Once upon a time, the good guys wore white and were always stalwart & true. The bad guys wore black or had horns & tails. Good always saved the day, no one ever died, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Of course, in the real-world, things are a tad bit more complicated. So, as stories have progressed, the nature of heroes & villains have become much more complex. To the point you have antiheroes, who arguably might cross the line into antivillain or villain protagonist territory depending on your point of view.
In general, an antihero is a protagonist who might be fighting the good fight, but in doing so has questionable ethics, a flawed character, and/or morally troublesome tactics (i.e. "evil means to a good end"). In contrast, an antivillain is usually an antagonist who has some good qualities, a noble (& yet possibly self-serving) goal, or a rationalization for their actions that might draw sympathy from the audience. Both, antihero & antivillain might also be seen as tragic figures.
So... which ones are the most fascinating?
For a good long while, the conventional wisdom among Hollywood executives was that audiences wouldn't watch something where the lead protagonist was unlikable or corrupted. Before the 1980s, it's hard to find a television show where the audience is asked to sympathize with a seriously flawed main character. The only one that comes to mind is "All in the Family", but even there Archie Bunker is presented as a "lovable bigot."
One of the more interesting things about antiheroes (and antivillains/villain protagonists) is the "walk a mile in their shoes" quality of it. Can the writer make you sympathize & actively pull for a protagonist that does something you know is wrong? How far can you rationalize the character's actions? In a sense, the audience gets to wonder about whether they would ever walk the same path under the right set of circumstances.
Alfred Hitchcock had a theory that audiences will love a character if they're good at what they do. It doesn't matter whether they're a priest or jewel thief, if they have a talent & good with that talent, it's a quality that people like & respect.
Over at The A.V. Club, they have a piece centered around a question from a reader.
"The other day, I caught 'Crank' on cable, and realized that even though Chev Chelios is a degenerate, selfish, awful human being, I found myself rooting for him. I had a hard time reconciling this fact. How can I support a protagonist whose ethics and values deeply and sharply contrast with mine? Great cinema and television frequently features anti-heroes, but are there specific characters of this ilk that actually trigger serious cognitive dissonance?"
A good example of an antihero is the predominant interpretation of Batman post 1986's The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. Unlike the boy scout image of Superman, Batman's character is usually rooted in pain & vengeance.
"He does heroic things like saving the innocent, fighting the bad guys, etc., but let’s face it, in most modern incarnations, he’s a bugfuck insane, grossly violent vigilante with little to no real human connection. His endless, obsessive brooding over his parents’ death somehow still drives everything he does, to a psychotic degree. He’s harsh, judgmental, and ruthless, more a spirit of uncompromising vengeance than a man. Every time I see a new Batman movie or read a new Batman comic, I wind up a little uncomfortable over all the retribution fantasy, and thinking "What’s heroic about this creepy guy again?" He needs extensive psychotherapy, and maybe long-term exposure to some people who aren’t a) also bugfuck crazy, b) also billionaires operating on a different plane of reality than most people, c) insane murderous supervillains, d) victims. Maybe then he could rediscover his humanity. Until then, sure, I root for him in his stories, but I’m more than a little disturbed by, well, everything about him."
The biggest problem with the old versions of Batman was that it could drift very quickly into camp if it doesn't have the emotional weight of Bruce Wayne's psychological damage acting as an anchor for the story. Both the "Batman" TV-show with Adam West and the films directed by Joel Schumacher ('Batman Forever' and 'Batman & Robin') are examples of this. And then the character becomes as ridiculous as Robin seems.
To me, the most fascinating aspect about Batman is that, in some ways, he's just as crazy as The Joker. At his core, he's still that little boy who will never get over the murder of his parents & had to create an alternate personality in order to cope. The only way he can deal is to dress up in a bat costume & beat the shit out of criminals. However, this can lead to what some see as a paradox, which was touched on to a degree in Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight.'
"The Unified Theory Of Batman states that the grim, brooding, psychotic, violent, anti-hero depiction of Batman, as glorified by comics since Frank Miller's "Batman Year One," is not only the incorrect representation of Batman, but THE major villain in the mythology of the Batman universe.
The major story/theme of the Batman mythology is Bruce Wayne's epic crusade in following in his parent's footsteps and ultimately freeing Gotham City from it's cycle of corruption, fracture, and self-destruction (mirrored within Bruce Wayne himself). The problem with Bruce Wayne's taking up the mantle of the Batman is that it not only perpetuates this cycle but escalates it to frightening proportions; creating an ever more violent/sadistic rogues gallery and making grittier levels of Batman a necessity.
The major theme/lesson of Batman isn't a story about overcoming one's fear, or of the distinction between vengeance and justice, it's a meditation on the nature of violence and the use of force. The lesson is this, IF YOU USE VIOLENCE, FEAR, AND INTIMIDATION AS A MEANS TO AN END, YOU QUICKLY LEARN THAT THERE'S NO END IN SIGHT."
A good example of the ambiguity between an antivillain & antihero is Shakespeare's Hamlet. Shakespeare leaves the actions & motives of almost every character open to various interpretations. Prince Hamlet himself can either be interpreted as a deeply troubled young man wrestling with issues of morality, honor, and vengeance for his murdered father. Or a "spineless, whiny (crazy) git" who killed in cold blood many times before hitting his actual mark.
Some other examples of antiheroes:
► Don Draper - "Mad Men"
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) of "Mad Men" probably has almost all of the Alpha Male qualities that most men admire. And yet, this value-driven hardass is a conflicted philanderer who struggles to reconcile the man he would like to be with the man he is.
► Kenny Powers - "Eastbound and Down"
My mother was born & raised in Mississippi. When talking about the South, she differentiates what portions of the country actually makes up "The South" (people from Texas are Texans, not "Southerners"). When watching a TV Show or movie, if you're from the part of the country where it's set, you can almost always tell whether the writers, producers, and people involved have ever actually spent any time living in/visiting the area, or are writing from their experience of driving through with their windows rolled up or flying over on their way to Disney World.
No other show on television sort of gets "The Dirty South" mentality like HBO's "Eastbound and Down." It's a comedy with exaggerated characters, but by God I've actually run into assholes like Kenny Powers (Danny McBride). One of the show’s greatest accomplishments is getting its fans to connect emotionally & root for an extremely flawed protagonist.
Danny McBride: The angle we kind of took with things, if you could get behind what the guy was trying to do, somewhere down the line that probably turns into some sort of acceptance of him. That’s just kind of what we stuck with. "Let’s just take the difficult story of this guy who’s down on his luck, just trying to get back onto his feet again." That’s a simple enough tale that people seem to get behind that. You could put enough things in front of them to hope that happens for the character. It’s just, the character is his own worst enemy. So I think there’s something—you can find a little bit of humanity in that. Someone who wants to change their life and change how they see things, but just fucks it up every step of the way.
► Dexter Morgan - "Dexter"
"How many more bodies would there have been had I not gotten to those killers? I didn't want to save lives, but save lives I did. Motivation aside, I think Harry and Lundy would agree on this one."
I've heard "Dexter" described as a psychologically disturbed, dark superhero. Basically, what if a very dark, psychopathic version of Batman threw out his moral code & killed people?
► Walter White - "Breaking Bad"
Bryan Cranston is brilliant portraying 50-year old high school chemistry teacher Walter White. At the beginning of the series, he's a brilliant man stuck in a somewhat pathetic life with a lot of obligations (in the form of a pregnant wife, and a 16-year-old son with cerebral palsy). He teaches uninterested kids, who then show up to his second job at a car wash to giggle & take pictures of him. At home, Walt's sex life with his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) consists of a birthday hand-job, which she performs while monitoring an auction on eBay. However, a change occurs when Walt finds out he has Stage 3A lung cancer. He decides to contact one of his former students, and begin cooking Crystal Meth in order to leave money for his family.
The great thing about this show is that each character's decisions are couched in rationalizations that on the surface seem legitimate, but if you peel back the layers, it's not quite that simple. Walter did what he did because he thought he was dying from lung cancer. He decided to cook Meth to provide mortgage payments, college tuition for kids, and a comfortable life for his family. But we as the audience know that isn't the entire story. He also loved the empowerment that came from becoming "Heisenberg."
And yet, after everything he's done (including being indirectly responsible for a midair collision that caused bodies & debris to rain down on Albuquerque, New Mexico), I can't help but root for him while watching it.
► Tony Soprano - "The Sopranos"
"What fucking kind of human being am I, if my own mother wants me dead?"
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) loves his family, loves little animals, and would probably be an interesting guy to have a beer with. However, he's also a ruthless criminal/killer, who could simultaneously be self-loathing, self-pitying, and arrogant. And yet, we as the audience pulled for him (at least until he hit a moral event horizon that may have crossed the line for you).
I always found Carmela (Edie Falco) to be a worse person than Tony while watching the show. Even though Tony would rationalize his actions & live in denial, every now & again he would admit what he was, faults and all. And you got the sense, that down deep, he knew how horrible the things he did were, and the panic attacks was a subconscious acknowledgment of it. On the other hand, Carmela lived in a mansion, drove a luxury car, wore thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, all bought with blood money, and still somehow believed she was pious & better than Tony.
► Vic Mackey - "The Shield"
There was always the question of how far people would go in rooting for Michael Chiklis' crooked cop, Vic Mackey. Following Mackey & his Strike Team's exploits in the Farmington Division of Los Angeles (which was based on the real-life Rampart Division CRASH unit), the series centers on key actions undertaken by the lead characters and how those actions radiate out in ways they could have never imagined.
In interviews, Chiklis has talked about how he believed fans of the show stayed with his character because they believed that Vic had some sort of utilitarian logic to his actions (in some ways mirroring just how the other members of the Strike Team went along with Vic over & over again). In fact, Forest Whitaker (who joined the show in the fifth season) didn't understand why his character, Internal Affairs Detective Lt. Jon Kavanaugh, was hated by the fans & regarded as a villain for going after Mackey.