Text Box: FMA 1202 Seminar 7 
Alternative Heroes, Villains, and Anti-Heroes

Alternative Heroes and Late Capitalist Society
As we have begun to see in our examination of women and child heroes, once we get to the modern era (and especially the contemporary – roughly the latter part of the 20th C onwards), the variants on the hero come quite thick and fast.  While the deep psychological meanings are relatively few in number, the sub-categories and particular social meanings of the hero multiply quite rapidly.  This just reminds us of the fact that the hero is constructed as a response to social needs, and in modern times as society changes very rapidly as a result of industrialisation and globalisation, so too do the particular social fears and anxieties.  A wide array of different, variant, alternative heroes begin to arise, each one answering certain particular social fears and anxieties, certain social demographics. (We can also consider women and child heroes each as a kind of alternative hero, although they are very “big” alternatives: they do not speak to a relatively small segment of humanity, but are for a larger audience, and do have a certain enduring, almost archetypal quality.  Yet at the same time it is true that they become a lot more relevant and proliferating in recent/modern times, and a lot of that has to do with social change and the increasingly significant role of women and children in modernity, so in that respect there is a certain “alternative” quality to women and children heroes).
	We can thus speak of “alternative” heroes as those which do not sit comfortably with the usual definition of the hero: not only is the semiotics of these heroes different from the usual powerful and strong male figure, but one or more of the other archetypal/key meanings may also be different.  The alternative hero may not have “greatness” unless that term is really challenged and stretched; or may not exhibit “timeliness” (again, unless the term is stretched).  Since the alternative hero speaks to or arises out of a particular demographic group, changes are s/he cannot “affirm humanity” as a whole, but may only affirm the particular human identity and values of that particular group.  Certainly “morality” becomes a very problematic category, in the contemporary age, and the alternative hero may have a very questionable or unconventional morality.  Likewise the alternative hero may not exhibit any totalising or comprehensive “knowledge” of that which is beyond man – the alternative hero is not the same kind of great/large hero of the archetype, and does not bear knowledge and wisdom from heaven like Prometheus, nor descend into the underworld and confront the truth of what lies after death.
	In other words, alternative heroes are “boutique” heroes: just as our late capitalist society demands more and more specialised, compartmentalised services (small boutique hotels each with a special niche, like the rock-and-roll hotel, or the ice hotel, or the chocolate hotel, or the wine hotel), so likewise do we seem to demand and need “boutique” heroes, each one by no means as universal in appeal and great in archetypal stature as older heroes, but able to reach and speak to a particular audience.
	It is probably impossible to list all the different categories of alternative heroes – the point about “boutiques” is that they are endlessly and incessantly proliferating, even as we speak – and the point about alternative heroes is that they are also less well-known than archetypal/main heroes, so we may not be aware of most of them.  But some possibilities (which show how the boutique mentality works) include:
1.   Animals: not just fictional animal heroes of the Lassie and Flipper variety, but an increasing variety of different types of heroes (cats in Alley Cats, dinosaurs in Ice Age or Barney, bears in the Gentle Ben TV series, guinea pigs in G Force, chipmunks in Alvin and the Chipmunks, etc).  And also an increase in groups of people who champion the abilities of different types of animals (pigs, monkeys, snakes, lions, wolves etc), who increasingly attribute human characteristics to them, who live with them, who see them as being “special” in various ways. 
2.   Extra-terrestrials – not just the very humanised types (Superman, Thor), but increasingly, extra-terrestrials who are heroic even as they do not conform to the human type – in fact, they are heroic because they in some sense challenge a humanity that is increasingly seen as violent and destructive (often these ETs come to save man from man’s own threatening nuclear apocalyptic impulse).  E.g. Steven Spieldberg’s ET: the Extra Terrestrial or AI: Artificial Intelligence, the Keanu Reeves movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, comic versions of this like Meet Dave, or the various cults that arise around a supposed saviour race/individual from the stars, e.g the “Heaven’s Gate” cult .
3.   Prostitutes, porn stars, champions (“heroes”?) of sexual openness and the rights/dignity of sex workers, against the hypocrisy of customers and prosecutors.  This category had slightly older precedents, in the latter part of the 18th C, with texts like Moll Flanders and Fanny Hill, both featuring thief/prostitute/mistress heroines.  But a proliferation of such heroes in the latter part of the 20th C, e.g. Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss; Annabel Chong as the hero of 251 and Sex: The Annabel Chong Story; the cult of the porn superstar/biographies/awards etc. 
4.   Gay/Lesbian heroes, championing the rights of gays and lesbians, against bullying and societal oppression (Geoffrey Bowers, the lawyer whose story is told in the movie Philadelphia; characters like Kurt, Santana, and others in Glee, or overtly pro-gay artistes like Lady Gaga).
5.   Single parents, struggling to make it work in an increasingly inhospitable society (e.g. Biutiful; or Pursuit of Happyness)
6.   Ethnic and anti-colonial/anti-White heroes (Wong Fei Hong in Once Upon a Time in China; movies like Tom Yum Goong aka The Protector, and Kiss of the Dragon)
7.   Black American heroes (from Shaft to Tiger Woods to Michael Jordan)
8.   Geriatric heroes (Unforgiven; Batteries Not Included; Steel Magnolias; Gran Torino)
9.   Dwarf/midget heroes (Little People Big World; Willow; Lord of the Rings)
10.  Particular/new sports heroes: e.g. the race-car driver as hero (Driven; Fast and Furious); or extreme sport hero (XXX, fandom of extreme sports heroes)
11.   Working-class/beggar/street hero: uneducated, disenfranchised, weak, but dignified and able to do the right thing in certain situation.  Stephen Chow’s character in CJ7 aka Chang Jiang Qi Hao; the football thugs in Football Hooligans aka Green Street Hooligans.
12.   The new financial hero (corporate whistle-blower; forensic accountant; moral banker) – real-life corporate whistleblowers; the heroes of Christopher Reich’s novels such as The Devil’s Banker and The First Billion)
13.   Spiritual hero (Ghost Whisperer, Ghost Busters; demon killer eg Constantine or Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
14.   The physically invalid/challenged hero: reality TV show The Biggest Loser; the blind woman in Wait Until Dark; the vertiginous hero in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  
15.   A very specific variant on no. 14 is the psychotic/mentally disturbed hero, who may also be in a morally/legally ambivalent position.  E.g. Hannibal Lector when he helps agent Starling in Silence of the Lambs, and especially in the later novel Hannibal; or the protagonist in the TV series Dexter; or a more light-hearted version the obsessive-compulsive dirt-phobic detective Adrian Monk in the TV series Monk.
16.   Demon-heroes, e.g. Hellboy in the Hellboy movie franchise, or good vampires e,g, Angel who was a spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Sam (the son of the devil) in Reaper.

The novelty of these and other alternative heroes (and there are many many other possibilities) can be seen by the fact that these would not have been considered possible heroes in pre-modern periods (for convenience’s sake, say the 18th C or earlier). Some of that is just because some of these kinds of roles/agents/technologies didn’t exist prior to the 20th C (e.g. extra-terrestrials, or at least our knowledge of them; AIs; forensic accountants, etc).  But the bulk of them are entities who have been around for centuries if not all of human history, yet could never have been considered a hero or even someone worth thinking about in society, until modern times: the unwashed and uneducated masses were not considered real citizens in ancient Rome, or even in England prior to the latter half of the 19th C (they couldn’t even vote in England until the latter part of the 19th C, much less do anything heroic).  Prostitutes even today have a very dubious position in society, and even more so in earlier times.  Gays were of course considered completely aberrant until just the last few decades.  Spiritualists and mediums only arose around the beginning of the 20th C, and even then were considered charlatans and fakes (in the West – of course they have had a longer tradition in especially East Asia and Africa); it is really only in the latter part of the 20th C that the rapid rise of New Ageism created a market and a popular interest in spiritualists and mediums.
	But as noted earlier, alternative heroes by definition have a much more limited community-appeal than more archetypal heroes: almost anyone in danger can imagine being rescued by a strong warrior (Conan, if you are faced with guys with swords or an evil monster; Rambo, if you need to be rescued from Myanmese warlords) – but can everyone imagine being championed by a gay hero like Kurt in Glee?  Isn’t it a much more specific scenario/narrative, dealing with a segment of society that keenly feels what it is like to be constantly picked on, mocked for being different (okay, not just gays and lesbians, maybe also handicapped or extremely geeky kids – but not the majority of people, not even Asian-Americans these days, if they are reasonably cool and speak English etc).  Likewise is the bulk of society (especially Asian society) ready to consider the prostitute or porn star as hero?  People in Asia, or the conservative parts of Mid-West U.S.A. will certainly watch porn or visit prostitutes on the sly – but to openly admit this to your wife or girlfriend or parents, and to openly admit that you admire and would like to emulate the lifestyle and values of a pornstar, are probably a step way too far for most conservative people.  If alternative heroes still play a preserver/protector role, it is largely to a special segment of society – and the role may not always/strictly be that of preserver/protector by virtue of power/aręte (does a gay hero or pornstar possess any unique aręte, really?  Aren’t they just ordinary people in terms of ability?) – rather, the role of the alternative hero is a bit more like championing or being the representative or spokesperson for certain values/beliefs, than an archetypal protector/preserver.  (i.e. a gay hero doesn’t really go around preventing gays from being bashed, although that might sometimes happen.  The “heroism” is more in the courage of being true to himself/herself, which then might or might not have a slightly wider knock-on effect on a few others in society).  (This means that alternative heroes do not fulfil that archetypal heroic quality of selflessness or sacrifice, either – if an alternative hero is largely someone who has the courage to be himself/herself, and is doing it mostly for himself/herself and only possibly benefits some others indirectly, then there isn’t a great deal of sacrifice involved.  Again, though, there are some exemptions, e.g. the racial anti-colonial heroes, or demonic and ET heroes who may have to turn against their kind in order to save man).
	Not only is the appeal/championing of alternative heroes applicable to a smaller segment of society, it (partly for the same reasons) doesn’t fulfil many of the other archetypcal characteristics of heroes.  We said that pornstars and gays/lesbians probably do not have any special ability (aręte), and they certainly do not seem to possess the heroic quality of “greatness” or being so much more than man.  They may possess a bit more courage than the closet gay or sexually-repressed woman (although that is highly debatable and depends on your point of view), but it would be a big stretch to insist that pornstars and gays are much more courageous than ordinary people (firemen? Policemen? Social workers? Dedicated parents?).  Certainly there is no special virtue/ability (aręte) associated with such alternative heroes, nor with psychopaths, working-class heroes, single parents, etc.  Some alternative heroes do have aręte though (extra-terrestrials, AIs, forensic accountants, demon-heroes etc).  Alternative heroes also seem in general to lack that great sense of timeliness that archetypal heroes have, that sense of being in the right place and the right time (destiny, fate) to save mankind and the world (this is partly because, as we argue above, alternative heroes can indirectly champion a boutique segment of society, but certainly aren’t destined to save the world).  Many alternative heroes, as everyday people with maybe a bit more determination or courage, thus lack any wisdom or knowledge of the world beyond man (afterlife, universe, spiritual realm) – again with a few exemptions, e.g. ETs, maybe ghost whisperers etc. (although arguably these do not have a great heroic demi-god perspective, just knowledge of a more narrow piece of the reality out there – e.g. an ET may know its technology/planet but not the rest of the universe, a ghost whisperer only talks to specific ghosts and doesn’t know the whole underworld, etc.
	Alternative heroes are thus much more limited heroes than the archetypal ones.  Their attraction is that they are boutique, customised to suit the increasingly segmented and individualistic values of diverse contemporary society.  But they can only do so by giving up the greatness, destiny, knowledge, sacrifice etc that characterises the archetypal hero.  Alternative heroes are a classic sign of Frye’s displacement – they are very far removed from the original archetype, which enables specific adaptation, but this also disables their archetypal universalism.


Villains and Anti-Heroes
In a way these 2 agents come from different cultural/ideological impulses: the villain is an archetype in opposition to that of the hero (and as old as the cult/figure of the hero), whereas the anti-hero is a variation on (or a type of) the boutique/alternative heroes in modern times.  The villain’s role is to be opposed to the hero, whereas the anti-hero is a type of hero.  But because it is with the anti-hero that the line between villain and hero sometimes blurs, it is worth considering these 2 together.  The anti-hero takes on certain villainous traits, although perhaps not villainous functions, and this begins to blur the line/distinction between villain and (anti)hero.

Villain: the villain, or evil-doer, or nemesis, (or sometimes antagonist, in opposition to the hero-as-protagonist), is at its core a very uncomplicated figure which does not receive a lot of critical or literary attention.  i.e. villains in legends and folklore are not often talked about, their motivations and backgrounds uncomplicated, compared to the hero (who, even in legends and folklore, often have their origins, backgrounds, birth and parentage, destiny etc explained rather more).  There is something very functional/structural, and also very elemental, about the villain.
In functional/structural terms, the villain seems to be a reduced and simplified agent, whose main role is to provide a challenge for the hero.  There is usually some danger or threat, to the hero’s family, or his community (village, city, race, nation), or both.  The villain represents a personification of evil/danger – it is a function which in some stories can be performed without a human agent, such as a natural disaster (think hero fighting to save his family or town from tornado or tsunami).  Or it could be performed by a non-human biological agent (killer bear, great white shark, Moby Dick).  Indeed, even with a human villain, there is something quite elemental and unreasoning about the villain.  We do not really need to know the villain’s motivation, past, psychology, emotional state etc (although sometimes we do see varying degrees of these) – after all, a heroic story works even if there is no human villain, and we don’t see any motivation or psychology in natural-disaster villains like earthquakes or tsunamis.  Even human villains are often depicted as insane or warped in their thinking, so that there is actually no human dimension, no possibility of engaging with them in a human way.
	Human villains give a more interesting human dimension to the battle of good versus evil – a “face” to the evil, so to speak, a greater humanisation of the struggle, a greater personal satisfaction (in both the hero, and the audience that identifies with him) when the hero finally overthrows the villain.  But the basic function of the archetypal villain is to present basic threats which the archetypal hero (as protector/preserver) is called upon to overcome: death (especially violent and unnatural death), a dark fate or destiny (some kind of impact such as a train crash or storm fall, epidemic etc), loss or separation from loved ones, the threat to or destruction of some “good” (the organic family, the united community/nation, etc).  It doesn’t seem to matter too much what form the villain takes, as long as he/it is a convincingly powerful threat to those social/human values.

Anti-Hero: this is a much more interested and complicated entity than the villain.  An anti-hero is not a villain – not the representative of an elemental and irrational evil or threat to the hero, society, community, the good etc.  But neither is he the outright protector, preserver, greater than man, agent of destiny/timeliness etc that the hero is.  An anti-hero is simply someone who is some ways functions like the hero, but without the hero’s characteristic/archetypal traits.  Obviously this overlaps considerably with what we have been calling “alternative heroes.”  An anti-hero is in fact a type of alternative hero – but he is an alternative hero with such a set of negative and unheroic attributes (who nevertheless has a hero-like function) that he probably deserves a separate category all to himself and deserves separate discussion.
	The defining qualities of the anti-hero (as a type of alternative hero) are an aversion to the whole concept and role of the hero; an extreme reluctance to be a hero; a lack of faith in or belonging to the wider community/society; dark emotional/psychological traits that can even be villain-like.  The anti-hero is thus a highly controversial figure, often representing a sharp divide in terms of his beliefs/values and his ultimate actions/effect, and thus often sharply polarising readers/audiences as well.  i.e one mark of the anti-hero (much more so than for other alternative heroes) is that audiences often don’t know what to make of them.
	Like alternative heroes, the anti-hero is very much a product of modernity – coming to notice probably in the 18th C, although there are some earlier examples, and certainly becoming very popular from the late 19th C onwards.  We can point to some of the 17th C examples in drama and poetry as the starting points: revenger figures in the so-called “revenge tragedies” by people like Middleton and Rowley, Cyril Tourneur, Thomas Kyd, John Webster and others.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet can also be seen as a revenge tragedy, albeit a complicated and unconventional one.  Revenge tragedies had central figures who may have had some just cause (hence “revenger”) on their side, but also some moral dubiousness or lack of clarity, and then carried out their revenge with such violence and excess that audiences’ sympathies became deeply divided.  While the centrality and emotional immediacy of the revenger figure (and whatever moral justification he had for his revenge) made audiences align themselves with him as a kind of “hero,” the moral problems and the excessiveness of his revenge also repulsed audiences at the same time.  You couldn’t call such figures “heroes” through and through, because they didn’t behave like the usual tragic protagonists who were good but only had a very understandable “tragic flaw” and made a mistake which could have happened to anyone – the revenger embarked on such an elaborate and deliberate course of violence that you couldn’t call it a simple “tragic flaw.”  Yet you couldn’t call the revenger a villain as such either, because he wasn’t outrightly evil, he (often) wasn’t set in opposition to a good/heroic individual.  In fact, the revenger lived in a very morally ambivalent world, where all the other characters (with the exception of the victim, usually a young girl, whose death sets the revenge tragedy in motion) are shady or evil.  Part of the problem posed by the revenger is that even though he cannot be called “good” or heroic, there is no-one else in that society who is good or heroic – so the revenger never becomes the villain, nor the hero, and a special kind of category (such as “anti-hero”) needs to be applied to him.
	Possibly the most famous and influential anti-hero is the character of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  It is remarkable how a character who, according to the religious codes accepted by almost everyone in Milton’s day (17th C England) should have been seen as outright evil, becomes transformed by Milton’s poetry into a figure of rebellious daring and courage, who loses the war but succeeds in sprouting the best poetry and speeches, and winning a great deal of readers’ sympathy.  This is partly because Milton’s poem manages to depict God as a distant, cold, repressive authority figure, thus enhancing Satan’s rebellious appeal.  One way to look at this was that Milton was consciously or unconsciously influenced by the appeal of some of the famous rebellious figures of his time, the republican Oliver Cromwell being the most prominent one.  Cromwell led the revolution that overthrew the English monarchy, which (like all monarchies) had its share of critics and enemies who saw it as a tyrannical and constricting regime.  Milton worked for Cromwell and had strong republican sympathies, so it is not too surprising that his Satan has more than a bit of Cromwell’s rebellious dash and heroic qualities (Satan as a kind of republican champion, fighting against the unjust tyranny of kings in the form of God).  There is also an obvious Promethean reference going on: Satan as bringer of knowledge to man, a knowledge (of good and evil) which opens their eyes and sets them free from a blind obedience to God.  Of course the whole poem is highly problematic because it has to conform to the narrative pattern of the Bible in which Satan’s act is not only punished by God, but is also shown to bring not Promethean goodness and wisdom to man, but rather suffering and alienation from God.  This highly problematic morality makes the poem a very good example of a modern morally-ambiguous text that creates, not a hero, but rather an anti-hero.
	The romantic era was heavily influenced by Milton all around, but especially by his rebellious anti-hero Satan.  Blake openly declared his admiration for Milton and also wrote long epic poems about energetic rebel-figures who fought against law and restraint.  Wordsworth’s man of nature is a kind of rebel as well (although in minor key), defying conventional morality to preach an alternative value in isolation and nature.  Byron was the poet who probably did the most to popularise the modern anti-hero as we know it today: brooding, anti-social, contemptuous of society’s laws and morality (much like Byron’s own life, actually), a moody outsider who was always travelling/on the run because he hated much of what society stood for, and in his own unconventional life and actions represented a kind of brave heroic defiance of society, but also one that was highly controversial in terms of its morality and effects.  Byronic-type anti-heroes are also found in a lot of gothic literature of the 19th C – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein being one of the best-known (the sub-title of the novel is “The Modern Prometheus”), a brooding anti-social loner (like Byron’s heroes – Mary Shelley was a good friend of Byron’s) who defies the scientific community and conventional morality to “play god” and create life, only to have that life assume monstrous form that haunts him and causes harm to his family.  Like all good anti-heroes, Frankenstein and his creation cause us to challenge our assumptions of right and wrong: is it better to obey social constraints and never do anything great, or to do great and daring things that violate certain social and possibly natural laws, and consequently endure harm and suffering to oneself and others?  Can one have right motives, and yet wrong actions/consequences?  Can one (like the monster, in his quest for revenge and justice) do harmful things, but still have justice and right on one’s side?
	Contemporary anti-heroes, in fiction and real life, might include: 
1.   vigilantes or anyone else who takes authority into their own hands, and do violent things but with some moral justification
2.   individuals with very suspect and even criminal backgrounds, but who redeem themselves with a single heroic/sacrificial act (e.g. Nick Leeson, the rogue trader whose actions brought down Barings Bank, but in the process he may have exposed layers of greed and mismanagement in the bank?)
3.   individuals who use immoral means to accomplish a good end (e.g. Dexter; or arguably the CIA or other spies, who use violence and cruelty, including torturing prisoners, to accomplish what they see as a necessary and good result – which of course is also highly debatable)
4.   individuals whose lifestyles and habits are bad, but whose actions are inexplicably good (the womanising and dissolute hero Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List).

Some of these examples obviously do overlap with some of the alternative heroes: Munny in Unforgiven is an example of someone who rejects the high values and heroic actions of the archetypal hero, working purely for money and using tactics which are rather vicious and self-preserving (if not even cowardly), yet he ends up standing up against the abusive sheriff in order to avenge his friend.  The sheriff, Little Bill, is another complicated character who is mostly villain (in his bullying, vicious zero-tolerance ways), but also has right on his side (he wants to maintain law and order, and is in a way justified in persecuting Munny and friends for their mercenary actions, and for killing the wrong cowboy in retaliation for another cowboy mutilating a prostitute).  The whole of the film is moody, complicated, and morally confusing, and if we sympathise with Munny and finally see what he does as brave and heroic, it is a highly complicated morality with more than a few moral question-marks. Clint Eastwood’s other famous character, Walt in Gran Torino, is another anti-hero, a racist who hates his Hmong neighbours, but gradually (without any obvious moral declarations or motives) comes to side with them in their problems with the local gangs, and even gives up his life to save them.  Both Munny and Walt are what we have called geriatric heroes, but they are also anti-heroes (so, “geriatric anti-heroes” – a long label which shows us how complicated and compartmentalised/specialised the notion of heroism is becoming, in contemporary life).  
	Thanks to the concept of the anti-hero, we now know what to do with that troubling character Wah Sing Ku in Lethal Weapon 4, who is cast in many of the roles/positions of the villain, particularly in the White/American perspective of the film – a “snakehead” who smuggles people, a ruthless killer – but whose motivation and inner psychology actually show a much more complicated figure (someone humble, subservient and loyal to his older brother, showing typical Chinese virtues, working hard to save a family member “back” in the homeland).  Without the category of anti-hero, we really wouldn’t know what to say about Wah’s character, and would simply have to call him a villain (but if he’s a villain, what do we say about the evil general, who shows the real characteristics of the archetypal villain – elemental, no psychological depth/nuance, just an unreasoning evil/threat).  The kind of moral dilemma that Wah’s character shows (if read properly), and the kind of dilemma he evokes in viewers, is the typical response to an anti-villain.  So, likewise, is the figure of Uxbal, the drug-dealing streetwise (but loving and desperate) father in Biutiful.
	Actually it would not be hard to create an anti-hero story involving almost any kind of character or position (the violent gangster who also does good; the suicide bomber who sees himself as standing up for his oppressed community; the drug dealer who uses the money to pay for his sister’s university education; the Mossad member who takes revenge for a brutal torture and killing of his family or friends; the monster who has a soft, moral side (like Frankenstein’s monster does); etc.
	The whole point about the anti-hero is, like the other alternative heroes, he shows the extent to which heroism in the modern era multiplies and becoming increasingly specialised.  A highly individualised capitalist society must also cater to different kinds of consumers, must in fact help to create special “boutique” segments of consumers, including things like the anti-hero (for those of us that like our heroes complicated, dark, brooding, a little villainous).  But the anti-hero (unlike most other alternative heroes) also shows us a world becoming increasingly complicated and conflicted in its morality (this may be the other side of capitalism: the complex levels and speed of information, which makes deceit and concealment so easy, the inherent greed and materialism, the common use of unethical methods justified by “good” ends such as charity, wealth distribution).  Whatever the cause, our contemporary society is becoming increasingly conflicted by different interest groups, races, communities, religions, etc.  Doing good for one segment may very well mean doing harm to another – hence the popularity of the anti-hero, who has to juggle precisely such contradictory claims always.