Once upon a time, stories enjoyed a simpler existence. Literature from centuries past dwelled in the bucolic—if overly idealistic—fields of clear moral standards, objectivity regarding what was right and wrong, and clearly drawn lines between the hero and the villain.
The divide between good and evil was obvious—a line separating light and dark. I’m not saying this was true across the board. Anytime you have rules, you find exceptions to those rules, but in terms of majority, the tales who laid out a black-and-white world had the upper hand.
Entertainment—books and movies being my primary focus—has taken a different shape and hue. Whereas once the black-and-white stories abounded, they’ve dwindled in number and popularity. Not cast aside, but rather blended, obscured, so that what has emerged in popular entertainment is a wide swath of gray.
The modern mindset, shaped by worldviews such as relativism, demands a less clear-cut view of the world than simplistic stories of the knight in radiant armor battling the black-cloaked villain.
Two examples illustrate this trend.
Batman. Green Arrow. Han Solo.
The casting department for modern stories is churning out antiheroes faster than Marvel is releasing new movies. Taking a mini-sidetrack for a moment, antihero is a tricky label. For the purposes here, I’m using the terms in the sense of flawed heroes. Dark Knights. Characters with a healthy mix of admirable and questionable qualities.
I present Batman as Exhibit A in this gallery. A quick look at his attributes reveals a fascinating dichotomy. On the good side:
- Noble motives
And on the bad:
In the case of Batman, an even clearer departure from the virtuous hero is apparent in a visual sense. Batman is truly a dark knight, who lurks in the shadows and wears, compared to the noble knight in polished armor riding a white steed.
- Blurred morals
Where is the line between right and wrong? Is there, as some stories would have us believe, a sharp distinction, casting everyone into either one camp or the other? Or does there exist a middle ground, where the black and white bleed together, where anti-heroes lurk in the shadows, symbols of virtue yet more flawed than we care to admit?
One manifestation of a gray morality that pops up regularly is the question of the ends justifying the means.
- Was Batman right to kill people outside the restraints of the law, when the law itself was corrupt?
- Was it wrong for Stark to create Ultron, knowing the potential risks?
- Should the rebels have killed the soldiers of the Capital without mercy if it meant winning?
- Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
In a sense, I enjoy such probing questions because they stimulate my brain and cause me to contemplate things I normally wouldn’t. I sit there wondering, “If I was on one of the ferries the Joker had rigged to blow, which way would I vote?”
Borrowing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. jargon, “Could I make the tough call?” Whatever that call happened to be?
Moral conundrums add conflict, intrigue, and, but are such gray areas necessary? Do they cross the line into unsafe territory?
A Gray Landscape
Returning to the untainted knight image, my biggest beef with such a stereotype, and of stories in general that paint the world in such unambiguous terms, is the way they avoid the reality of life.
Thanks to sin, imperfections mar every jot and tittle of life, a stain not only on the world around us, but on our hearts. In a way, antiheroes provide a familiar foundation, characters to whom we can relate because if we’re honest, we’re more like them than the ne’er-do-wrong heroes.
Not an excuse to go around bashing heads or swearing because, “hey, that’s just who I am,” but neither a conscience-binding burden of perfectly emulating the flawless role-model character.
Do modern stories overstep the bounds of portraying these gray areas in an attempt to paint a realistic picture of the world, confusing good for evil and evil for good? Yes, but not always. And the presence of a “hero” who engages in an unsavory activity—Sherlock and his addiction to morphine, for example—doesn’t mean we should denounce the story as a piece of dangerous garbage and run for our the sake of our spiritual lives.
Discernment is necessary when dealing with any form of entertainment, but not to the point of creating legalistic boundaries. If I were to only watch movies or read books I agreed with and that aligned with my worldview, the list would be as short and boring as Bilbo’s beard.
Engaging entertainment isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. The gray areas are no exception. Read and watch, think, consider, question, evaluate.
Take away lessons from the good, understand and identify the bad.
Let such stories sharpen your mind, challenge your thinking, and present a clearer understanding of what you believe and why.
What’s your opinion on the “gray” trend in modern entertainment?