Since the dawn of cinema, there has always been a clear theme of good versus evil, usually with the hero winning at the end. But as filmmaking has grown and developed, so has its characters.
Nowadays, there’s an increasing number of movie anti-heroes gracing our screens, probably because they are the most interesting ones to watch. Anti-heroes typically have both good and bad traits: they aren’t an evil mastermind, nor a perfect superhero, but a mixture of the two. With a conflicted moral compass, anti-heroes allow filmmakers to explore the grey area between good and evil. Of course, there are tons of anti-heroes out there to watch, but here we’ve compiled the ten best examples from film.
10. Deadpool – Deadpool (2016)
The notoriously controversial Marvel movie Deadpool changed the superhero genre forever. The typically family-friendly genre subverted tradition with an R rating, mostly because of its less-than-heroic protagonist.
Ryan Reynolds plays disfigured former agent Wade Wilson, later becoming the crime fighting vigilante Deadpool. But don’t let the spandex fool you: Deadpool is nothing like your average, cape-wearing superhero. Instead, Deadpool uses dark humour and crude gags to entertain viewers, never once showing mercy towards his victims. He might not be perfect – or even good – but one thing’s for sure, Deadpool sure is funny.
9. Freddie Quell – The Master (2012)
Alcoholic ex-Navy drifter Freddie Quell is prone to acts of spontaneous, erratic behaviour in The Master. Joaquin Phoenix perfectly encapsulates Freddie’s oddball personality, with distinct mannerisms and vulgar jokes that always go just a little too far.
When The Master tries to help him battle his trauma-induced addiction, Freddie is overcome with fits of rage and compulsive habits. He adopts an ‘I do what I feel like’ attitude to life, which makes for some unusual (and entertaining) scenarios. However, director Paul Thomas Anderson occasionally gives us glimpses into Freddie’s more tender side, showing how this madman is not all bad.
8. Louis Bloom – Nightcrawler (2014)
Journalists don’t hold a particularly heroic reputation, both in film and real-life. This is especially true of Louis Bloom, who takes the motto “if it bleeds, it leads” to a whole new level.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s wild eyes and quick dialogue make him perfect for the role. Bloom is intelligent and manipulative, but a bit of a social outcast. His sociopathic tendencies make it hard for viewers to sympathise with Nightcrawler’s protagonist at first. But Bloom does have a few redeeming traits too. Most notably his admirable determination, confident intelligence and polite demeanor.
Although based on a real person or events, biographical films are always an exaggeration of reality. So, for the purpose of this list of movie anti-heroes, we’ll use David Fincher’s caricature interpretation of Mark Zuckerberg.
As the credited founder of Facebook, Zuckerberg is depicted as a computer-whiz college student, completely devoid of social skills. Jesse Eisenberg reels off mountains of dialogue at supersonic speed, while upholding a blank, icy exterior. Zuckerberg is sarcastic, insensitive and arrogant: the perfect trio to paint a genius with. Yet, his astounding ability with words and competitive drive make him an anti-hero we can’t help but root for.
6. Daniel Plainview – There Will be Blood (2007)
A recurring theme for the anti-hero is their capacity to persuade, often as a result of intelligent manipulation. No less can be said about Daniel Plainview, brilliantly performed by Daniel Day-Lewis in another Paul Thomas Anderson contribution.
Set in 1892, There Will be Blood’s Planview is a disgruntled oil-prospector who tricks a local family into selling him their land. His empty promises and façade of the family man (always dragging his son along to business meetings) allow Plainview to worm his way into destroying village life. However, when the unmoving, slimy town preacher begins to challenge his authority, Plainview’s true colours start to shine. And there’s no telling how far Plainview will go to win the petty feud.
5. Captain Jack Sparrow – The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (2003-Present)
Captain Jack Sparrow is best known by his fans as the drunken, bumbling pirate who will do anything to cheat death. With an ‘every man for himself’ view of life, Sparrow negotiates his way through the open seas with a broken compass in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other.
Although children’s fantasy movies tend to have a heroic protagonist, Sparrow subverts expectations as a cowardly liar, hopping from one accidental adventure to the next. Johnny Depp claimed to embody his character by acting as if his “brain had been part-boiled” from the Caribbean heat, and have “sea legs” but no “land legs”, hence his slurred catchphrases and humorous mannerisms that entertain children and parents alike.
Alex Delarge is a popular choice for costume parties, with his top hat, false eyelashes and underwear worn on the outside of his clothes. But what makes him so memorable?
Despite his unspeakable criminal behaviour at the beginning of the film, Alex crosses the threshold from villain to anti-hero after his torturous rehabilitation. Perhaps we wouldn’t feel any pity for Alex’s cruel punishments had he not proved an intelligent – even artistic – teenage boy, rather than a petty, simple-minded gangster.
His introspective side is clear when questioning why those around Alex wish to rehabilitate him, when he has no desire to interfere with their good deeds. Michael McDowell disturbs viewers with Alex’s strange, not-quite-English diction and unruly behaviour, making him a cult classic anti-hero for decades to come.
3. Miranda Priestly – The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
As both a fashion and a feminist icon, Miranda Priestly struts her way to the number three spot on our anti-hero list.
Meryl Streep delivers an incredibly sassy performance, causing even the bravest of souls to flee in her presence. Miranda is an acclaimed magazine editor who knows her place at the top of the food chain; she is high-maintenance and ruthlessly judgmental, expecting only the very best to be handed to her.
Being the devil in question, Miranda boasts a wealth of knowledge over the fashion industry, enabling her to be the queen of throwing shade. She is critical and blunt, but intelligent. And deep down, a little lonely from the fear she ignites in all those around her.
2. Tony Montana – Scarface (1983)
“Say hello to my little friend!” are the frequently quoted words of Tony Montana, anti-hero from the hit gangster movie Scarface. In a typical rags-to-riches tale, Tony builds up a wild appetite for drugs, booze and money after creating an entire criminal empire from scratch.
Tony is uptight, unpredictable and practically bursting at the seams with violent energy. And yet, you can’t help but applaud him for his achievements. Al Pacino delivers his second gangster performance, having played the more sophisticated Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy (another honourable anti-hero mention). But Pacino gives a much punchier performance this time around, trashing his entire mansion in a frenzy of blazing gunfire.
In Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed character study Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle suffers from mental instability following his service in Vietnam.
Disgusted by the nightlife of New York, Travis militarises himself in an effort to “clean up the streets.” He transforms his appearance with guns, flashy badges and an iconic mohawk, using a façade of self-improvement to battle his own inner demons. Racist, obsessive and clearly disturbed, we still sympathise with Travis because of his true belief he is doing good.
Travis is a man of contradictions; rigorous workout regimes fuelled by a junk food diet and watching porn despite his hatred for prostitution. No matter how hard he tries, Travis can never quite reach that goal he so desperately seeks.