Western film and literature likes to paint in broad strokes. Heroes are heroes and villains are villains. You never have to guess about Superman or Captain America’s motivations, and neither to you ever have to guess about the Joker’s. This is also seen on traditional TV: the main characters of 20th century TV drama tend to be squeaky clean, like the main casts of Jimmy Smits-era NYPD Blue, Star Trek (any version), Mulder and Scully, 7th Heaven (ironically enough) and Clooney-era ER (with one important exception — see below.)
Another archetype is also popular: the anti-hero. In comics, where morality tends to be extremely obvious, traditional heroes either never kill, or only kill in rare cases. Anti-heroes, on the other hand, vigilantes that they are, pile up the body count like The Punisher. They have no problem breaking laws, or bones, in order to get to the main bad guy. Anti-heroes really are on the side of good… it’s just that their methods are less than pure, they are often scorned by the traditional heroes (The Punisher started life as a Spider-man villain), and they are usually bedeviled by their own demons — figurative, or literally in the case of Constantine. The anti-hero is an old concept, best pioneered by Lord Byron both in poetry and in real life.
And then we have the fourth archetype to complete the set: the anti-villain.
This is easily the hardest of the four to write. Definitely a black hat, but unlike most villains, conflicted. Or possessed with a morality they try to deny, even to themselves. This is not just a character who can side with the good guys purely out of convenience. This is someone who on some deep level really respects them and, in some parallel universe, may have been a force for good. The reason why it is tough to write an anti-villain is because the temptation to have them flip over permanently to the side of good is hard to resist — how can one keep them on the wrong side of the line, yet keep them more sympathetic than the average pure-evil villain? As noted before, we are in a golden age of TV whose writers can pull it off — and, many comic book writers can do it well. How about some examples?
Tony Soprano. The archetype of the modern anti-villain. He’s a crime lord and a murderer, always at odds with the squeaky-clean FBI guys. He destroys a good friend’s life in season 3 by exploiting his gambling addiction, just for the money. He murders his nephew Christopher at one point simply because the opportunity presented itself. He even has one of the most classic villain motivations: abuse by a wretched mother. In a Silver Age comic book, this character would be flat-out pure evil. And yet, we kept watching mainly because he was not pure evil. He loved his kids. He usually tries to do well for his friends and top lieutenants (unless he finds out they’re stool pigeons, of course). And you know he would have taken care of Dr. Melfi’s rapist had she told him about it, gratis. He rarely partakes in outright cruelty, as opposed to some of the other mobsters; he usually has people beaten or killed out of what he sees as necessity. In most cases, the guy’s motivations are basic and easy to understand, as opposed to some of the more loathsome gangsters Tony encounters on the show. He was always struggling with his good and evil sides. Yes, evil usually won, putting the “villain” in his title of “anti-villain,” but he wasn’t nearly as one-dimensional as the typical TV or movie crime lord.
Catwoman. If Tony is TV’s ultimate anti-villain, Selina Kyle is it for the comics. She is a thief and a rogue. She is always on the villains’ side whenever there’s a big hero vs. villain throwdown. She’s often aiding other Batman villains during their various crimes. Injustice: Gods Among Us has her as a villain in both its universes. She betrays Batman to Bane during her last movie incarnation. But on the other hand, we know that she objects to the extremes that the other villains go to. Both the Anne Hathaway and Michelle Pfeiffer versions came to Batman’s side at the end, after all. She saves Batman’s life countless times in countless comic-book universes. And she is the young protector of Bruce Wayne on “Gotham.” And, like Talia, she shows that moral-paragon Batman has a real thing for bad girls. Of course, anti-villains are extremely tough to write convincingly, and so some authors simply make her an anti-hero instead, an ally of good with just the occasional, non-violent jewelry heist. (And the worst writers make her a sex-crazed dominatrix because, well, men.) But the best incarnations have her on the side of evil, yet still drawn to help ol’ Bats out when he least expects it… perhaps out of love, perhaps because she still has good in her, or perhaps because she simply finds the malevolance of Joker and Scarecrow unfashionable.
Magneto… sometimes. Comic characters are America’s answer to ancient mythology, and like the ancient gods of Greece or Egypt, their exact nature depends on who’s telling the stories. The broad strokes are immutable: Magneto will always be a criminal and a mutant who can alter metal with his mind and who wears his trademark helmet. But the finer details are where the individual storyteller can leave their mark. The movies do a good job of showing us two versions of Magneto. Michael Fassbender’s Magneto in First Class is the anti-villain, with some good still in him, and with some strong, sympathetic counterarguments to Xavier’s goody-two-shoes schtick. He is a full ally of the X-men for like 90% of that movie, until the very end. The straight-up villain we usually see, though, has become old and embittered and a massive asshole. Sure, he’ll help out when there are far worse threats than himself around out of pure self-interest, but as X2 and Days of Future Past showed, he’ll immediately betray the X-men and leave them to die (despite their being fellow mutants that he pretends to care about!) once that greater threat is neutralized. He even tries to murder all the humans too, just for shits and giggles. An anti-villain he ain’t. That they are able to show us both interpretations of the same character in the same franchise demonstrates how well done Fox’s series is… in general.
Early Walter White. Of course, the whole show is about his transformation from anti-villain to full-blown monster, but season 2 (for instance) shows him living up to this trope pretty well. It’s certainly easy to root for him at this point, when his enemies in the drug world are far worse, and his early anti-villain status makes his later pure-evil nature that much more distressing.
Captain Phasma? This character in the new Star Wars trilogy, a Stormtrooper commander, is notable in how she actually sticks up for Finn when he comes under suspicion by the First Order and Kylo Ren, stating that his refusal to fire upon the innocent villagers was his first act of disobedeince. Later, when Finn and Han force her to put in codes to disable a defensive system, she hardly fights them, doing the critical sabotage which allows the good guys to eventually blow up the Starkiller Base when no devoted servant of evil would have done that so easily. And the fact that she’s played by the same actress who plays geek-hero Brienne of Tarth feeds the theory that she’s not so evil after all. Sure, she’s still complicit in the massacre of those villagers; but on the other hand, she’s not as cartoonishly evil as the rest of the First Order. Some fan theories even suggest that she let Finn get away on purpose, and didn’t put up much of a fight in destroying the Starkiller Base, because she has been sympathetic to the good guys the whole time; if true, this would put her more into antihero territory. More likely, however, is that she is a card-carrying villain, yet one whose honor and lack of pure malice may put her at odds with the pure-evil First Order in the next movie. [UPDATE 12/2017: nope! She’s just as psychotically evil as the rest of the First Order. Their whole side makes the Empire, hell, even the orcs of Lord of the Rings look sympathetic by comparison. ARGH! KILL! DEATH!]
Pete Campbell. “Sneaky Pete” is established as Don Draper’s nemesis early on. He is cowardly and underhanded. At one point, he sexually assaults a neighbor’s au pair. A child of privilege, he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. We again see the common villain motivation of parental issues. And, like all of the Mad Men, he loves cheating on his wife. But he is also a committed civil-rights supporter and does help Don form a new firm after the old one got seized by the Evil Brits. Perhaps his evil was proportional to the amount of hair on his head as the series progressed.
Carrie Weaver. It became clear as the show ER went on that Carrie was as rotten and selfish as Rocket Romano, only without the latter’s honesty and self-awareness about it. Romano seemed to actually revel in being a dick, and usually had an evil sense of humor about it. He certainly never hid his malevolent nature from anyone. Weaver, on the other hand, went about telling everyone in ear shot — especially herself — how good and noble she is, no matter how far from the truth it was. A great example was the time she went about hectoring the other characters about accepting food from a drug rep, and her smug moral posturing when they got sick… at least until she got sick herself from eating the same food. She also had no qualms throwing other characters under the bus to advance her own career, or to save her own hide. This character was not on the side of the angels by any stretch. And yet, there was still some good in her. Doug Ross once told her she’d make a great pediatrician because she treated the kids so well. Her type-A OCD nature was often exactly what the disorderly ER needed. Yes, she was mostly rotten, but the whole point of the anti-villains is that they are only mostly rotten — it is their good sides that makes them so interesting.
Loki (in the movies). The only interesting thing about the Thor movies is certainly no good guy. He mind-controls Hawkeye into evil, he destroys midtown Manhattan, and it is implied he kills his own adoptive father to take his place. But in Thor 2, he passes on the chance to help that movie’s bad guys, and instead saves Thor out of family loyalty. He has an underlying anguish and grief he hides well, he has some justifiable grievances, and he is considerably more complicated than other Marvel baddies like the boring and one-dimensional Red Skull. It is just a shame that the Thor movies are otherwise a confused mess compared to some of the better installments of the MCU.
Severus Snape. He wears all black, he bullies Harry Potter like nothing else, he has an evil-sounding name, he kills a beloved character and heaven help us, he’s played by Alan Rickman. Hit the dirt, incoming evil! But no… as well all know, this cold and foreboding antagonist to Harry and Dumbledore was ready to perform the ultimate sacrifice against the real villain of the franchise. (Ok, this entry is technically cheating as he was a good guy all along… but we don’t have any idea he’s an antihero until the close of the entire franchise.)
Erwin Rommel. One of the most remarkable examples of the anti-villain in real life. Rommel was a WWII general who was a card-carrying bad guy. You know he was a bad guy because he was a general of Nazi armies, and he answered to Adolf Hitler. I mean, not even anti-heroes can have that sort of thing on their resume. Rommel’s actions indisputedly benefited the side of evil and, with better support from back home, could have cut off Britain’s main supply route through the Suez Canal, which could have eventually led to Britain’s capitulation. He was also a leading commander in the conquest of Western Europe, leading to four years of savage occupation by the Nazis. And yet, he was possessed with an honor and a respect of the age-old laws of warfare that was vanishingly rare with his colleagues and actively discouraged by Hitler. He was an immense problem for the British until his final defeat at El Alamein, but even they had to afford him a grudging respect they held for pretty much no other German. Today he remains one of the most legendary generals of any side of the war, regularly compared to Patton. He laid down some enduring strategies of desert warfare which remain (extremely) relevant today. His Afrika Korps did not commit the atrocities that were routine with the regular Wehrmacht, let alone the Waffen SS, and did not even mistreat Jews. (The fact that his desert troops were majority-Italian may have helped.) And late in the war, long after it was obvious that the German cause was lost, he was in on the failed conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Yes, he was on the side of evil, and did too much to help the Nazis, and did not seriously try to stop Hitler until the Holocaust was almost over anyway. But there was too much honor and decency there for him to be considered a full-blown villain. Albert Speer presented a similar case on the civilian side of things.
Muqtada al-Sadr. While on the subject of real-life anti-villains: this Iraqi Shiite cleric remains a diehard anti-American, rabid enemy of Israel and sponsor of countless acts of terror. He gladly allowed organized crime in his territory, as long as the criminals paid him tribute, making him little better than a mafia boss. He was a frequent ally of the terrorists and insurgents fighting the Americans in the early stages of the Iraq occupation, slaughering without any sort of point. Yet, remarkably, he still appeared to put the lives of his followers above the value of killing his enemies. At first, due to a combination of the chaos following the fall of Saddam and the gross incompetence of the Cheney Administration, he was seen as just another terrorist, same as the rest; but the later years proved that he was able to put that to one side in order to secure peace for his Shiite people. Even in his latest action, taking over Baghdad’s Green Zone, former symbol of the occupation, he voluntarily pulled his people out after making his point. Being able to put aside hate, violence and Jihad in order to better his own people — this is practically unseen in the Middle East outside of al-Sadr.
Satan. Yep, you read that right: the purest incarnation of evil, the master of sin and corruption, the Devil himself, was an anti-villain… in the Old Testament, anyway. (Disclaimer: most Jews believe Satan doesn’t actually exist, and is more of a metaphor. This is all more of a Christian interpretation.) In the Book of Job, he’s still clearly in heaven and hobnobbing with the Lord, although their relationship seems strained at best. When all the angels show up to present themselves, God acts as though He’s perturbed to see Satan with them. He asks, “From where have you come?” and Satan replies that he has been walking the earth. (Job 1:7) This may be the first hint at the Prince of Darkness’ later “fallen” status. Ol’ Scratch arrogantly declares to God that God’s loyal servant Job worships Him only because his life is so good, whereupon God allows Satan to unleash his devilish wrath on poor Job to prove him wrong. (God even gives him rules of engagement, as it were, forbidding Satan’s diabolic punishment from extending beyond Job himself, or from killing him.) But Satan’s role here is less pure evil and more “prosecutor” — satan literally means “the accuser” in ancient Hebrew. He is there to test humanity and therefore make it stronger. Sure, you probably wouldn’t want him coming your local village, and sure, he has some nerve to run his mouth off at the God of All Creation… but he hadn’t yet become the infernal Lord of the Pit, cast out of Heaven. He was, in other words, an anti-villain. So if even Lucifer once found some good in himself, at least early on, why can’t some other people I can think of?