A Lighter Shade of Black
While Evil Versus Evil may be fun, it carries the risk of Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy: people just do like having someone to cheer for; but, if both sides are equally reprehensible, then there's really no point to it. So that's where this trope kicks in. It basically means that the author is clearly trying to portray one side of the conflict as the better or more sympathetic one, so the audience can root for them. Since both sides are supposed to be villains, this isn't that hard. You just need to give your Lighter Black a little edge on the sympathy meter. The idea is to have the audience say "Yeah, Alice may be evil, but at least she's not half as bad as Bob!" This can be done in many ways. Give your villain the Sympathetic P.O.V.. Have them Pet the Dog, be a Noble Demon or invoke Even Evil Has Standards. Perhaps they're simply a smaller threat to the world. Maybe their goals are, or used to be, somewhat sympathetic. Maybe they have many Evil Virtues. Or, when compared to the opposition, their cause still seems a little more "right" or their character "pure" than that of the enemy. Sometimes, Bob just needs to be stopped at any cost, and Alice happens to have that goal in mind, if only for selfish reasons. Since we want them to win, this may lead to a villainous version of Right Makes Might and Pure Is Not Good. Or maybe the villain is such a Magnificent Bastard that it's easier to side with them. Especially if their opposition is a threat to everyone. If they shoot way over the line, the character in question may end up doing a Heel-Face Turn. This is generally a trait of most Enlightenment fiction that believes Rousseau Was Right. See also Black and Gray Morality, A Lighter Shade of Grey, Nominal Hero, and Shades of Conflict. An exaggerated form of this trope is Evil Versus Oblivion. Do not confuse this trope with Lesser of Two Evils, in which case, there still isn't a side to root for. (Those stories usually involve a hero's P.O.V. and he's observing the two villains fighting each other.)
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Anime and Manga
- Most of the villains in Black Butler are worse than Ciel.
- Death Note: Even Rem agrees, while Light Yagami may be a bastard he isn't as bad as Kyosuke Higuchi.
- Mobile Suit Gundam's Kycilia Zabi is a fascist dictator who holds that We Have Reserves and once left a group of her own men buried alive in a collapsing mine. That said, she's not quite as awful as her older brother, Gihren, a psychopath who aims to reduce the population of Earth to less than a billion and who murders their father with a Wave Motion Gun. This makes it possible, if just, to root for her as the two of them manouvere for position in the Zeon hierarchy.
- Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ spoiler: Invoked by Haman Khan as she tries to convince Judau to ally with her against Glemmy Toto. Haman explains that she's just a conqueror who doesn't believe in the Zabi name she's using as a flag, but Glemmy does, and Glemmy will drown the Earth Sphere in blood because of it. Judau doesn't buy it; as far as he can tell, Haman and Glemmy are exactly the same, and he's not going to pick one above the other.
- In the Area 88 manga and OVA, Asran's pro-monarchy forces are not the good guys. The Asran monarchy lives in luxury while Asran struggles with poverty and a poor educational system. Saki is willing to use nuclear weapons in the country's civil war. Many of the mercenaries at Area 88 are amoral or outright sociopathic. However, members of Asran's monarchy have sympathetic moments, as do many of the mercenaries. To boot, the anti-government forces are depicted as much worse, committing atrocities against civilians and allying with Farina's mafia.
- Dragon Ball Z:
- There's no denying that Nappa is a ruthless villain, but he seems to care for his comrades, as shown when he suggested the Dragon Balls be used to wish their fallen fellow Saiyan, Raditz, back to life; a suggestion Vegeta shoots down in favor of his own desire for immortality.
- Beerus, the God of Destruction and Big Bad of Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods stands out amongst the Z-Fighters' Rogues Gallery. Most other Dragon Ball villains, especially Frieza and Cell, are utterly sadistic, depraved monsters who kill and destroy whoever and whenever they want For the Evulz. Beerus, on the other hand, only destroys because it's his job (though he is prone to destroying planets for petty reasons) and is quite sociable and friendly when off the clock.
- Fullmetal Alchemist: Greed is still an antagonist and kind of a jerk, but he's leagues better than his fellow homunculi/siblings/former allies. He treats his underlings well and has their genuine respect and is not especially malicious.
- Black Lagoon: the protagonists are pirates and smugglers who are quite willing to do all manner of immoral acts if the pay is right. They're still much better than most of their opponents, who include neo-Nazis, bloodthirsty cartels, and the other inhabitants of Roanapor.
- In Wanted, Wesley and his allies are ever so slightly better than their opponents, which makes it possible to root for them. Invoked by the author, as the story's structure (a corruption of The Hero's Journey) is specifically modelled to make you root for the Villain Protagonist even though he murders, rapes and tortures his way through the issues and is a petty, smug sadist who obviously gets off on the evil acts he commits. In the end the only thing differentiating Wesley from the Big Bad Mr. Rictus is that Wesley is evil 6 days a week, whereas Rictus strives to fill all 7 of them with bonafide supervillainy. By the end Wesley has to Break The Fourth Wall to remind the reader that, yes, he's still a villain and proud of it.
- Spider-Man: During Venom's transformation into an an anti-hero in the nineties, readers were introduced to Carnage, Venom's eviler counterpart.
- In X-Men while Magneto is often portrayed as a ruthless villain, he wanted to create a better world for mutantkind free from human discrimination and persecution. This is a stark contrast to many other X-Men villains such as Sebastian Shaw, William Stryker, and Apocalypse; where these villains have more selfish purposes (and in the case of Stryker, genocide against mutants). And of course there is Magneto's disgust of the Red Skull note .
- In Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, the titular Villain Protagonist has next to no redeeming qualities, but he does have a Morality Pet (that he seldom actually pets, try as he might) and seems to recognize that he's gone horrifically wrong... and when he's up against a universe-consuming Eldritch Abomination, it's relatively easy to root for him.
- It helps, too, that Johnny is somewhat goofy and likable, mostly due to his Crosses the Line Twice mannerisms and general childish tendencies, while the Monster Behind the Wall is never fun or wacky at all. Even though Johnny is clearly not forgivable, most of the readers would much rather have him running around.
- In the Alien vs. Predator movies, the Predators are this to the Aliens. In the first movie, not only does this lead to an Enemy Mine situation where the last surviving human character teams up with the last surviving Predator, but it's made abundantly clear that the Predators are by far the lesser threat, as the Aliens will cause global extinction if they reach civilization (which, as many of noted, invalidates the famous tagline "Whoever wins... we lose"). The second film is a bit better about this trope, with the Predator gruesomely killing a fair number of people without an Enemy Mine in sight, but to the humans, it remains a significantly smaller problem than the Alien swarm in addition to the many Evil Virtues of its species.
- A lot of the victims the Predators kills in many of the films and video games are usually Asshole Victim, as many of those killed by the Predators are either gang leaders, thug, criminals, rapists, or child-abusers (this is evident in Predator2 film where the Predator was killing a bunch of gang leaders and their henchmen). The Predators follow a strict code of honor and even helped develop some of the greatest civilizations in history (i.e. the Aztec Empire, Ancient Egyptians, and the Khmer Empire). The reason the Predators are considered antagonists is because many of the protagonists in such works are usually law enforcement officers or military personnel (which the Predators do consider them to be Worthy Opponent since many of them are capable of fighting back).
- In Freddy vs. Jason, Jason is often read this way, since at least he's not a children-killing scumbag with pedophilic undertones who stretches out his victims' deaths out of sheer sadism. That and Freddy can go just about anywhere whereas Jason only sticks to his home place.
- Every character in Conspiracy is a Nazi and have enthusiastically engaged in war crimes, so they're all evil. Yet Dr. Wilhelm Kritzinger, while still a proud servant of the Fuehrer who's glad to oppress the Jewish people, is the only one appalled by the concept of complete extermination.
- The Parker novels by Richard Stark sometimes uses this. Parker, a Villain Protagonist, is an amoral thief. However, he is pragmatic. He would kill to get what he wants, but he would not do it if it was unnecessary because he knows that the police put more effort in hunting murderers than thieves. Some books like The Sour Lemon Score or Deadly Edge, put him against complete psychos who rape and kill on a whim.
- In the BattleTech novel Bred for War, the assassin responsible for the death of Melissa Steiner-Davion in an earlier book gets this treatment. When a new "revolutionary" government takes over the planet he'd been thinking about going into retirement on, it turns out to be sufficiently nasty that even his disregard for collateral damage in leading La Résistance and his leaving his local girlfriend to be captured and killed as a distraction can't quite quench the admiration for his magnificent bastardry. (It helps that he only reveals his real identity at the end of the subplot — even to the reader.)
- In-Universe in Vampire Academy, the Alchemists consider Strigoi, Moroi, and Dhampirs to be all "evil creatures of the night". But they are willing to concede that the latter two are a lighter shade of black. Allowing them to covertly co-operate.
- Ezra's Gamble is about Bounty Hunter Bossk and Street Urchin Ezra Bridger fighting a criminal and a corrupt and murderous Imperial officer in cahoots with him. Bossk himself only comes across as evil in other Star Wars stories, not in this one. Until the reward he promised Ezra turns out to be significantly smaller than implied.
- By the third season of Boardwalk Empire, Villain Protagonist Nucky Thompson had taken a level in jerkass and embraced his role as a gangster to a degree that he was no longer clearly the Gray in the Black and Gray Morality framework. So, he was given an opponent in Gyp Rosetti, a brutal sociopath with a Hair-Trigger Temper, against whom Nucky looks like a saint in comparison.
- Casual racism pops up quite a bit in Sons of Anarchy, which is probably why the gang ends up fighting actual white supremacists. The blue collar, decidedly Un-PC Sons seem like paragons of liberal virtue in comparison to the brutal, bloodthirsty skinheads they battle throughout Season 2.
- In Justified, Boyd Crowder transitions from antivillain to outright villain as the series progresses. For all his machinations and bloodshed, however, he has sympathetic moments, as is far less sadistic than his adversaries, who include his father, Bo (drug lord, casual killer and eventual mass murderer), the Bennetts (a clan of marijuana dealers who kill anyone who so much as questions their control), Robert Quarles (an Oxycontin-addicted serial killer and sexual predator), Nicky Augustine (a sociopathic starscream with a jerkass streak), Daryl Crowe Jr. (a murderous smuggler who had his own brother killed for screwing up a job), and the Mexican cartel, who skin their enemies alive. This works to Boyd's advantage in-series as well, as series' protagonist Raylan Givens will typically focus on the more evil villain of the season and leave Boyd more or less alone.
- In From Dusk Till Dawn the Gecko brothers are thieves and murderers, but the vampires run an international drug cartel and drain innocent girls by the container-full.
- CHAOS was the top "evil" stable of New Japan Pro Wrestling before the establishment of the gaijin group Bullet Club (never mind CHAOS's own "outsiders") but they both get cheered when facing what was once Komajigun. Minoru simply became that unlikable since taking over and making it Suzukigun.
- World Wrestling League Tercias champions Los Rabiosos consisted of two thugs who only cared about money and a whiny backstabbing hypocrite, which still made them better than Spectro, Kronya and Vassago, the murderous arsonists of Legio. However, Rabiosos would later get some Pet the Dog moments through haciendo la diferencia while the later only got worse by picking up Mistress Glenda Lee and El Profe, turning it into Black and Grey Morality.
- This is what Warhammer 40,000 has instead of Good versus Evil, and is presumably what fans of the Lighter Black factions (Tau, Eldar, the Imperium) see in playing on the side of such horrible people; they're fighting against the very incarnations of cruelty (Dark Eldar), death (Necrons), savagery (Orks), consumption (Tyranids) and, well, Chaos.
- In Shadowrun, the triple-A Mega Corp. Horizon (which appeared in 4th edition onwards) is a world-dominating mega corp that has a completely flat and transparent corporate structure, an extremely cheerful and public CEO, and focus on 'benign' industries like Public Relations and pharmaceuticals. Rather than make them the 'good guys' of the setting this has made them Paranoia Fuel; Shadowrunners are usually extremely Genre Savvy (the ones that aren't don't live long) and the concept of a Mega with no skeletons in the closet that actually cares is scarier than eight of the other open Pragmatic Villains on the Corporate Court combined (they still don't match Aztechnology though) because this only means they must be hiding something utterly depraved in there somewhere... But nobody knows what it is.
- Sweeney Todd is a murderous barber who slashes his customers' throats and has them baked into pies. But in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, we root for him because he wants revenge against the corrupt Hanging Judge who falsely transported him for life in order to get at his beautiful wife, as well as having some rather skeevy designs on his daughter when she comes of age.
- Fate/stay night: Part of "Heaven's Feel" seems to be solely dedicated to making the players like Kotomine more, with several Enemy Mine and Pet the Dog situations and most importantly, an utterly epic fight where he holds his own against Matou Zoken and his Servant quite well. In "Fate", Kotomine is portrayed as fairly simplistic with no motives beyond Evil Feels Good, and in Unlimited Blade Works he takes a backseat to the conflict between Shirou and Archer. Only "Heaven's Feel" fleshes him out at all, but in doing so it makes him into a much more complex character than when he was portrayed in simple black and white terms.
- Knights of the Old Republic II: In the Dark Side Ending, Kreia will say that the PC is not a Sith. Not really. Presumably, she considers them a Dark Jedi instead, i.e. someone who uses the Dark Side for their own advancement rather than submitting to the Sith Code and philosophies.
- This is the case in Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (Laharl the wannabe Evil Overlord vs. an Omnicidal Maniac). Disgaea 2 and Disgaea 4 have more heroic protagonists while Disgaea 3 is mixed (Mao wants to slay his father, the Overlord, for trivial reasons and the rest of the cast have more heroic goals plus the real villain already made Mao do it and surpressed his memories)
- Blood has no good guys. On one hand you have a cult trying to summon a dark god, murdering anyone they want to and experimenting on the rest. On the other side you have one of their failed projects, a sadistic revenant named Caleb who was one of those cultists and also is murdering anyone he feels like. At least Caleb is fighting to avenge his wife and best friend and has a sense of humor.
- The Scarlet Crusade vs the Scourge in World of Warcraft. At least until Wrath of the Lich King.
- God of War is an interesting example. On one side, the Gods of Olympus, famous for toying with or outright squashing humanity when they feel like it, but also the sources of wisdom, love, agriculture, and even the Sun itself. On the other, a completely psychotic killer who thinks nothing of slaughtering anybody in his way, but with basically sympathetic motives for bringing war against the gods, and who ultimately grants his enormous power to humanity after bringing down Olympus. In the end, which side is Lighter comes down to the viewer.
- Scarface: The World is Yours follows the original film in this. Sure, Tony is wiping out the gangs and the enemy gangsters all the way up to Sosa, who watchers of the film would have known was not a nice person, but he is still putting drugs on the streets of Miami.
- Drakengard. Among your plucky group of heroes are an Ax-Crazy mute soldier whose sister loves him more than is socially acceptable, a vicious red dragon, a batshit crazy elf who eats children, a religious patriarch who never passes up an opportunity to call for genocide against all other intelligent species, a blind pedophile, and a child cursed to never grow up. However, they're care bears compared to the Grotesqueries, hideous Humanoid Abomination who wish to unmake creation through the efforts of their possessed minion Manah, a six year old girl who delights in ruining lives left and right because her mommy never loved her enough.
- In BlazBlue we have the Big Bad Duumvirate, Relius Clover and Hazama / Terumi Yuuki. Both of them are seemingly caught in a "How far beyond the Moral Event Horizon can you go" contest, but despite the fact that they are pretty much evenly matched as far as accomplishments go, Relius is still a lighter shade of black than Hazama is. First and foremost because most of his atrocities were committed in order to satiate his own scientific curiosity, and secondly because he is pretty pragmatic in his villainy. Compare to Hazama who doesn't even pretend to have a rationalization for all the shit he does and often goes out of his way to ruin people's lives JUST BECAUSE... His behavior is sort of justified, though, because Hazama/Terumi avoids getting erased from reality by anchoring his own existence in the world through people's hatred of him. It's ultimately Double Subverted, though, because he really does get off on pushing people beyond the Despair Event Horizon. The fact that there are good reasons to suspect he's the 'verse's own take on Satan doesn't help his case, either.
- Eventually Relius in Chronophantasma turns out to be capable of being portrayed as an extreme version of Well-Intentioned Extremist. All three main bad guys (Imperator, Terumi, Relius) aim for destroying the Master Unit Amaterasu which can cause a genocidal damage to the current world and resets it, but it turns that Relius... does so because he's frustrated that the world never progresses and prevents advancement of his goal of creating the Perfect Doll. While he is still pretty selfish that he only cares for his own project, his intention can be portrayed at being beneficial for the rest of humanity trapped in depressing loops. If he completes the project, he could either leave humanity alone, or try to inject the Perfect Doll for humanity, which in his twisted mind, may have a chance to be considered a beneficial improvement for overall humans (though probably other people will not agree). This is in comparison of Terumi who just wants the world to be his playground of evil and filled with despair for his own greed, and the Imperator, being Izanami, who just wants everyone to die and make the world empty.
- Baldur's Gate
- In Baldur's Gate II, you are given the choice between supporting the Shadow Thieves, a thieves' guild you've probably already done some sidequests for, and a rival guild led by a lady called Bodhi that contains vampires that attack people in the streets at night. If you visit their guildhalls neither of them seem terribly 'good', but at least the Shadow Thieves don't decorate with giant pools of human blood and fill their halls with mindless thralls they feed on.
- In all the three parts (BG 1, BG 2 and BG 2: Thone of Bhaal), the protagonist can be evil but will still be potentially sympathetic due to being the Player Character, and will also be the lesser evil compared to the major villain of each story and their destructive plans. In Throne of Bhaal, the prophecy behind much of the games' plot is revealed to contain the clause that, no matter what path the protagonist chooses if they should triumph over their antagonists in that storyline, the results of their losing would always be worse.
- Shin Megami Tensei: While the forces of Law and Chaos are both pretty damn repellent, sometimes one side just makes a better argument about their ideals, or has at least a few standards, and that side is usually Chaos. That's right, the side led by Lucifer. Fundamentally, Chaos holds free will as an imperative, unlike Law's worldview that people should accept whatever fate they're given, however horrible. Lucifer himself admits that while he doesn't love humans, he'll never abandon them.
- Common in the Grand Theft Auto series. More often than not, as bad the Villain Protagonist Player Characters are, they're still usually better than their antagonists.
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas: CJ and every criminal organization he associates with (Grove Street Families, the Varrios Los Aztecas, and the Triads) are Neighborhood Friendly Gangsters who oppose the drug trade and work to stop the sale of cocaine all across the state. The Big Bad, Officer Frank Tenpenny, has not only been largely been giving the coke-dealers more power for his own benefit, but he's deeply corrupt and is set to kill everyone who could possibly expose his crimes. Including his own partners.
- Grand Theft Auto V: Michael is a bank robber fresh out of retirement, Franklin is a former small-time Gangbanger turned big-time bank robber and assassin, and Trevor (who's by far the most evil of the three) is an Ax-Crazy drug dealing Psychopathic Man Child. Despite this, all three of them have redeeming values, Morality Pets, and Pet the Dog moments that can instill some sympathy. That's more than can be said about their antagonists: Steven Haines, a corrupt FIB agent who engages in some incredibly irresponsible Interservice Rivalry with the IAA for the sake of his career, and Devin Weston, a Corrupt Corporate Executive with close ties to Private Military Contractors known for committing human rights violations all over the world.
- If you play as a rogue in NetHack, the Assassins' Guild becomes the lighter shade of black to the Thieves' Guild. You're on the eviler side.
- Homestuck has The Midnight Crew, who are only considered heroes during "Operation Regisurp" in the Troll's Session, due to their alliance with the protagonists. Later in story, they're only considered heroic at all because their rivals, Lord English and the Felt, are worse. They still casually murder people and given half the chance would become just as dangerous as Jack Noir and the agents under him in the Kid's session.
- Zala'ess Vel'Sharen in Drowtales is by no means a particularly nice person, since in the process of vying for the title of Empress among her sisters participates in Matricide, pulls a Uriah Gambit on an (adopted) child, politically manipulates several clans into helping her and deliberately and secretly sabotages a fight between one of her sisters that causes her to die. And yet compared to her eldest sister Snadhya'rune, who's an outright sociopath who views people as things and Sarv'swati, her brutal and tyrannical second eldest sister, she seems downright reasonable and displays some humanizing qualities like honest concern for her children.
- The Kua-Toa of Tales from My D&D Campaign are divided into two factions: The Illud and the Deluvians. Both are slavers and believe themselves to be the Master Race, but the Deluvians worship the Ax-Crazy goddess of slaughter and want to butcher all the civilized races, while the Illud worship a neutral god of storms, and may be content with just enslaving all the civilized races.
- In Ben 10: Ultimate Alien, Sir George vs Diagon. George might be a anti-alien Knight Templar leading a whole faction of Cape Busters, but he is still better than the Mind-Raping, Multiversal Conqueror Eldritch Abomination that is Diagon. However, later episodes show that he, unlike Driscoll and the rest of the knights, was not so bad after all. Once the Diagon arc kicks in he's pretty much a good guy who also protects the world, but he and Ben were at odds with their views on non-earthly beings until a bigger threat forced Sir George to get over it and work with the team.
- Also, Charmcaster vs. Adwaitya. Charmcaster is hardly is a saint, but Adwaitya is way, way worse: she may have done more damage than he did temporarily (though one could argue that regardless of what Spellbinder claimed, wiping out all life in her realm in one go is still more benevolent than Adwaitya's systematic killing over the ages) but is called out on it and becomes a Friendly Enemy afterward for the most part; by contrast, Adwaitya was power-mad and unrepentant to the end.