Home Entertainment A History of the ‘Anti-Hero’ in 20th Century Cinema

A History of the ‘Anti-Hero’ in 20th Century Cinema

A History of the 'Anti-Hero' in 20th Century Cinema
Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The anti-hero is a phenomenon that arose in 20th-century cinema. A departure from the holier-than-thou hero marked a change in entertainment, with more lead characters displaying human flaws and frailties as they took a darker turn.

Compare Daniel Craig’s James Bond with the depictions of his predecessors. The franchise has grown darker, and it’s all due to the audience’s changing tastes.

Let’s look more closely at what makes an anti-hero.

What is an Anti-Hero?

An anti-hero is any lead character that lacks conventional heroic qualities. Traditional heroes always have a strong moral compass, idealism, and courage – think of characters such as Superman. While early cinema tended to portray conventional heroes, they wanted more realistic characters as audiences grew more sophisticated.

Any anti-hero needs to lack at least one classic heroic quality. They are more representative of real human beings. Walter White from Breaking Bad is a contemporary example of how well the anti-hero can work on screen.

Anti-heroes often share many of the same traits as the villains they’re fighting. Ultimately, an anti-hero is someone who wants to achieve a heroic end, such as the defeat of a villain, but they’re not as concerned with the means used to achieve that end.

Where Does the Anti-Hero Come From?

The beginning of the 20th century and the early age of Hollywood still featured heroes in their purest, traditional forms. Still, like many trends within the film industry, anti-heroes were influenced by historical events.

World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War led to a change in tastes as people were exposed to tragedy and human atrocity on a grand scale. It reinforced the belief that humans are neither completely good nor completely bad, but most fall somewhere in the middle.

People became tired of unrealistic depictions in the movies, so writers responded by producing characters closer to the bone. 

Some examples of popular anti-heroes include Philip Marlowe (portrayed in different films by Humphrey Bogart, James Garner, Elliott Gould, and Robert Mitchum, amongst others), Dirty Harry (played by Clint Eastwood), and Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino in the three Godfather films). In the closing years of the 20th century, Sam Rothstein from the 1995 movie Casino, portrayed by Robert de Niro, would become a cult hero.

Even movie franchises with a conventional lead hero would incorporate anti-heroes into their principal characters. For example, Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker was a heroic character with all the qualities you would expect, while Han Solo was self-interested, egotistical, and uncaring. Yet the two played off each other to create one of Hollywood’s most iconic duos.

Genre Differences

Anti-heroes feature in certain genres more often than others. It all depends on what the audience is looking for.

Movie historians have traced the emergence of the anti-hero within the mainstream movie industry to the mid-1940s in genres such as westerns, mob films, cop dramas, and outlaw biker films, to name but a few.

It was a time when movies became grittier and less glitzy. These new anti-heroes enchanted audiences and demonstrated to Hollywood that there was a real demand for these types of imperfect characters.


Anti-heroes have undoubtedly become darker and darker over the years. Some analysts have argued that this has led to the creation of the anti-anti-hero. These lead characters may have certain weaknesses and character flaws, yet they are incredibly altruistic and good-natured.

One may define these characters as working for the greater good of all yet lacking the naivete and idealism of the traditional hero lead. 

Where Does the Hero’s Journey Fit In?

The hero’s journey is the concept of a character facing greater and greater obstacles and overcoming them one by one. With each challenge defeated, the hero grows and becomes stronger until they achieve their goal and reach their destination.

The anti-hero follows a similar journey. The difference is in how this type of character overcomes each obstacle. Rather than following the squeaky-clean methods of the hero, the anti-hero may use ethically questionable practices to pull off the win.


The way a film makes it to cinema has changed over the years. In line with improvements in technology, so has the approach of screenwriters, who have been wise to study changes in audience tastes and give them what they want, rather than simply shoveling well-worn conventional stories down viewers’ throats.

Even the anti-hero has been adapted over time. It will be interesting to see where this character type goes next.

Featured Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons