Anti-heroes in Film Explained & 15 of the Best Examples
For as long as I can remember, there have always been two leading roles in a movie, a hero and a villain.
So, what about the role you can't define as a hero or a villain?
What category do you place them in?
Let me introduce you to anti-heroes.
Maybe you have heard of it but not fully understood their effect in different movies.
In this article, I will write about, what I think, are some of the most amazing movies, and they all have one thing in common, an anti-hero. I will summarize the movie, so you can understand what happens and why the leading role wears the title, anti-hero. So, sit back, relax, and let me introduce you to 15 of the greatest anti-heroes in film.
New to filmmaking? Start by learning the filmmaking basics.
What is an anti-hero?
Anti-heroes are known for using unsavory methods to accomplish their goal. They are selfish, arrogant, and lack conventional heroic qualities and attributes, such as idealism, courage, and morality.
They are known for being ambiguous protagonists with a dark side. When I write "dark side," it's because anti-heroes usually act in their own interest.
What is the role of an anti-hero in a film?
An anti-hero usually plays an essential role in a narrative, mainly the main character. An anti-hero usually lacks the traditional qualities of a hero, such as fairness, good judgment, idealism, courage, and honesty. Instead, an anti-hero possesses selfishness, dishonesty, cowardice, realism, and weakness.
15 Examples of anti-heroes in film
1. Travis Bickle in Taxidriver
Let's start with Travis Bickle in the movie Taxidriver (1976). Travis Bickle is one of the most famous anti-heroes. It's instructed by Martin Scorsese, written by Paul Schrader, and Robert De Niro plays the leading role, as Travis Bickle. The movie is considered by many to be one of the great classics. In particular, it's known for Bickle's famous quote, "You talking 'to me?" and the movie's violent tone.
We're following Travis Bickle, who works as a taxi driver and veteran; like many other anti-heroes, he is a complicated protagonist to pin down.
Brickle spends his days driving around in a city filled with trash and garbage. One day, he takes it upon himself to clean the mess and filth in New York City. He wants to eliminate the trash, corrupt politicians, pimps, child slavery, and immoral sexual exploitation. But Brickle's methods of correcting the flaws in the city are not suitable. They are murderous, involve attempted assassination, harassment of a campaign worker, and illegal firearms.
The goal Brickle wants to accomplish is heroic, but his actions of getting there are not. That is what makes Travis Brickle an anti-hero.
2. Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler
Next up, Louis (Lou) Bloom in Nightcrawler (2014). Lou Bloom is the main protagonist in Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy.
Lou Bloom is a pretty thief who steals metal and sells it for scrap, but one day, he encounters a violent, fiery car crash on Lou's way home. This crash is filmed by a freelance cameraman, Joe. When Lou comes home, he sees the car crash video on the local news. Lou decides to become a freelance journalist who illegally investigates crimes. He intends to sell his footage to the news for profit.
Later on, Lou becomes obsessed with his job. He will go any length for the right shot if it means getting in the way of ambulances, dragging around corpses to fit in the frame, and even getting his employees shot.
"That's my job, that's what I do; I'd like to think if you're seeing me, you're having the worst day of your life." - Lou Bloom.
Lou Bloom believes in self-help; he has a can-do attitude but doesn't care much for ethics. He is driven, aggressive, and lacks empathy for other humans. He doesn't care about anything other than making a name for himself in crime journalism. He uses unsavory methods to accomplish his goals, making him an anti-hero.
3. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
Sometimes it's hard to believe that we're cheering for people who can hurt other humans. The main character can play a specific role during the day and a completely different role during the night. Here is where Patrick Bateman tests our moral and ethical boundaries in the movie American Psycho (2000).
Patrick Bateman is a wealthy New York City investment banking executive. He hides his alternate psychopathic ego from his coworkers and friends, as he spends his time at night slashing prostitutes and homeless people - not to mention eating their brains.
He spends his daily hours trying to fit into society; he has a strict diet, a workout routine, eats dinner at the finest restaurants, and has a confident, arrogant attitude, which makes him hide his insecurities and darkest desires.
Patrick Bateman is distinguished between the American dream and the instinctive animal; we all tend to hide away.
4. Léon in The Professional
In the movie The Professional (1994), Léon plays the role of a professional assassin. His next-door neighbor Mathilda, who is 12 years old, is reluctantly taken in by Léon after a squad of corrupted cops murders her family.
"If you don't help me, I'll die tonight. I can feel it." - Mathilda.
Léon had never had a reason to care about anyone until Mathilda showed up on his doorstep and needed his help. Léon starts training Mathilda to take her revenge on the corrupted cops one day.
The relationship they build up will surprise you. It makes you like Léon and questions his character due to his career. He pays his bills at the expense of other people's lives, but at the same time, he possesses good qualities such as helping Mathilda. Maybe he shouldn't have shown a 12-year-old how to kill people, but they find each other with that common ground, which results in a caring and lovable relationship between them.
He is the ultimate anti-hero.
5. Mad Max in The Road Warrior
In the film, The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max (Max) plays the leading role of a cynical ex-cop who drifts from place to place. His biggest concern is himself and his own best interests.
The film begins by watching Max endlessly roaming in the wilderness after the third world war. After the war, they are all in need of gasoline; this is where Max stumbles on a small community, where they don't need it. But, A group of bandits is harassing the community because they have gasoline; this makes Max think twice when they ask if he can help them.
Max is not a bad guy; he just prefers to be alone. He's the type of anti-hero where you don't feel like rooting for him (and yet, you kind of do).
6. Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network
If you haven't watched the Social Network yet, do yourself a favor and do so.
I'm sure you've heard of Mark Zuckerberg?
One of the smartest and wealthiest guys on the planet—the one who invented Facebook. Jesse Eisenberg plays the leading role as Mark Zuckerberg and does it perfectly.
Even though Mark Zuckerberg is one of the most intelligent people on the planet, he lacks empathy for other people and has a way of stepping on many's feet to accomplish his goal. Not being able to put others first or thinking about other people's feelings in the process of creating something new and always wanting credit for his work does not make him a villain, but neither is he a hero.
Mark Zuckerberg is an anti-hero because of his lack of empathy, brutality, and arrogance. His ex-girlfriend, Erica, tells Mark that she is not breaking up because he is a nerd (that's what he thought); it's simply because he is an asshole.
" It'll Be Because You're An Asshole" –Erica
7. Tony Montana in Scarface
Nex, Tony Montan. He is a fictional character and the protagonist in Scarface (1983). Al Pacino had the pleasure of playing the leading role, Tony Montana, and he does so perfectly.
In 1980 Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee and ex-convict, arrived in Miami, Floria, and was sent to a refugee camp with his three friends. They all get an offer from Miami's drug lord Frank Lopez - he offers them four green cards in exchange for murdering a former Cuban general. After the deal with Frank is done, they become dishwashers at an eatery, but Tony is not satisfied; he believes he is meant for something bigger. Frank ends up hiring Tony and his friend Manny, and then Tony is reunited with his mom and sister. Like any other big brother, Tony is very overprotective of Gina, his little sister.
We follow Tony trying to rank up in the underground drug world as time passes. He ends up being the drug king of Miami but succumbs to abuse, obsession, and brutality, which have significant consequences.
Tony is a man who thinks of his own needs above anything else, except his family. His background makes it hard not to think, what if he had all the possibilities to become better. Not to kill other people, but go to school and get a job that doesn't require you to kill others.
Maybe if the first person he met weren't Frank Lopebe, he would have had a chance. But it was. He loves his family, and that's it. He is a person who takes care of his own at the expense of others' lives.
As much as I would have loved to see him grow up in a different environment, he didn't. He is the definition of an anti-hero.
8. Derek Vinyard in American History X
American History X is an American drama film from 1998 instructed by Tony Kane. The film is about a group of young neo-Nazis. We follow the Vinyard family, where Derek and Danny are both neo-Nazi skinheads. They became that way because of their fathers' haterade for people of color.
"Every night, thousands of these parasites stream across the border like some f***in' pinata exploded. Don't laugh! There's nothin' funny goin' on here!" - Derek preaching to his fellow skinheads.
Their father is a racist and does nothing to hide it. Later on, Derek ends up in prison, where his cellmate is Afro-American (Lamont). Slowly Derek begins to change his mind in a more anti-racist direction because he likes Lamont. When Derek is released from prison, his brother, Danny, is entangled in the neo-Nazi environment as Derek also was before prison.
Now Derek is trying to get himself and his brother out of the neo-Nazi climate before it's too late. However, the story ends in tragedy when Danny, Derek's little brother, is shot by a black student, who Danny has conflicted with earlier in the movie.
The film ends with Derek holding his dead brother. What happens next is left to speculation, but the previous draft implies that Derek becomes a neo-Nazi again.
I would interpret it as hate solves nothing. But again, what happens next is left to speculation.
So, I guess the questions is... what do you speculate?
9. Alex Delarge in A Clockwork Orange
Alex Delarge is the narrator and protagonist in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Every experience and word in the movie, we experience through the sensations Alex describes and the suffering he endures.
Through less, innocently likable, and knowingly evil, he is very individual. At the movie's beginning, Alex appears to be more than just a human programmed for violence. He hangs out in all popular places, dresses nice, and is the undisputed leader of his gang - he represents a typical highly successful teenager. Alex is unique in his unyielding commitment to the ideals of violence, as well as he takes pleasure in his crimes. He loves classical music and experiences something familiar to holy joy when listening to it.
The thing is, Alex gets the same emotions in his body when he listens to classical music as during the act of violence. There is a sense of calmness in Alex when he acts violently, where we as the audience find it exciting and creepy at the same time. But then again, anti-heroes aren't supposed to be likable; they are supposed to be interesting.
In the end, Alex grows as a human being after the government removes his conditioning and recognizes that he has made bad mistakes. This is what makes him a perfect anti-hero.
10. Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane
This movie is considered one of the best movies in the world, and I couldn't agree more.
Citizen Kane, an American film from 1941, is instructed by Orson Welles, who also plays the leading role of a newspaper king.
In the opening act, Charles Foster Kane exhales after saying his last word:" Rosebud," dies. After that, we experience Kane's life in a series of flashbacks, as a group of journalists tries to clarify what he meant by his last word.
The meaning of the word is first revealed in the film's final scene.
Kane is the type of anti-hero who loses his temper if someone insults his half-brother or his friends for no reason. The pain and sadness of Charles Foster's life in the film result from the belief that money brings all the good things of life. That's the flaw that haunts Charles Foster. If you haven't watched the movie, I would highly recommend it.
11. Michael Corleone in The Godfather 1 & 2
" Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer." That is Michael Corleone's motto, but it wasn't always like that.
Michael Corleone plays the leading role of the three Godfather films instructed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Michael is the youngest son of Vito Corleone, a Sicilian immigrant who built a Mafia empire. Upon Vito's death, Michael becomes the don of the Corleone crime family. Michael Corleone was recognized as the 11th most iconic villain in film history, although some critics consider him an anti-hero, and this is where I agree.
Michael wanted nothing to do with the family business; he wanted a more Americanized life. His father didn't want him to join the Corleone criminal empire either because he wanted to get into politics. But Vito gets critically wounded in assassination and changes his mind. He pushes his son into the Mafia World, where Michael has tried to stay out of for so long.
A lot happens after, but the main thing is that Michael comes from a good place, but when he encounters the life of Mafia, he is forced to play by different rules.
12. Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Next up, Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).
The film tells the story of Blomkvist's investigation to find out what happened to a girl that disappeared 40 years prior. He recruits the help of Salander, a computer hacker. Salander doesn't play by the rules, she researched Blomkvist illegally, but Salander is a great research assistant, so Blomkvist says nothing. She figures out a lot of leads to the investigation and ends up figuring it all out.
After she is finished with the work, she steals two million euros from the murder. It's not moral and ethical, but it's also not bad. He deserved it. Salander is the perfect antihero!
13. Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street
The Wolf of Wall Street is a perfect mix of comedy and drama, directed by Martin Scorsese and based on Jordan Belfort's memoirs of the same name.
The script is written by Terence Winter, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the leading role as Jordan Belfort.
The film is based on the true story of the stockbroker Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), who at a young age builds a stockbroking company from scratch and ends up turning over several billion dollars a year. He also cultivates the wild jet set environment of New York, which flows with alcohol and drugs.
Later, he gets involved in a significant fraud related to the Mafia. He is arrested for price manipulation, and after an agreement with the prosecution, he gets 22 months in prison for defrauding over $ 200 million of his investors' money – I wouldn't exactly call that a good deed.
14. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
"When you marooned me on that godforsaken spit of land, you forgot one very important thing, mate. I'm Captain Jack Sparrow." - Jack Sparrow
Jack Sparrow is selfish, charismatic, morally gray, and arrogant. He is the protagonist of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. Jack is one of the most infamous pirates ever to sail the Seven Seas and commander of the Black Pearl.
He is known for forming alliances with the more noble and heroic figures in the movies, but he himself is not one of those.
If you haven't watched the film series yet, do yourself a favor and do so. You won't regret it.
15. Han Solo in Star Wars
Last but not least, Han Solo. It was deliberate on the part of George Lucas that Han Solo should be the opposite of Luke Skywalker. Luke is the type who wants to help others and is not very self-centered.
Han Solo, on the other hand, is very selfish and cares exclusively only about himself. He is the arrogant type, whereas Luke is more modest and careful. Luke believes in something greater, Han Solo only really cares about money.
Furthermore, Han Solo is a bright and cunning type, unlike Luke, who appears naive. This makes Han Solo the perfect anti-hero and Luke the hero.
What's the difference between a villain and an anti-hero?
Villains are not people you want to follow; an anti-hero could be.
An Anti-hero is still operating for the greater good.
They tend to be flawed heroes in a sense they do wrong things.
A villain is all about themselves. They do whatever it takes to better their lives, and they don't think twice about hurting other people.
Dive into the role of a protagonist
Do you agree with my choices of some of the greatest anti-heroes in movie history?
Hopefully, this article helped you form a pretty concise understanding of what an anti-hero is and their purpose on movies.
There's more to learn!
Continue learning. Discover what a protagonist is.
What is an anti-hero?
An anti-hero is the main character in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage, and morality.
What are some examples of an anti-hero in a film?
Jack Sparrow, Batman, Han Solo, Tony Montana and Jordan Belfort.