are both savior heroes, characters who solve the great problems of the world. They symbolize the Jungian archetype of the savior. The anti-hero, on the other hand, does not save anyone ; it is already a long time since I manage to get out of bed every day.
He is a figure that emerges from adversity, trauma, loss or betrayal. From this he creates a personal world in which his laws and system of values reign, very different from ours.
Good and evil fade and can navigate both seas, as capable of great feats and deeds that completely violate the law.
It’s easy to empathize with an antihero
We admire heroes and identify with anti-heroes. How is it possible? It is a contradiction that we can identify with characters like Walter White or Tony Soprano and have fun with their exploits. Yet it is so. Because our sense of empathy makes us more easily identify with a person who is unhappy, desperate, frustrated and struggling with a failed system.
Walter White, who has managed to capture our sympathy, is a high school chemistry professor, has cancer and produces methamphetamine to support his family. Maleficent is a fairy betrayed and harassed by the man she loves, who, in addition to leaving her, will return to tear off her wings.
It is so easy to identify with these characters. Their dark side attracts us because we understand the reasons that led them to such a dimension.
In a society that has failed, the anti-hero frees us
The Punisher, Daredevil, Jessica Jones… In recent years, adaptations for the small screen of these characters from the world of comics have been proliferating.
There is something about the anti-heroes that acts as a balm, as a cathartic element. They represent many attitudes that we think about but would never put into practice. They move and act outside the law to impose their justice (their justification) on a failed society.
Sometimes the anti-hero resorts to drastic measures to crack down on injustices. His extreme action is (secretly) attractive. We admire their determination in the face of what we would never dare to change.
The antihero does not change (and we want it to stay that way)
Anti-heroes lie, they can be cruel or even kill savagely. They can be contradictory and we can hate them and decide to stop following them.
At some point we will disassociate ourselves because they challenge our ethical and moral codes but, sooner or later, we will want to know more. We would like to see another movie, another episode, read another comic or another book.
Basically we don’t want them to change. And so, if the superhero deviates from the path of good, he will do his utmost to get back on the right path. But the anti-hero no, he will never aspire to be what he is not. And we want it just like that, imperfect.
In short, the heroes have been replaced by the anti-heroes who, in some way, are the mirror of our darkest desires. Those we will never express aloud.