What makes a hero? Someone who is courageous and unyielding? A person unwilling to give up their ideals for anything? Strength to do whatever is necessary, even self-sacrifice? There are certainly a ton of those heroes in cinematic history, but no one on this list can count themselves among them. In honor of the newly released Suicide Squad we’re celebrating the heroes that don’t necessarily have to be heroic.
An antihero doesn’t have to be moral, courageous, or even a good person. In fact a good antihero should be a bad person. Society isn’t filled with flag-saluting boy scouts, so why would we want our movies filled with them? Naturally, we like our protagonists with a little more of a mean streak. The next heroes on this list aren’t so much heroic as they are compelling to watch for their flawed and negative qualities. They can be cowards, killers, psychos, assassins, or just plain evil.
These characters are far from heroic, and some of them are flat out rotten, but oddly enough we find ourselves liking them all the more for it. Here are the 20 Best Antiheroes In Movie History.
20. Lou Bloom, Nightcrawler
Louis Bloom believes that if you’re seeing him, you’re having the worst day of your life. We would have to agree. This unsettling cameraman who scours the mean streets of Los Angeles looking for crimes will do anything to get the right shot. This includes breaking and entering, getting in the way of ambulances, dragging around corpses to fit in the frame, and even getting his own employees shot.
While Lou strongly believes in the power of self-help, he doesn’t much care for ethics. As a sociopath, his only real motivation is scoring the next gruesome piece of footage so he can make a name for himself in crime journalism. He’s driven, aggressive, and highly motivated, and his inability to empathize with others makes his determination all the more frightening. With his creepy smile and can-do attitude, Lou Bloom is one of the best antiheroes in recent years, and without a doubt one of best performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, who lost 20 whole pounds for the role!
19. Driver, Drive
Ryan Gosling’s Driver doesn’t say a whole lot. He barely has any lines at all, and when he does they’re usually just short spurts of dialogue like “I drive” or “It’s in the car.” That’s okay, though, because the actions of Driver usually speak louder than words. As a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver, Gosling’s character is dark, brooding, and mysterious. His stoic demeanor makes him cool and collected, but that doesn’t mean he’s not prone to acts of violence like stomping on a guy’s head for so long that it turns to mush.
Sure, the Driver has good intentions. All he wants is to help out his next-door neighbor, who he is in love with, and her small kid. But things escalate to the point where he has no other choice but to smash gangsters’ hands in with a hammer or run mobsters off the road with his car. The actions Driver takes make us uncomfortable but his motivations come from a good place, making him a classic modern day antihero.
18. Oh Dae-Su, Oldboy
The first time we are introduced to Oh Dae-Su in Chan-woo Pak’s Oldboy, he is drunk out of his mind, fumbling over himself as he gets arrested for disorderly conduct. And on his young daughter’s birthday, no less. He’s hardly the upstanding citizen we’re used to seeing as the hero. Things soon take a turn for Dae-Su when he finds himself abducted and locked up in a mysterious room that he’s unable to escape from. For fifteen years he sits in that room, biding his time and training his body so he could one day get his revenge on the mysterious person who put him there.
Oh Dae-Su is not a good person. He makes and repeats countless mistakes over and over again due to his his many character flaws. He is not the typical hero most audiences have become accustomed to seeing, yet we empathize with this antihero, seeing him pushed to the brink of his sanity by being locked away from the world for so long.
17. Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
Can the hero of your movie be an immoral, greedy, psychotic Wall Street yuppie who spends his time at night slashing prostitutes and homeless people while occasionally eating some of their brains? The folks that brought us the 2000 film American Psycho would have to say yes. Patrick Bateman is an investment executive who just can’t seem to keep his nightly bloodlust in check. He spends his days trying to “fit in” with normal society, with a strict diet and workout regiment, meals at the finest restaurants (except the exclusive Dorsia), and a certain pompous arrogance with which attempts to mask his insecurities and dark desires.
Bateman is the embodiment of the American Dream pushed beyond its reasonable limits. He’s outwardly successful, but the true nature of what lies beneath is disturbing and oddly comical. One moment he’ll be enjoying cocktails at a high-end bar, the next he’ll be cutting a co-worker up with an axe while listening to Huey Lewis and the News. Patrick Bateman represents the duality of human nature, riding the rails between tycoon and monster to troubling yet bizarrely hilarious results.
16. Léon, The Professional
After 12-year-old Mathilda’s family is ruthlessly wiped out by a squad of corrupt cops, led by an especially unhinged Gary Oldman, she’s taken in by her next-door neighbor Léon, who just so happens to be the world’s best contract killer. He reluctantly becomes Mathilda’s guardian and starts training her in the way of the gun so she can one day exact her revenge. As the ultimate hitman who never misses a target, but also cares about the safety of a young girl, Jean Reno’s Léon is an assassin with a heart of gold.
As disturbing as that may sound, the relationship between the two is surprisingly heartwarming. Léon isn’t a rampaging psychopath like Pat Bateman. Rather, he’s a caring individual who just so happens to pay his bills as a professional killer. With a touching performance from Jean Reno and top-notch direction from Luc Besson, Léon is a hitman who is both deadly and oddly likable at the same time.
15. Mad Max, The Road Warrior
Mad Max is what you would call the classic antihero. As a cynical ex-cop who drifts from place to place, his only concern is looking out for his best interests. He’s been played by two different actors at this point, and as good as Tom Hardy’s performance was in Fury Road, we’re going with Mel Gibson’s stark depiction in the 1981 action epic Road Warrior for our favorite version of the antihero.
The film begins with Max Rockatansky endlessly roaming a wasteland after a devastating third world war. The new currency in this despairing world is gasoline, which is harder to come by than gold. Max stumbles on a small community who is rich in the substance but is being harassed by a group of bandits for the precious fuel. Max reluctantly agrees to protect the survivors from the barbarian warriors, leading to one of the best car chases ever captured on film. Max may be a snide loner, but he helps out when he can and has a semi-clear conscience, making him an antihero who’s fun to watch and one we don’t feel bad rooting for.
14. John Rambo, First Blood
It’s hard to come by an action hero more recognizable than John Rambo. With his red bandana and trusty “hunting” knife, Rambo embodies the true American hero fighting for freedom and justice. Some forget, however, that in the first installment in the franchise, First Blood, Rambo wasn’t on a high-stakes rescue mission overseas. He was a highly unstable Vietnam Vet who, after being mistreated by a bunch of small-town cops, goes on a rampage blowing up gas stations, shooting holes in police stations, and taking on the entire National Guard.
Rambo certainly performs some questionable actions in the movie, but he is so mistreated that it leaves us completely sympathetic toward his character. Though it’s a little hard to understand, his emotional breakdown at the end has Rambo reliving all the atrocities he had to bear in Vietnam, which is both poignant and eye-opening. While the following sequels transformed the character into an invincible action hero, First Blood still gives us the most morally ambiguous and emotionally charged Rambo we’ve seen yet.
13. William “D-Fens” Foster, Falling Down
William “D-Fens” Foster is the kind of guy who is pushed around his whole life and one day just snaps. And when we say “snaps,” we mean going on the kind of psychotic breakdown the likes of which would make even Rambo raise an eyebrow. Played with an unbalanced ferociousness by Michael Douglas, D-Fens is a recently jobless and recently divorced man who, after waiting for an absurd amount of time in a traffic jam in the hot sun, ditches his car and proceeds to go on a rampage in downtown L.A.
The Californian madman proceeds to exact his brand of vigilante “justice” everywhere he goes. He smashes up a convenience store when their prices are too high, shoots up a burger joint because they refuse to serve him breakfast, and blows up a road crew after they snidely refuse to move. Though he believes he is justified in his actions, D-Fens is unable to differentiate what is morally acceptable. “I’m the bad guy?” is his confused question to Robert Duvall’s police officer when he’s finally cornered in the end. We wouldn’t say that you’re the bad guy per se, Mr. Foster, just one hell of a misunderstood antihero.
12. Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network
Scoring universal acclaim and three Academy Awards, David Fincher’s The Social Network is a modern day Citizen Kane that fires on all cylinders. The direction by Fincher is mesmerizing, Aaron Sorkin’s script is rapidly compelling, the soundtrack by Trent Reznor is vivacious, and the performance by Jesse Eisenberg is one for the ages.
As Mark Zuckerberg, the guy who invented Facebook, Eisenberg brings a certain iciness and flawed insecurity to the character. This computer wizard might be one of the smartest and richest guys on the planet, but the people and friends he had to step over to get there were certainly a steep price to pay. Zuckerberg is condescending and smug, but remains sympathetic enough that we can still call him the protagonist. Although the real life Mark Zuckerberg has discredited the film’s portrayal by stating everything but the wardrobe was inaccurate, Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg still provides an entertaining look into the mind of man who will do anything to recognized by the girl who broke his heart.
11. Tony Montana, Scarface
Released in 1983, Brian De Palma’s Scarface was a critical and financial bomb. Despite glowing reviews from one Roger Ebert, it was almost universally panned and produced abysmal box office results. Of course things are different nowadays: the bloody rags-to-riches tale is one of the most famous gangster pictures in history, thanks to its visual flare and Al Pacino’s deranged performance as Tony Montana. Ironically, for an actor who played Michael Corleone, one of the coldest and most calculating mobsters in movie history, Pacino gives us the complete opposite here, as someone who is passionate, reckless, and completely power-hungry.
Tony Montana shoots first and asks questions later. Backed by a loyal gang of goons, a trophy wife, a big mansion, and enough cocaine to build miniature mountains, he shoots and snorts his way to the top of the drug trafficking business. Even though Pacino’s performance is bombastic, it’s so entertaining that we are completely enthralled the entire time. In the words of Mr. Montana himself, ordinary people need guys like him so we can point our fingers and say “that’s the bad guy.” So say goodnight to the bad guy.
10. Salieri, Amadeus
One would expect the main character in a movie about musical legend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to be none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself. Director Miles Forman and screenwriter Peter Shaffer took a big risk in Amadeus by instead presenting the film through the eyes of Mozart’s rival, Antonio Salieri, played terrifically by F. Murray Abraham. While everything about the film, from the costumes to the camerawork, is breathtaking, the anchor of the whole show is Abraham’s powerful rendition of the jealous composer.
Anyone who has worked their whole life to achieve something only to be outdone can relate to Salieri. The composer works his whole life to creating music that will stand the test of time, yet at the end of the day he is always bested by Mozart. Salieri curses the musical prodigy and God, who he believes has bestowed Mozart with this natural talent only to spite him. This jealousy and rage eventually push Salieri to make Mozart suffer, and he believes that he indirectly caused his death. That guilt eats away at Salieri, who in the end is driven mad by the fact that while Mozart the man has perished, his music never will.
9. Sonny Wortzik, Dog Day Afternoon
One of the most clueless bank robbers in cinematic history, Sonny Wortzik is one of Al Pacino’s very best performances. Sonny is the common man who needs a little extra dough, so he decides to pair up with his buddy Sal (an underappreciated John Cazale) to knock over a local bank. Only problem is the two know about as much as robbing a bank as they do about hostage negotiations, which is exactly where they find themselves when the entire police force surrounds them, turning the scene into a media frenzy.
Taking place over the course of just one day, the events in Dog Day Afternoon are all crazy, and as promised by the opening credits, “all true.” This is one of Pacino’s most nuanced performances, with each scene a testament to his tremendous capabilities as an actor. With every moment Sonny further unravels, trying so desperately to come up with a plan as he juggles Sal, the police, and the hostages. The fact that it’s based on a true story makes Sonny even more fascinating to watch as he self-destructs, and while the whole movie is fantastic, it’s worth a watch for Pacino’s performance alone.
8. Derek Vinyard, American History X
Speaking of captivating performances, one would have a tough time arguing that Edward Norton has ever played a role more fascinating than Derek Vinyard in American History X. Told between a series of black-and-white flashbacks and colored present time, the story shows the powerful transformation of a neo-Nazi struggling to find redemption. Notron put on 20 pounds of muscle to play Vinyard, a white supremacist who’s trying to steer his brother away from following in his footsteps.
While the film only earned one Oscar nomination, it was well deserved for Norton’s mesmerizing performance. All of the atrocities that Derek commits are, without a doubt, despicable and will make any seasoned viewer uncomfortable. He’s the embodiment of rage and hate itself, yet his character arc in the second and third acts has him questioning his racist beliefs and it is incredibly moving to watch. Norton puts a face to white supremacy that shows the sickening effects it can have, and gives us a human character with whom we can surprisingly empathize.
7. Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood
Frequently cited in every book detailing the art of screenwriting, empathy and congeniality are often necessary to have the audience identify with the main character of a film. It would be hard to understand or empathize with anything from the likes of Daniel Plainview however, who is only concerned with building his oil empire and crushing his competitors. The one attribute that makes him somewhat human is his love for his adopted son, although that too completely evaporates in the end, as Daniel vehemently disowns him in a fit of rage.
Often cited as one of his best performances, Daniel Day Lewis is nothing less than astounding in Their Will Be Blood. The actor is utterly terrifying to watch as Plainview, a man who is cursed with a passion to “want no one else to succeed.” His greed and thirst for power are what drive him, and it’s what drives the movie as we watch Plainview explode and implode into fits of rage and instability.
6. Will Munny, Unforgiven
With roles like The Man with No Name and Dirty Harry, it would appear that Clint Eastwood has made an entire acting career out of playing some of the most famous antiheroes in movie history. In 1992’s Unforgiven, he gave audiences his most layered antihero yet in William Munny, a retired gunslinger who reluctantly takes on one last job of killing two cowboys. This dark and morally complex look at the Wild West dispels any prior romanticism the genre had. William Munny is not the kind of guy who respectfully duels another gunfighter at high noon. He’s the guy who shoots you in the back and doesn’t think twice about it.
He’s killed U.S. Marshalls, fellow gang members, and even women and children, and as much as he can try and outrun his past he finds himself eternally consumed by it. He has a talent for killin’ folks, so why let that talent go to waste? It doesn’t stop all those people he killed from cropping up in his nightmares though. Munny will forever be haunted by all his victims that have fallen from him pulling the trigger, but as he so eloquently puts it by the films end, “we all have it coming” anyway.
5. McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Jack Nicholson has had a series of Oscar-worthy roles over the years, but the actor scored his first Academy Award as Randle Patrick McMurphy in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nicholson is completely in his element here in Milos Forman’s adaptation of the groundbreaking 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, playing a social misfit trying to make it in a mental institute. McMurphy is not insane, he’s just full of life and makes every effort to disrupt social order within the prison every chance he can get.
The perfect ying to McMurphy’s yang is the sour Nurse Ratched, who has become corrupted with power and is making everyone’s life in the institution a living hell. McMurphy will have none of it however, and continues to disobey Ratched’s laws by taking the patients on unscheduled trips to the beach or getting them drunk on New Year’s Eve. McMurphy may not be the most upstanding citizen, but his can-do attitude inspired every patient who was lucky enough to meet him during his short time there.
4. Alex DeLarge, A Clockwork Orange
You know you have a good antihero on your hands when he can perform the most despicable acts imaginable and still come across as likable. Such is the case for Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s immortal classic A Clockwork Orange, a film which is just uncomfortable to watch today as it was back in 1971. Alex is the most immoral youngster you’d ever have the displeasure of meeting. He loves getting hopped up on drugged milk and dabbling in a little bit of the “ultra-violence.” This includes, but is not limited to, beating homeless people, getting into gang fights, and raping a woman while showboating a disturbing melody from “Singin’ in the Rain”.
Most disturbing perhaps is that Alex is not a mindless thug. He’s an intelligent human being who can communicate abstract concepts and thoughts, and has an undying love for the works of Ludwig Van Beethoven. When Alex goes through his mind-altering rehabilitation, the audience, as sick as it is, feels sorry for him even though he’s proven to be a complete monster in the past. It’s just a testament to how much work Kubrick and, of course, Michael McDowell put into this character, who decades later remains just as poignant and disturbing.
3. Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese’s gritty take on New York street life is a powerful look into the mind of one taxi driver. Travis Bickle is quite a hard protagonist to pin down. As a person who spends his days carting around the dregs of society, Travis is fed up with the filth and degradation and takes it upon himself to start cleaning up the mess. He does this by buying a small arsenal and exacting his brand of vigilante justice on everyone from low-level pimps to robbers holding up gas stations.
After being romantically rejected by someone he actually cares for, Travis grows even more disgusted by the environment he’s submersed himself into. Taxi Driver is a bleak and hauntingly realistic portrayal of the actions that one man can take when he’s pushed to the brink of his sanity. Travis is the product of a desolate atmosphere making him extremely lonely and very vulnerable, leaving a foul distaste for the outside world and everything in it. The bloody climax of the movie has left audiences stunned and shocked for decades. Was Travis crazy or a hero? We’ll leave the answer to that question up to you.
2. Charles Foster Kane, Citizen Kane
It’s hard to argue against the cultural significance of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Revolutionizing the film industry and still cited as one of the most influential movies ever made, this black-and-white dramatic mystery is a vital part of cinematic history. The premise and catalyst of the film is very simple. A group of reporters set out to try and decipher what the last word of a publishing tycoon: “Rosebud…” which provides the entire mystery of the film. A series of flashbacks are introduced chronicling the important events in Kane’s life, who turns out to be a compassionless megalomaniac.
Kane’s story is a fascinating rise to fame in which he ruthlessly destroys his competition to create an empire. Though he starts out as man with principles, he slowly disowns his ideals in order to gain riches and power. In the end, Kane loses everything. His friends, his relationships, his marriage all evaporate before his very eyes, and the last word he speaks may not be as significant or straightforward as you think. Loosely based on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Kane is a business man we can both identify with and become disgusted by, all in the same moment.
1. Michael Corleone, The Godfather I and II
The last shot of Michael Corleone in The Godfather II is nothing short of haunting. As he stares into the abyss, he realizes that he’s lost everything he’s struggled so hard to hold onto. The love of his life has left him, he’s broken up the empire his father built, and he’s committed an unforgivable sin against a brother who betrayed him. Paying the ultimate price for his sins, Michael is left sitting alone to suffer thoughts that no doubt will plague him until the day he dies.
How did such a fate befall a man who started out as such a decent person? At the start of Francis Ford Coppola’s first Godfather, Michael is a young war hero who refuses to take part in the family business (which happens to be the mafia). He’s a beacon of hope for his family– the only one that they have left. Everything changes, however, when his father Vito is gravely wounded, which leaves Michael looking for revenge. He reluctantly becomes part of the business he tried so desperately to avoid, and becomes the most ruthless Don the mob has ever seen.
Michael wipes out his enemies like it’s simply business, and of course it is all business and nothing personal to Don Corleone. He kills, corrupts, and extorts all of his enemies until they are backed into a corner and then reaps the rewards. Michael, who was once a man with ideals, finds that he excels at doing evil things, which makes his transition to antihero, and dare we say villain, all the more tragic.
While we’ve already mentioned other notable performances, Michael Corleone really is one of, if not the best, of Al Pacino’s roles. Before he played the over-the-top Scarface, he was the cold and calculating Don Corleone, a man who traded his soul for a taste of power.
– Lisbeth Slander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
– Redmond Barry, Barry Lyndon
– The Narrator, Fight Club
– Oskar Schindler, Schindler’s List
– Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean
– Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull
– Mark Renton, Trainspotting
– Jordan Belfort, The Wolf on Wallstreet
– Lester Burnham, American Beauty