An Agent of Chaos? The Truth About Anti Heroes

“Oftentimes in reality, the genius is in the position of the antihero. Neither the good guys nor the bad guys really trust him because his truth is universal” – Criss Jami

The Joker’s sardonic smile cracking through his white paint is as iconic as Batman’s stoic stance. Michael Corelone is the mafia overlord you can’t help root for. Johnny Depp’s idiosyncratic turn as the exotic Captain Jack Sparrow launched him into the throes of commercial stardom. As our silver screens and printed words come to embody human sensibilities, the anti hero has risen as one of the most startling tropes amassing accolades among popular and literary circles.

The antihero embodies a moral grey, an ethos gripping the world markedly post disillusionment of the industrial age. The phenomenon as an apparatus is not new – right from India’s oral tradition springs Karna- the quintessential anti hero – a product of his times and circumstances, misconstrued, flawed and no less immortal – even if denied traditional stature. We have moved in time and sensibility post the Epic age to a postmodern perspective- our fascination with anti heroes however remains steadfast. Sherlock Holmes of the BBC series blithely declares himself not a psychopath but a high – functioning sociopath in his signature deadpan- a man decidedly not heroic but the legend championed for by a legion of fans.

Multiple factors have been purported behind the rise of the anti hero. The anti hero is not a purveyor of idealized notions or a benchmark of morality. He is cynical, morally and spiritually impoverished and walks the grey fronts with surprising ease. He is devoid of the conventionally heroic traits such as social success, grace and moral integrity. He reflects the attitudinal change vis a vis heroism in the consciousness of the populace post the apocalypse wrought by the Great War and Second World War. The anti hero rose as a response to the crisis of the 20th century- previously iron clad notions of glory and honour were turned on their heads to manifest ugly warmongers and blood curdling acts of violence. Human beings were made naked to their own puny statures and their drab existence propelled them into severe existential crisis.

The advent of rather despondent schools of thought spearheaded by the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin and Marx carried out a new connotation to what J. A. Cuddon refers to as modernism- “ fresh new ways of looking at man’s position and function in the universe”. The Industrial age ushered mass production of goods – leading to an alienation of creator and the good. Moreover, the blind adoration for technology was finally skewed with skepticism and the machine age was not hailed as the best gift to mankind- mankind was stranded without any viable means to counter the all consuming blind technology he himself had birthed. Expectations therefore change to the brooding, cynical anti hero.

Anti heroes blur the lines between good and evil and hold immense psychological appeal. The Affective Disposition Theory or ADT (that viewers make moral judgements regarding a character and their conclusions directly impact their enjoyment and sympathies towards the character in question) is significantly the lens through which shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and True Detective are viewed. While Walter White is brewing methamphetamine crystals to provide for his family, he largely wins the audience’s empathy, which drives certain affective dispositions on the character. Even when he has in the truest sense, broken out of the shell of the meek chemistry teacher and fully owns the ruthless narcotics manufacturer, the viewers have cognitively evaluated his actions as essential and is now a favoured character- his anti-social actions have been deemed justified by the viewer. Dexter Morgan ( of the Dexter series) is a psychopathic serial killer yet he is only drawing the blade against other serial killers out to disrupt the course of humanity. In this instance, markedly unethical actions lead to positive consequences- thus viewers are inclined to be sympathetic to his cause.

There is also the aspect of moral disengagement suggesting how users tend to not view previously favoured characters through internalized or socially relevant ethical codes but rather through the positive attitude they harbour towards the character. Moral ambiguity also tends to inspire disengagement- sometimes viewers tend to juxtapose other characters’ and their actions onto their favoured morally ambiguous characters to dissipate cognitive dissonance.

Captain Jack Sparrow ( of the Pirates of the Caribbean series fame) is a pirate in every sense – he engages in loot , plunder and more than the occasional bottle of rum. He also sticks out like a sore thumb in his flamboyant feminine ways, a penchant for negotiation and notably, his utter lack of concrete planning and spontaneity into dealing with perilous situations. He is endowed with far more lifeblood than the protagonists or the antagonists. The audience is invariably more interested in his character arc and how he rescues himself – he is a lot more engaging as a character.

Anti heroes very often have a redeemable trait- a higher ideology they respond to or a larger common good of their loved ones. The anti hero garners a cognitive evaluation- it is not a fluke that the more critically acclaimed media these days often have morally ambiguous anti heroes in key positions of consequence in the plot- the audience invests more cognitive energy into understanding the actions of the anti hero- a deep dive into character arcs stems from multifaceted character motivations- something essentially lacking in the conventional straight laced heroes.

An anti hero is inherently flawed- thus arises a major point of empathy and concern. The anti hero bears his cross with an all too human jadedness. He is perceived a lot more accessible because his struggles are something most viewers can identify within themselves and relate to. Anti heroes usually have it tough- they battle inner demons while facing discrimination or political, familial strife and lack of acceptance. In an unanticipated twist, his conundrums resonate more from his sheer lack of moral high ground.

The Indian industry is also not far behind in representation of characters with moral dilemmas. In one of the biggest commercial successes of the 90s, Sanjay Dutt grew into his own as Ballu, the titular Khalnayak and was awarded the prestigious Filmfare award for Best Actor. Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya gave us an eclectic cast of gangsters – crime mongers and kingpins who kept the audience on the edge of their seats with their high emotional resonance. Manoj Bajpayee’s triumphant euphoria – “Mumbai ka Don kaun?” (Who is the Don of Mumbai?) as he lords over an idle rock jutting out to the Mumbai sea is revered as cinematic gold now. Amitabh Bachchan’s iconic Vijay Verma in Deewar in possession of immaculate wealth yet hungering for maternal warmth and affective fulfilment does not fail to strike a cord even 50 years after its release.

The criminals with a narcissistic yet strangely riveting agenda, brooding gangsters with a heart of gold, ordinary men unleashing extraordinary horrors embroiled in perplexing circumstances- modern audiences continue to view their own strangeness in art forms and thus the anti hero reigns strong. Maybe even more so in a world of grey litanies and blurred ideologies- after all , “nayak nahi khalnayak hu mei!” (I am not the hero but the villain).

– Bipasha Bhowmick

Picture: Lou Bloom in the movie ‘Nightcrawler’ (Credits – thecinemaholic.com)

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