Antiheroes have become the norm in fiction these days. They’re more compelling than your average villain. They’re the guys who do bad things like kill people and sell drugs, but they’re also the hero of their story.
This is a postmodern idea. Take the archetypal hero trope and injecting it with the characteristics of the archetypal villain? Anyway, that’s the idea of the antihero. Every character in a drama series on television now is an antihero since The Dark Knight grossed $1 billion and won an Oscar.
Maybe soon we’ll have to create post-postmodernism, where things get even stranger. Well, until then, here are the 15 greatest antiheroes of the postmodern era.
15. The Punisher
Is everyone psyched about the upcoming Daredevil spin-off on Netflix that will see Jon Bernthal take center stage as Frank Castle, also known as The Punisher? You should be, because the character is one of the greatest antiheroes of all time. He was just a good guy until one day, his family was killed in a gang’s crossfire.
Now, he’s dedicated his life to righting the injustices of the world with any means necessary. That means using his absurdly vast arsenal of weapons to shoot his way through the gangs of New York.
In order to fight crime, Frank Castle uses all the methods that the other comic book heroes are too afraid to use: murder, kidnapping, extortion, coercion, threats of violence, and torture. Time to get excited about that Netflix series!
14. Saul Goodman
Walter White’s lawyer Saul Goodman, played by legend of sketch comedy Bob Odenkirk, was only supposed to appear in three episodes of Breaking Bad, as the seedy attorney whose Robert Evans-like rhetoric talks his criminal clients out of police charges.
But then his run was extended right to the end of the series, and he became a very important part of the overall story. And then he was given his own spin-off prequel series, where he was fleshed out beyond his shady business practices to what Odenkirk describes as “earnest, sweet guy whose brain naturally cooks up dishonest solutions to the challenges in front of him.”
He’ll do whatever it takes to make a little money, and he’ll go as far as fabricating evidence and lying directly to detectives in order to get his clients out of custody. But when it really comes down to it, there’s a voice inside his brain that can’t stop him from doing the right thing, even if it costs him a great deal.
13. Alex DeLarge
Alex DeLarge is the antihero protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ story of dystopian England, A Clockwork Orange. He knows that what he does is wrong, saying that a society could not function with a bunch of Alex DeLarges running around — “you can’t have a society with everybody behaving in my manner of the night.”
Still, that doesn’t stop him from going around town and raping, stealing, and battering his way through London. Director Stanley Kubrick cast Malcolm McDowell in the role, and he captured the sinister, sociopathic nature of the character perfectly.
The American Film Institute called Alex the 12th greatest film villain of all time, while Empire magazine called him the 42nd greatest movie character of all time. He soaks up the page and the screen with his pure, enrapturing, intellectual evil.
12. Judge Dredd
Judge Dredd is an unequivocal badass presiding over the hi-tech city of Mega-City One in a dystopian future. He’s the judge, jury, and executioner. He gets to decide the fate of criminals from the get-go. Screw the judiciary! Dredd ensures that the whole damn system gets to choose what happens.
He’s one of the very earliest characters of 2000 AD, having appeared in its second ever issue. Dredd has no mercy for the criminals that he catches in the act. He gets to choose their sentence, and he almost always chooses death. That’s his favorite punishment.
So, he’s a killer, but he is, above all, a law enforcement officer, and he places his duty above all. You have to admire that about the guy. He finally got the movie he deserved in 2012, but sadly audiences didn’t take, and so there’ll probably never be a much-needed sequel.
11. Jack Bauer
Jack Bauer came right in the middle of Tony Soprano and Walter White, the two joint mack daddies of the TV antihero era. Tony and Walt are the poster boys for this period in television, but Bauer has a special place thanks to his character’s political background.
America got behind Bauer because he was fighting Middle Eastern terrorists with questionable methods right after 9/11. The American mindset was angry. They were happy with the idea of fighting fire with fire.
Nowadays, people are a little more culturally sensitive when it comes to Muslims and racial stereotypes. Back then though, that was called patriotism. Jack Bauer embodied a dark and bold chapter in America’s lifetime, and for that, he’ll always have a place in the cultural zeitgeist.
10. Rick Grimes
The Walking Dead was, at a time, the highest rated show on television, and that’s not just cable — that’s all of television. It lost a few viewers after that controversial season 7 premiere.
Negan came in with his barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat Lucille and splattered the screen with one gallon of blood and popped eyeball too many. But it still has millions of followers, and that’s because people want to watch Rick Grimes develop.
We’ve seen the zombie apocalypse turn him from a good cop to a psychotic madman and come back around to settle nicely somewhere in the middle. Sure, he has outbursts where he’ll kill someone in cold blood out of jealousy or anger and he’ll yell at the townspeople that they’re all stupid for not listening to him. Still, his heart’s always in the right place.
And who would want to watch season 1’s Rick for years and years? The current Rick is far darker and interesting than that.
9. John Wick
A couple of years ago, Keanu Reeves came out of the blue with a little movie called John Wick. It became a huge success as Reeves brought a brand new movie icon to the screen. Suddenly there was this guy in a suit in a nightclub, electrifying the screen with flashy killings and perfect aim.
He was a guy who could avoid death with sheer skill. But why do we love him? Why do we love a guy who made a career out of killing people and answers his problems today by killing more of them? It’s because we care.
As soon as his adorable dog has been killed after the wife he loved so dearly passed away, we want the people responsible dead just as much as he does. We’re driven for vengeance just like he is, and the same goes for when his house is blown up in the sequel.
We’ll be seeing a lot of Wick in the years to come, as his creators see him as the star of a long-running franchise. His dedicated fans certainly won’t object to that.
8. Don Draper
Don Draper is one of the most perfect examples of the modern TV antihero. There’s Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Jax Teller, Walter White — and Don Draper. Don is an advertising executive with two kids who enjoys a glass of scotch.
Doesn’t sound that bad? Well, try this out for size.
His name is really Dick Whitman, he grew up in a whorehouse, and he stole the identity of Lieutenant Donald Francis Draper during the Korean War. He also makes a hobby of extramarital affairs and he fired his good friend for being gay simply because a client wanted him to.
Ask Men named Don Draper the most influential man in the world, placing him ahead of real people. That’s a testament to the power of Don Draper.
7. Michael Corleone
The story arc of Michael Corleone — his rise and fall — is perhaps the most tragic in all of fiction. He starts off as a young kid, a decorated war hero, with a bright future. His father, Vito, doesn’t want him to get involved in the murky waters of the criminal family business.
But then Vito dies and Michael has no choice but to take up his mantle as crime boss. Michael then goes down a steady decline into a cold-blooded monster, culminating in the murder of his own brother, Fredo.
The AFI named Michael the 11th most iconic villain in the history of film, and yet he’s the story’s most conventional protagonist. That’s the very definition of an antihero. Just picture Michael sitting there at the Corleones’ house in Lake Tahoe. He’s a cold son of a bitch.
6. Harry Callahan
“Go ahead, make my day.” Harry Callahan changed the way cops are portrayed in movies. Before Harry came along, cops did things by the book. They were morally upstanding citizens. But after Harry, they stopped playing by the rules.
Clint Eastwood’s dark and disturbed portrayal gave us a cop who wasn’t afraid to bend the rules and do unethical things in pursuit of his own idea of justice. Over the course of his movies, he’s tangled with serial killers, vigilantes, vengeful rape victims, armed robbers, and terrorists.
The thing is, Harry is always going after what’s right, but he teeters on either side of the ethical fence in that pursuit. Also, interestingly, a poll found Harry’s .44 Magnum to be the second most popular movie weapon of all time after the lightsabers from Star Wars.
Bruce Wayne wasn’t always an antihero figure. Remember the Adam West TV show? That colorful, camp interpretation wasn’t new; that’s what Batman was like at the time. However, Frank Miller then came along and created a dark comic book version of the Caped Crusader; and Tim Burton did the same with the movie version.
Suddenly, there was all this dark, gloomy, shadowy imagery surrounding the Dark Knight, and the stories of Miller, Alan Moore and all the other revolutionary comic book writers who had a grim take on the character turned Batman into the dark horse of the Justice League.
He was the guy who would do the dirty work that no one else wanted to do. He’s not afraid to sink to his villains’ level in order to defeat them. Some might admire that, while others would not. Either way, it’s damned compelling.
4. Travis Bickle
Travis Bickle is the ultimate antihero. He’s tortured by his experiences in the Vietnam War. He can’t sleep, so he’s working nights as a taxi driver in New York. And then he stumbles upon a 12-year-old prostitute and falls for a woman working on an election campaign. It turns his violent fantasies into violent tendencies.
He buys firearms and starts a rigorous exercise regime and kits himself out for a political assassination. He fails at that, but he does succeed with his attempts to save the prostitute, and that’s enough.
Travis is a modern, urban samurai who sacrifices himself and his sanity for the sake of good. And his story ends with the samurai’s principle of a “death with honor.” The AFI named Travis the 30th greatest film villain of all time, while Empire magazine ranked him as the 18th greatest movie character of all time.
3. Tony Soprano
Tony Soprano is a ruthless gangster who kills people and cheats on his wife. But first and foremost, he’s a family man, and he loves his family. He would do anything to keep them safe, and that’s his redeeming quality. Tony’s appeal comes down to James Gandolfini’s fierce and brilliant performance.
As Today writer Ree Hines puts it, “it would have been easy to play Tony bigger than life — he was a bigger than life character. He was equal parts tough guy, wise guy, ruthless killer and devoted father, flawed husband and struggling soul. That’s what made him a tough sell.”
“But Gandolfini somehow balanced the exaggeration that was inherent to the world of a crime boss with the mundane, everyman existence behind it. Sure, he cracked open a few heads, but he also fed the ducks that called his pool home. He was quick on the trigger, but he was also a hit around the barbecue.”
2. Walter White
Walter White is a special kind of antihero. As his creator Vince Gilligan put it, Walt spends the series “going from being a protagonist to an antagonist.” Gilligan’s intention with this progression was “to make people question who they’re pulling for, and why.”
That’s where the drama of Breaking Bad comes from, and it’s what made it arguably the greatest drama series of all time. Anthony Hopkins wrote Bryan Cranston a letter to tell him that his performance as Walter White was the best acting he had ever seen.
That’s high praise coming from Anthony Hopkins. He’s a guy who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to acting. USA Today called the morally conflicted Walt “one of the greatest dramatic creations ever to grace our TV screens.” He’s just a phenomenal character with a spectacular journey.
1. Rick Sanchez
Rick Sanchez emerged surprisingly a couple of years ago on Adult Swim, and is one of the most compelling characters on television. It seemed like a silly little science fiction cartoon, but it’s so much more profound than that. Rick and Morty is like The Twilight Zone on acid, and Rick Sanchez is the guy with the keys behind the wheel.
He’s a tragic figure; a lonely narcissist who craves attention and maintains a love/hate relationship with members of his family. He’s the smartest guy in the universe, but his morally reprehensible actions and the toll on his mental health have come at a cost.
Of course, Rick is also a funny character who, on the surface, doesn’t care about a thing, thinks he’s awesome and sells guns and kills people. Yet, when we scratch the surface, he becomes deeply engaging and human.