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The best movie antiheroes of all time

We typically think of characters in stories as "good guys" and "bad guys." However, as our world has evolved (and our connectivity in it), the black and white nature of characters has started to fade. With that, we've seen the rise of the antihero.

Psychology Today writes that people are drawn to antiheroes for a variety of reasons, but the main one seems to be "their moral complexity more closely mirrors our own." These are characters that struggle with vices, seek out petty revenge, and break the rules in order to get their way. At the same time, they often seem to be justified in what they're doing.

Film is full of charismatic antiheroes, and we're shining the spotlight today on some of the best of all time. Some you'll find here are relatively new in the world of cinema, but they manage to leave a huge impression and seem like they'll withstand the test of time. Others are classics that have been studied and cheered for decades. If you like rooting for a good guy with a bit of a bad guy streak, these are the best antiheroes to check out.

The Man with No Name - The Dollars Trilogy

You could probably fill this entire list with characters Clint Eastwood has played, so we tried to narrow it down to the best. It's tough to top his unnamed character from director Sergio Leone's "Dollars Trilogy," which consists of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

"Blondie," as he's most commonly referred to, is a bounty hunter of immense skill. He also has more of a conscience than you're originally led to believe, as he often comes to the aid of those who need his help the most. He's still mostly self-serving, but often finds ways to loop others into his goals in order to spread the wealth. Eastwood is perfect for the role and, in a way, still defines the antihero role and is emulated by many actors tackling something similar. His stoicism, wry humor, and lightning quick decision-making make him a character you can't take your eyes off.

Any fan of westerns or thoughtful action movies should give the Dollars movies a watch. Eastwood is great in them, but there's more than just "Blondie" to enjoy.

Tony Montana - Scarface

There's a reason Scarface is still the poster of choice for many an edgy college student, and that reason is Tony Montana. Al Pacino brings such a chaotic energy to a character fueled by drugs, sex and violence, that it reads as almost cartoonish. Unlike Pacino's other major mafia role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Tony comes from nothing and has to earn everything he gets. It's easy to see why he becomes so intoxicated with power as the film goes on, and it isn't hard to figure out that it's only a matter of time before he's underwater.

He's so quotable, so over the top, and clearly just having a blast the entire movie: Tony's character arc is more like a missile. It's just going to keep going straight up until the timer runs out. Few gangster movies have quite as much action packed into their climax as the big shootout that ends Scarface, with the gleefully coked up Tony firing explosives and shouting about his "little friend." You don't want to watch Tony win, but you want to watch him having fun trying.

Alex DeLarge - A Clockwork Orange

A lot of times, antiheroes fall very much on the "light" side of the "light and dark" spectrum. They aren't traditional heroes, but they certainly aren't "villains." That detail does not apply to Alex DeLarge, who is undoubtedly the villain of A Clockwork Orange. You aren't really cheering for Alex throughout the story, but you also can't help but watch him work.

There are a lot of details that go into making Alex compelling — the source material has a lot to do with it, as does Stanley Kubrick's excellent film direction. However, most of the credit should go to actor Malcolm McDowell. No matter how despicable Alex's actions are (and they certainly get extremely dark), he remains charming and charismatic. It helps that the film's language and design are so odd; the alien atmosphere makes it a bit easier for the viewer to distance themselves from what's happening onscreen.

A Clockwork Orange is a risky, impressive film, and Malcolm McDowell's Alex carries the entire thing. Raise your moloko and get ready for a bit of ultraviolence.

Michael Corleone - The Godfather

Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, is the perfect audience surrogate in a movie like The Godfather. The best mafia movies do a good job of showing the allure of organized crime, but also showing what a no-win situation getting into it is for almost everyone involved. Like most rational people, Michael initially wants nothing to do with his family's business. Lucky for him, his father doesn't want him getting involved either.

However, as we often see with movies about organized crime, it's almost impossible to just dip a toe into the water. Even though Michael tries to keep his hands clean, it's only a matter of time before he is seduced and dives in completely.

Al Pacino brings the fiery intensity he's known for to the role of Michael, and you never know when he's going to strike. He's a perfect example of a character you can't help but root for, even though his ruthlessness makes him one of the most despicable criminals of all.

John Rambo - First Blood

The Rambo series (and character) devolved into much more generic action flicks as they moved forward, but the original First Blood is still the best movie and version of the character. For much of the movie, John Rambo (played, of course, by Sylvester Stallone) is portrayed as almost a villainous character. We aren't supposed to cheer for the overzealous deputies hunting him either, but Rambo is setting up fatal traps out in the woods.

It isn't really until the end that we see what a tragic figure Rambo is. He barely talks throughout the film, and his silent specter looms large over the group of hapless deputies trying to apprehend him. However, Rambo delivers a raw, emotional speech to the closest thing he has to a friend: his former commanding officer, Col. Trautman. He pours his heart out, explaining how much he hates killing, but it's the only thing he knows how to do. He talks about what it was like to return from the Vietnam War to a country that fears and despises him. It's heartbreaking to hear where Rambo is coming from and, worst of all, that his own government did it to him.

Charles Foster Kane - Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane is often in the discussion of the greatest films of all time, and it owes most of that success to its main character. Orson Welles is absolutely magnetic as Charles Foster Kane — the media mogul turned political force is someone you can't take your eyes off. He isn't likable — not really, anyway — but the audience can definitely see and understand his allure. Today, it's possibly even more apparent than ever how Kane is able to control his narrative, and you could make the case that the film is even more relevant now than it was on its initial release.

The Guardian points out that nothing in Citizen Kane should really work. The audience wants to love Kane, but is never given a reason to. He's never an underdog who crawls his way to the top, and he causes his own downfall through a series of transgressions that he should absolutely have seen coming. Even still, Welles became a near mythic figure in the world of cinema for his portrayal of the character, and Citizen Kane is definitely a film you should see.

Jack Sparrow - Pirates of the Caribbean

Sure, he may have gotten a bit tired as Disney kept churning out sequels, but there was a time when Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow was the biggest thing in Hollywood. The idea of a movie based on a Disney ride sounded silly originally but, five films and billions of dollars later, Jack's laughing all the way to the Pirates booty.

There was just something refreshing about Captain Jack when he first swaggered onto the scene in Pirates of the Caribbean. He was extremely likable, even though everyone seemed to hate him. In a world of manly, brash pirates, he was strangely effeminate and sneaky. He did this weird thing with his hands that you couldn't help but stare at. Essentially, Jack Sparrow took everything we expected from pirates on film and turned them on their heads. He helped spur Johnny Depp into becoming one of the biggest stars of his era.

Maybe the films lost some luster, and maybe Jack Sparrow's schtick (and Depp's real-life scandals) wore thin. But there's no denying that Jack Sparrow was one of the most memorable characters of his era.

Han Solo - Star Wars

One of the best-known antiheroes of the modern era — and a formative film character for many — Harrison Ford's Han Solo obviously evolved as the Star Wars series moved forward. By the end of the first film, he showed his true colors, even if he still acted like a scoundrel from time to time. However, when compared to the goody-two-shoes that was Luke Skywalker, Han Solo proved to be a turning point for what a lot of kids considered heroic.

When we first meet Han Solo, he is brash, cocky and only in it for himself. His buddy Chewbacca routinely tries to push Han to help out of the goodness of his heart, but Han continues to insist that he's only helping Luke and Leia for the money. He doesn't believe in the Force, either. By the end of A New Hope, however, Solo saves the day and partners with the good guys against the Empire, and he concludes his arc as a redeemed rogue.

Harrison Ford has an aura of effortless charm, and his rugged good looks made him a perfect fit for a reluctant hero. Despite Ford having a complicated relationship with the character, he is one of cinema's most memorable antiheroes.

John Wick - John Wick

John Wick's personality and his behavior couldn't be more at odds. In conversations, he is intelligent, thoughtful, patient and, seemingly kind. However, when he goes to work, he's the best he is at what he does... which happens to be killing. Despite facing overwhelming odds against near-infinite numbers of international assassins, John Wick just keeps on adding to his body count — impressive for someone who tried to get out of the assassin world.

John Wick might be one of the best examples of an antihero out there. He'd be a despicable character if he were real: through three films, Wick has killed 299 people that we've seen. At the same time, we can't help but cheer for him. For one, it's Keanu "Theodore Logan" Reeves. Two: he's only drawn back into the world of assassination because someone killed his dog. We get that. And three: he's so artistic as he kills, and we love to watch an artist at work.

John Wick hasn't been around that long, but he definitely deserves a spot on this list. He's that darn good.

Quint - Jaws

Not to get too heavy into spoiler territory for a movie that's about 50 years old, but Quint made a hell of an impression for a guy who only appears in a single movie. Veteran character actor Robert Shaw clearly has a ball playing the antisocial shark hunter in Jaws, leaning into all of Quint's little quirks, like his constant singing and harassing his crew. He also has one of the most memorable introductions of any movie character ever: a literal nails-on-the-chalkboard moment as he demands an outrageous fee to solve the problem of Amity Island.

Quint is just a classic version of the "grizzled old-timer" archetype that works really well in a movie like Jaws. If you were a character interacting with him, you'd probably hate the way he operates and hate even more that the way he operates works. As a viewer, you never get sick of watching Quint: you know every time the characters don't listen to him, it's probably going to add to the body count.

Also, that scene when he and the boys sing "Show Me the Way to Go Home?" Cinematic gold.

Tracy Flick - Election

Tracy Flick is a great antihero for a few different reasons. For one, cinema is full of white dude antiheroes: we tend to be much more tolerant of rule-breakers when they're cis white males. The other reason she stands out as such a triumph is that we've all known someone like Tracy. Someone in high school or college who seemed just a little too perfect, a little too ambitious, and we hated them for it. If you didn't know that person, then it's possible people thought of you that way.

Ultimately, Tracy works so well because of how relatable she is (and a career-best performance from Reese Witherspoon). Even through her perfect façade, she's made plenty of mistakes, and her ruthless, incredibly driven attitude is extremely off-putting. At the same time, she's just trying to succeed and achieve her goals, and she's doing anything she can to do so. We tend to applaud antiheroes who murder their way through dozens of people for some personal cause, but Tracy Flick often gets vilified. All she's trying to do is win a school election, after all.

What we're trying to say is we pick Flick. She deserves it, and Paul Metzler doesn't.

Carrie White - Carrie

One of the big qualities for a good antihero is being able to understand why they're doing the things they're doing. Carrie White, played by Sissy Spacek, fits this bill perfectly. She is relentlessly bullied by her peers in high school, which most of us have seen or experienced firsthand. She's bullied because she's weirdly antisocial. She's weirdly antisocial because her overbearing mother teaches her a very warped view of the world.

Oh, and she has telekinetic powers that she manifests to murder the people who bully her. That part isn't quite as relatable.

Even though you know things are going to end tragically, you can't help but root for Carrie. You want her to exact revenge on her mother and all the people who treat her poorly. You hate that the people who are most responsible for the prom massacre, Chris and Billy, get away from Carrie's revenge. You like it even more that their plan to run her over goes so poorly.

For as bleak and brutal as it is, Carrie has you cheering for a murderous psychic for almost its entire runtime. That's a pretty impressive feat.

Jules Winnfield - Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction is a true ensemble film, lacking any real discernible protagonist or antagonist for the entirety of its runtime. However, the character with seemingly the most enduring legacy from the film has got to be Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Not only does Jules have a total epiphany by the end of the film, deciding to turn his life around, but he also has a few of the best quotes in all of Pulp Fiction — maybe all of Tarantino's entire filmography.

Jackson is at the top of his game in Pulp Fiction, as he commands every inch of the screen whenever he's involved in a scene. Go back and watch the section where Jules and Vincent crash into the apartment to retrieve Marcellus Wallace's briefcase. Jules' fiery intensity and commanding presence are there whether he's enjoying a sip of a soft drink or spouting out Bible verses at the top of his lungs.

Jules is just so damn entertaining, and it's hard to find a role where Jackson shines more. He's also the moral center of a story full of amoral characters — not bad for a hitman.

Max Rockatansky - The Road Warrior

It helps that the Mad Max series contains some of the best action spectacle you can find (with Fury Road standing out as one of the best action movies ever made), but a big part of why The Road Warrior and its sequels are so good is because of Max Rockatansky himself. Though most of the action in these movies takes place after his world has fallen apart, we catch some brief glimpses of his humanity that gives us some sympathy to what he's become. He's also played by two incredible actors, with both Mel Gibson and Tom Hardy injecting a ton of personality into what could be a two-dimensional role in less capable hands.

Max is just a man who was pushed to the brink by an insane world, driven by a need for revenge. Much of his story is fairly standard "vigilante justice," but the unique setting and style of the Mad Max franchise makes him inherently more interesting than an average "cop who plays by his own rules." His badass car and wacky villains also help him rival any comic book hero. Max is just awesome.