We love our larger-than-life heroes. But we might just love our antiheroes more. Ever since the 1960s or '70s, we've been idolizing the men and women who embrace shades of gray over those who wear white hats and follow the rules. Even our superheroes have become darker and grittier over the decades. If you doubt this, just look at the skepticism surrounding the new Superman. The Big Blue Boyscout isn't relevant anymore. It's all about Batman and Wolverine and characters of quick violence and little compromise.
We've seen plenty of them in 2010. Here's our list of the antiheroes who caught our eye this year. Whether their movies were good or bad (and in one case, has yet to be released) we always appreciate a good moral skirting. (And with that odd verb, it's worth noting there are only two females on this list. Hollywood can barely make heroines, let alone one who dabbles in lawlessness.)
1. Dominic Cobb of Inception
Everything about Christopher Nolan's world is so glossy, twisty, and tense that you forget something important within a half hour: Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb isn't a very nice guy. He's given a rather cuddly goal (reuniting with his children) but he's a thief, a liar, and a little unhinged. He was curious and greedy enough to experiment on his wife. He's being pursued by law enforcement, and not without cause. He risks a lot of good people for his ultimate goal, and only by sheer luck do they all survive. But we root for him, recognizing something kindred in his tenacity, his business sense, and of course, his familial longings.
2. Hit Girl of Kick-Ass
Kick-Ass is a movie peppered with antiheroes, but only one of them is really likeable: Hit Girl. She and Big Daddy share an adorably twisted and violent relationship where ice cream comes after shooting practice, and watching a criminal be compressed in his own car is a typical outing. Yes, all the guys she killed were bad, but that doesn't mean it was appropriate behavior for an 11-year-old. It was fun to watch, though!
3. Tony Stark in Iron Man 2
Tony is a superhero, but he's been vacuum-formed in a thoroughly modern mold. He's a hero who gets drunk, sleeps around, and behaves in a terribly reckless manner. Heroes always put others first. Tony tends to vacillate until someone decides matters for him. (See: SHIELD stepping in and slapping him around.) When lines are drawn, he tends to let the ends justify the means, and let his arrogance pay the bills. He's Captain America's dark military-industrial shadow, but his intentions are always good, even if his personal and professional life is always a bit of a mess.
4. Doug MacRay in The Town
America's always had a lurid affair with gangsters, and The Town was just the latest love letter. Doug isn't even that nuanced of a character -- he's the perfect sketch of the troubled bad boy -- but we desperately want his heists to be a success. We definitely don't want him locked up by Jon Hamm's brusque FBI Agent, whom we soundly condemn for doing his job. You know it's the movies when you're shaking your head in disgust at a cop doing what we actually want them to do in normal society.
5. Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network
It's been a decade or two coming, but the new hero isn't necessarily a man who is brutally handy with a gun or sword, but someone who can aggressively program code. No one has walked out of The Social Network without a strong opinion of Zuckerberg. Sociopath? Machiavellian in his greed? Or simply a geek going along with the wave of success, clueless about where it would actually take him? Eduardo Saverin is the more likeable fellow, but Zuckerberg is the Charles Foster Kane, someone you hate, pity (if not truly love or like), and admire -- and that's the very definition of an antihero.
6. Jonah Hex
Don't judge this scarred gunslinger by his mess of a movie. Jonah Hex is one of DC's most dubious and reluctant heroes. He's killed more men than hell has souls in pursuit of bounties and brutal justice. (And he did it all without the aid of goofy mystical powers.) There were a lot of things wrong with the movie, but Brolin-as-Hex wasn't really one of them. He made for an appealingly bitter lead, and makes you long for the movie that could have been. Read the comics to get a better taste and remember what a grimy, antiheroic Western actually looks like.
7. Jack / Edward in The American
Clooney's smooth and lethal assassin is the modern antithesis to Jonah Hex. We don't really know who Jack or Edward really is, just that he's very successful at killing people. He's haunted and contemptuous, pursues women he can discard, and should probably be punished for his unknown crimes. But we really, really don't want him to be. The world needs polished and vicious men like these, if only to scare and seduce us a little.
8. Harry Brown
Americans love vigilantes nearly as much as they love gangsters, and this sparse little thriller suggests the English do too. Deep down, we know there's something wrong about men taking the law into their own hands -- even if they're lovable geriatrics -- but it's hard not to will the gun into their hands. If I lived in a grimy apartment complex, I'd want a man like Harry around so that I could sleep at night and walk in the park with my puppy. There's no school like the old school, after all, especially if they have no pretenses of being a celebrated hero.
9. The men (and one woman) of Red
It shows how far the arch of the antihero has come when we have a good laugh at the expense of ex-black ops agents. It's so funny to see John Malkovich acting crazy, and Helen Mirren wielding heavy artillery that you forget that this is a group of people responsible for any number of atrocities. They were innocent about what went down in Columbia, but they were still complicit, and that's just the one massacre we know about. This is the kind of stuff we don't want to think of our governments actually doing, but happily laugh off on-screen because its perpetrators enjoy their work. (See also: The Losers and The Expendables, two other films that featured men and women of dubious quality unloading bullets in South America. But we liked them, too.)
10. Rooster Cogburn of True Grit
No, this movie hasn't even been released yet. But remember, this is a remake, and while the Coens might change around some details, Rooster remains the same. He may have a Marshal badge, but he's trigger happy, and agrees to work for Mattie Ross purely for whiskey money. Even John Wayne's penchant for staunch morality couldn't smooth away all of Cogburn's dubious edges, and I suspect Jeff Bridges' portrayal may bring back some of his darker and more bitter ones.