"The noir hero is a knight in blood caked armor. He's dirty and he does his best to deny the fact that he's a hero the whole time" said Frank Miller. And he knows a thing or two about such heroes.
A hero is not a "black or white" affair. Often their characters dwell in "grey" and we find ourselves mysteriously drawn to them (as it happens with villains and "White Knights"). We love villains because we love hating them. We love anti-heroes because we love hating the fact that we hate loving them! Does that make sense? Good!
If we were to track down the "birth" of the anti-hero we would find ourselves in ancient Greece. However, the anti-hero in cinema is a rather modern affair (if we can call the 50's and 60's modern that is, we can right?). An interesting aspect of anti-heroes in cinema is that they hit the screens fast and left them even faster. The status quo of the world during those aforementioned decades swept anti-heroes away from our screens and replaced them with archetypes that served single purposes and often just good guys fighting bad guys (that went for a while...).
No more "dark detectives that are scumbags but STILL save the day" or "scoundrels that lived a life of infamy yet take one for the whole world". A major point in creating any anti-hero is understanding that no character starts life as one. Interestingly enough here is where some people characterise Oh-Dae Su of Oldboy as an anti-hero due to his imprisonment (his "shaping" event) yet I cannot categorise him as such because he was never given a choice, he was always a victim who tried to do right and merely ended up falling in love.
These "shaping" events though are what trigger the emergence of the anti-hero from within the hero. Jennifer Hills of I spit on your grave was not a twisted murderer until she was raped. The Narrator of Fight Club spends a rather unassuming, quiet and even boring life before becoming unhinged and unleashing Tyler Durden upon the world.
Or, of course, Rick Blaine the ostracised American who was a tender lover before becoming a cold-hearted, gambling-den owner in Casablanca and declaring "I stick my neck out for nobody". Yet all those characters, no matter what they are seen as (murderers, psychos, a-holes etc) always serve a "higher purpose". One that we often quietly understand.
A great example of an anti-hero that shone not too long ago was Rorschach. Yes, Watchmen again! I can't help if Alan Moore's masterpiece became a milestone for modern cinema at the hands of Zack Snyder and co. The story was decades ahead of its time when Moore released it in 1987 and the film itself was corporeal and tangible proof that almost ANYTHING can survive development hell! Then there's the fact that the film is actually almost 80% (citation needed) as awesome as the graphic novel which makes it legendary at worst (IMBO*).
Where were we? Ah yes, Walter Joseph Kovacs aka. Rorschach. Hand-at-heart, this character may be the anti-hero to end all anti-heroes. He drives a VERY complicated narrative forward while thus branding him a "hero" yet he is almost always being a force working AGAINST the progression of the story (see White Knights and the grand scheme of Ozymandias). On the precipice of doom this deathwish nut-job, right-wing, absolutist, revenge-fueled vigilante wanted to hold true to his (very human) morals and not lie about knowing the truth. He could not live with himself being a liar even if that lie kept the world at peace and saved billions of lives.
But let's back up, before his eventual demise. Walter wasn't always all the above. This son of an abusive prostitute mother turned to violence which landed him in a correctional facility. There he found himself and upon being released on the world he begun working as a garment worker. What triggered Rorschach to emerge was a rape he had learned of. Thus he could no longer feel for the world around him and was only driven by his hunger for vengeance against criminals. A very personal cause that had nothing to do with empathy. The perfect anti-hero, serving a noble purpose due to a very twisted outlook on life but with very violent means. He handcuffed a child-killer to a stove, doused the house in kerosene and set it ablaze but not before offering a hacksaw to his victim should he want to severe his hands and run free.
Incidentally that was the event that extinguished all empathy from him and placed him on a collision path with his own morals at the end of which one of the two had to give. He didn't think twice at the end, he had to choose to either give up his morals or his life and he swiftly chose the latter. Because that's how Rorschach rolled. Anti-heroes are all about the "gray" stuff, yet he lived his life according to the "black or white" rule. There was never middle-ground.
Everything he had discovered on his road to the truth, he had logged down. Everything BUT the truth was noted in his journal (some of the most quotable modern literature to date, thanks Alan Moore) which allowed us, the viewers, to actually witness this incredibly story.
From the safety of our couches we can all look at each other in the end and agree that "Rorschach was right. But..." and that is a sign of a brilliant anti-hero. More often than not that is what drives amazing anti-heroes. The fact that their greatest weakness is their humanity and they always forego that humanity in order to save the damsel or even the world. That is why we love hating the fact that we hate loving them. They are, for all intents and purposes, an unnecessary good!
When was the last time you finished a movie and had to say "He/she was right. But..." regarding a hero or heroine?
*: In my biased opinion
- Frixos Masouras 2014