Antihero: is he worse than his society?

One of the panels I sat on at ConGregate in July was on writing antiheroes. The inevitable question came up, what’s the boundary line between antiheroes and villains? I forget which author said it — I think it was Michael Williams but I’m not sure — but someone suggested the test is “Is he worse than the society he’s fighting against?”

This makes a lot of sense to me. In V for Vendetta, for instance, V is a coldblooded killer and terrorist but he’s fighting to overthrow a fascist British state. Their evil justifies him not playing by Marquis of Queensbury rules. In the 1942 movie The Glass Key (and the novel it was based on), Alan Ladd’s protagonist is a crook, the right hand of the local political boss. He uses unscrupulous tactics to get the job done — beating people up, locking up a witness so they can’t testify — but the job is clearing his boss and friend (Brian Donlevy) of a murder rap he’s being framed for. So he’s still the good guy.

On the other hand, when Tony Stark in Marvel’s Civil War crossover event engages in unscrupulous tactics like a fake assassination, which he arranged to build support for superhumans registering with the government. That’s … not justifiable, any more than Marvel’s Man on the Wall. Simply asserting it’s a dirty job but it has to be done — and in Tony’s case, it didn’t — doesn’t make you an edgy antihero. Tony became a villain. And Ben Urich not reporting the story doesn’t make him much better.

Another measure of an antihero is whether you enjoy watching them do their thing. There’s a point in The Most Hated Man on the Internet where Anonymous sets out to destroy revenge-porn pioneer Hunter Moore: they shut down his site, empty his bank accounts, erase his Social Security number and have him declared legally dead for a month. One guy watching this unfold comments that while he totally does not approve of those tactics “it sure is fun watching.”

That’s definitely part of it. George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman is much worse than the Victorian society surrounding him; what makes him a success is his total lack of principles and outrageous cowardice. He’s fun to watch (though not so much I became a regular reader of the series). Lots of stories that focus on a criminal protagonist such as the British comic-strip villain the Spider or the heist film Rififi rely on the same principle: make them engaging enough and we’ll want them to succeed (the Spider also spends most of his time fighting other criminals). I wish I’d thought of that while the panel was ongoing.

#SFWApro. Cover by David Lloyd, all rights remain with current holder.


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