I’ve recently finished a rewatch of the entire Steven Spielberg filmography and it struck me that, for a filmmaker who is often accused of emotional simplicity, Spielberg’s heroes and villains are not always as clear-cut as some would have us believe. In fact, his work is replete with antiheroes, perhaps the most interesting of the three categories of character I have decided to explore in these articles. So what is an antihero? On a basic level, it’s defined as a protagonist who lacks the traditional characteristics associated with a hero but are not quite villainous either. It’s a notoriously hard term to define but I’ve tried my best to justify my choices along the way. So let’s get into those top 10 Spielberg Antiheroes.
10. Chief John Anderton – Minority Report
Wait, what?! A big sci-fi action film starring Tom Cruise and you’re telling me his character is the antihero rather than the hero? Well, sort of. For me, Chief John Anderton has always felt like a very morally-compromised lead. It’s not his addiction problems. Who wouldn’t fall apart in the face of the unsolved abduction of their child, and how many hard-drinking, chain-smoking heroes have we seen over the years? No, here’s what makes Anderton less than traditionally heroic for me. He is commanding officer of the Precrime program, which stops crimes before they happen and apprehends their would-be perpetrators. He’s dedicated to his job and seems to believe in the system’s reliability, until one day the prediction fingers Anderton himself as the perp. So does he turn himself in to prevent another murder? No, he scarpers and goes looking for information to discredit the program that, until recently, he’d been heading up.
John Anderton behaves exactly as most human beings would in his situation. He believes in something until it becomes inconvenient for him to do so. He’s happy to buy that the many people he has put away deserve to be there but he can’t possibly make the leap to believe that could be true of himself. This is the dilemma that makes Minority Report so interesting and a great example of why antiheroes are often more interesting than straight-up heroes. Put in Anderton‘s position, how many people would also opt for self-preservation at the potential risk to a stranger’s life?
9. Captain Archibald Haddock – The Adventures of Tintin
In the Heroes list, we touched on how Tintin is an archetypal hero, sometimes almost implausibly brave and virtuous. This sort of boy-scout character can become grating but one way round this is to pair them with a sidekick who offsets their heroism with slightly less laudable behaviour. For Tintin, this travelling companion comes in the shape of Captain Haddock. Haddock is a cynical alcoholic who’s weakness for the bottle initially leads him to put Tintin’s life in serious danger just to obtain some booze for their adventure. While his vice is sometimes put to good use (in one of the film’s sillier moments, his 100% proof breath is used to fuel a plane), it seriously hampers his credentials as a potential hero. Tintin creator Hergé eventually “cured” Haddock of his alcoholism in one of the later adventures but, in readiness for potential sequels, Spielberg’s Haddock has to revert at the end of the film.
8. Roy Neary – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Spielberg always acknowledged that his parents’ divorce hit him hard and the influence of the sad event can be seen clearly in much of the director’s work. It eventually began to manifest itself in tacked-on moments of fantasy family harmony but early in his career Spielberg’s examination of broken family units often had a more bitter edge. This is evident in the story of electrician Roy Neary, who’s encounter with a UFO completely upends his life. Roy’s growing obsession with the image of a monument planted in his head by the incident causes his behaviour to grow so erratic that his wife takes their children and moves out.
It’s a completely understandable move. As played by Richard Dreyfuss, Roy is a not-especially pleasant man who reaches frightening levels of unhinged and shows no signs of stopping. His quest to uncover the significance of the monument becomes all consuming and eventually leads him to make contact with aliens. This beautiful sequence is one of cinema’s most magical but over the years many people have had a problem with the fact that Roy boards the mothership and leaves with the extraterrestrials. It is depicted in an almost fatalistic way, as if this is Roy’s higher calling, but in leaving he doesn’t seem to give a second thought to the wife and children he is leaving behind. Not to mention the fact that in the previous scene Roy was kissing Jillian Guiler, a woman searching for her abducted child. Roy sure moves on quickly, doesn’t he?!
Spielberg gets away with this depiction of Roy because he makes him a troubled, imperfect antihero even before the arrival of the spaceship. The focus of the narrative is very much on the cosmic significance of the intergalactic connection so worldly concerns are marginalised. The poetic, otherworldly style of Close Encounters carries this potentially callous approach but never again would Spielberg be quite so brutally detached when it came to portraying a family.
7. Dr. John Hammond – Jurassic Park
Is John Hammond, creator of Jurassic Park, any better than the Mayor in Jaws? A friend of mine was incandescent when I asked him this question recently but there is definitely some crossover in the way they endanger lives in their quest to boost the profile of their respective attractions. The difference in the way Spielberg presents the two men is key, however. The Mayor is a ruthless politician, denying real dangers to which he can’t possibly be blind in order to avoid a blow to the local economy and his own reputation. Spielberg’s Hammond, meanwhile, is a dreamer; a Walt Disney-esque man with a vision that he has romanticised to the point that he can’t see any bad in it.
The Hammond in Michael Crichton’s novel is apparently a more arrogant and ruthless figure. By making him relatable, the film presents us with a more tragic character who mournfully eats ice cream while his dreams burn down around him. Then again, that same friend of mine who initially defended Hammond against the Mayor comparisons later pointed out to me that, despite constantly claiming he spared no expense, Hammond hires just one coder to manage all his automated systems. Little details like this help bolster Hammond’s antiheroic status, although traditionally any character who tries to emulate God ends up in this category or worse. In fact, most of them die, as Hammond does in the novel. This version is spared that fate thanks to his cuddly Father Christmas demeanour and lovable Scrooge McDuck accent. No matter his miscalculations, we can’t throw that adorable old man to the dinosaurs. That’s what lawyers are for.
6. Ray Ferrier – War of the Worlds
Here we are again with Tom Cruise! It’s somewhat surprising that in his two collaborations with one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, Spielberg cast him as such morally-compromised characters. Divorced dock worker Ray Ferrier would be a strong candidate for the antiheroes list even with the one pivotal scene that undoubtedly seals the deal. He’s a selfish man and a terrible father to his largely estranged children. While some considered Cruise miscast (he was even nominated for a Razzie for the role), more astute critics noted that he was a canny choice, as memories of the Cruise we know from films like Cocktail and Top Gun created an impression of a man who had once had an enviable life and had let it all slip through his fingers. This explains his determination to save his children. It’s not just a natural protective instinct awoken in him by the onset of disaster. It’s also his chance to become the hero he once saw himself as in his longed-for lost youth.
Of course, it doesn’t quite pan out that way. While Ray does somehow manage to get all his children through to the other side for that much criticised climactic family hug, it is not without committing at least one heinous act that quickly became the film’s biggest talking point. After being offered shelter by an increasingly unhinged man, Ray outright murders him when he fears his conspicuous ravings will expose all of them to discovery by the invading aliens. The killing, which takes place offscreen, is presented without judgement. Spielberg doesn’t encourage us to condone or condemn it, but rather leaves us with the unenviable task of making up our own minds. From a purely moral point of view, it’s easy to conclude that Ray had no right to take a life to save his own and in this respect he is aligned with the desperate mob drawing blood over their claim to a car from earlier in the film. But the cameras continued focus on one of the children as the murder is carried out is also a pointed “how far would you go?” moment addressed to the parents in the audience.
I like War of the Worlds but it’s a deeply flawed film that, for my taste, is just a little bit too grim to be as entertaining as it might have been. But it is in reaching the logical conclusion of that darkness that the film becomes the most interesting. Whether it knocks the film off-balance or make it better, it undoubtedly makes Ray Ferrier one of the most troubling antiheroes Spielberg has put on screen.
5. Frank Abagnale – Catch Me If You Can
Frank Abagnale is a classic antihero. It’s very much his story we follow in Catch Me If You Can, meaning that we are frequently rooting for him despite the cons he carries out… or perhaps it’s because of them. After all, that roguishness is one of the reasons why antiheroes are so much fun to watch. Spielberg wisely maintains a light tone, making Frank’s story a frothy adventure filled with comedy while always tinged with melancholy. Frank’s motivation is here portrayed as an obsession with making his father proud of him, which provides that emotional dimension too.
Abagnale should never be confused with an actual hero though. His scams, after all, involve him impersonating a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, all of which could have very easily resulted in far more tragic outcomes for other people innocently caught in the crossfire of Frank’s games. One innocent, Amy Adams’s Brenda, does get heartbreakingly involved as Frank becomes engaged to her under false pretences. Frank’s affection for Brenda is shown to be real but it’s the only thing he offers her that is, and he only comes clean when he has no other choice.
Ultimately, Abagnale’s antics make for an absolutely terrific yarn and the charismatic performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, coupled with Spielberg’s light touch in interpreting Jeff Nathanson’s cracking screenplay, all help the audience to swallow their moral concerns and enjoy the ride. We may gasp, even tut, at Abagnale’s deceptions but we also laugh, perhaps even cheer. That’s the mark of an effective antihero.
4. Quint – Jaws
Is Quint an antihero? It’s a question I’ve batted around for a long time while compiling this list. I mean, you could easily make an argument for him just being an honest-to-goodness hero. He’s the man with the means and skills to finally catch the shark that’s been terrorising Amity Island; he tends to be right about most things, with going against his advice costing characters dearly; and he sacrifices his life in his quest to destroy this menace to innocent bathers. Not to mention that he’s a survivor of the attack on the USS Indianapolis. So why the antihero category?
Here’s the thing: Quint may be more than competent when it comes to catching a shark but he’s not someone you’d want to be stuck on a boat with. His grizzled, world-weary attitude translates into a hectoring relationship with his crew. Spielberg highlights Quint’s insufferability with that unforgettable, literal nails-on-a-blackboard introduction. This is also the moment when Quint demands an outrageous amount of money in order to catch the shark. Given the dangerous nature of the mission, I’ve never held this against Quint really but the accepted trope for a movie hero is to help people without demanding remuneration. Quint sets a high price and is willing to withhold his resources and expertise until it is paid. This recasts his death, which would otherwise have been seen as heroic, as a sort of punishment. It’s a harsh but fitting end for this man of the sea. Quint may be nails-on-a-blackboard to his crewmates but he isn’t half entertaining to watch.
3. Basie – Empire of the Sun
For my money, Empire of the Sun is Spielberg’s most underrated film and Basie, the ex-navy man who takes the young protagonist Jim under his wing, is John Malkovich’s finest screen character. Basie was a problematic character for many critics who seemed to completely miss the point of him. Gene Siskel, in a negative review, described him as “Indiana Jones… helping the little kid through all the fun of war” but that’s a ridiculous oversimplification. Basie does appear, to Jim’s eyes at least, to be a fantasy figure torn from the pages of his comics. But he’s actually a selfish, exploitative character who only keeps Jim around for what he can get out of him. On numerous occasions he seriously endangers his life and there’s no indication that he would feel guilt if Jim was killed on one of his Basie-errands. Part of what makes Basie such a great antihero is not only that there is never even hint of a redemptive moment, but the audience never expects there to be either. This is not Indiana Jones and Short Round. At least, I don’t recall a scene in Temple of Doom where Indy checked Shorty’s mouth for gold teeth to see if he was worth keeping around.
2. Roland Tembo – Jurassic Park: The Lost World
Jurassic Park’s first sequel is underrated in many respects. It has a strong lead in Jeff Goldblum, a terrific action sequence in that dangling truck scene, and more of those evergreen dinosaur effects. But for me, the absolute best thing in it is Pete Postlethwaite as big-game hunter Roland Tembo. I loathe hunting and it’s very rare for Hollywood to make a hunter the hero these days but The Lost World takes a far more nuanced approach than just making Tembo a bloodthirsty villain. While his association with the evil InGen immediately sets Tembo up as being on the wrong side of the morality line, he eschews financial remuneration to instead be allowed to hunt a male Tyrannosaurus Rex. Tembo has become disillusioned with his own unrivalled abilities as a hunter, no longer able to find prey that he sees as having a fair chance against him. Thus his desire to hunt the dinosaur is driven by his own moral code, which he follows to the letter. It may be a repugnant moral code to many of us but the fact that Tembo has one at all, let alone one he adheres to with such dedication, immediately sets him up as an antihero rather than a villain.
Later in the film, when InGen and Ian Malcolm’s groups are forced to join forces, it is Tembo who emerges as the natural leader, with a level-headed, decisive approach reminiscent of Quint in Jaws. If Tembo’s authoritative approach is a tad presumptuous, he shows himself as more than up to the role he has assumed and we even begin to see a compassionate side of him in his concern for the young Kelly and his heartbreak at the loss of his longtime companion Ajay. The latter is key in reaching the hopeful ending of Tembo’s arc, as he turns down a job offer from InGen. This is partly because the experience on the island has made him question the morality of InGen’s intentions but his friend’s demise is obviously the bigger influence on his powerful final line which leads us to believe this big-game hunter might even be prepared to hang up his gun for good: “I believe I’ve spent enough time in the company of death.”
1. Lou Jean Poplin – The Sugarland Express
Given the comparative lack of strong roles for women in the eras covered, it’s a great pleasure to have a female character top one of my Spielberg lists, particularly that of the more nuanced role of the Antihero. Though it remains comparatively underseen and underrated, Spielberg’s excellent theatrical debut The Sugarland Express features an exceptional lead performance by Goldie Hawn as small time crook Lou Jean Poplin who steps up to the big leagues when she not only springs her husband Clovis from a Texas prison but then goes on a cross-state road trip in a stolen police car with a local patrolman as a hostage. Sounds like perfect fodder for the Villains list, right? So what makes Lou Jean an antihero? Easy. She does it all for love!
The driving force behind Lou Jean’s quest is her and Clovis’s young son, who is about to be placed permanently with a foster family. Although the suitability of Lou Jean as a mother is in question given her actions in the film, her complete dedication to her child is unquestionable, given that she is willing to put her husband and several strangers at serious risk in order to achieve her goal. When first watching The Sugarland Express there is a stretch of the film where you’d be forgiven for thinking Clovis is the protagonist but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s an easily manipulated puppet in Lou Jean’s hands. Lou Jean is excellent at pulling strings to get others to do the dirty work or to change their initial perception of her.
All this makes it sound like Lou Jean could be a misogynist stereotype of the controlling, malevolent woman but this is not the case. In large part thanks to Goldie Hawn’s nuanced performance, Lou Jean comes across as someone who’s manipulations are instinctual rather than calculated. She mostly reacts on the spur of the moment, her eyes and heart too firmly set on the prize for her to deviously plan ahead. Hawn brings plenty of humour to the performance but there’s a chilling edge to her relentlessness, especially in the closing scenes where she pushes Clovis to step into harm’s way and it’s unclear if the tragic result is something she was naive enough to not see coming or in denial about due to her focus on her child being tantalisingly within reach. There’s a tragic edge to Lou Jean throughout The Sugarland Express, which makes the final caption which confirms that she does in fact eventually get what she wanted all along even more surprising.