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The Weekly Listicle: Antiheroes!

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April 15th, 2010 at 1:36 pm

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Aaron Johnson as Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass

This week’s most anticipated release is Kick-Ass, directed by Matthew Vaughn and based on the graphic novels by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. (Stay tuned for the CLR review on Saturday!) The premise of Kick-Ass is this: a normal, slightly nerdy high school kid, Dave Lizewski, decides to put on a costume and fight crime, superhero-style, because, well, why can’t we be superheroes? There’s always a price to pay for meddling, though, and Dave shortly discovers the risky aspects of being a superhero, especially if you don’t have any powers. He also meets Hit Girl and Big Daddy (Chloe Moretz and Nicholas Cage) along the way: two real-life “superheroes” whose efficiency with the killing is a little terrifying.

Chloe Moretz as deadly and adorable Hit-Girl

Hit Girl and Big Daddy aren’t heroes; they’re a little too screwy for that. But you have to root for them even as you cringe. This week’s Listicle is all about the Anti-hero. Moral ambiguity is one of the most intriguing facets of modern media—often enough our protagonists lie somewhere in that gray area between villain and hero. Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, the title character in Showtime’s “Dexter:” beloved characters that are certainly not the good guys, but nor are they evil. Cinema, literature, and TV are full of antiheroes, but here are some of our favorites:

Julia’s Picks:

Léon (Jean Reno), THE PROFESSIONAL (dir. Luc Besson, 1994)

Léon (Jean Reno) and Mathilde (Natalie Portman) prepare to pull the trigger in The Professional. (Also, an oddly similar shot to the one of Hit Girl above. Apparently audiences can’t resist a little girl with a big gun?)

Luc Besson’s The Professional (the original French cut is simply called Léon) is an action masterpiece, full of both sweetness and grit, trademark Besson wackiness and dynamic characters. After reclusive assassin Léon (Reno) reluctantly saves the life of eleven-year-old Mathilde (Natalie Portman), he finds himself with a surrogate daughter who wants to learn the trade. Léon is a gentle soul, caring lovingly for his plant, drinking his milk, and living a life of total solitude. Meanwhile, he’s also dreadfully proficient at killing people for money. His motto when it comes to “cleaning” is “no women, no children,” so he’ll only murder men. When Mathilde seeks Léon’s help to avenge the death of her little brother, the two go up against DEA-agent-cum-drug lord Stansfield (Gary Oldman in one of his best roles) in a battle of who-can-kill-better.

Léon and Mathilde educate each other.

Léon and Mathilde genuinely come to love one another, with Mathilde teaching Léon to read and Léon showing Mathilde how to shoot guns. (In the French cut of the film, Mathilde asks Léon to take her virginity, and that was cut for the U.S. release because Americans are prudes). As unnerving as it is to see a little girl shooting (paintballs) at a politician from a rooftop, you want Mathilde to become an assassin. Léon has to make the ultimate sacrifice to save Mathilde, and though the end’s ambiguous, we’re meant to assume she’s headed down the right path—whatever that may be. Long story short, Léon is a cold-blooded killer who’s also more than willing to die for those he loves and to fight the really bad guys. Nonetheless, he’s one of the most fascinating (and lovable) characters to grace the silver screen in nearly twenty years.

Walter White, “BREAKING BAD” (AMC series, 2008-?)

Bryan Cranston as Walter White–a good guy gone bad.

When AMC’s “Breaking Bad” began, Walter White (Bryan Cranston, who’s won two well-deserved Emmys for this role) was a downtrodden high school chemistry teacher who’d watched his grad school comrades found a groundbreaking chemicals firm, but settled for marriage, kid, and misery himself. His nagging wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) keeps him in check while his handicapped son Walter, Jr. (RJ Mitte) tries to hold his own with his disability. When Walter is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he has nowhere to turn…except to former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul in a consistently fantastic performance). With Jesse’s meager knowledge of the drug scene and Walter’s immense chemistry proficiency, the two cook and sell what amounts to metric tons of methamphetamine around their city of Albuquerque.

Aaron Paul as Jesse, with Mr. White: Reluctantly bad-ass drug kingpins.

As you can imagine, nothing good can come of this. Walter has, so far, been directly responsible for at least one OD (to say nothing of the domino effect involved in, you know, dealing meth), a shooting, a plane crash, his DEA brother in law’s mental breakdown, and the total implosion of his marriage. The new season just started a few weeks ago, and it is remarkably dark thus far. Walter’s not a good man; in fact, he’s downright scary. Even so, he’s the epitome of the everyman, a man who will do damned near anything to keep his family afloat in hard times. It’s hard not to want him to succeed, even if success means chaos, death, and pain.

William’s Picks:

Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th, Friday the 13th, Part 2, Friday the 13th Part III, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Jason X, Freddy vs. Jason, Friday the 13th)

Sure, he’s a serial killer, but his obsessive need to cover his deformed face indicates a sympathetically low sense of self-esteem: Friday the 13th, Part 2.

Some characters were created to be antiheroes, but many others started out as villains and became increasingly heroic – or at least “anti” heroic – due to audience interest. In comics this happened all the time with characters like Venom, Harley Quinn and Deadpool. In TV it’s less common, but the popularity of “Lost’s” Benjamin Linus or Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” speaks for itself. In film this kind of character evolution is outright exceptional, since extended film franchises are rare and recurring villains even less so. Most of those recurring villains simply get less threatening over time, like the increasingly clownish Freddy Krueger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld. But over the course of his many films Jason Voorhees has evolved from a faceless killer to a tragic monster worthy of comparison to Frankenstein, Dracula and all the other classic horror icons. It’s just a shame that his movies were never really very good.

Marcus Nispel’s surprisingly good remake streamlined Jason’s backstory, making the superhero origin analogy even clearer: Friday the 13th (2009).

Jason’s journey from monster to antihero is a strange one that starts, fittingly enough, with his origin. Originally, Jason Voorhees was a deformed, possibly “slow” young boy who drowned while his teenaged life guards were out necking in the woods. Years later, his mother exacted revenge on other, similar teenagers before the last remaining survivor decapitated her. This was pretty cut and dry in Friday the 13th, but in Part 2 it is revealed that Jason actually survived his nearly fatal drowning and had been raised by his mother in the woods near Camp Crystal Lake. Just to be clear, Jason Voorhees was an innocent child who probably suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation, who was raised by a homicidal maniac who nevertheless loved him more than life itself. And then he watched as a teenager, the very same teenagers his mother had been warning him about, decapitate her. If Jason Voorhees isn’t horror’s very own Batman, he’s at least the genre’s Punisher.

Jason Voorhees officially became the hero when he played the underdog in a fight movie: Freddy vs. Jason.

With his sympathetic back story laid out Friday the 13th, Part 2 (still probably the best film in the franchise), Jason proceeded to hack and slash his way through scores of unsympathetic teenagers almost a dozen movies, sequels, spin-offs and remakes. Although attempts were made, none of the fleshy blood balloons the franchise called “protagonists” ever made a lasting impact on the franchise, and although from a narrative perspective it was an obvious detriment the audiences clearly came out to one sequel after another for the same reason: to watch Jason Voorhees kill people they don’t like. By the time the eagerly awaited Freddy vs. Jason finally hit screens – and was more entertaining than it had any right to be – Jason was obviously the underdog hero in what was basically a supernatural fight movie. Jason was the abused child being manipulated and finally victimized by the evil Freddy Krueger, and by the end of the film the teenagers realized that although Jason was bad, they could change him.

We love you, Jason. Oh yes, we do.

Manuel Sanchez, aka “Cuchillo” (The Big Gundown, Run Man Run)

When your convicted rapist is more charismatic than your good guy, you just might have an antihero: The Big Gundown.

There’s this belief that an antihero has to a murderer with some kind of moral code, or at least a murderer who kills people who are even more evil than they are. But murder is not a prerequisite. All an antihero needs are personality traits unbecoming to a classic hero stereotype. A greedy little coward may not be as bad as a hitman, but he’s certainly “anti” heroic. And my favorite greedy little coward in all of cinema has to be Manuel “Cuchillo” Sanchez, played by the brilliant Cuban actor Tomas Milian (Amistad, Traffic) in the critically-acclaimed Zapata western The Big Gundown and, one of my personal favorite Westerns of all time, Run Man Run.

A typical Tuesday for Cuchillo: The magnetic Tomas Milian in Run Man Run.

Both films were directed by Sergio Sollima, an underrated director if ever there was one. The Big Gundown came first, and was released in 1966, shortly after The Good, The Bad & The Ugly made Lee Van Cleef a household name. Van Cleef starred in his first big “hero” role as Jonathan Corbett, a famed lawman with political ambitions. To gain favor with a wealthy businessman, Corbett agrees to track down the thief and scoundrel Cuchillo, who is on the run for raping a 12 year old girl. Despite the ugly nature of the crime, Cuchillo turns out to be a charming little pickpocket clever enough to repeatedly turn the tables on his captor, Midnight Run-style. As the film progresses Corbett begins to suspect that Cuchillo is not, in fact, guilty of the crime for which he is to be convicted, but to let him go or search for the real rapist would ruin his political career.

The Big Gundown is an excellent film, considered by many to be the finest Spaghetti western not directed by Sergio Leone, and while it’s right up there I find the sequel, Run Man Run, to be the superior movie. Van Cleef does not return for Run Man Run, largely because after the first film it became obvious that the real star was the then-relatively unknown Milian, who only got more magnetic in his second outing. Run Man Run opens with the perpetually screwed Cuchillo accidentally walking in front of a firing squad, and his life only gets worse from. Cuchillo is a kleptomaniac and opportunist, and although he is extremely skilled with a knife he is also useless in almost any altercation and repeatedly captured. Whether he’s crucified on a rotating windwill or has a stick of dynamite shoved in his mouth, he always manages to get the short end of the stick.

YouTube Preview Image

The plot finds Cuchillo on the run from Mexican revolutionaries, renegade Mexican revolutionaries, French mercenaries working for the Mexican government, a rogue American marshall, Christian missionaries and even his own fiancé after he comes into possession of a piece of paper detailing the location of a lost fortune in gold. Over the course of the film he repeatedly seems to forget that he’s engaged, becomes a Christian missionary for the free food and starts a minor revolution out of spite. But like Rod Steiger in Leone’s unfortunately-titled Duck, You Sucker, he is repeatedly tricked, manipulated and finally guilt-tripped into doing the right thing and sticking up for people even less-heroic than himself. Though a little longer than it needs to be, Run Man Run is a wonderful western with a rascally antihero everybody can love, and deserving of a much, much bigger audience.

  • http://mattsmithonfilm.blogspot.com Matt

    The Firefly Clan, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and (much, much more importantly) THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. Particularly Baby. She’s so amazing in the most perverse ways.

  • George

    You said: “In the French cut of the film, Mathilde asks Léon to take her virginity, and that was cut for the U.S. release because Americans are prudes.”

    Excuse me, but in the same story you stated that her character was eleven years old. That’s a child. Objecting to depictions of pedophila is not prudery.

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    George, I’m not sure if you’ve seen Leon: The Professional, the French cut of this film, but just to clarify: It does not depict pedophilia, and in fact Leon is shocked and embarrassed by Mathilde’s requests. The prudery in question here (not that I wrote Julia’s part of the article) is not based on any actual depiction of sexual inappropriateness, but the inclusion of thematic material that enriches and complicates a brilliant film that, in the American version, is stripped of a lot of thematic content and overly simplified as a result.

    Mathilde is a young female on the verge of discovering her sexuality, is recovering from emotional trauma, and is also confused by her feelings for a man who has many roles in her life: a father figure, a mysterious stranger, and a shining knight who saves her life many times.

    Presenting a young person discovering their sexuality, who is in love with an older, dashing man is not new or even necessarily frowned upon as a coming-of-age storytelling device… see Natalie Portman in Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls for another example. And in both stories the object of the young girl’s affections does not return her sexual advances, differentiating these films and others of their ilk from more genuinely disturbing narratives like Lolita (although despite its depiction of despicable events, Lolita is of course itself quite brilliant too).

    The prudery in question stems from an incomplete understanding of the material, the same knee jerk reactions to complex sexual themes that have caused The Diary of Anne Frank to be consistently edited for content. And the censorship of Leon: The Professional was not perpetrated as a result of Americans raising an uproar, but rather an assumption that Americans would misinterpret the material. Of course, Leon: The Professional has been available uncut on DVD for many years now (and is considered to be the definitive version of the film), and has never been criticized with any fervor.

    Audiences can handle the depictions sexuality in Leon: The Professional – or rather, the almost complete lack thereof. If you have seen the uncut version of the film and remain offended, then I suppose we have nothing to discuss, but if you have not I do urge you to watch the film in question and decide for yourself if the film’s depiction of a youth’s sexual awakening spurned by the object of their desire is genuinely offensive, or if it’s simply a subject that makes you uncomfortable in principle, regardless of context.

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