It’s not that I dislike the modern infatuation with the anti-hero. It’s that I think we’ve lost our way in search of meaning. A writer-friend of mine says we, as a culture, have succumbed to a diminished patience with cliché. Because film and television, and even sports, constantly inundate us with the “hero story,” we grow weary of it—this is a proven fact.
And, thus, the hero cliché is born. On to something else. Swing the pendulum. Give me the extreme opposite!
Enter the anti-hero.
Terrence Winter, the writer behind the Oscar Award-winning The Wolf of Wall Street and Boardwalk Empire, says his rule for the anti-hero is “that the character has to be compelling and interesting and entertaining. Are you entertained?” There’s our bottom line: Entertainment.
But if the purpose of storytelling is merely entertainment, what does that say about our search for meaning?
Neuroscience tells us that we gravitate toward stories when they are relatable. We connect with vivid metaphors because we’re constantly trying to make sense of the world. And in our sense-making endeavors, we often (mistakenly) make the anti-hero the person we can all relate to because, well, he might be a criminal, but he’s just so dang human. Anti-heroes: They’re just like us!
Consider the AMC series Hell on Wheels, which presents us with the enthralling Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount). A former Confederate soldier hell-bent on avenging the post-war murders of his family, Cullen’s vigilantism ultimately lands him a job as foreman of the Union Pacific Railroad.
We love Bohannon because he’s a rugged cowboy, speaks truth even when it’s not opportune (otherwise known as integrity), he can gun-sling, and he doesn’t mind a little killing. He continually makes the wrong decisions, drinks heavily after work, and for a time rides with train robbers.
Anson Mount says Americans are tired of the old clichéd good/bad cowboy story—that went out with Superman and Three’s Company “that has laid things out so black and white.” Mount continues, “I don’t think American audiences are in the position of thinking about story lines in terms of hero and villain that much anymore.”
But why can’t we have the alluring aspects of the anti-hero with wholeness of character?
In C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, which is slated to be the next film version of the Narnia chronicles, we get a taste of just such a hero. In the novel, Jill Pole wants to drink from a stream to refresh herself, but Aslan is drinking from it on the other side. She’s dying of thirst, but is afraid to drink, for fear of the great lion. She’s afraid she’ll be swallowed up by the lion, who admits to swallowing up all kinds of people and even whole realms.
“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill. The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, we encounter the Aslan who gives himself to the White Witch in exchange for the life of Edmund—the sacrificial hero. In The Silver Chair, Jill comes face to face with the wild (literally!) unpredictability of the same hero. Danger, unpredictability, wildness, these are compelling attributes of the hero and the anti-hero. Aslan gives us the wildness of anti-hero with the wholeness of the hero.
Or consider Ragnar Lothbrok, from the History Channel hit Vikings, a character consistent with his historical culture in terms of some anti-hero tendencies, yet one who also consistently tries to transcend his circumstances and strive for something beyond the typical Viking life.
And then there’s Wolverine. In the recent movie Logan, we finally see him looking beyond his own suffering to find a transcendent fulfillment in sacrificing his own life for a person he loves.
Too many people in Hollywood have stopped asking questions relating to personal meaning, and have found contentment in a kind of character, the anti-hero, that comes across as sophisticated but in reality is limited to the same predictable behavior. But they shouldn’t. Audiences are thirsty for films with meaning – and real heroes who can drive their stories.