The antihero captivates in a way that encapsulates why audiences love both heroes and villains. Their often tragic pasts, murky moral codes, and unconventional story arcs can often enrapture audiences in deeper, more human and relatable ways than traditional heroes while still giving them a reason to root for them to win. From bounty hunters to killers to criminals, antiheroes in films, television, and books are some of the most beloved and memorable characters ever created.
The following 30 characters are the best of the best, representing all sides of the antihero character archetype and showing what makes them truly special. Have your own personal favorites? Let me know in the comments section!
One point of clarification, some antiheroes eventually change into full-fledged heroes. Those that have spent the majority of their time in fiction being heroes are not included here, such as Han Solo. For some of these heroes, read The 50 Greatest Heroes of All Time.
30. Captain Jack Sparrow – Pirates of the Caribbean
Before all the terrible sequels, Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow struck an immediate chord with viewers in the original Pirates of the Caribbean. Thanks to his off-kilter swagger and strange charms, Sparrow was unlike most protagonists seen in big mainstream movies, helping to set him apart from your typical leading man. His selfish ways and constant trickery make Sparrow a wily antihero who is still good hearted enough to root for, even when he’s playing everyone against each other for his own gains.
Defining Moment: Sparrow makes his very first appearance riding atop the mast of his sinking ship, stepping off onto a dock just in time as the ship goes under. Always cool and ever cocky, Sparrow is still an unconventional protagonist thanks to his strange demeanor and bad luck.
29. Dexter Morgan – Dexter
Blood splatter analyst by day, serial killer by night, Dexter Morgan (played by Michael C. Hall), fulfills his murderous impulses by killing the criminals of Miami. But Dexter’s life is far from simple, with his murderous vigilantism causing droves of collateral damage to his friends and family. While Dexter’s serial killing ways are due to horrific childhood trauma, his adoptive father helped him sculpt them into a manner that could make some semblance of positive difference in the world, despite the highly dubious morality behind it. His struggle made for fascinating television for several seasons, and the terrible quality of several more seasons keeps him from being any higher on this list.
Defining Moment: After killing the vile Trinity Killer, Dexter returns home, only to find his wife murdered and their infant son crying in the aftermath. Dexter’s murderous ways have come home in the worst possible way imaginable.
28. Harry Callahan – Dirty Harry
The ultraviolent embodiment of the law, “Dirty” Harry Callahan (played by Clint Eastwood) is a cop who shirks the rules and applies his own code to the badge. But when the killer Scorpio begins terrorizing San Francisco (inspired by the real life Zodiac killer), Harry turns all his fury toward catching the killer. Today, Harry’s violence and disregard for any sort of rules in favor of his own application of the law are more morally gray than ever. Combined with his love for taunting and killing criminals (and his numerous memorable showdowns), and Harry Callahan is one of film’s most iconic antiheroes on the so-called “right” side of the law.
Defining Moment: Involved in a shootout after a robbery, Harry corners a wounded criminal and tries to goad him into taking a shot at him, questioning whether his own gun is loaded. “Do ya feel lucky, punk?” Not exactly great police work.
27. V – V for Vendetta
Set in a dystopic future London ruled by an oppressive government, the mysterious masked V is a terrorist, make no mistake. But in Alan Moore’s darkly anarchic comic book, terrorism is what must happen to make true change in such a messed up world. Little is known about V beyond being forced into a cruel government experiment due to living a life that did not conform to the government’s ideas. His survival and escape turned him into the embodiment of anarchy, an agent of irrevocable change through which a new world may rise. His methods may be cruel and the idea of terrorism in a hero may shock some, but that’s what makes V such a compelling and fascinating antihero.
Defining Moment: V’s plan to destroy parliament goes through, but with great cost. In its wake, countless more rise up to take on his Guy Fawkes mask, making the legacy of V and his anarchy greater than one man.
26. Jake LaMotta – Raging Bull
Generally just an all-around bad dude, Jake is an abusive, incredibly violent, self-loathing boxer whose search to be recognized as one of the greats leads him down a self-destructive and eventually redemptive path. Along the way, lives are ruined and great violence is both caused and experienced by LaMotta. It’s difficult to actually like him, but his portrayal by Robert DeNiro in one of Martin Scorsese’s finest films makes him into a highly watchable and very captivating character. In the end, his motivations and destructive tendencies make him into an antihero whose real life persona was apparently very similar to the fictionalized version.
Defining Moment: Once again boxing rival Sugar Ray Robinson, LaMotta allows himself to be pummeled while against the ropes. Not blocking a single blow, LaMotta is turned into a bloody pulp, but he never falls. It’s penance for his many sins, but not enough to change his dark soul.
25. John Constantine – DC Comics
Occult detective, con man, and unmitigated asshole, John Constantine is out for himself just as much as he is out to save the world. But when it comes to supernatural evil, there’s no one you’d want on your side more than Constantine. Of course, he’s such a wreck of a human being that it can be difficult to get him to help you. Constantine’s questionable morality yet ultimately strong desire to do some good in the world means that he’s always doing something unexpected, which makes him a constantly compelling antihero. His murky morality has made him into a fertile character for countless writers and one of DC Comics’ best morally grey characters, with his adventures in the comic world’s dark and terrifying supernatural world being a perfect fit for his dark and brooding nature.
Defining Moment: Dying from terminal lung cancer and destined for eternal torment in Hell, Constantine devises a way to save himself. Selling his soul to two different Lords of Hell, the demons are forced to cure him of his cancer, as his death would cause a massive war that would wipe them out. Just one of Constantine’s many devious ways of saving his own skin.
24. Driver – Drive
A man of few words, the antihero known only as Driver (Ryan Gosling) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a getaway man and stunt driver whose feelings for a woman and a criminal undertaking get mixed up, causing him to live for something more than a big score. Driver is also prone to bursts of horrific violence when forced to either protect someone he loves or get the job done. Ultimately, Driver’s violence pushes away the people he loves and sends him on a path of revenge, which balances justice with vengeance for an antiheroic crime story with a very charismatic lead.
Defining Moment: Stuck in an elevator with the woman he loves and a hitman out for his head, Driver shares a moment of tenderness with his unsuspecting love interest before violently stomping in the killer’s head. His violent act saves their lives but loses her forever.
23. John Blacksad – Blacksad
A tortured noir detective in the vein of Philip Marlowe, this French comic book protagonist lives in an anthropomorphic world set in the ‘50s, a turbulent time full of crime, death, sex, and drugs. His dedication to justice may get him into plenty of trouble, but his quick wits, ability to crack a case, and fighting skills mean that even the most convoluted of mysteries will eventually be solved by John Blacksad. While he may be more morally upright than many of the others on this list, Blacksad’s often grey morality in pursuit of cracking the case means that he remains an antihero in the vein of many of the great hardboiled noir detectives.
Defining Moment: Confronting the corrupt businessman behind the murder of the woman he once loved, Blacksad is confronted with the fact that the criminal will likely walk. Taunted by the man, Blacksad shoots him in the head, putting aside law and order for swift vengeance.
22. Ethan Edwards – The Searchers
Easily the most racist character on this list, the outright hate that propels much of Ethan Edwards’ story in The Searchers can make him a despicable character. But John Wayne’s performance and the duality of the character in John Ford’s fantastic 1956 western also means that he is someone the audience can deeply invest in, as he embarks on a quest to retrieve his niece, who has kidnapped by Comanche in a violent raid. Edwards is a frontier man, a violent and driven man who knows the world is moving on without him. While his intentions may be to save a young woman, his hate and cruelty make him an antihero in one of the best western films ever made.
Defining Moment: Having brought his long-lost niece back to civilization after years of searching (and nearly killing her), Ethan lets her and his extended family reunite in their home while he stays outside. For Ethan, civilization and a happy family life will never be possible.
21. Judge Dredd – 2000 A.D.
In the ultra-violent future of Mega City One, the law-enforcing Judges are given the authority to arrest, judge, and execute on the spot in order to combat the ever-rising tide of crime. No other Judge is as prolific or deadly as Judge Dredd. While Dredd may be the protagonist of the story, he’s the (never unmasked) face of a fascist government and the focus of a satirical criticism of today’s politics. That doesn’t mean that his fans don’t love him anyway. And when he’s forced to face off against all manner of horrifying criminals and monsters, Dredd is the only hope for saving the city and the world.
Defining Moment: It’s tough to pin down any single defining moment for Dredd, so pick an instance of the future cop brutally executing a criminal in the streets and you’ll get what makes Dredd into a genre-defining antihero.
20. Scarlett O’Hara – Gone With the Wind
A spoiled Southern belle at the time of the Civil War, Scarlett is a woman who knows what and who she wants and will do whatever is necessary in order to achieve her goals. That may mean using other people and clawing her way up the social ladder, but it also means suffering through terrible losses and engaging in one of the great tumultuous romances with Rhett Butler. Scarlett is at times despicable and at other times incredibly sympathetic, but these many layers make her into a difficult but also unforgettable antiheroine in this sweeping, lifetime-spanning epic.
Defining Moment: Having suffered numerous losses in the aftermath of the burning of Atlanta, Scarlett swears that “she’ll never be hungry again.” Whatever it takes, Scarlett will get what she wants in life, defining her as an unbeatable and often very difficult protagonist.
19. Walter White – Breaking Bad
Hero, anti-hero, villain, and then back to anti-hero, the character trajectory of Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) is one of a flawed family man who is sucked deeper and deeper into violence, crime, and hate out of good intentions and greed. While it may be hard to completely sympathize with a murderous meth kingpin, Walter is one of the great modern television characters due to his wild downward spiral. But it’s a testament to Cranston and creator Vince Gilligan that Walter remains human and deeply interesting, no matter how terrible he becomes.
Defining Moment: When Walter finds his partner Jesse and Jesse’s girlfriend Jane in bed strung out on heroin, Walter questions what he could do to change Jesse’s life. But when Jane throws up and begins to choke on her own vomit, Walter decides to let her die, solidifying his decent into darkness.
18. The Punisher – Marvel Comics
One of the first true antiheroes in Marvel Comics, the lethal vigilante known as The Punisher has been making waves in comic books for decades with his patented brand of lethality. A former soldier whose war on crime was started when his wife and daughter were killed in the crossfire of a gang war, Frank Castle’s only mission in life is to kill as many criminals as possible. While The Punisher may not be the most nuanced of figures, his violent war on crime has captivated audiences in comics, films, and television, with his recent incarnation through actor Jon Bernthal being his most successful yet. With dark, violent, real-world-echoing stories that are far from the typical Marvel fare, The Punisher is a unique and captivating antihero.
Defining Moment: The Punisher’s family is killed in the crossfire of a gang shootout while picnicking. Although Frank survives his gunshot wounds, the mental and emotional scars set him on a life-long path of violence. No matter how many he’s killed, Castle will never stop his war until he dies.
17. Big Boss – Metal Gear Solid
While main series hero Solid Snake may be an outright hero, his father (well, Solid Snake was cloned from the DNA of Big Boss), is much more of an antihero, as he moves from government spy operative to disillusioned soldier to rebel. While Big Boss was originally an outright villain in the Metal Gear Solid video game series, the exploration of his background in MGS 3, Peace Walker, MGS 5, and more filled out his character to be a much more tragic and justified antihero. His morally murky choices and haunted past make Big Boss into a compelling antihero whose disillusionment with the American government gives more context to his worldwide rebellion.
Defining Moment: After completing his mission in the U.S.S.R. and killing his former mentor and lover The Boss, who had defected, Big Boss realizes that The Boss was an undercover agent the entire time and his government forced him to kill her in order to gain information. Disillusioned and defeated, a crying Big Boss salutes her grave and begins the path to being a defector.
16. Prince Zuko – Avatar: The Last Airbender
In a series full of captivating characters, Prince Zuko stands as one of the most complex in the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. A dishonored and scarred prince of The Fire Nation, Zuko is given the impossible task of finding the missing Avatar and destroying him, only to catch his trail and begin an obsessive quest in order to restore his honor in the kingdom. But the wicked Zuko soon becomes disillusioned and begins a path of redemption, which sees him take the role of antihero for a large portion, specifically the spectacular season 2. Along the way, Zuko’s journey takes unexpected twists and turns for an incredibly satisfying character arc in one of the all-time great animated series.
Defining Moment: When he fails to stop The Avatar, Zuko and his uncle Iroh are branded criminals, going on the run from The Fire Nation they called home. Now a wanderer and part-time vigilante, Zuko begins the long road to redemption.