I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine the other day. A deep thinker. A coffee drinker. From the local shop, not Starbucks. I asked him if he had watched Avengers: End Game yet. He hadn’t. And the whole truth is that he actually fell asleep in Infinity War. So I did what anyone else would do in that moment. I probed. I had to know why he hadn’t caught the fire of the worldwide, cultural phenomenon that is the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). He shared with me the thing that grieved him most about the superhero movie trend. Their undeniable predictability.
“You know the good guys are going to win,” he said. “They always do. The only thing you’re trying to figure out is how they wind up doing it. The bad guys never win. Why shouldn’t the bad guys win?”
This is typically the norm when the story/movie, very clearly depicts one side of the conflict as villains and the other side as heroes. Tolkien had the champions of Middle Earth fighting to save the world from the doom of Dark Lord Sauron. I think it’s safe to say that out of the droves of Lord of the Rings fans that exist in the world, almost all of them would align themselves against the Dark Lord. I mean he’s the Dark Lord. His warriors are evil orcs spawned from the muck and filth of the earth. What’s not to love?
This was something my friend found seriously irksome, and unrealistic, though I still believe he would consider himself a Tolkien fan. As we continued talking however, he shared with me his love for moral ambiguity in cinema and literature. How he found himself drawn to the stories that allow the reader to find heroes and heroines on every side of the conflict. Stories that weren’t about good vs evil, but rather different persons or groups of people, in conflict with each other over their unique values and ideologies. In George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series for example, multiple sides of the conflict find themselves motivated to claim The Iron Throne and each have unique ideologies, moralities, religious beliefs, and there are characters that you can truly empathize with from each of the noble houses. Those were the stories that my friend found more entertaining. And at first this made total sense. But as I pondered a bit more on the idea, deeper questions started to rise.
If the characters are morally ambiguous, then there aren’t any “bad guys” or “good guys.” And if that is the case, doesn’t that mean the “bad guys” still can’t win? There’s an idea floating around that morally ambiguous stories are smarter, more believable. That they require more craftiness to pull off, and allow for more potential surprises and subverted expectations. But what if that’s backwards? In the absence of a true villain, the writer can very easily let whomever they want win, and regardless of which side they choose, they never actually had to step outside the typical box and write the kind of hard-to-sell story that truly lets the bad guys win. I mean, Jaime Lannister does belong to a “bad family” but if he starts showing heroic traits and winds up on the winning side in the end, then a “bad guy” still didn’t win. It’s not any smarter than having a good vs evil plot and just waiting to see how the good guys pull it off in the end, now your just doing the same thing with individual characters. You know Jaime has a good side and a bad side, and you know he’s going to turn to a hero, you’re just waiting to see how he does it in the end.
I personally find myself writing stories that flirt with the themes of moral ambiguity more often than not. This is mainly because I find them to be more entertaining. But in the end, I know who the heroes are, regardless of which side of the conflict they start on, and I know the heroes are going to win. Those are the stories I like. The hopeful ones. And sometimes I wonder if moral ambiguity is nothing more than a veil we storytellers use to disguise who the heroes are and create a falsely inflated level of anticipation and suspense around our stories. What do you think?