A friend and I were out for coffee at a diner a few weeks ago when the conversation fell upon the concept of subjective evil, or the gray area surrounding morality. A macabre topic for eggs and bacon, no doubt, and my friend noted that the rise of the anti-hero in films and media has been growing in popularity in recent years. The protagonist, in the form of a retired gunslinger or introverted curmudgeon, is forced into the chaotic fray of by some violent circumstance, only to save the world and become a better functioning member of society. This basic plot construct can be found in action flicks, epic fantasy films, and every single Nicholas Cage feature.
As seemingly over-done as this plot device might be, the reason it keeps working is that people can relate to it. People can empathize with a character who, when faced with danger and altruism, weighs the options and is reticent to destroy his own life for the sake of complete strangers or unrequited benefit. This sense of duty verses self-preservation plagues all of humanity. We all hope that we will do "the right thing" when faced with adversity, so seeing a hesitant hero take the plunge and achieve greatness is the hope we all have for ourselves. And in recent years, the role of the vigilante has taken this concept to the next level.
Television serials such as Dexter and Sons of Anarchy create a new moral conundrum. Most people can agree that killing in self defense is acceptable, but when characters take it to the next level and begin actively seeking out the destruction of others, even on the basis of some implicit threat to the protagonist's environment, the line becomes much less clear. When does the virtuous executioner become the villain that needs destroying? The newest incarnation of the Batman universe does an excellent job of explicating this very question, as the hero we all know and love becomes the target of intense scrutiny by the people to whom he is offering protection. Christopher Nolan does what few other superhero films have done: he places this fantastic concept of caped crusaders against the backdrop of the real world - a world in which such vigilante's would be seen as going against the very basis of our democratic society. This conjures a whole new set of intangible villains, going beyond the twisted Joker or the sadistic Bane. The protagonist is fighting against society, against due process, and against himself. The justification comes when it is evident that the system is broken, but it still begs the question: when is it acceptable to step across that clear-cut, Black-and-white line?
Growing up, villains took the form of Snidely Whiplash or Wiley Coyote - meddling, cackling, and shooting the Saturday morning camera an evil grin. These characters were one-dimensional, solely committed to imbuing misfortune on "the good guys". So when the age-old toddler question of "Why?" comes into play, we cannot really say. Why do Boris and Natasha want to destroy Rocky and Bullwinkle? Because they are Russian and that cartoon series was created during the Cold War? That explanation seems to be lacking.
Take the same question and apply it to some of the most vile characters in history. Adolf Hitler, John Wayne Gacy, Osama Bin Laden. Modified, the question is often asked, "How could they do something so reprehensible?" or "Didn't they have any morals, any guilt?". These questions, while logical, assume that the real-life villains of our society follow some universal moral compass. Distinct from the cartoon's of our youth, these nefarious figures don't sit, cackling, plotting their next master plan. They make decisions that dance along that gray boundary between good and evil. They do something self serving but sort of justified because of their unique situation. Gacy's first murder was allegedly self-defense. Hitler's family was abused by Jewish neighbors. These facts don't excuse the horrific actions, but they do offer insight into the minds of the villain. One justifiable incident leads to another, and soon you're killing millions in an ethnic cleanse. During the recent trial of Radovan Karadžić, the Serbian leader accused of heinous war crimes against Bosnian Muslims, the war criminal claimed that his actions were born out of the desire for peace. The actions in question? Slaughtering of defenseless men, women, and children, all because they were not ethnic Serbs.
Growing up, we are taught a clear distinction of good versus evil. As a new father, I've already been mulling over the ways in which I will convey these moral boundaries to my daughter. But at some point, we learn that the demarcation of these to poles is not as clear, and generally it is when we find ourselves deeper into the morally reprehensible territory than we'd prefer. It is in realizing that we are not as strong as we'd like to be that we solidify where our own personal morals truly stand. Luckily, most of us catch ourselves before we do anything too dastardly. Some may argue that it is foolhardy of our parents to imbue these oversimplified dichotomies of "good" and "bad", but I believe that these lessons are the building blocks that help us extrapolate morality to the more complicated situations.
Whatever one's moral bearing, the decisions between good and evil are specific to the situation and the individual, and it seems that the nuances of this age-old dynamic are being explored in greater detail in our pop-culture today. The next time an episode of your favorite new show comes on, think about the moral conflicts the protagonist is challenging. On which side of the line would you fall?