Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bad Guy Alignments and Morality

                  Anyone who’s played an RPG (or who, like me, never have but are familiar with the concept) knows about Character Alignment. Alignment is basically whether your character is supposed to be a good guy, a bad guy, or somewhere in between. This is supposed to guide your decisions as you proceed through the campaign (i.e. if you have a Lawful Good Wizard, you shouldn’t be researching an “Omnicide” spell).
                  Meanwhile, anyone who has been to the cinema lately knows that movies centered around “bad guys” are all the rage (Despicable Me, Megamind, Wreck-It Ralph, etc. not to mention things like the internet-original Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog or the book/show Wicked. These are just off the top of my head; you could find dozens more). Now, to a greater or lesser extent, I like all the works I listed above (well, Wicked sucks as a story, but the music’s good). But the thing is that, by and large, they don’t actually center around real bad guys. Wreck-It Ralph isn’t a bad guy; he just plays one in a video-game. Dr. Horrible may steal things, but he balks at the idea of actually hurting anyone. And of course, ‘Elphaba’s only crime is being born with green skin (one of the reasons I think the story doesn’t work; what’s the point of writing about the flippin’ Wicked Witch of the West if you can’t even make her mildly amoral?). About the only genuinely bad guy on that list is Gru from Despicable Me, who at least starts out as selfish and uncaring.

Remind me why he's a bad guy again?
                  It’s obvious to see why this is; a story about an honest-to-goodness bad guy would be intolerable (note that the Nightmare on Elm Street series tanked the moment it became centered on Freddy himself). Instead, these kinds of stories could be said to have characters with an ‘evil’ (or at least ‘neutral’) alignment; being ‘bad’ is simply part of their make-up, like their race or appearance. Wreck-It Ralph and his friends at ‘Bad-Anon’ are only bad guys in the sense that that’s their particular niche in the video-game society, not because of anything they actually do.
                  The trouble is that this sort of thing can, and I’m afraid often does, lead us to forget that the real world doesn’t have an alignment system. ‘Evil’ people aren’t cuddly, oppressed types who can’t help their alignment and suffer for it. They’re people who consciously choose to do evil things. ‘Good’ people aren’t the privileged few whom the world has blessed to go out and fight evilness, they’re the people who have done the right thing time and time again until it has become a habit, and this doesn’t usually translate to social prestige. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ people are not different species; they’re people who have made different choices and who may make still different ones in the future. 
                  In other words, these kinds of stories can make us think that, when we hear someone call a certain act ‘good’ or another ‘evil,’ that just means “Oh, he’s just being a self-righteous bully, like Captain Hammer; appointing himself good and lording it over the poor ‘bad guy.’” No, it doesn’t. It means “this is an honestly wrong and disordered action which no one should ever commit.” In the real world, unless someone is very silly, ‘evil’ means just, simply, evil. Not ‘unwanted,’ ‘inconvenient,’ or ‘socially-excluded,’ but evil. Wrong. Unnatural. Bad.
                  It’s true, of course, that in the real world people often get ostracized for superficial reasons (skin color, height, attractiveness, etc.). But this is not the same thing as making a moral judgment. The latter is a matter of philosophy; the former is just bad manners (of course, the rude person may subsequently try to excuse his behavior by making it out to be a matter of philosophy). In these stories, the common thread, it seems to me, is that the ‘bad guys’ lash out because the ‘good guys’ are rude to them, and being a ‘good guy’ is associated with being rude to the bad guys. Thus the takeaway is that a ‘bad guy’ is simply someone the ‘good guys’ feel justified in being rude to. But again, that’s not how the real world works.
                  And the thing is; no one believes it does. For one thing, all of these stories include a genuinely evil character for the ‘hero’ to fight. But none of them, as far as I can remember, bother to stop and make the distinction between the ‘evil alignment’ protagonist and the genuinely evil antagonist (the closest I can think of is Megamind’s boast that his opponent is “a villain…but not a super-villain”). Obviously, though, the protagonists are ‘good’ in a way that the antagonists aren’t, even if the antagonist is the ostensible ‘good guy.’ Thus, even when they purport to be revealing the ‘superficiality of our distinctions of good and evil,’ they aren’t. They’re just arbitrarily slapping the labels ‘good’ and ‘evil’ on the wrong characters while maintaining the same moral standards of a more ‘traditional’ story.
                  The truth is, of course, that moral standards are axiomatic and unchanging. If you don’t believe me, just try to imagine what a story where the real Wicked Witch of the West was the protagonist and you were expected to root for her as she tries to murder Dorothy and take over Oz. Or imagine you were expected to root for Captain Hammer in Dr. Horrible, or the Joker in The Dark Knight. Not only can you not imagine doing so, but you would hate any story that expected you to. The easiest way to kill an audience’s interest in a story is to have an unlikeable protagonist (see The Lost World: Jurassic Park for an example). 

He's just misunderstood...
                  And don’t think you can escape this by pointing out popular, morally ambivalent characters like James Bond, Wolverine, Sam Spade, or Mal Reynolds. Yes, these guys are rough around the edges and no one’s idea of a nice guy, but we don’t root for them because of their immorality, but for what morality they have, and because their opponents are obviously much worse. Again, imagine that we were expected to cheer for Blofeld, or Sabertooth, or Guttman, or the Operative. You can’t, and you’d resent anyone who expected you to.
                  Good and evil are not just arbitrary labels, and even attempts to show that they are only re-confirm the fact that they aren’t. We can’t imagine a world in which they would be other than they are, even when we deliberately set out to do so, because our whole being revolts against the concept. A world in which cruelty, cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness are good is unimaginable, and if by some demonic effort we could, we would want to leave it as soon as possible. 

Vive Christus Rex!


Masha said...

But you do 'cheer' for the Operative...not for his actions, but for him..he's shown as sort of a pre-redeemed Shepherd character, and he's shown as a human being who still has the potential for goodness..That's actually one of the brilliant aspects of Firefly, the consistent portrayal of people, not just caricatures of good and evil. Mal is a bad man, Jayne is a bad man, Zoe's not exactly a saint either, Kaylee's kind of a 'ho..They're not good people, but they have potential, they have values that drive them, everyone does..even the 'bad guys'. Evil characters like Voldemort or the Wicked Witch belong only to a very specific gene, one that's not so character driven and so can get away with a bit of two-dimensionality.

BTanaka said...

My point in this piece wasn't whether three or two dimensional characters are, as a rule, preferable. My point was that even when you try to break out of the 'hero and villain' mold, you still fall into it. Mal, for all his immorality, is the hero and the Operative, for all his good motivations, is the villain. A movie centered around the Operative, expecting us to cheer while he murdered people in pursuit of his utopia, would be intolerable. We root for Mal over the Operative because what values he has are more correct, as far as they go, than those that the Operative has. That is, we perceive a real, objective difference in quality between Mal's morals and the Operative's morals, even though neither of them are especially 'good' men.

Post a Comment