Antiheroes & Villains: What’s the difference?

Everyone has a soft spot for perfect superheroes like Superman or Dragonball’s Goku. But, at the same time, we can’t deny that we enjoy complicated antiheroes like The Boys or Jack Sparrow just a little bit more because of their spirit and moral ambiguity. Unfortunately, more often than not, we find ourselves getting the antiheroes mixed up with the villains. Antiheroes are not villains, and villains are not antiheroes—but how do we differentiate between the two?


Image courtesy of Fernan Dohko via Deviant Art.

Firstly, what exactly is an antihero? Well, you’ve got your standard heroes like Captain America or Saint Seiya—the selfless, goody-two-shoes-type protagonists. Then you’ve got Deadpool and Eren Yeager, who are the wild card protagonists, aka the antihero. Antiheroes are morally ambivalent, central characters who lack conventional heroic qualities. Depending on your perspective, one may see Deadpool’s or Eren’s actions as villainous. They’re driven by their sense of justice, moral compass, and ideological purpose. Antiheroes may not always have the noblest intentions, but they ultimately do the “right thing”.

Think of Deadpool’s occasional good deed despite his occupation as a mercenary who loves a bit of gratuitous violence. Or Eren Yeager’s endless perseverance and sheer ruthlessness in destroying anything and anyone that stands in his way on his quest for true freedom. Despite their questionable behaviour and unconventional attitude, we find ourselves rooting for these characters.


Image courtesy of Attack On Titan.

Then there are the villains. Think Cruella De Vil or Bleach’s Aizen. Villains are characterised by malicious actions, evil motives, and causing harm to others. As an audience, we don’t sympathise with their self-serving villainous efforts. Villains simply want power for power’s sake and aren’t interested in anybody else’s problems except their own, making them highly selfish. Did we sympathise with Voldemort in the Harry Potter films or Emperor Palpatine’s Star Wars? No. Do either of these characters have any redeeming qualities whatsoever? Absolutely not. They are just straight-up evil.

And just when we thought we knew the difference between antiheroes and villains, in comes the anti-villains! With complex character tropes added into the mix, it makes pinning down a definition even more difficult. It’s crucial to recognise that anti-villains still play a villain’s game despite displaying seemingly “heroic” traits. Think of characters like Marvel’s Thanos, Persona 5’s Maruki, or My Hero Academia’s Stain. These characters are the type to do evil deeds for a “noble” cause like saving the world or making the world a better place. But the reality is that the means do not justify the end. Was Thanos justified in throwing his own daughter off a cliff to obtain the Soul Stone in order to eradicate overpopulation? Of course not! Even antiheroes wouldn’t dare to cross this line.

Despite the dictionary definition of antiheroes, villains and anti-villains, we still sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between them. Antiheroes are, after all, multi-dimensional characters that are hard to categorise. Their appeal is their moral ambiguity and imperfectness, which are fundamental characteristics that draw us to them. They operate within the grey areas in a black and white world, and they’re almost always one reckless decision away from being a villain.


Image courtesy of Geek Girl Authority.

Having said that, there is one stark difference between antiheroes and villains. Antiheroes have paradoxical boundaries and a contradictory moral code. They struggle between being unwilling to cross certain lines, crossing them unintentionally, and having an internal conflict about them. This back-and-forth dilemma makes antiheroes dynamic and relatable. They’re aware that they can’t save the world in a perfect way, yet they try to do what they can anyway. Sure, these underdogs do questionable things and are guilty of causing violence and destruction, but at least they’re different from villains who have no regard for the repercussions of what they do.

Apart from boundaries and moral code, maybe, it’s also about perspective. We understand where most antiheroes are coming from, but would we do it their way? Maybe? When it comes to villains? Not at all! Our sympathies go entirely out of the window. There’s more to an antihero than what meets the eye. Behind their questionable decisions and behaviour lies a seemingly reasonable and righteous intent.


Antiheroes are not villains. Sure, antiheroes are guilty of evil deeds, have inconsistent boundaries, an ambiguous moral code, and lack traditional heroic traits. But no one’s perfect, right? What’s most important is that they save the day in whatever way they can. Villains, on the other hand, are pretty self-explanatory. They are genuinely evil characters who do terrible things for power, no matter the cost. So, to put it in Wanda Vision’s terms: “What are antiheroes, if not imperfect heroes who persevere?”


Written by Vania.
Featured image courtesy of Screen Rant.


  • 18/07/2021

    Thanks for the article! Thought it was a good read on explaining the fact that Antiheroes are not like traditional heroes but still heroes at the end of the day. Also the examples really helped illustrate this.

  • 07/07/2021

    More and more protagonists are stepping over to the wild card territory these days and it’s pretty refreshing for those raised in the 80’s and early 90’s with barraging straight-laced main characters dominating the arts. That said, this is a pleasant read that has delightfully decided to omit a PC pressure, which is quite rare recently, and I find it enlightening as well. Keep it up!


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