A Treatise on Storytelling, III: Tearing Down the Anti-Hero

“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane, quite insane, with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have left at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.” So speaks Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Doing what’s right is not a matter of waiting until the moral question is severe. Morality comes from resolving beforehand to do what is right. Without discipline, right action is not forthcoming. Doing what’s right takes practice.

IronMan_Still_H5_LTony Stark seems to live in defiance of this reality. Marvel’s armored hero is licentious, a drunkard, disrespectful to all around him, and seems only to be outraged when people tell him to temper his tongue. Despite his complete lack of moral practice, he still manages to sacrifice himself time after time for the world. It seems that for Tony Stark, when it comes to small problems in life, morality can be disregarded, but when large problems (like alien invasion) present themselves he will be able to pick up his morality where he left it, saving the world with selfless honor. The same goes for Peter Quill of Guardians of the Galaxy. Undisciplined, unprincipled, and promiscuous, he runs around the galaxy committing small crimes until a real threat surfaces. When Ronan the Accuser rears his wicked head, Quill suddenly doffs his morally dubious coat and acts with enormous courage and self-discipline. This act continues until he selflessly sacrifices himself for the lives of others. After this he reassumes his criminal self and flies around the galaxy having learned something about friendship but little else. While both of their actions end up commendable, I cannot help but scratch my head at how they got there. After displaying a rampant lack of discipline in life I would expect and restar-lord-actor-chris-pratt-settles-super-bowl-bet_fsf5.1920ality would demand that Stark or Quill would be nowhere near capable of the discipline required to put their own necks on the chopping block. Stalwart and righteous people have faced great difficulty conquering themselves enough to make the sacrifice that these protagonists somehow stumble into. Stark and Quill’s sacrifices are the most unbelievable parts of the Marvel universe, a universe sporting a talking raccoon.

The anti-hero has been a part of literature for a long time. Characters displaying characteristics not heroic or admirable can create good stories, but these stories will fail to portray truth if vices do not act as vices. In what seems to be an attempt to make characters seem more “real,” writers have created strange combinations of cowardice and heroism, lust and honor, discipline and addiction. They have created righteous heroes without the moral strength of a righteous hero. Marvel doesn’t have a monopoly on these inconsistent anti-heroes. Films, particularly ones sporting strong male leads, tell the stories of protagonists living lives of immorality and vice in all matters except for matters of great sacrifice.

Bond_-_Sean_Connery_-_ProfileThe unrepentant anti-hero is often billed as “real”; a hero with vices and virtues like a normal human. But when these vices in no way affect the character, (Peter Quill’s womanizing is shockingly irrelevant to the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy) they become an embarrassing example of wish fulfillment played out in a massively budgeted way. James Bond is cynical, disrespectful, has all of the sex he desires, and butchers the people he comes in contact with all while being heroic, brave, and disciplined. He isn’t a character; he is the daydream of an adolescent boy longing for sex, power, and heroism while maintaining his reputation. We need to ask more of our characters. Wicked actions have wicked results. While crude quips and anti-social behavior can be pleasurable momentarily, they will have consequences on how you act and are treated. Righteousness takes work. Characters who instantly become righteous after a life of iniquity are portraying a faulty understanding of morality.

The unrepentant anti-hero has clear exceptions in film. One contemporary example is Interstellar’s Cooper. This character demonstrates a consistent and hard-won care for humanity, particularly his daughter. His care is a firm theme in the film and figures significantly in the development and exposition of Cooper’s character. His righteousness is upheld as hard-won and proven. It is this very love that ends up saving humanity. I do not want to see virtue that comes from the general innate goodness of undisciplined humanity. Show me virtue weathered from experience, rising out of countless trials and hardships.

LawrenceHeroes like Cooper do not sport the flaws of the anti-hero, but there are well developed and created heroes who exhibit deep flaws. What separates these characters from the unrepentant anti-hero is that the flaws act as flaws. They either deeply harm and torture the hero or give the hero an internal villain. Overcoming flaws requires the flaws to be recognized as vices. In perhaps one of the greatest films ever made, Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence relentlessly battles his sadism, a difficult prospect when in the middle of a warzone. His internal struggle creates conflict that is impactful and meaningful. His sadism is by no means brushed aside or regarded simply as a part of his character, but is a demon he must fight. Dorian Gray’s carnal lusts lead him to horrid ends in The Picture of Dorian Gray, presenting a real and raw picture of the danger of uncontrolled vice. Han Solo must learn to overcome his desire for money and freedom in order to properly protect and support his friends. There are many heroes who overcome or are overcome by vices in good literature, but in these examples vices are realistically portrayed as inhibiting, tempting, and painful.

People overcome by their carnal lusts, the fleshly Quills, Bonds, and Starks of the world, do not rise up and sacrifice themselves for humanity. Untested morality, corroded by vice and lack of discipline, creates not a stalwart hero but a flaky wretch. The true anti-hero is vividly seen in Tuco (or, “the Ugly”) from The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Tuco holds the same licentious, drunkardly, cowardly traits that plague our contemporary macho-men, but these vices manifest themselves more realistically. When the time comes to act honorably, the unweathered morality of Tuco gives way to his looming desire to satisfy his own appetites. Tuco is a mess. Tuco is what every unrepentant anti-hero is.Tuco

But why do we suffer this kind of character? Where does our unrepentant anti-hero spring from? Perhaps we create this hero because we have recognized our own vice and lack of discipline, and want to reassure ourselves that when push comes to shove, we will be good. Maybe we have looked down into our soul and been terrified by the prospect that the coward we see peering back at us will assume control when great things are on the line. Perhaps we do not make these characters because we find them attractive, but because we are afraid. But these characters will not change the reality that vice begets vice. Our addictions and lack of discipline will torment and tear at our moral fabric. Art is formative, and art that caters to moral cowardice allows us to rationalize our flaws as we sink away from the righteous and into the animal. When the hour of decision comes and we are faced with a great sacrifice, will we be able to look at our art and see moral strength or weakness? Will our heroes stand with us in moral discipline and courage? Or will they run away, dragging us after the carnal?


8 thoughts on “A Treatise on Storytelling, III: Tearing Down the Anti-Hero

  1. 60guilders July 30, 2015 / 5:40 PM

    I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one, Luke, and violently. I challenge you to pistols at dawn!
    More seriously, though, licentious people are known to put their necks on the line all the time. “The scum of the earth, enlisted for drink” broke French armies at Salamanca and Waterloo. Sailors are notorious for drinking and whoring while on shore, but that does not prevent them from sailing into harm’s way and acting with great heroism. Courage is not a monopoly of the otherwise virtuous.

    • Luke Brake July 30, 2015 / 5:52 PM

      While the duel would certainly be a party, I’ll wager the issue here is my lack of clarity, not a substantive disagreement.
      Those “scum of the earth” were certainly courageous, and I would never dream of denying some wicked people the attribute of courage. What I wanted to outline here was how many characters are demonstrated as cowards (running from responsibility, fleeing any sign of aggression, evading conflict) until the moment comes when the story demands courage.
      Lustful pagans can and should be seen as courageous in stories, but when vices turn into equivalent virtues with no explanation, we have a problem.
      Licentious vagabonds become virtuous saints and spineless cowards become courageous heroes when a plot demands it.
      But thank you for the helpful clarification, you, as always, have shed important light on a facet I didn’t clarify.
      And about that duel, do swords work? I’m an awful shot.

      • 60guilders July 31, 2015 / 8:33 PM

        “Licentious vagabonds become virtuous saints and spineless cowards become courageous heroes when a plot demands it.”
        I’m not sure if I agree with this characterization of the stories, though. (I say this, I confess, as something of a Bond aficionado.)
        I would not, for example, think that James Bond would possess the sort of courage that would enable him to apologize to a woman he has wronged, or to stand up to an order from the his government that went against Lewis’ Dao. But to go into harm’s way for Queen and Country–oh yes indeed.
        As to the duel, we would be doing it in the old style. 10 paces, turn and draw, smoothbore single-shot. I’m not that good of a shot, either.

        • Cal January 6, 2016 / 10:39 PM

          I’m late to the party (and the duel), but I stumbled upon this and thought this was an interesting conversation:

          60Guilders is right and wrong. Yes, the collected “scum” acted virtuous, but because they were disciplined to fight courageously. Sailors learn the rigors of life at sea and are taught to engage in battle. Bond is trained to detach from his own needs to do what is necessary for England.

          But the problem occurs at faulty conflation and confusion of values. The difference between the sailors and Bond is that one is real and the other is fiction. The sailor who fought bravely at sea is not necessarily a good husband and might be suffering terminally from an STD he picked up in Tahiti. Bond never has a repercussion for any failing he takes. The Daniel Craig Bonds at least add a kind of fugue over whether anything Bond does has any moral value at all.

          Quill and Stark are unrealistic because they function as spotless anti-heroes. What if Tony was drunk at the wrong time and died in combat on account of that? What if Quill’s womanizing created a bad team environment (he practically seduced Gamora(sp?))? They never suffer, thus their vices are only vice tongue in cheek.

          But this doesn’t disqualify the concept of “anti-hero” completely. Batman (after Frank Miller) is a good example. His life in the shadows takes a psychological toll. The Joker’s recurring taunt is that they are two peas in a pod. Batman is psychologically disturbed and it causes failures, loneliness, pain etc. But he externalizes it into vicious discipline against his own demons for the purposes of putting his foes down. He has no creature comforts because of this. Batman is in a spiral downwards, inviting commendation and also tragedy.

          Anti-Hero becomes a teen fantasy when the cost is ignored or papered-over. Daniel Craig’s Bond is deeply wounded from the death of Vesper. The implication is his symbolic womanizing is an outworking of this.

          2 cents,

          • Luke Brake January 6, 2016 / 11:53 PM

            Thanks Cal! I think this is a really helpful clarification.

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