Heroes can have dark sides. Villains sometimes show mercy. But generally, when someone’s a good guy or a bad guy, you know where they stand.
What makes “antiheroes” so fascinating — and why they’re so popular in movies, TV shows, video games, and comics — is that their methods, motivations, and personalities aren’t always easy to pin down. Maybe they do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way. Maybe they’re oddly sympathetic criminals. Or maybe they’re just incorrigible scoundrels who are nonetheless a lot of fun. Whatever the reason, antiheroes are often alluring.
On TV, the age of the antihero really began when The Sopranos made mobbed-up murderers into the kind of folks viewers wanted to spend an hour with each week. But the comic book industry’s antihero wave rose even earlier, inspiring a similar “grim and gritty” approach in video games and comics-inspired movies. Modern superhero, science-fiction, and fantasy stories have their origins in the old pulp magazines and paperbacks, where crimefighters, soldiers, and cowboys didn’t always play nice. And these prickly protagonists — old and new — have become some of the most memorable in any genre.
For fans of complicated heroes with shadowy pasts and negotiable morals, here are 50 of the most compelling, exciting, and undeniably cool antiheroes ever created for comic books, games, and the big and small screens. (And before the Don Draper fans start complaining: this is the Superhero Issue, so we've limited our list to antiheroes with superhuman powers. Sorry, BoJack.)
50. Paul Kirk (a.k.a. Manhunter) — DC Comics
In 1973, writer Archie Goodwin and artist Walt Simonson revived a mostly forgotten Jack Kirby series“Paul Kirk, Manhunter” for a Detective Comics backup feature to tell a stylish, action-packed story about a weapons expert and martial arts aficionado on a deadly and deeply personal mission. Manhunter would become one of comics’ first “mature” protagonists, willing to kill if necessary.
49. Deathlok — Marvel Comics
Marvel’s cyborg assassin “Deathlok the Demolisher” has appeared in multiple iterations across the decades, but nearly all of them have been hard-luck characters drafted to do the bidding of corporations and government agencies. Over the course of his many comics, TV, and video game appearances, Deathlok is generally a tragic figure — and a fascinating one.
48. Riddick — The Chronicles of Riddick
Vin Diesel has rarely played anything but antiheroes: from XXX to Dominic Toretto. But the most “anti” of them all may be Riddick, a dangerous criminal mutant who keeps finding himself in situations where he has to put self-interest aside and use his strength, cunning and enhanced abilities to help others.
47. Soldier: 76 — Overwatch
Because Overwatch is one of the most popular of the online multiplayer shooting games — and because Soldier: 76 is one of the easiest characters for newcomers to play — he’s become a fan-favorite. A cybernetically enhanced super-warrior looking for answers about his own tragic past, he’s a classic vigilante type, with a persona that gamers enjoy trying on for a while (usually before moving on to a more complicated character).
46. Altaïr Ibn-LaʼAhad — Assassin’s Creed
Many of the best video game antiheroes are assassins — perhaps because these characters combine a talent for violence with a deeply held personal code. In Assassin’s Creed, players step into the shoes of an ordinary 21st century guy as he vicariously experiences the life of Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, a 12th century secret agent challenging those who seek to control humanity.
45. Reuben Flagg — American Flagg!
Writer/artist Howard Chaykin created the freewheeling science-fiction series American Flagg! during the ‘80s indie comics boom, imagining a future where the Cold War had been won by mega-corporations. The story’s hero? A rakish former TV star named Reuben Flagg, who pines for the old days and defies his overlords to inform the public about how society has been corrupted.
44. Billy Butcher — The Boys
Amazon’s TV adaptation of the violent, raunchy comic book series The Boys has drawn some overdue attention to writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson’s corrosive social satire, all about celebrity superheroes allowed by the government and public to do more or less whatever they want. Fighting against them: Billy Butcher, whose band of revolutionary vigilantes may not be morally superior to “the good guys,” but who are at least more honest about their sketchiness.
43. Spider Jerusalem — Transmetropolitan
In the ‘90s, DC Comics’ adult-oriented Vertigo line generated antiheroes en masse, as a cadre of hep British writers filled their books with chaotic eccentrics, navigating weird worlds of sinister supernatural shenanigans and techno-dystopian troubles. One of the oddest is writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan, anchored by Spider Jerusalem, an anti-authoritarian gonzo journalist — modeled on Hunter S. Thompson — who courts danger as he speaks truth to power.
42. King Mob — The Invisibles
King Mob from The Invisibles is another of Vertigo’s bald-headed, sunglasses-wearing chaos agents. This creation of artist Steve Yeowell and writer Grant Morrison (whose look, personality and philosophy were all clearly inspired by Morrison himself) leads a collective that’s part avant-garde theater troupe, part magical coven and part terrorist cell, with the loose goal to expose and undo ancient conspiracies.
41. The Shade — DC Comics
Writer James Robinson’s 1990s version of the Golden Age superhero Starman was a Gen-X hipster, nostalgic for the characters and adventures of his father’s generation. One of his closest confidants was the ageless rogue the Shade, a former Injustice Society villain who could kill people with shadows if he wanted to — but who, in the Starman comics, mostly drinks absinthe and feeds his friend’s appetite for anecdotes and arcana.
40. Alex Mercer — Prototype
It’s hard to define the essence of Prototype protagonist Alex Mercer, given that he’s an amnesiac — and a shape-shifter to boot. But anyone on the receiving end of this mysterious video game character’s spiky body-blades probably doesn’t have time to dwell on whether he’s a hero or a villain.
39. Snake Eyes — G.I. Joe
When the G.I. Joe toy line expanded in the early ‘80s to include a team of costumed commandos, kids were instantly drawn to the masked, black-clad Snake Eyes, who in the subsequent TV cartoons, comic books, movies and video games was revealed to be an agile martial artist with a shady past. He’s the team’s secret weapon, ready to be stealthily deployed where needed — and to do what needs doing.
38. Jak — Jak and Daxter
In the first Jak and Daxter game, Jak’s a moody teen, drawn into an adventure by his misfit sidekick, where he absorbs forces that give him special powers. In the sequel, his life and his abilities take a darker turn, and he becomes a scarred champion, fighting for good while clearly bearing the emotional burden of his task.
37. Lobo — DC Comics
The version of the alien bounty hunter Lobo that became wildly popular in 1990s comics was intended as a lampoon of the kind of ultra-violent action heroes who dominated the industry at the time. But fans so enjoyed the carnage this motorbike-riding egomaniac brought to nearly any story that he quickly became a ubiquitous DC Comics guest star.
36. Rocket Raccoon — Marvel Comics
The Guardians of the Galaxy’s quippy, surly furball Rocket Raccoon — who hates being called a “raccoon” — has been beloved by comics connoisseurs since he first popped up in Marvel’s pages in the summer of 1976. And why wouldn’t he be? Writer Bill Mantlo and artist Keith Giffen’s creation has a mean streak, but he’s also fiercely loyal, and an inspiration to anyone who’s tiny but powerful.
35. Sly Cooper — Sly Cooper
In his clever video game series, the masterful sneak-thief Sly Cooper uses his special skills to target terrible crime bosses. Executing elaborate heists may not seem especially heroic, but raccoons do as must. At the end of the day, this crook is fighting the right enemies.
34. Meta Knight — Nintendo
What makes the masked swordsman Meta Knight so awesome isn’t just that he follows his own winding path — sometimes helpful to the hero, and sometimes an obstacle. No, what’s much cooler is that all this happens within the Kirby universe, easily the cutest in video game history. There are few things more adorable than a blob in shining armor.
33. Al Simmons (a.k.a. Spawn) — Image Comics
One of the flagship characters for the early ‘90s insurgent indie publisher Image Comics, the Todd McFarlane creation Spawn is a literal hellspawn: a murdered government assassin who makes a deal with the devil, gaining supernatural powers as he rises from the dead to exact revenge. He’s at once righteous and horrifying.
32. Light Yagami (a.k.a. Kira) — Death Note
In every version of the Japanese fantasy/thriller franchise Death Note, the main character Light Yagami is — to put it mildly — “problematic.” A smart and charismatic youngster, granted the power to exterminate anyone he deems unworthy with the help of a supernatural notebook, the kid re-fashions himself as a vigilante named “Kira” and finds that killing at will clouds his moral judgment.
31. Jesse Custer — Preacher
One of the most complicated Vertigo antiheroes, Preacher’s super-powered Texas minister Jesse Custer — later featured in an AMC TV series — has his whole theological perspective upended when he gains the ability to influence people’s thoughts and actions. While chasing demons and murderers across America, Jesse and his cohorts ultimately use tactics every bit as damnable as the folks they’re after.
30. Phoncible P. “Phoney” Bone — Bone
In Jeff Smith’s epic young adult graphic novel Bone, the fun-loving “bone creatures” find their way into a magical land — populated by humans, dragons, and oversized rats — largely thanks to their scheming cousin Phoncible P. “Phoney” Bone, whose cons and misadventures got them exiled in the first place. It doesn’t take long for Phoney to get back to his old tricks, forever trying to monetize the moment, no matter who gets hurt.
29. Jack Sparrow — The Pirates of the Caribbean
It would’ve been easy for the creative team behind the Disney movie Pirates of the Caribbean (an adaptation of a theme-park ride, of all things) to make a routine, special-effects-heavy action picture stuffed with buccaneers and then call it a day. But a cash-in turned into a franchise thanks to Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp as a woozy rock ’n’ roll dandy who can rise to any occasion… but would rather not, unless he absolutely has to.
28. Shadow — Sonic
Every great video game protagonist needs an equally amazing antagonist, and they don’t get much niftier than Shadow, who in his basic design and abilities is essentially Sonic the Hedgehog but serious. Shadow provides a real contrast in character to Sonic, giving players the chance to experience the franchise’s frenetic universe from the perspective of someone with gravitas.
27. Venom — Marvel Comics
The freaky Spider-Man villain Venom is ostensibly an alien superhero costume with a mind and a mission of its own, realized by possessing various human hosts. Introduced in the mid-1980s, Venom proved too exciting to consign to a few story-arcs. The concept quickly spread to its own comic book series, and then to other media, making the idea of a morally slippery “dark Spider-Man” incredibly popular.
26. Ghost Rider — Marvel Comics
Although multiple characters have been the Ghost Rider — in multiple media — the look and the premise for this Marvel antihero has remained more or less the same. It’s a motorcycle stunt rider with a flaming skull for a head. How much more badass can you get than that?
25. Jonah Hex — DC Comics
Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti western gunslinger “the Man with No Name,” the scarred marksman Jonah Hex debuted in DC Comics in the early ‘70s, during an era when the major comics publishers were seeing potential in ambiguous, lethal antiheroes. He’s rarely gotten his due in mainstream popular culture (although his appearances on the TV series Legends of Tomorrow have been pretty boss). Still, this steely bounty hunter is no one to mess with.
24. Bender Bending Rodriguez — Futurama
Though the foul-mouthed mechanical helper Bender keeps getting dragged into whatever universe-saving adventures his fellow Planet Express crew-members are stumbling through, make no mistake: The guiding philosophy of Futurama’s boozy, sleazy “bending unit” is “Kill All Humans.” He’s a bad ‘bot to the bone — lovable, but wicked.
23. Arya Stark — Game of Thrones
Introduced in both George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels and in the HBO TV series Game of Thrones as a tomboy with an affinity for swordplay, Arya Stark later becomes a skilled assassin, trained in the mystical arts of intuition and disguise. She remains a lone wolf even in the TV version, where her talents help end an apocalyptic threat to humanity.
22. John Constantine — DC Comics
Originally conceived as just a minor character during writer Alan Moore’s 1980s run on Swamp Thing, the working class warlock John Constantine has continued to hang around pop culture, becoming a versatile role player in multiple comics series and TV shows. Fans love his look — like a combination of Sting and Columbo — and they dig his seen-it-all attitude.
21. Duke Nukem — Duke Nukem
Designed to be an amalgam (and a bit of a parody) of every popular 1980s movie action hero, Duke Nukem has mostly been tasked to save the planet from madmen and alien invaders, using his big weapons and his super-cool jetpack for good. But with his gruff attitude and occasional wisecracks, he doesn’t much care who he offends, so long as he gets to mow down the enemy.
20. Nathan Summers (a.k.a. Cable) — Marvel Comics
In the early 1980s, X-Men writer Chris Claremont introduced the idea of a dystopian future timeline, and by the end of the decade, deeply damaged mutants from that X-universe started journeying regularly into their past, trying to change it. One of the most enduring time-travelers was Cable, the son of original X-Man Scott Summers (sired with the clone of another original, Jean Grey). Cable’s complex plans sometimes look to his colleagues more like indiscriminate war-making than justice.
19. Lelouch vi Britannia (a.k.a. Lelouch Lamperouge) — Code Geass
A controversial antihero — often the best kind — Code Geass’s Lelouch vi Britannia is a charismatic idealist with the power and the willingness to manipulate his friends into carrying out his elaborate schemes, intended to bring down an evil empire. His goals are noble but his methods are questionable... which makes him a fun character to follow and to debate with fellow fans.
18. Cerebus — Cerebus
Launched as a straight-faced parody of Conan the Barbarian — and later as a more outrageous spoof of grim ‘n’ gritty superheroes — the warrior aardvark Cerebus would eventually become a statesman, a pope, and a pawn in a never-ending struggle between the forces of dark and light. Throughout, cartoonist Dave Sim’s creation he maintained one unshakable principle: What’s in it for Cerebus?
17. V — V for Vendetta
In their Thatcher-era graphic novel V for Vendetta, writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd indulged in a bit of punk provocation, giving the liberationist leader of their dystopian saga the face of Guy Fawkes: historically, one of England’s most notorious terrorists. The character’s grinning mask has since become a symbol of focused disruption, aimed at shaking up a complacent, corrupt society.
16. Judge Dredd — 2000 AD
A whole generation of British comic book writers and artists (plus more than a few cartoonists and filmmakers overseas) were influenced by Judge Dredd, an over-the-top super-cop whose authoritarian presence in a bleak future society has been used alternately as a cautionary tale and as a fantastical ideal of what law enforcement could be.
15. Kratos — God of War
Rooted in ancient history — and, perhaps more importantly, ancient mythology — the Spartan warrior Kratos has been a part of the God of War series from the start, clobbering fools and stalking the gods themselves. Subsequent games have built out his tragic personal story, which has made him more sympathetic, but no less menacing.
14. Catwoman — DC Comics
Even when Selina “Catwoman” Kyle was a straight-up supervillain in the Batman comics, the writers seem to recognize something undeniably cool and even sympathetic about this powerhouse woman who just takes what she wants. Later, across all the different varieties of Bat-media, the character has become more what she was really born to be: a master-thief who tries her best to harm only the lousiest people.
13. Ellie — The Last of Us
Raised in a post-apocalyptic America, The Last of Us heroine Ellie has been hardened by circumstance: by the deaths she’s seen and the people who’ve hurt her. Aided by an emotionally nuanced Ashley Johnson motion-capture performance, Ellie has become the rare ruthless killer in video games whose plight genuinely moves her fans.
12. John Wick — John Wick
When we first meet John Wick, he’s pretty much a stock B-movie character: the hitman whose bosses won’t let him quietly retire. By the end of the first film — and in the two that follow — it becomes clearer that this killer lives in a world governed by shadowy criminal networks with arcane codes, and that everybody wants to kill him before he takes them all down.
11. Agent 47 — Hitman
Not many video game protagonists have a backstory so compelling that they inspire not just multiple sequels but also comic books and feature films. But Hitman’s killer clone Agent 47 has such a fascinating origin, forged by a criminal syndicate from the DNA of other master assassins. From his icy glare to his tailored suits, it’s hard to take your eyes off him… nor should you, if you want to live.
10. Deadpool — Marvel Comics
In the 1990s, Marvel Comics minted money every time they trotted out another mutant character with loose ethics and a cool costume. Deadpool started out as a sassy assassin with super-healing powers, hired to take out the X-Men spinoff team the New Mutants. Later — in the comics and in the smash-hit movies — he became more of a happy-go-lucky mercenary who mocks the conventions of antihero stories, while starring in some genuinely thrilling ones.
9. Frank Castle (a.k.a. The Punisher) — Marvel Comics
Though the character debuted in a Spider-Man comic in 1974, the Punisher became a phenomenon in the late ‘80s, when his no-quarter-given approach to crime-fighting synched up with the tough talk of the Reagan era. Later takes on the character have restored some moral ambiguity to an antihero whose militancy makes him a fascinating case study in what we’re willing to accept in exchange for security.
8. Snake Plissken — Escape from New York/Escape from L.A.
Sure, Snake Plissken was created by director John Carpenter and screenwriter Nick Castle; but a lot of what makes him an effective antihero can be traced to the performance of Kurt Russell in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. In both films, the cynical outlaw Snake is sent on impossible missions by people he despises; and Russell oozes stoic cool and seething contempt as he tries to figure out how he can get the job done while still making his bosses unhappy.
7. Wario — Nintendo
If Mario is the most famous video game character of all time then his primary nemesis Wario — basically a larger version of Mario, with different clothes, a cleft chin and a funkier mustache — may be the most famous nemesis. He’s not really a dangerous individual; he’s more a greedy guy who wants the same things Mario wants, and is willing to use brute force to get it. He’s like our culture’s own smirking, cackling collective id.
6. Lestat de Lioncourt — The Vampire Chronicles
Novelist Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” helped transform horror fiction by emphasizing the motivations and emotions of monsters. While the franchise has yet to be translated properly on-screen, at least we have Tom Cruise’s smoldering Interview with the Vampire performance as Rice’s primary antihero Lestat: a gregarious show-off who sometimes struggles with his true nature because he’s come to love humanity.
5. Blade — Marvel Comics
The 1970s comic book series The Tomb of Dracula started out as a modern-day tale of a notorious vampire and his descendants, but gradually evolved into a saga about the many side characters — including, at times, a half-human/half-vampire who’d dedicated his life to eradicating the undead. Initially modeled after blaxploitation movie heroes like Shaft, Blade eventually developed his own distinctive personality and heft, amplified when Wesley Snipes played him on the big screen.
4. Elektra Natchios — Marvel Comics
When writer/artist Frank Miller took over Marvel’s Daredevil, he brought new layers of grit to the story of a blind superhero protecting New York’s downtrodden. He also created several enduring new characters, including Elektra, the hero’s ex-girlfriend, who becomes a deadly assassin working for the rich scumbags Daredevil fights against. This love-hate relationship produced some of the most memorable comic book stories of the ‘80s.
3. Rick Sanchez — Rick and Morty
Arguably the most powerful person in his universe (or, more accurately, universes… Rick and Morty is boundless), the alcoholic mad scientist Rick Sanchez mostly uses his phenomenal intellect and tinkering skills to stave off boredom, to impress his nephew Morty, and to prove that life is fundamentally cruel and meaningless. It’s no wonder that he’s become a role model to many during these grim, turbulent times.
2. The Hulk — Marvel Comics
In the 1960s, writer-editor Stan Lee and his roster of Marvel Comics artists — especially Jack Kirby — revolutionized superheroes by creating characters with prominent flaws and vulnerabilities. Their most influential character was the Hulk: a rampaging monster who terrified even the people who were supposed to be his friends. In his “puny human” form, the Hulk is a brilliant scientist who, tragically and poignantly, can’t control his alter-ego’s ferocity.
1. Wolverine — Marvel Comics
There were rough-hewn, willing-to-kill heroes in comics before Wolverine joined the X-Men in 1975, but the arrival of that particular character (a charismatic loner with a working-class ethic and a poet’s soul) on that particular team (a colorful band of bickering misfits) at that particular time (when superheroes and superhero audiences were maturing) helped transform the genre. Forty-five years later, the creators of comics, movies, TV shows, and games are still seeking the next Wolverine.