by Kim Lilienthal
March 11, 2019
A new hallmark of this generation is the elevation of the “anti-hero” in our entertainment. The anti-hero is an archetypal character used in storytelling who lacks conventional heroic attributes and ethics. Because they do not ascribe to the upstanding values and morals of traditional heroes, they often cross into the realm of the villainous. They are driven by classically negative inspirations: selfishness, loss, jealousy, pride, and hate, to name a few.
The anti-hero has been featured in popular films and stories before (think Han Solo or Watchmen’s Rorschach), but in more recent years, we have seen a massive influx of these characters into our entertainment. Just look at any highly rated show or film that has been released in the past ten years, and it will most likely feature an anti-hero as the main character: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and several Marvel favorites, such as Jessica Jones, Deadpool, Venom, Daredevil, Wolverine, and the Punisher. These are just a few examples from the growing list.
But what is so fascinating about this type of character that they are now taking over our TVs and movie theaters?
Simply put, the anti-hero appeals to the dark realities of human experience far more than the classic upstanding hero ever could. He is more complex and has motivations that are more relatable to the human experience. Walter White, for all his terrible deeds throughout Breaking Bad, remains a sympathetic character to many fans of the show, even to the very end, because we were able to witness, step by step, his descension from a relatively normal family man into a violent and prideful criminal. He makes awful, morally bankrupt choices, and yet there is still something inside us that wants to see him succeed.
It is interesting that we, as a culture, have decided to embrace this kind of chaotic neutral character over the lawful good. Why is this shift occurring?
As religious belief in the west continues to decline, questions of ethics become more and more difficult to answer, and the lines between right and wrong become blurred. We find ourselves in an age when we can’t decide whether men are men or women are women, or whether an infant is a person, and this overall lack of cultural moral discernment is reflected in our anti-heroes. The anti-hero does not operate under a code of ethics; he simply does whatever is most useful to his goals at the time, whether it helps someone or hurts them.
This introduces the concept that any action can be rationalized when seen from the right perspective. Our popular stories no longer draw stark lines between good and evil; they instead push the concept that people’s lives are too complex, the decisions they make too influenced by circumstance, to be able to cast moral judgments on their actions. When seen from a different perspective, actions that are understandable to one person might be completely abhorrent to another. There is no “good guy” to stand for justice and beat the “bad guy,” because who’s to say that the good guy isn’t actually a judgmental tyrant who is forcing his own ideals onto others?
Disillusionment with Idealism
The anti-hero also represents a sense of disillusionment with idealism: Corruption is being uncovered everywhere we look—in politics, in entertainment, in the church, and in our own families. Trust in authority figures who claim to be virtuous has been all but obliterated, as those who were supposed to be the best among us are revealed to be the worst.
Because of this disillusionment, this generation, probably more than any other, is more interested in seeing the world for what it is, rather than what it could be, and this paradigm is reflected in the anti-hero. The ideal of the morally upstanding hero has been replaced with a more realistic, more flawed protagonist. He doesn’t operate under any “unfounded” higher principles. He is a pragmatist who doesn’t ascribe to ideals because they only get in the way. He doesn’t pretend to be virtuous, but accepts the darkness within himself and unapologetically uses it to his advantage. And we, the modern audience, don’t care if he is morally compromised as long as he is effective.
An Antidote to Hopelessness
In the end, the celebration of the anti-hero reflects a sense of resignation in our culture to cast off morals and ideals as unrealistic and inconvenient. But what it does not account for is that it takes considerably more strength and resolve to remain idealistic in an increasingly cynical world. When the going gets tough and the world is against you, is it not more difficult and more rewarding to stand firm in your beliefs rather than dropping them as soon as they are tested?
This is why a foundation of faith and belief in something greater than ourselves is vital. It provides the antidote to hopelessness and moral ambiguity. Ideals are crucial to a life of meaning, because they allow us to set our sights on an existence outside of our own and work toward becoming everything God intended us to be.
Kim Lilienthal is an intern at Family Research Council.