As you can tell from my recent questions, I've been asking a lot about works of fiction and how Objectivism and Romanticism can influence them. However, some stories are not influenced by Objectivism or Romanticism and can harbor a totally different philosophy. I've been anticipating the new season of House of Cards since I watched the first two seasons last summer, and I realized that despite the fact that Kevin Spacey plays a pretty evil politician, he's delightfully fun to watch and even makes me laugh at times. I should really ask why anti-heroes and sociopaths are very appealing in some works of fiction. For instance, Howard Payne, portrayed by Dennis Hopper from the 1994 film Speed is perhaps my own personal favorite villain in a film. He was hilarious. His actions in the film involve bombing innocent people because his pension wasn't large enough. After becoming familiar with Ayn Rand, I find it even more humorous because he was motivated by entitlement. I have my share of favorite heroes in fiction, but this question isn't about them. I'm curious as to what makes a villain entertaining.
Do some people--myself included--enjoy watching anti-heroes because they represent what not to admire? Does the narrative of a story featuring an anti-hero acknowledge this somehow with a moral frame? Oftentimes, a villain in a film is portrayed as comical while the main protagonist is stoic, serious, and principled.
The question describes some anti-heroes, and also some villains who aren't clearly and consistently recognizable as true villains (they might be better described as anti-villains, who bear the same relation to true villains as anti-heroes bear to true heroes).
It might be asked: why do we see so many anti-heroes and anti-villains in today's movies, TV fiction, etc.? The question asks essentially this, in part, in the following formulation (underline added):
Do some people--myself included--enjoy watching anti-heroes because they represent what not to admire? Does the narrative of a story featuring an anti-hero acknowledge this somehow with a moral frame?
True heroes and true villains imply the existence of a moral choice for man in the face of the metaphysical possibility of setting the direction of his own life and therefore having the responsibility to set one's direction. But there are many today and historically who do not want such responsibility or accountability, and/or who feel more comfortable believing that they have no choice about their lives. Anti-heroes and anti-villains say to man, in effect: don't worry; nobody can help what he is or does, and nobody can blame anyone (or deserve credit) for it.
Ayn Rand discussed this phenomenon in her article, "The Cult of Moral Grayness," published as Chapter 9 in VOS. At the end of that article (p. 92 in my Signet paperback edition of VOS), she concludes:
Observe, in literature, the emergence of a thing called anti-hero, whose distinction is that he possesses no distinction -- no virtues, no values, no goals, no character, no significance -- yet who occupies, in plays and novels, the position formerly held by a hero, with the story centered on his actions, even though he does nothing and gets nowhere. Observe that the term "good guys and bad guys" is used as a sneer -- and, particularly in television, observe the revolt against happy endings, the demands that the "bad guys" be given an equal chance and an equal number of victories.
One who holds such a "black and white" view of morality and its underlying metaphysical outlook on life will not be particularly "impressed" by anti-heroes and anti-villains. He may react with a yawn of indifference and boredom, or perhaps moral revulsion toward the work as a whole and its creator(s).
Anti-heroes bear the same relation to heroes as anti-concepts bear to valid concepts. Ayn Rand mentions this in her article, "'Extremism,' or The Art of Smearing," published as Chapter 17 in CUI. On p. 177 in my Signet paperback edition of CUI, Ayn Rand observes:
The same mentalities that create an "anti-hero" in order to destroy heroes, and an "anti-novel" in order to destroy novels, are creating "anti-concepts" in order to destroy concepts.
As one might expect, there are a number of relevant references in Ayn Rand's article, "Art and Sense of Life," published as Chapter 3 in RM. Ayn Rand observes (pp. 38-39 in my Signet paperback edition of RM):
Since man lives by reshaping his physical background to serve his purpose, since he must first define and then create his values -- a rational man needs a concretized projection of these values, an image in whose likeness he will reshape the world and himself. Art gives him that image; it gives him the experience of seeing the full, immediate, concrete reality of his distant goals.
Less aspiring, less purposeful individuals are likely to react very differently to different kinds of art:
When one learns to translate the meaning of an art work into objective terms, one discovers that nothing is as potent as art in exposing the essence of a man's character. An artist reveals his naked soul in his work -- and so, gentle reader, do you when you respond to it.
(From RM p. 44.) Several other noteworthy passages in RM include the discussion of how ethics affects an artist's work (p. 23); impassioned hostility toward plot in literature and its metaphysical significance (p. 102), Classicist conventions versus the Romanticist emphasis on the primacy of values (p. 104); and determinism in art prior to the rise of Romanticism in the 19th Century (p. 123). Refer also to the topic of "Art" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.
Update: Meaning of Anti-Hero
Comments by James have raised questions about the meaning of the term, "anti-hero," and have offered the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera as a strong example of an anti-hero. Accordingly, I rechecked Ayn Rand's usage of the term "anti-hero" and also the Wikipedia description, and I also read the Wikipedia descriptions of The Phantom of the Opera more closely. I found a total of three instances of the term "anti-hero" in Ayn Rand's writings:
The Perry Mason article describes the original TV series, ending in 1966, and the striking contrast to the "new" version (which was very short lived). Near the end, the article observes:
By some ineffable osmosis of their own, the makers of the new "Perry Mason" sensed which human characteristics their masters -- today's intellectuals -- want men to lose: firmness, self-confidence, and any trace of a moral tone, as well as any touch of dignity. To say that the new Perry Mason is an anti-hero, would be to flatter the show: he is just a slob. It is the image of the real Perry Mason that today's cultural leaders want to eliminate from People's consciousness, as a vision, a hope, an inspiration, or even a possibility. So much for their view of man and for their concern with education, the enlightenment, the happiness of "the people."
One of the comments by James states:
Your interpretation of anti-heroes as anti-concepts…
But that is precisely Ayn Rand's usage of the term "anti-hero," as both the Perry Mason article and especially the CUI article make clear. If anyone wants to challenge Ayn Rand's usage of "anti-hero," he is free to do so, but not by misidentifying what Ayn Rand's usage actually was.
The Wikipedia article on "Antihero" begins with the following description:
An antihero or antiheroine is a protagonist who lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, and morality. These individuals often possess dark personality traits such as disagreeableness, dishonesty, and aggressiveness. These characters are usually considered "conspicuously contrary to an archetypal hero".
On closer reading of this Wikipedia article, I find it somewhat ambiguous, leaving unclear the status of a protagonist who is actually an evil villain. A story of heroic "good" against villainous "evil" doesn't achieve the same anti-heroic effect as a bumbling drifter, tossed by the current of events, but who nevertheless seems to accomplish great things, like a hero, without much skill or purpose, while occupying the place of a hero in the story.
I also read two Wikipedia articles specifically on (a) "The Phantom of the Opera" (the 1910 French novel), and (b) "The Phantom of the Opera (1986 musical)." The disambiguation page lists a total of three different stage productions at different times, and eleven film and TV productions over the years. I haven't read the novel myself, nor seen any stage or screen versions of it, so I'm at a disadvantage to discuss it in much detail; but the two Wikipedia articles seem to offer good summaries of the story's essence. From the two Wikipedia articles, in my understanding, the Phantom certainly seems to have some definite, metaphysically significant qualities of character (passionate valuing) that an audience could readily find very moving. I do not see him (as described in the articles) as an anti-hero (as Ayn Rand uses that expression).