An anti-hero is defined as a central character in a story, film, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes. In that context, an entire raft of good guys and bad guys cross over into this realm where the thin line between right and wrong is blurred.
In the loosest sense of the term, the likes of Magneto in Marvel and Batman in DC have flirted with the light and dark. Erik Lehnsherr was once upon a time a trusted friend and confidant of Charles Xavier/Professor X, fighting for the rights of mutants under human oppression.
Then there is Bruce Wayne. A man who is consumed by revenge to such an unnerving degree that he forsakes the privacy of Gotham’s citizens in 2008’s The Dark Knight as he carefully picks and chooses who he beats to a bloodied pulp if it serves his interests. To make matters worse, he hands other vigilantes over to the Suicide Squad where they face an almost certain death.
However, these examples are few and far between as each of these characters can comfortably fit into two categories of hero and villain. The same cannot be said for the remainder of this list, as these unique individuals continually switch from what is righteous and what is pure greed and selfishness.
Varying from their ability to be more heroic (good) than cynical (bad), here are the 8 Best and 7 Worst Antiheroes in Marvel and DC.
15 Best – Roy Harper
Going by a number of different aliases across his journey with the Green Arrow, Roy Harper learned his craft from his hero and mentor Oliver Queen. Growing up in the slums of Starling City, Harper lived a tough life and fought his way up from humble beginnings to be a trusted member of his team. Played by Colton Haynes in the CW series Arrow, Harper is the personification of youthful exuberance – always wanting to be a part of the action even if it meant putting his own life in serious danger.
Called Speedy and Red Arrow before settling on Arsenal, the protégé has slipped into some bad habits. His anger and physical strength can overwhelm his emotions at times and in the comics, Harper took to Deathstroke’s Titans crew. At his core though, Red Arrow got into the superhero game because he wanted to help his city, following the path of his green-suited colleague.
14 Worst – Mystique
The X-Men movie franchise has showcased two very different modes of Mystique. For the early instalments, Rebecca Romijn played a cold, calculated offsider to Magneto who would do whatever her overlord proclaimed. Shapeshifting into any form that suits the occasion, Mystique’s morphing abilities makes her one of the most cunning and dangerous mutants ever created. Combine this with rapid healing powers, being a deadly marksman and have multilingual skills, the antihero is a great asset for whoever has them on their side.
Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal in the prequel movies, however, offers a softer side to the character where there are genuine moments of vulnerability and self-reflection. Showcasing her eventual journey to the dark side, she was meant to be a true X-Men hero until Magneto got his hands on her. Such a pity.
13 Best – Blade
Move aside Buffy the Vampire Slayer – there is only one true hunter for hire when it comes to the bloodsuckers. Eric Brooks a.k.a. Blade was adapted into an R-rated Marvel movie long before Logan came along in 1998, seeing action star Wesley Snipes encompass all that is great and terrifying about the daywalker.
He would acquire his superhuman strength and immunity from vampire bites from his mother, who suffered a gash of her own from the creatures. While he has the lust for human blood himself, he would ingest a specially crafted serum that dissolves his need to go out and kill unsuspecting victims. What a nice guy.
Violence and death follow Brooks wherever he goes and innocent people do get in the way. But Blade’s self-sacrifice is evident and he does his best to keep the vampire lid contained as best as possible.
12 Worst – The Comedian
Played by none other than The Walking Dead’s own Jeffrey Dean Morgan, before he turned beloved character’s heads into mashed potato, 2009’s Watchmen portrayed one of the most iconic antiheroes in the superhero world. Alan Moore’s Edward Blake is a DC antihero that sees the world for what it truly is – a selfish cesspit of the have’s and have not’s.
While working with the ensemble gives him the ability to give back and fight for a righteous cause, his involvement in the Vietnam War encompasses the moral divide he experiences. A worthy marksman on the battlefield, but what is he really fighting for? The murder of a woman who was carrying his unborn child is a line that many antiheroes would not cross, but The Comedian did.
A conflicted man who died carrying the weight of the world on his guilty shoulders. RIP Mr. Blake.
11 Best – V
Talk about a timely character for these troubled political times. DC’s V was on the scene long before Mr. Robot was a thing. The Guy Fawkes mask has since become an iconic symbol for fighting oppression and starting a cultural revolution against the powers that be. It was a direct parallel from Fawkes who attempted to blow up the House of Parliament in London on November 5, 1605.
That typifies who and what V is – an individual who emboldens the phrase that you have to “crack a few eggs to make an omelet.” His actual identity is kept ambiguous as his central goal is always to free and liberate the people from dictators and fascists. Is he somewhat psychotic, unhinged and dangerous? Well, we can’t all be perfect. Alan Moore’s creation is for the people and by the people.
10 Worst – Catwoman
There is only ever one agenda Selina Kyle operates on – that is looking firmly after number one. If it compromises Bruce Wayne/Batman or the city of Gotham, so be it. She is the iconic antihero who can assist law enforcement and the powers of good in the world of DC, but only if it works to her advantage and she gets a direct benefit from it.
Anne Hathaway’s surprise portrayal of the character in the 2012 blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises was a contrast to what had gone before on the big screen. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was overtly sexual in 1992’s Batman Returns and would tantalize Bruce and Penguin to force them into her bidding. Halle Berry’s forgettable 2004 flop Catwoman barely deserves a mention but does indicate that the character is a terrific supporting player and awful lead.
9 Best – Legion
David Haller is by birthright a superhero. Being the son of X-Men visionary and teacher Professor Charles Xavier, Haller should be taking over his mantle and leading the mutant cause. But his limitless powers of telepathy and telekinesis have a major downside where he struggles to maintain any sense of control. Put into a psychiatric hospital, he grows up believing that he is ill rather than gifted, a horrible state of affairs that leads him to become a Marvel antihero.
Dan Stevens takes on the FX series Legion with a great amount of mastery, highlighting the pure innocence of the character while also delving into his devilish dark side. At times, Haller embraces the anger and rage to unleash on unsuspecting victims. He means well, but it often comes at a cost.
8 Worst – Deadshot
When you break down the character of Deadshot, he is a gun for hire. Putting all logic and moral code aside, if the money is paid upfront and the contract is there – he will execute without a moment’s notice. That is pure perfectionism and professionalism on one hand, but a pure cold-blooded killer on the other.
Floyd Lawton was played by Michael Rowe on CW’s Arrow before his death on the show paved the way for Suicide Squad to recast him for Will Smith. The two men could not be more contrasting in tone, with one being true to the comics and the other being Will Smith. There are fleeting times when Lawton will contribute for the greater good, but only when it benefits him or his daughter when she is compromised during a mission.
7 Best – John Constantine
It is seldom that a pop star like Sting can inspire one of the most popular sorcerers in the DC universe, but that is John Constantine. The loner is often found drinking, smoking and womanizing to illustrate his selfish indulgences, but given his line of work, could you really blame the man?
The character has been played in recent times by Keanu Reeves in the 2005 horror Constantine while Matt Ryan did likewise for just the single season on the NBC show of the same name in 2014. Ryan has reprised the part in CW’s Arrow for brief cameos, standing out in the short screen time he does receive.
There is little doubt that Constantine is someone who intends to do good in the world. His broken relationships and dances with the devil (sometimes literally) make him an intriguing mixture of good and bad, but a demon hunter is a far better option than a demon enabler!
6 Worst - Venom
One of the most topical characters in the Marvel world, Venom is said to get his very own spinoff on the big screen, just on the proviso that it will have nothing to do with the MCU or Spider-Man: Homecoming. Seen as the evil version of Peter Parker, Eddie Brock’s alter ego is a symbiotic entity that grabs onto a host and changes their behavior to become more violent, angry and all round evil.
In the comic books, Venom has taken down criminals and brought them to justice, yet there are no checks or balances on his methods. More often than not, the vigilante will showcase unstable characteristics where his rage will take over and there is nothing that can stop the rampaging monster. The pictures are not flattering and while the aesthetic does not reveal everything about Brock’s character, Venom is a dangerous entity.
5 Best – Hulk
Bruce Banner is always right about one thing, we do not like him when he is angry. The Hulk is the muscle of The Avengers in every sense of the word, tearing down buildings, smashing robots and overall clearing a total path of destruction where nothing can stand in his way. That makes him a dangerous mix of a warrior fighting for good, yet leaving a wake of death and mayhem behind him. Like many antiheroes who believe they are out and out heroes, he does not know or appreciate his own strength and it often comes to the detriment of those he wishes to help.
Marvel filmmaker Joss Whedon once likened Hulk’s freakishness to that of a werewolf, transitioning into a monster where his animal instincts take over from the human being left behind. There is no mode of self-control. It is just pure Hulk.
4 Worst – The Punisher
Death simply follows The Punisher. Whether anyone likes it or not – the man is a killing machine where innocent people tend to get hurt. Frank Castle’s story is one of tragedy where his family was murdered in cold blood and while that gives him a certain about of vigilante justice to enact on, his alias The Punisher branches way beyond that.
The character has been played on the big screen by Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson for the 2008 reboot Punisher: War Zone, but it is Jon Bernthal’s performance in the second series of Netflix’s Daredevil that showcases what Castle is truly about. Fighting a one man war against a system that only wishes him harm, Castle is a frightening prospect even when he comes into contact with superheroes like Charlie Cox.
3 Best – Deadpool
One of the defining features of Wade Wilson is that, for the most part, he just doesn’t care. And why would he looking like “an avocado that had sex with an older avocado” or a “testicle with teeth” to quote his sidekick Weasel.
Deadpool is the quintessential antihero because he is unlike any other character that has come before him in the superhero genre. Saving the world is just never part of his M.O. His agenda is purely selfish and unless he is coerced by a member of X-Force to be there for the greater good, chances are he’d rather scribble drawings of Hugh Jackman or smoking weed with his roommate Blind Al.
The nothing to lose attitude though does play into his favor, as swords, bullets and even bombs have little to no effect on the man. It will be intriguing to see how Ryan Reynolds will play off with another great Marvel antihero for Deadpool 2, casting Josh Brolin in the part of gruff time traveler Cable.
2 Worst – Deathstroke
Slade Wilson has not always been a murdering psychopath. The DC antihero has been a catalyst for change in many respects, beginning out as a lonesome soldier who ends up being a glorified gun (or sword) for hire. Cutting down lives is just part of the job for Wilson. Much of where Deathstroke fits on the antihero-villain landscape depends on his involvement, either in the comics or in a live-action interpretation.
Magic Mike XXL star Joe Manganiello is said to be playing him in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, although the actor has intimated that he could pull out of that movie. It is Manu Bennett in the part of Slade that has been most iconic for CW’s Arrow, transitioning from a trusted ally of Oliver Queen’s to a hated enemy, killing his mother Moira in front of him and his sister Thea. As if the name does not give it away enough – Deathstroke is bad news.
1 Best – Wolverine
Contrary to what our own Arvindh Yuvaraj argued last year for Top 15 Most Powerful Marvel Antiheroes, Wolverine is the penultimate antihero. A rebellious loner who sticks to his own agenda – tick. Addiction problems – tick. Puts those he cares about in harm's way – tick. Has fits of rage and loses the ability to understand the bigger picture – tick.
Logan’s journey in the Marvel world plays out like a Greek tragedy as much as a heroic tale of good overcoming evil. Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of the character across 17 years on the big screen only really ventured into the dark and cynical in his final performance, seeing a world-weary soldier almost give up on humanity altogether.
There is no doubt that Wolverine stands as one of the greatest all-time fictional characters ever created, but that is in large part due to his ambiguous depiction. You never knew from one moment to the next if he was going to be the savior of the human and mutant race, or flip into berserker rage to feed his animal instinct.