“Anti-hero” is a slippery, seemingly indefinable, designation. There are no set criteria for definitively determining a character’s anti-hero status, which is perhaps a part of the anti-hero’s enduring popularity. They may be well-intentioned but ultimately destructive, work outside of established moral or social parameters in order to get results, or be just plain hapless idiots who bumble their way into desirable results. Examples of anti-heroes can be found in works stretching all the way back to Homer and Shakespeare, but it’s perhaps Hollywood that has done the greatest job in satisfying our craving for these flawed, fascinating and scene-stealing characters. Here are 15 of the most memorable anti-heroes we’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.
Lisbeth Salander – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)
A heavily tattooed and pierced, bi-sexual computer hacker declared “mentally incompetent” by state authorities, Lisbeth Salander is nevertheless a brilliant private investigator with no compunctions about using violence and other illegal methods to uphold her own skewed sense of justice. After she is brutally raped by her legal guardian, rather than go to the authorities Salander takes matters into her own hands by tattooing “I am a sadistic pig, a pervert, and a rapist” across his stomach, and threatening to release a video of the sordid events should he ever come near a woman again. Grrrl power!
Otto Maddox – Repo Man
Otto is a disillusioned hardcore punk from L.A. who finds a sense of purpose in life after he is accidentally recruited as a repo man. A fan of amphetamines, drinking beer and giving rides to girls in exchange for sexual favors, the simple pleasures found in the life of a repo man are suddenly denied Otto when he becomes entangled in a government conspiracy involving alien bodies and a time-traveling 1964 Chevy Malibu. Seemingly devoid of any redeeming qualities or heroic aspirations, Otto’s complete lack of respect for anything and everything grounds the ridiculous plot of the movie in a punk attitude that anybody who spent their angst-ridden youth listening to the Circle Jerks or Suicidal Tendencies can relate to.
Captain Jack Sparrow – Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)
Most people would probably assume that a big-budget movie adaptation of a lame and outdated amusement park ride would end up being a cinematic abomination. And they’d be totally correct. But that doesn’t mean that Johnny Depp’s performance as Captain Jack Sparrow isn’t a 40oz. sized helping of brain cell-killing anti-hero goodness in a movie otherwise populated by characters with the entertainment value of a room-temperature O’Douls. Cowardly, scheming and selfish, Depp preens his way through a variety of ludicrous and dangerous situations with a knowing wink toward the audience, rendering the excruciatingly somber performers surrounding him at least somewhat palatable. Please stay away from the sequels though; even the ever-charming Jack Sparrow couldn’t save those bloated pieces of failtainment.
Tony Stark – Iron Man (2008)/Iron Man 2 (2010)
The long-standing trope regarding the supposed burden of super-powers has always seemed ridiculously disingenuous. Powers are supposed to be cool to have — that is why they are called “powers” and not “disabilities.” Daredevil is blind, so that’s a pretty crappy power that nobody would want — but everyone else’s seem pretty neat! That’s why Tony Stark is really one of the only super-heroes who is bearable to watch: he likes having a kick-ass metal suit that flies and shoots rockets and probably does lots of other cool stuff. When he’s not wearing the suit, he likes to drink, womanize, and be rich, so this is definitely not a case of “the suit making the man” because he is just constantly being an awesome anti-hero, which is really not as easy as it looks. Stay classy, Tony!
Henry Hill – Goodfellas (1992)
The Mafia has reliably supplied films with some memorable anti-heroes over the years, and Henry Hill is one of the best. Whether he is snorting copious amounts of coke or cheating on his wife, Hill always does it with that certain panache that we have come to expect from great mob anti-heroes. Deep down, we probably all wish we could get away with things like profiting from breaking the law and wearing red leather jackets, but unfortunately we live in reality and that kind of sartorial flair really doesn’t work when you’re standing in line for a Big Mac. Still, we can live vicariously through the many idiosyncratically fashionable and charismatically sociopathic mobsters like Henry Hill whenever we have a few hours to spare indulging our darker impulses.
Charles Foster Kane – Citizen Kane (1941)
In addition to being widely regarded as the greatest American film — if not the greatest film ever made — Citizen Kane also presents a portrayal of one of the most-captivating anti-heroes in all of cinema. Orson Wells’ performance as newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, a character based on real life newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst, is one of the finest ever delivered. Kane is egomaniacal, brilliant, scheming, and abusive as he leaves in his wake a slew of discarded friendships, failed marriages and shattered dreams. Upon failing to attain political office, Kain becomes a recluse; the man who sacrificed everything for power, influence and control ends his life helpless and alone. The eerie parallels between Kane and director Wells’ own life only serve to heighten Citizen Kane’s unique power.
Scottie Ferguson – Vertigo (1958)
A retired San Francisco detective with a wicked case of vertigo and a bad leg (Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock seem to enjoy dabbling with Freudian symbolism), Scottie Ferguson helplessly hobbles his way through a bizarre mystery involving multiple-personalities and a touch of the supernatural. Unable to separate his professional duties from his romantic obsession with Madeleine, the woman he was hired to investigate, Ferguson inadvertently plays a role in the young woman’s suicide. Devastated by the loss, Ferguson stumbles upon a woman named Judy, who is Madeleine’s spitting image, and initiates a relationship. He winds up transforming her into an exact duplicate of the woman he lost. Despite his best intentions, Ferguson’s obsession with “saving” this new “Madeleine” eventually leads to a tragic reproduction of the death, robbing Ferguson of the woman he loves once again. Stewart’s portrayal of the seemingly well-adjusted and chivalrous Ferguson’s descent into obsession remains one of the all-time fascinating portrayals of an anti-hero.
Luke Jackson – Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Any list of anti-heroes that fails to include Luke Jackson is a worthless and stupid list, which is why he is included here. One of the most iconic characters ever put on film, “Cool Hand Luke” is quintessential anti-hero goodness. Arrested for cutting the heads off of parking meters while drunk, Luke is sent to a prison camp run by a sadistic man known only as Captain. Despite every effort to break his spirits, Luke overcomes every adversity thrown his way while simultaneously inspiring his fellow prisoners to rail against the Captain’s sadistic ways. Though his crazy efforts to regain his freedom and autonomy eventually lead to his death, Luke’s struggle against the Captain’s authority remains inspirational to his fellow prisoners for a long while after and that’s really all an anti-hero can ask for.
Jim Stark – Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
If your last name is Stark, chances are you’re probably an anti-hero and a badass. Another good rule of thumb for identifying one is the color of their jacket. If it’s red, they’re probably an anti-hero. And if their last name is Stark AND they have a red jacket then you are definitely dealing with some serious anti-hero. James Dean plays Jim Stark, an eccentric and troubled loner whose family has recently relocated to Los Angeles. Stark is the only one who stands up to the gang of greasers that terrorize his new high school, and in doing so wins the admiration of Plato, a fellow outcast and misfit, and the affections of Judy, the leader of the greaser’s girlfriend. Owned. Although he is obviously emotionally disturbed, quirky, and has a troubled home life, Jim becomes a kind of surrogate parental figure for the fatherless Plato. In an attempt to win the respect of his peers, Jim participates in a high-speed game of chicken with Buzz, the leader of the gang of bullies. It ends with Buzz accidentally driving off a cliff.
Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)/Hannibal (2001)
In real life, it is decidedly uncool to be sympathetic towards cannibals and serial-killers, and super uncool to root for a cannibalistic serial killer. However, nobody knows how that stuff called Movie Magic works, but it makes everything all topsy-turvy and you can just kiss your real life rules goodbye because you have been transported to a crazy world where serial killers can be charming and awesome (like Dexter). Hannibal Lecter might eat people, but he is also really smart and pretty darn helpful at catching other serial killers, so he definitely deserves a pass. Plus, he only eats jerks.
Ethan Edwards – The Searchers (1956)
John Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Edwards is very handy for illustrating the differences between your run-of-the-mill hero and one of the anti-hero variety. Edwards is in love with his brother’s wife (anti-hero), but when a band of Comanche Indians kills her and abducts his niece Deborah, he takes it upon himself to rescue her (hero). Aided by a half-Indian side-kick whom Edwards constantly spouts racial epithets at (anti-hero), they eventually track down the band of Comanches after years of searching only to discover that Deborah has been living as the wife of one of the band’s leaders, Scar. Edwards repeatedly states that he’d rather see his niece dead than living as an Indian (anti-hero) and forcibly abducts her from the Comanches against her will (still anti-hero). Emotionally devastated niece in tow (so anti-hero), Edwards rides off into the sunset, satisfied with a job well done (hero).
Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver (1976)
Travis Bickle is a taxi driver in Manhattan, mostly because he in an insomniac and has nothing better to do. While driving around one day he spots Betsy, a beautiful young campaign worker, and becomes infatuated with her. Eventually Travis lands a date with her, and the romantic evening consists of a charming excursion to a local Swedish porno theater. Ladies, if a guy takes you on a first date to a Swedish porno theater you are probably dealing with an anti-hero, so get ready for a wild ride! They could also just be a pervert, so take note of what kind of jacket they are wearing (is it red?). Anyways, things don’t go well, and Travis then turns his attentions to helping a 12 year-old prostitute named Iris who gets into his cab one night. Travis becomes obsessed with helping the young girl escape from the vile clutches of her pimp “Sport,” which eventually culminates in a bloody showdown. Though Bickle is seemingly well intentioned, it is once again ambiguous as to whether the young woman actually wants to be “saved,” and Bickle clearly has some mental problems to boot.
Divine – Pink Flamingos (1972)
Sometimes eating dog poop means you are just really gross, but sometimes it means you’re a total badass. It’s a fine line and most of you should just stay away from the stuff because this is advanced anti-hero territory. Divine, living under the pseudonym “Babs Johnson” is declared by a local tabloid to be “the filthiest person alive,” much to the chagrin of Connie and Raymond Marble who covet the title themselves. Seeking to prove that they are more deserving of being “the filthiest people alive,” Connie and Raymond engage in a variety of horrible acts, including having sex on top of a live chicken and kidnapping girls so that their manservant Channing can forcibly impregnate them to supply the Marble’s black-market adoption agency. Despite the vileness of these actions, Divine still manages out-gross her competitors when she hacks up some police officers that crash her birthday party and eats them. Famously, Pink Flamingos ends with Divine picking dog poop off the ground and consuming it with gusto. Defeating your opponents by out-grossing them is definitely an expert anti-hero tactic, and its that display of advanced technique that wins Divine such a coveted spot on the list.
The Dude – The Big Lebowski (1998)
Aided by his inept cohorts Walter and Donnie, The Dude manages to unravel a convoluted extortion conspiracy involving nihlists, mistaken identity, severed toes and lots of White Russians. What makes The Dude such a perfect anti-hero is his ability to succeed despite a total lack of ability, enthusiasm and only a modest intelligence. His ignoble goal is to replace a rug that was mistakenly urinated on, yet even this modest task proves to be nearly beyond his capabilities. But despite botching every aspect of the investigation he gets swept up in, The Dude perseveres, gets the girl, replaces his rug and comes out no worse the wear for it. Generally a character arc will result in some sort of transformation for the protagonist, but at the end of The Big Lebowski The Dude, in perfect anti-hero fashion, remains exactly the same.