The Bruce Willis action flick Once Upon a Time in Venice is scheduled to hit theaters and on-demand next week, and at first glance, it appears to be your standard, shoot ’em up, cops and robbers, summer blockbuster fare. Willis plays a private investigator who uses his veritable arsenal of firearms to wage a one-man war on the gangsters in the city. But the film has a peculiar twist. Willis’ character isn’t motivated by fighting crime—he just wants to get his dog back.
This kind of male character is hardly new. Not only is he a shameless ripoff of John Wick—the 2014 insta-classic starring Keanu Reeves as Wick, a retired assassin who goes on a killing spree after Russian gangsters kill his puppy—he’s a recurring male archetype in TV and film, and he generally adheres to the same set of characteristics.
He’s single and lives alone. He has, at most, one friend (not counting his love-hate relationship with his boss), and that friend is always a man. Maybe he has a partner, but grudgingly; he prefers to work alone, too. He sleeps with lots of women—who can resist a broken man?—but he’s non-committal. He loved a woman once, but that was long ago, before she broke his heart and he learned life is but a hollow charade. If only some good-hearted woman would come along and save him! He’s done things—terrible, unspeakable things—and the only way to absolve his sins is to risk his life for the sake of others. And he owns a dog, which represents the totality of his emotional involvements. (It’s never a cat, because cats are for pussies.)
He is the Dog-Owning Antihero, and he’s been a staple of pop culture as far back as Greek mythology.
- The Odyssey (c. 700 B.C.): When Odysseus returns home to Ithaca after 20 years at sea, the only one to recognize him through his disguise is his faithful dog, Argos. (Some wife that Penelope was…)
- The Road Warrior (1981): The way we know Max (Mel Gibson) is one of the few trustworthy humans in this post-apocalyptic hellscape is that he owns a a dog.
- Lethal Weapon (1987): Martin Riggs (Gibson, making his second appearance on this list) is a suicidal nihilist, but the one thing he does live for is his loyal dog Sam, proving that a man can hate everything except man’s best friend.
- The Sopranos (1999 – 2007): Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) never owned a dog, but it’s his bond with the ducks in his backyard that triggers his yearslong battle with depression and panic attacks. Later, he develops a strange attachment to a racehorse, and kills the man who harms it. We typically associate being a murderous sociopath with cruelty to animals, but Sopranos turns that idea on its ear.
- The Wire (2002 – 2008): Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector, now of Bosch) and “Wee-Bey” Brice (Hassan Johnson) were rival gang members and cold-blooded killers in this crime drama about the drug trade in Baltimore, but they had an affinity for birds and fish, respectively.
- 25th Hour (2002): Montgomery Brogan (Ed Norton) isn’t a complete loner in this Spike Lee joint. He has a live-in girlfriend, sees his father often and stays in touch with his two best friends from childhood. But we learn Brogan doesn’t care much for those closest to him. He’s a misanthropic drug dealer, and his biggest concern before heading to prison is who will care for his dog while he’s away.
- I Am Legend (2007): Years of solitude have left Will Smith’s character incapable of human interaction in the zombie apocalypse film I Am Legend, but he never loses affection for his trusty canine sidekick. (Spoiler alert: He cries when the dog gets infected with the zombie virus, and he has to euthanize him.)
- Game of Thrones (2011 – present): Jon Snow is a brooding, emo warrior-teen, but what little emotional intelligence he does have, he reserves for his beloved direwolf Ghost (a dog-wolf hybrid, essentially). There’s also a misanthropic swordsman in the series nicknamed “The Hound,” who enjoys dogs far more than he does other people.
- The Rover (2014): We’re led to believe Guy Pearce’s warpath across the Australian outback is to get his car back, but it’s not until the final scene that we learn he’s really after what’s in the car. His dead dog remains in the trunk, and he’s killed a handful of men just to give the pooch a proper burial.
The Dog-Owning Antihero is the male equivalent of the Crazy Cat Lady—a lonely, single adult whose only meaningful emotional connection is with his pet. It signals to the audience: Wait, this guy isn’t totally irredeemable! A glimmer of humanity still burns beneath his rugged exterior. Because this lonesome rebel owns a dog, you see, and how bad can such a man be?!?
The main difference is the Crazy Cat Lady is often portrayed as a sad, old spinster who never found a good man to give her children, and whose life is now more or less meaningless; while the Dog-Owning Antihero is just a misunderstood loner too consumed with his duties to be bogged down by a relationship.
The Cat Lady is a drag on society; the Dog Owner, its champion. Classic patriarchy!
But the Dog-Owning Antihero is also a sad commentary on men’s inability to forge lasting relationships with other actual people. Human relationships have proven too complicated for the antihero to manage, so he opts instead for the relatively safety of pet-human relations. Because no matter how much his dog may love him, the relationship is still one-sided. The dog relies on his master for food and shelter, and the hero loves the dog because he’s in total control of the terms of the relationship.
Men: They’ll kill hordes of bad guys to save their dogs, but emotions still terrify them.