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The Evolution of the Antihero

Analyze the progression of the antihero trope. How does it reflect changing social anxieties? Look at examples from classic cinema to modern streaming hits.

The article can be structured as a timeline first. Film Noir laid the groundwork, and TV’s prestige era exploded the antihero trope. Film Noir is a classic antihero breeding ground (cynical detectives, femme fatales, etc.). Another excellent point to cover here would be to highlight TV’s greater creative freedom and depth that allowed for more nuance than cinema often could. Now, I cannot think of all the classic movies, but some ideas do come to mind. Of course, there are many more examples to dissect properly.

40s/50s film noir has “The Private Detective” such as Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep), Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) – world-weary, morally compromised, yet with an inner code. Then we had the “Femme Fatale” trope. Think Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity) – manipulative, uses sexuality for her own goals, challenges traditional female roles.

60s/70s Westerns saw a different breed altogether, I believe. First, you got the spaghetti Western Antihero, still relatable. A good example would be Clint Eastwood’s "Man with No Name" (A Fistful of Dollars, etc.) – self-serving, violent, but audiences root for him against even worse figures. Soon afterward, they were quick to offer more revisionist examples in cinema. There are many examples of this one but the main one is William Munny (Unforgiven) – haunted by past sins, questions the "heroic" myth of the cowboy.

Then let’s come to the 70s/80s. This is the neo-noir and crime thrillers age, kind of like an evolution. Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) is the prime example here. Deeply disturbed but the isolation-amid-urban-decay is a point that almost every city-dweller can relate with, pretty much. Thelma and Louise covers women taking agency, breaking free, and similar concepts, even when it means violence. This is an early example of the female antihero, and worth highlighting.

2000 onward we have the TV/streaming age. Three examples here: 1) Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) – quintessential modern antihero – mobster, yet we see his family struggles and therapy humanize him. 2) Walter White (Breaking Bad) – from mild-mannered to ruthless drug lord, his transformation is both horrifying and strangely compelling. 3) Joe Goldberg (You), Villanelle (Killing Eve) – pushing boundaries, playing with audience sympathy

  • 2000s onwards is about 20 years not to mention the 90s where antiheroes were omnipresent. There's a lot of history for the writer to look into. – Sunni Rashad 2 weeks ago

Female antiheroes

TV has seen a bit of an emergence of female antiheroes in recent years. Some examples include Rachel in UnREAL, Nancy in Weeds, and Claire in House of Cards. Antiheroes have traditionally been male, so it is a breath of fresh air to see women characters that don’t always act within the moral boundaries society has normally expected of them. Discuss the appeal of female antiheroes; are there any limits to the archetype? Is it easier to have male antiheroes?

  • Good topic! Perhaps one of the women of Game of Thrones could be added as an example too? – Ben Hufbauer 7 years ago
  • Very interesting topic! – mattvasconcellos 7 years ago
  • Women of GoT is a valid suggestion but I'd just like to say I think that they should be left out of the article for simplicity's sake. They would cloud the article too much with speculation and there are far too many. Lets maybe keep it easy and focus on female anti heroes as main protagonists in modern realistic dramas? Just to keep the genre specific. If it went all over scifi, fantasy, crime, etc. this article could become too huge a task lol. – Slaidey 7 years ago
  • Jessica Jones may also be an interesting character to explore. – Laura Jones 7 years ago
  • Regina of Once Upon a Time comes to mind, although she may no longer fit the antihero mold since literally separating herself from the Evil Queen. Or does that actually make her more of an antihero? Anyway, she tops my list. Now that I think of it, Zelena might fit, too. – Stephanie M. 7 years ago

The Rise of the Antihero: A Modern Fascination

Over the last few decades, television has seen a rise in antiheroes as the main characters. Whether it be Tony Soprano in "The Sopranos," Walter White in "Breaking Bad," or Nucky Thompson in "Boardwalk Empire," it appears that many of the most talked-about television series star protagonists whom the audience could find just as repulsive as they are relatable. Are a character’s flaws the measure of how relatable he/she will be to the viewer?

  • Ooo this is interesting. I would also like to consider gender here--especially because all the characters you specifically listed are men. Are female anti-heroes different than men? How do expectations of the audience play into gender (i.e., is it more acceptable for men to behave "repulsively")? – cray0309 8 years ago