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From Walter to Tony: Why we love a good bad guy

(Christina Saint Marche/Flickr)

(Christina Saint Marche/Flickr)

Stefan Geller, Contributor

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Walter White, Tony Soprano,  Michael Corleone, Don Draper. The list of movie and television imperfect heroes goes on and on, but the the most common trait they share is that we love to root for them. Whether it ‘s Danny Ocean robbing casinos in Las Vegas or Dexter Morgan butchering other murderers in South Beach, we can’t help but applaud as they triumph over the goody-two-shoes and lawmen who oppose them.

The  typical hero  story arc was theorized by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and can be applied to countless popular movies, television series, and literary heroes, such as Frodo Baggins and Katniss Everdeen. Heroes like Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, or even Gilgamesh- the first ever hero dating back to ancient Mesopotamia-  follow the same storyline, only with a different coat of paint. They begin their story in an ordinary world, receive a call to save the day  to which they are often reluctant, given guidance by a mentor, then depart into an unfamiliar new world. This sends them into a state of crisis where they are forced to come face to face with death. However, the heroes are reborn in some way or another, defeat their greatest foes and usually end with the clichéd happy ending.

The story arc comes with its fair share of replicated motifs as well: companions, a mentor who gives the hero some type of weapon or power,  unusual birth circumstances, vague details on early childhood, and beginning the quest on the cusp of early adulthood. Try thinking of your favorite hero and odds are they fit right into this repeated story arc.

Anti-heroes, on the other hand, are imperfect people who face their innermost weaknesses to reach their goals. Since each has his own weaknesses and goals, these stories feel more authentic  and relatable. The rise of the anti-hero in movies and television has made the concept of a “hero” more complex, and less boring. Anyone who watched “Breaking Bad” remembers how nerve-wracking the final season was, and how, at the end of each episode, you’d spend the rest of Sunday night trying to  figure out how the story would end. Entertainment is at its best when it surprises us and shows us something we have never seen before.

But that’s not the only reason why audiences love anti-heroes. They are continually depicted as confident and powerful, traits that every viewer aspires to have. When the original “Star Wars” was released, fans everywhere were drawn more to the confident scoundrel Han Solo than the budding hero, Luke Skywalker. The combination of the confidence and moral ambiguity makes the anti-hero come off as a badass, and what countless viewers desire to be like.

If the originality and confidence wasn’t enough, anti-heroes feed the public’s lust for dark realism on screen. There is no denying that over the past decade, movies and tv shows have become considerably grittier, with series reboots such as James Bond, Batman, and Spiderman. What we are seeing in entertainment is a cultural shift in the way we conceive what a “hero” truly is, and filling our craving for dark entertainment by casting aside their righteous prototypes and adopting their crueler counterparts to get the job done.


Stefan Geller can be reached [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @StefanGeller

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From Walter to Tony: Why we love a good bad guy