Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Movie/TV Antiheroes

Any actor will tell you that playing the villain is way more fun than playing the hero. Even better is to play an antihero, which lets you have all the fun of acting like a total bastard and yet the audience still roots for you to win. With DC’s ‘Suicide Squad’ storming theater screens this weekend, let’s look at some of our other favorite antiheroes from movies and TV.

Shannon Nutt

It was easy to come up with an answer for this week’s topic, since my favorite antihero also happens to be my all-time favorite TV character: Tony Soprano, as played by the late James Gandolfini. He so embodied the New Jersey mobster that, even if Gandolfini had a longer and more productive career, it’s doubtful that he ever would have been able to top the years he starred in ‘The Sopranos‘.

The character was ruthless at times, but struggled with his inner demons just enough that audiences everywhere could identify with him. Although I don’t believe he’s ever confessed it publicly, I’ve long held the theory that creator David Chase intentionally tried to make Tony more evil in the last couple seasons of the show (where Tony was directly responsible for the deaths of a couple of fan-favorite characters) just because he was disturbed by how popular the character had become. Unlike other TV antiheroes (like, say, J.R. Ewing, who was a close second in my pick this week), Tony Soprano wasn’t an antihero we loved to hate. We always loved him, and a huge part of that was due to the actor portraying the character.

M. Enois Duarte

I’ve narrowed my choice down to William Munny from Clint Eastwood’s incredible ‘Unforgiven‘. What I love so much about this character is that his personality and history intentionally remind cinephiles of Blue Eyes, the Man with No Name character Eastwood played in Sergio Leoni’s famous Western trilogy. It’s a genius piece of filmmaking to indirectly design this very dark and bleak Western as a tale that, in a roundabout way, picks up decades later in the life of a once notorious cold-blooded killer.

Every time I watch the movie or teach it for class analysis, I love seeing Munny’s journey from retired criminal turned pig farmer to his hopeless search for redemption. As beautifully directed by Eastwood, the only road for atonement available to the character is to embrace his evil ways and use them against those equally as evil. There are several more reasons to love and appreciate the film, and that’s just one of them.

Tom Landy

For me, the epitome of an antihero is Ash Williams from the ‘Evil Dead‘ franchise. He’s a bringer of mayhem just by being so damn clueless half the time. And when his ignorance isn’t getting him in trouble, his sinful appetites more often than not pick up the slack.

Good… Bad… He’s the guy with the gun – and Deadites certainly don’t want to get in his way. If his skill doesn’t kill them, his ineptitude probably will.

Brian Hoss

If I had one major takeaway from the second season of ‘Gotham’, it’s that Vic Mackey from ‘The Shield‘ was an awesome character to root for. The list of friends, enemies, frenemies, and evil bad guys who were ruined as a result of encountering Mackey is quite long, and yet, I’d root for him all over again no matter how self-involved his goals happen to be.

Josh Zyber

I’ll start by tossing out some honorable mentions to Mad Max (the Mel Gibson version, thank you – specifically in ‘The Road Warrior‘), Snake Plissken from ‘Escape from New York‘, and, to prove that comedies can have antiheroes too, Billy Bob Thornton’s Grinchy thief Willie in ‘Bad Santa‘.

My main pick is a bit of a cheat. Technically, Chow Yun-Fat plays three different characters in a trio of early Hong Kong movies by John Woo. He’s Chinese gangster Mark in ‘A Better Tomorrow‘, Mark’s identical twin brother Ken in its sequel ‘A Better Tomorrow II‘, and the completely unrelated assassin Ah Jong (or “Jeff,” depending on the subtitle translation) in ‘The Killer‘. The names and superficial differences aside, however, all of these characters are total badasses. When he walked onscreen in ‘A Better Tomorrow’ wearing a long coat and sunglasses, with an unlit matchstick gritted between his teeth and a pistol in each hand blazing away, Chow Yun-Fat was absolutely the coolest motherfucker on the planet.

(Note that I have to exclude Woo’s ‘Hard Boiled’ here, because Chow plays a heroic cop in that one, and hence not an antihero.)

Sound off in the Comments with some of your favorite movie and TV antiheroes. Please keep in mind that the main distinction between a straight-up villain and an antihero is that you’re supposed to want the antihero to come out on top in the end, not be defeated by a good guy.


  1. Dexter Morgan, killer of killers with some kind if moral code but also an insatiable need to kill. The show made the audience approve of getting those baddies in Saran Wrap and under Dexter’s knife.
    Kenny Powers of Eastbound and Down is one of the worst human beings I’ve ever seen in a show or movie, but damnit he makes me laugh.

  2. Bolo

    Parker, the character created by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). The character has been played on screen by Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall, and Jason Statham, but it was Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Parker in the director’s cut of ‘Payback’ that felt the character just stepped right off the Page.

    Also, somebody has to mention Michael Corleone.

  3. Chris B

    James Woods as Jack Crow in John Carpenter’s Vampires. A total fuckin’ badass character and hilarious to boot.

  4. Grant

    The Punisher. The hero that kills. 3 movies and a Netflix series Daredevil to showcase this character. No super powers, just a motivated ex marine. Great stuff.

  5. Pedram

    I’m surprised no one mentioned Deadpool. Maybe that’s too recent?

    Anyway, I also liked Ferris Bueller. Not sure if that applies exactly, but he was breaking the rules throughout the movie.

  6. photogdave

    Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant.
    If you’ve seen it, no further explanation is required. If you haven’t seen it, no words can suffice…

  7. Paul Anderson

    The antihero seems to be all the rage these days, especially on TV. Some of the better ones would be Ray Donovan, Frank Underwood and Thomas Shelby (Peaky Blinders). My favorite of all time, however, is probably William Holden as Pike Bishop in “The Wild Bunch”. You could argue that Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski is an antihero as well. That is another gem.

  8. William Henley

    To me, the best “villians / antiheros” are those you start to feel for, because you start to identify with what the characters are going through. This especially comes true when the character faces moral delimas and either redeems themselves, or makes a decision where they feel like there is no right way to handle it (in the case of survival or protecting those they love).

    For this, I am going to start with a TV / Book crossover, as there is many books, but only two got made into movies, one a very good movie, and one a very bad movie.

    The books are The Vampire Chronicles, and you just absolutely route for Louis and Claudia, even though Claudia is described as a vicious killer. You are actually routing for Louis in this movie, despite who he is. In the followup books, though, you start to learn Lestat’s story, and this fiend from the first movie/book suddenly ends up becoming your hero in followup books, to the point that you start routing for him.

    Probably the most fun and comical antihero is Dr Smith from Lost In Space. You just love to hate this guy, probably because, even though his morals are warped, he does have them, as well as a heart, and usually ends up coming around by the end of the episode.

    On superheros, I like Magneto from the XMen franchise. The first XMen movie did a great job of with Magneto’s backstory, so you get to the point that you really start to care for this character and what he has gone through. They do a pretty good job of continuing that through the franchise, so that you get to the point that you really identify with the characters, both “good” and “bad”. I put those words in quotations, because there really pretty much is no one who is truly evil in these books, but rather you get people who are what they are because of events that have happened to them, and everyone (whether mutant or human) are doing what they feel is best for everyone.

    Another great example of antiheros are in the Harry Potter books, with both Snape and the Malfoys being great examples. Snape has a great backstory, and you find out he really was secretly a spy, but I find the Malfoys to be much more fascinating. In the later books, you start to realize how complex these characters are, and while they were all about Wizard Superiority, they actually do start to show that they are having moral conflicts. Like in Goblet of Fire, the Death Eaters, while they mess with Muggles, are really just out doing the equivilant of college pranks. However, in the later books when they get into real torture and killing, you can see that it starts messing with their conscious – especially Draco. But it is almost like the whole Voldermort returning to power thing is needed before they can learn for themselves where their standards are. You really start to feel for them in the Half-Blood Prince when Narcissa goes to see Snape. I wouldn’t say that the Malfoys really redeem themselves, but you realize that the characters are actually really complex and do actually have real human feelings and emotions, and while you don’t like them, you never route for them to die, and actually cringe when bad stuff happen to them.

  9. plissken99

    Well Snake Plissken of course! Despises authority, doesn’t give a f*%k, doesn’t always have one liners for every situation, but will kick ass regardless.

  10. charles contreras

    J.R. Ewing gets my vote. I’m so glad I got to meet him some years ago at an autograph show in Chicago, he was such a great guy to talk with.

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