Bruce Wayne: Criminals aren't complicated, Alfred. I Just have to figure out what he's after.
Alfred: With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don't fully understand, either...Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
-The Dark Knight
In my recent appeal for an attempt to return to more uplifting cinema there was a bit of confusion about whether I meant to say that all productions with darker elements/morally questionable characters were inferior to productions that made a conscious effort to be edifying and upbeat. Another thing that happened was a lot of people agreed with my position, but felt that I was suggesting that stories with cruel characters and harrowing moments should be dismissed.
I need to clarify myself here
One of my favorite movies is The Godfather: a production in essence about a good-hearted man who is corrupted and eventually destroyed morally by association with his family 'business'. Over the course of the film Michael Corleone transforms from an upstanding military veteran with a loving wife to a secretive, murderous, lying criminal...and he does all of this by choice.
So does that make The Godfather an amoral movie? I would argue no.
The difficulty is that people too often associate 'shades of moral grey' with subjectivism: the idea that good and evil are entirely up to individual perspective. In other words, especially to a lot of contemporary people interested in justifying any number of questionable things, the argument goes that what's 'good' for you may be 'bad' for me, therefore since both of our opinions are equally valid good and evil have no meaning except what we give them.
The problem is that
A: I don't believe this is true, and neither do many when pressured on the issue.
B: This morally ambiguous frame makes for REALLY dull stories.
Ask yourself this. Given the choice between watching a character struggling with a difficult decision or just doing whatever he/she felt like without any reason or thought behind it: which would make for more compelling storytelling?
The answer traditionally has been difficult choices, crossroads of conscience. If good and evil are equal then where's the grandeur in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or Harry Potter? If there is only perception then why is there a desire on our part for villainous characters to receive their just reward, or heroes to be vindicated?
The point of The Godfather isn't that good and evil are equal or meaningless. The point is that even good people can slip into darkness, and that darkness can eat them until there's nearly nothing left. The sequel compounds this point looking at the history of original Godfather himself, where decisions to kill and steal and extort even as a child set him up for a lifetime of maintaining vendettas, ultimately losing his sons, and being hunted like an animal. The characters attempt to justify their actions using subjective reasoning. I did evil deeds because of my family, because of my life. Therefore since I can justify my actions that means I'm in the right, or maybe there is not right or wrong to worry about.
But the last scene of The Godfather says it all starkly. Michael Corleone sits by himself in an autumn landscape of dying trees, his brow furrowed in inner pain. He's purposefully ordered the deaths of many individuals, including his own friends and family. He is keeping his family hostage in a fortress to protect them from vengeful criminals. He owns everything...but he has nothing.
This is why despite the moral rules being broken, that doesn't make the rules invalidated. The Godfather, as with I would argue all great stories, pictures mankind caught between the poles of good and evil and negotiating them.
Compare this with Bobcat Goldthwait's 'God Bless America'.
In this production a man suffering terminal disease decides to rid the world of bad people (mostly political enemies and people he doesn't like) by killing them.
Lets consider two of the endless speeches in this movie (ironically summing up Goldthwaits own twisted view about morality.)
A: My name is Frank. That's not important. The important question is: who are you? America has become a cruel and vicious place. We reward the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest. We no longer have any common sense of decency. No sense of shame. There is no right and wrong. The worst qualities in people are looked up to and celebrated. Lying and spreading fear is fine as long as you make money doing it. We've become a nation of slogan-saying, bile-spewing hatemongers. We've lost our kindness. We've lost our soul. What have we become?
However earlier THIS was said...
B: I hate my neighbors. The constant cacophony of stupidity that pours from their apartment is absolutely soul-crushing. It doesn't matter how politely I ask them to practice some common courtesy - they're incapable of comprehending that their actions affect other people. They have a complete lack of consideration for anyone else, and an overly developed sense of entitlement. They have no decency, no concern, no shame. They do not care that I suffer from debilitating migraines and insomnia. They do not care that I have to go to work, or that I want to kill them. I know it's not normal to want to kill, but I also know that I am no longer normal.
So yes. We should really cultivate niceness and moral truth...and if you disagree with me I'll kill you.
Or maybe I'll kill you just because you personally annoy me.
This is not morality. This is the same brand of immoral hatefulness present in every Bobcat Goldthwait film. Mean people are mean, therefore they have to die. That doesn't make ME mean. Morals only mean something if I can personally arbitrate them.
Compare this with Batman who checks himself deliberately to avoid killing people...even those who 'deserve' to die. Compared to Goldthwait and a disturbing number of modern 'anti-heroes' out to right the wrongs of society by just killing everybody willy-nilly for the unforgivable crime of annoying them, and Batman looks like a mature and sane individual surrounded by childish, whining celebrities unhappy that other people disagree with them. And so they kill scarecrows of people they hate in their movies to feel better about themselves.
The same goes for Elysium in which Matt Damon, a famous and rich actor, fights off evil rich people. In Assault on Wall Street more famous, wealthy actors shoot to death unarmed people for the crime of being rich. In Arrow on the CW (a reinvention of DC's Green Arrow character) the liberally-inclined hero of the comics has become a cold-blooded assassin of people who have the gall to disagree with him. Violent criminals are only half of the people Arrow butchers. If you commit tax fraud, you're dead. If you make more money then your employees, you deserve to be shot in the heart.
This is the difference between morality and whatever it passes for now. This is why I want to return to that 'naive' time when people were rewarded for doing the right thing, not for literally killing people just because they disagree with a certain political opinion.
In The Silence of the Lambs we do get to understand a little more fully the motivations and origins of serial killers Hannibal Lector and Buffalo Bill. We're lead to understand them as people even if they do monstrous things. But at no point does the film commend them for their actions. Hannibal eats people, kills people, and hurts people for the sport of it, and no matter what they've done to him in the past this is not considered justified. When it comes down to it, he's a bad person, and distinguished morally from the FBI agent Starling who talks with him.
Buffalo Bill is probably the way he is because of childhood abuse, but this does not justify his actions. Even if he's literally crazy, he needs to be stopped and in the end our hero Starling doesn't hesitate to use lethal force to rescue his hostages and stop his threat.
Compare this with another movie in the same series: Hannibal. The writer of that film described Hannibal Lector as 'A sane man living in an insane world'. Suddenly, although this was never his way, Hannibal only kills bad people and his enemy is portrayed cartoonishly as a far more hateful individual on purpose, to make Hannibal look morally superior.
Why do we need to sympathize with Hannibal? He was always an arresting character, but he was NEVER intended to be a hero. Brian Cox who first portrayed the killer in the movie Manhunter made a far more accurate representation of him according to his description in the book 'Red Dragon' (the first appearance of the character). Hannibal is a JERK. He's mealy-mouthed, he's arrogant, he's deliberately and methodically cruel. He enjoys hurting and killing people. He uses trickery to get an FBI agent's family address then passes it on to another serial killer out of spite. Hannibal is not a hero by any stretch of the definition.
Unless the laws of morality are entirely subjective.
It's 'romantic' in a loose sense to imagine this smart, sophisticated guy eluding the stuffy authorities and only killing bad people so we can still support him to some extent morally, but it's really quite damaging to the understanding or morality itself. It really does seem to suggest the ends justify the means, no matter what those means are.
Again, compare this with Hannibal's reappearance in the movie Red Dragon. Apparently ignoring the movie Hannibal we're instantly made aware of Lector as a villain again. He's unapologetic. He's smug. He's callous.
In other words: HE'S SCARY.
This is another thing that's lost in a fully morally neutral zone: fear. Hannibal is the least scary of the movie series despite some lovely direction and an overabundance of gore. The reason? Hannibal isn't acting as a character any more. He's a weird anti-hero whose world adjusts around him to support this misguided ideal.
Same with Goldthwait's films. He would argue stridently that he's calling out the evils of the world, but even a casual viewer will see that it's his perspective which is askew. His films portray a world devoid of decent people: a mirthless parody of America. Everyone acts like a jerk, but above and beyond hatefully so that it balances out with Goldthwaits own snarling, vicious characters.
In order for morality to exist, but for people to remain immoral, there cannot be any decent individuals.
Back to The Godfather. We SEE decent people. We see plenty of those who were decent, but who have been corrupted. We see the comparison. Michael isn't an anti-hero whose world is twisted to the point he MUST do evil to be better then the wicked world, he's a decent person who made bad choices internally justified that ruin his life regardless.
And THIS is why I say we need lighter films. Not films without darkness, but films with light AND darkness.
You might say that Star Wars is fluff, but the truth is the reason for the light of the central cast is because of the darkness surrounding them. Luke becomes a beacon of hope and an archon of goodness because he is in contest with The Emperor who is unabashedly an advocate for evil. In that production good and evil aren't just states of mind: they're forces that have effects on those who choose to follow one or the other.
In Red Dawn (the original) although often accused of being American propoganda or glorifying warfare, those who watch it will quickly see quite the opposite. Here BOTH sides of the conflict are fleshed out. We spend as much time with the occupying army as we do with the American rebels, and at times the occupiers seem to be much more sophisticated and sympathetic then the angst-ridden teenaged terrorists. However ultimately the film does choose a side: freedom. Not necessarily 'America right or wrong' but it declares in one powerful scene that morality DOES exist, and it favors the rebels over the occupying force.
Matt Eckert: Tell me what's the difference between us and them!
Jed Eckert: Because...WE LIVE HERE!
In the end the film doesn't declare war a good thing. After our heroes have bombed a location, the film takes a long and grim look at the aftermath including teenaged soldiers the same age as the rebels suffering on the ground, bloody wounds speckling their bodies.
Another moment descriptive of this film's overall message is when the main rebel and enemy general meet. The rebel leader growls 'You lose!' and opens fire, but in his dying moments the general whirls and opens fire right back, fatally wounding the leader.
In the end, war kills both sides and moral high ground doesn't determine victory. Even the ending of the film suggests that no one really remembers or cares about what the rebels did now that the war is over...but importantly notes that those who do remember will never forget.
So this is what I mean when I say movies with moments as light as well as darkness and a clear distinction between the two.
As a Christian I believe goodness to be the definition of when mankind lives in the fashion he was made to, in conjunction with the loving God who created everything. Evil is deviation from that, willfully denying God in favor of selfish ends which ultimately always means one thing.
In the words of Hannibal Lector 'He'll never stop (killing) because it makes him God.'
Evil is man trying to replace God, and doing a lousy job of it.
This is the distinction.
Without a moral universe, without right and wrong established, then both are equal only to the power of those who then determine the meaning of either.
To quote Lord Vauldemort 'There is no good or evil. There is only power and those too weak to seek it.'
But this is not a moral way to live our lives: this is the justification of those who want to exercise power but not feel guilty about it. This is those who want to hurt/kill people they dislike but still claim to be morally superior to them.
This is not heroism.
What is heroism?
That's why I say we need to look backwards. Awhile ago we wouldn't have to ask. Our heroes would try to do the right thing, our villains would be the ones trying to weasel their way out of moral responsibility.
So shades of moral grey doesn't mean that the black and white of the spectrum does not exist.
And on a certain level I've come to believe that even those who state that logically morality should not exist, these people STILL believe somewhere that this statement is invalidated. Logical and truth are actually not always the same thing because logic depends on man's understanding, which is not always so complete as we'd like it to be.
Good and evil are beyond basic understanding, but that doesn't make them any less real, or powerful.