I love writing posts like this. They're an opportunity to look at truly profound and philosophical aspects of the human psyche, yet they are dumbed down enough by references to geeky pop-culture to still amuse me. So, today's topic shall be: The anti-hero.
In literature and film, an anti-hero is a fictional character that has some characteristics that are antithetical to those of the traditional hero. An anti-hero will perform acts generally deemed "heroic," but will do so with methods, manners, or intentions that are not so.
Thus, anti-heroes can be awkward, antisocial, alienated, cruel, obnoxious, passive, pitiful, obtuse, or just ordinary. When the anti-hero is a central character in a work of fiction the work will frequently deal with the effect their flawed character has on them and those they meet along the narrative. Additionally, the work may depict how their character alters over time, either leading to punishment, un-heroic success or redemption.
Thus spake the great Wikipedia.
Anti-heroes are cool. They are, in essence, different from the traditional goody-two-shoes good-guy (Superman, Prince Charming, Captain America) in that they are somehow flawed. That's what makes them fun.
Take film for example: Some of the most successful franchises deal with anti-heroes of some sort: The Terminator, Die Hard, Batman, The Punisher, Shaft, the X-Men (specifically Wolverine), the Mask (part one, only). Oddball characters with a tendency for violence tend to come to mind, but in general, most action films revolve around a character that has problems and bad habits. 24 is a great example of this, especially with the heroin-addicted Jack Bauer in series 3.
So what makes these guys so fun to watch? Well, I think there are two main reasons. The first is that they depict the true conflict we like to imagine affects us all internally; our basic struggle to do good/lead a good life (well, some of us, at least) while dealing with all our problems. We don't want to see beautiful, invulnerable, successful people who can't really exist...we want someone real and gritty.
The second reason is that they can get away with acts of gratuitous violence in the name of "the greater good" that we can only fantasize about in our daily lives.
My personal favourite examples have got to be Wolverine of the X-Men and Black Mage, from the online comic strip 8-bit Theater http://www.nuklearpower.com/index.php (seriously, check it out).
Wolverine is a born mutant, a step up the evolutionary ladder from normal humans. He has senses as keen as a predatory animal, accelerated healing, and a skeleton and claws covered with an unbreakable alloy, which he uses to hurt people. He's severely emotionally scarred, can't remember much of his life, and is prone to fits of extreme violence where his conscious mind is overthrown. But he tries to help people and do the right thing. During the course of his adventures, he gets shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, incinerated, poisoned, thrown off of/out of high places, bludgeoned, mauled, disemboweled, drowned, crushed and otherwise abused, and still survives and goes on to do what he must, usually committing acts of extreme violence on the way. And he's haunted by this.
The other extreme of the situation is Black Mage. A parody of an 80's Nintendo videogame character, he is more a villain than a hero, as he takes pleasure in stabbing people, destroying their lives, burning towns, and otherwise being responsible for vast amounts of property damage and loss of life. And perhaps that's what makes him so appealing: You love to see him hurting people for being stupid, hurting them because they're trying to rip him off, and just generally trying to hurt EVERYONE. At one point, he is faced with the manifestation of his evil given form, and kills that, too. He takes over hell, briefly. But his finest moments are when he actually ends up saving the day, and nobody but the audience sees it happen. That's when he gets frustrated and starts behaving violently again.
So, in conclusion: Violence is fun, especially when being employed for a good cause (good being a VERY relative term here), and characters who aren't afraid to use it are very cool to watch. Thus endeth today's lesson.