Follow TV Tropes


Black And Gray Morality / Film

Go To

  • Almost anything made by Quentin Tarantino at least when it doesn't shift into Evil vs. Evil.
    • Because most of the characters are merely amoral in Pulp Fiction, the only time this seems to kick in is when Butch (a boxer running for his life) and Marsellus (the gangster who wants him killed) end up in a pawnshop... and the owner locks them in his basement, calls his partner to rape one, and it's heavily implied both would be beaten and\or killed if Butch didn't manage to break free. Although Marsellus himself could also be seen as a shade of black, since he is an unrelenting crime boss whose only redeeming quality is (grudgingly) sparing someone who saved his ass. (literally) His wife is also pretty nice, if a bit of a sociopath.
    • Advertisement:
    • Django Unchained has an ice-cold former slave with the singular goal of rescuing his wife and getting revenge pitted against a highly sadistic slaver and his loyal colleagues. Dr. Schultz is the closest thing to A Lighter Shade of Gray, but he is also a ruthless bounty hunter willing to do whatever it takes to get the bounty — and gets killed at about the two-thirds point of the film, though not before killing said slaver in vengeance for another slave who got ripped apart by dogs on the slaver's order.
    • Reservoir Dogs is another example, with the exception of Orange everyone of importance is a criminal, but Mr. White and Mr. Pink draw distinctions between themselves (who try to avoid killing people if at all possible, but will if they must) and Mr. Blonde (who goes on a senseless killing spree during the heist).
    • Advertisement:
    • Inglourious Basterds (though it may seem downplayed, dealing with Nazis and whatnot). Nevertheless, the title characters do have their moments of excessive violence, perpetrating what would amount to war crimes against their enemies. The fact that many German soldiers themselves have a few Villains Out Shopping and Pet the Dog moments in the mix doesn't help matters either.
    • The Hateful Eight features ruthless bounty hunters as the protagonists, one of whom claims to have raped another character's son, though it's implied that he's just claiming that to provoke said other character into drawing first so he can claim self-defence. It's still treated as a Moral Event Horizon. The villains are even more ruthless criminals who slaughter the entire workforce and guests of Minnie's Haberdashery in an attempt to free the sister of the gang leader. The only unambiguously good characters in the film died before the first act; their deaths are depicted in the fifth act.
  • Advertisement:
  • Killing Zoe takes place in a world best described as Tarantino meets Bret Easton Ellis. From the co-writer of Pulp Fiction and director of The Rules of Attraction.
  • City of God. While narrator Rocket opted to stay out of the slum crime scene, most of the characters are criminals - some by choice, others because the mean ones forced them to Pay Evil unto Evil. The police is mostly absent and often corrupt.
  • The Proposition — The protagonist is a notorious criminal who is forced to kill his psychopathic older brother in order to save his innocent, mentally handicapped younger brother. The younger brother is a rapist. The cops are thugs stuffed into uniforms. And the governor's a Smug Snake Knight Templar. However, the captain and his foolish, but innocent wife are probably the closest things to "white" in the movie. And the ending is bittersweet, which is as cheery as you're going to get with a screenplay by Nick Cave.
  • Starship Troopers presents the conflict between the human Federation and the Arachnids as Black-and-White Morality. Except the film has the tone of an in-universe propaganda flick and it's quite clear who the real monsters are; the Bugs are certainly bad, but the Federation is worse.
  • The Chronicles of Riddick: Riddick is a mass murderer with a knife fetish, but his opponents are nihilistic necrophiliacs that want to convert and then murder the entire universe, child-killing junkie cowards with a badge, sadistic mercenaries who massacre entire panets to harvest the people as cyborgs and slaves, and bounty hunters who turn people into living statues for their own artistic amusement. Riddick doesn't want to save the universe, he just wants to kill the guys that killed the people he had claim on.
  • The Heisei era of Godzilla films occasionally border on this. Godzilla is, once more, a destructive force, but he's all that defends us from creatures like King Ghidorah, Space Godzilla, and Destoroyah, who are downright diabolical. Meanwhile, the minds in control of Mechagodzilla are extremely iffy, and Battra, Biollante, and Rodan are very very insane.
    • Godzilla (2014) has Godzilla pit against the two MUTO, a mated pair that threatens to reproduce and overrun the planet with their offspring. While Godzilla is the lesser threat (and even avoids conflict whenever possible), he does rack up a sizable casualty count as well. It helps that a.) there is absolutely no weapon humanity has that can harm him, and b.) he's out to get the monsters that do threaten the earth, so best case scenario, let him do his job and hope he leaves us alone.
    • Godzilla: The Planet Eater has Godzilla Earth, explicitly hostile to humanity to begin with, and now vengeful over them killing his son Godzilla Filius. But even though he seeks to wipe humanity off the face of the earth, he ends up being the situational "good guy" when Ghidorah comes in, who seeks to destroy the planet which Godzilla claims as his own.
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? looks like a straight case of black-and-white, with bitter, angry former child star Jane Hudson intimidating her more popular, crippled sister and feeding her rats for dinner... until the end, where it is revealed that the accident which crippled Blanche was caused by Blanche herself as she was trying to kill Jane, and not by Jane in a drunken bender. Notably, Jane, the "villain", is blonde, and Blanche, whose name means "white", has black hair.
  • The Blade Trilogy and Underworld franchises do this to get around the fact that vampires are Card Carrying Villains in Western fiction.
    • In the Blade movies, the protagonist has little empathy for anyone's feelings, perfectly willing to use his own unsuspecting civilians as bait and kill punch clock villains begging for their lives. He does not kill without reasons though and is defending humanity from those that would use it as a source of cattle.
    • In the Underworld movies, vampires and werewolves are at war and the werewolves lean slightly closer to what most humans would call "decent" when A Father to His Men united them. Then that guy dies and the conflict degenerated into two rival Take Over the World conspiracies. The vampires had mentally unstable bad bosses, who were also partly why the werewolves looked slightly better. Once those were done away with, all things were equal, morally speaking.
  • Payback is all about an Anti-Villain getting revenge on even worse people for setting him up. The cinematography emphasizes dark colors, cloudy skies, etc.
  • The James Bond movies Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace explore this, with Mathis even giving a short speech about heroes and villains being indistinguishable in far too many cases, and many bits of the latter shed light on the extents to which governments and agencies have to go to in order to ensure their continued survival. Still, Le Chiffre, Greene and Quantum are all evil, no doubt about it. In fact, the more recent James Bond films such as GoldenEye, Die Another Day, Skyfall and Spectre have taken this direction, with nebulous groups wanting to fill the Evil Power Vacuum left behind by the crumbling Soviet Union, and Bond questioning his morality at times, which isn't pretty as while he's licensed to kill, the people he has to murder are hard-core sociopaths.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel combines this trope with a visual metaphor for the Zig-Zag Party. When stopped at a train checkpoint, a Zig-Zag soldier questions Zero's very worn-out immigration paper. It seems like he's going to be harassed for it, but Inspector Henckels (in his gray uniform) comes by, recognizes M. Gustave as a friend, and lets them on their way. Near the end, when Zero, Gustave, and Agatha are on a train again, the train again stops at a checkpoint. This time, a visibly well-armed Zig-Zag soldier in a black uniform asks for Zero's papers. Even though they are freshly printed and in order, the soldier calmly rips them up in front of him. Gustave intervenes by fighting the soldier, and is shot dead just outside the train, prompting Zero and Agatha to run.
  • John Constantine, of the eponymous film (and the comic that inspired it), is a foul-mouthed, suicidal sonuvabitch. And he's one of the good guys. Not that Gabriel was much better.
  • A number of comedies in the late '70s/early '80s (e.g., Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes) centered on a group of rakish loser protagonists aligned against cleaner-cut but authoritarian antagonists. The tagline for Caddyshack, for example, was "The Snobs Against the Slobs." While the viewer will almost certainly find himself rooting for the losers, these are not people you would trust around your kids.
  • The Infernal Affairs films, spectacularly. Wong appears to be mostly White in the first film, but then you get hit by the prequel...
  • In Captain Berlin - Savior of the World the titular hero foils a bank robber and knocks him unconscious but he is unable to return the money to the bank as his life of heroism leaves him no chances to earn money and afford more than the most basic food and shelter
    • This can also be taken as a commentary on the state of Berlin and german society as during the production of the movie Germany struggled economically and was parted into west and east, so while Captain Berlin knows what is the right thing to do he still had to take care of himself as to not let society fall down further the rabbit hole of chaos and villainy
  • The Mechanic (1972) is a good example with its rather Jerkass assassins as protagonists, and the ones who they kill.
  • In the Loop is ostensibly about the backroom sausage-making behind a war in Iraq an unnamed Middle Eastern country, though the real focus is on epic language. Proponents of the war are depicted as clueless, cavalier bureaucrats with zero appreciation of the consequences of what they are doing. Meanwhile the opponents are shameless weasels, mostly interested in milking it for political favors.
  • By the same director, The Death of Stalin is full of this, which is pretty much inevitable when your hero is Nikita Khrushchev. The main villain is NKVD head Lavrenity Beria, a grotesque rapist and murderer, while Khrushchev is merely an unprincipled politician.
  • Most Guy Ritchie crime films, especially as even the main characters/protagonists tend to also be crooks, usually matched up against other, worse ones. Not counting the mandatory Ineffectual Sympathetic Villains, lets look at some characters from several of Ritchie's works:
    • Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. The main characters are a group of street hustlers, con men, and gamblers. There are two groups of least sympathetic characters: the underworld bosses that cheat them in a card game, and whose entire purpose for this is to get the father of the character that they cheated to sell his pub so they can buy it cheap, and a group of brutal crooks who steal from, torment, and shoot the pot head marijuana growers who trust them.
    • Rock N Rolla. The most sympathetic characters are Archy, Johnny Quid and the Wild Bunch. Archy is The Dragon for an underworld boss who kills or beats people without hesitation. Johnny is a drug addled rock star who routinely steals from people, (and threatens them with a knife if they protest) hands out No Holds Barred Beatdowns to bouncers who try to stop from getting into clubs, (and keeps going long after they have stopped being able to resist) and constantly physically and verbally abuses the people around him. The Wild Bunch are a trio of career criminals. The least sympathetic character is Lenny, (Archy's boss and Johnny's step-father) an arrogant man, abusive father, Politically Incorrect Villain, a crime boss who lowers victims into water to drown/be eaten alive by voracious crayfish, rips off the people who make deals with him so that he can get them in his debt, and has secretly given testimony that has put most of his men and partners into jail at one time or another in order to save himself from prosecution.
    • Snatch.. The most sympathetic characters are Turkish, Tommy, and the Irish Traveller clan. Turkish and Tommy are shady characters in the London underworld who run unlicensed boxing matches, gambling houses, etc. Turkish in particular is a rather cutting Deadpan Snarker. The Travellers participate in the sale of fake gold and jewels, rip off their business partners in transactions, then intimidate them with force, and at one point consider killing Tommy over a misunderstanding. The least sympathetic character is Brick Top, who routinely kills off his mooks, brutalizes dogs and puts them into lethal dogfights, kills people and feeds them to pigs to dispose of the bodies, sets fire to the caravan of one of the gypsies (burning her alive), and threatens to wipe out the rest of the clan if they don't cooperate with him. Mickey, though, seems to be portrayed as a lighter shade of grey.
  • The Elite Squad has BOPE, a special forces team which employs cruelty in both training and the police work, against drug dealers that burn people alive. The villains of the sequel also count: murderous corrupt cops, aiding and aided by corrupt politicians.
  • The Element of Crime. A more than questionable Anti-Hero pursuing a child killer, (un)assisted by the worst police force ever in the crumbling ruins of dirt poor and morally corrupt post World War II Germany? If this isn't it, then?
  • The Villain Protagonists in The Final are a group of teen outcasts who torture and mutilate their school's popular kids as revenge for a lifetime of humiliation. As one can figure from the last sentence, neither side in the situation is all that nice. The only real "good" guy is Kurtis — and that's pushing it, seeing as how he kills Andy in cold blood.
  • The Professional. It's a hitman who relucts about giving shelter to a girl (who is not that pure either) versus a drugged and corrupt policeman willing to kill anyone.
  • Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith alludes to Black and Gray by hinting that the Jedi Order were on the brink of falling to the Dark Side as they tried to take over the Coruscant court for themselves even though their intention was to eradicate the Sith Lords from ruling the galaxy.
    • The entire prequel trilogy was this, showing that despite what you were taught by the old trilogy the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order predating the Galactic Empire were not without their flaws. The senators of the Republic were influenced by lobbyists who worked for greedy mega corporations that due to their bribes could drive over the rules for their own profits' sake, and the petty political powerplays within the Republic made it incapable to solve crises like the invasion of Naboo. The Jedi Order had a lot of members who thought themselves self-importent, and some members weren't afraid to bend the rules or cheat to get what they wanted. And by the time of the Clone War, there was some distrust between the Republic and the Jedi Order so that both tried to use Anakin to spy on each other. On the other side, there were these said mega corporations that became unhappy with Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's acts to clean the Senate free from their lobbyist influence, and in response made their own political organization and tried to break off the Republic, leading to the Clone War. Turned out that both sides were being played by the Sith.
    • When the bad guys are using Mecha-Mooks and the good guys have an army of fourteen year old "generals" and ten year old cloned slave mooks, both molded into warriors since infancy, and discouraged from "attachments" to the people they're protecting, you know you're dealing with a mess.
    • Rogue One. The Empire, totalitarian, ruthless and dictatorial, is still the worst side. But the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits Rebel Alliance are shown to be an Army of Thieves and Whores with some extremist sides, at least until the Battle of Yavin changed their fortunes. One of the main characters kills his informant, is given hidden instructions to kill the man his squad is supposed to rescue (he changes his mind... but the higher-ups still send an air strike upon the target), and later admits that everyone in the Alliance's hangar has commited some terrible things in their past.
  • Narc follows the story of two detectives who are trying to solve the case of a cop who they believe is murdered in cold blood. Although some of the people they question and interrogate are bad people, the film often shows the corruption and willingness to break the rules of the two main characters.
  • The Wild Bunch stars a gang of seasoned bandits, who routinely kill a not inconsiderable number of people in the course of a heist, and have no compunctions about using little old ladies as human shields. They look alright compared to the folks they go up against, though.
  • The hero of The Chaser is a dirty detective-turned-pimp who's less than friendly towards his women. He comes out better compared to the film's villain, a sadistic and misogynistic serial killer.
  • Escape 2000: the heroes are a pack of gang members and hoodlums, whose efforts to keep the Bronx safe for drug dealing and petty crime only come out looking heroic because the bad guys are killing people with flamethrowers more or less indiscriminately.
  • Film Noir generally lives off of this type of morality. After all, it's not called "noir" for no reason.
  • In Lord of War, arms dealer Yuri Orlov himself is amoral and indifferent to the death he causes with his trade, but he is nowhere near as bad as his client Andre Baptiste, who is an insane dictator who murders people on a whim, allows his cannibalistic son free reign and engages in bloody civil wars. The staunchly heroic interpol agent Jack Valentine is pretty unambiguously good, so the movie doesn't necessarily imply that there is no white morality. It just suggests that the good guys aren't very effective. Or affable, comparatively.
  • By the end of The Prestige, both lead characters have innocent blood on their hands, whether due to obsession with revenge, or due to single-minded pursuit of their Greatest Magic Trick Ever.
  • At the end of Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler reminds the people he saved (and us, the audience) that now that the war is over, he'll be a wanted criminal for profiteering from slave labor. Early in the movie, we see that he's not a particularly good man. But he's willing to bankrupt himself and risk his life to protect his laborers from murderers.
  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has hints of this, as a result of its deconstruction of Westerns. (Especially how if a region were really as lawless as Western movies make out and had untouchable Gunslingers, those gunslingers would be free to do just about anything without having to answer to anyone.) The eponymous three characters are: an antihero con artist, a merciless Professional Killer who is practically the personification of cold blooded ruthlessness, and an all-around cad, respectively. Its "good guy" is still fairly sympathetic though, mostly because of one or two Pet the Dog moments sprinkled in a three hour movie. (That said, the cad is probably the most likable character in the film, in a Laughably Evil sort of way.)
  • The Godfather series is also a milder case, with the highly sympathetic Corleone family pitted against their rivals.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean (moreso in the sequels). Will and Elizabeth are slowly turned into lying, stealing, killing pirates (in a very loose sense of the word, as in people who merely live outside the established order) although all in the name of saving their skins from the undead and the corrupt. Jack Sparrow is a bullseye grey Anti-Hero who cares enough about freedom to free slaves (Back Story) and save his friends, but cares more about himself than anything. Just as grey is Norrington a man with a strict sense of honour but with some emotional flaws that lead him into wrong choices. But then there's Beckett, the epitome of repressive order and one of the few persons in the whole trilogy you can properly hate, who kicks various dogs and doesn't stop for two movies. The fourth movie has Jack caught between various antagonistic groups in search for the Fountain of Youth, namely Jack's Laughably Evil frenemy pirate Barbossa, the even more ruthless pirate Blackbeard and Church Militant Spaniards bent on destroying the thing. The fifth movie tries to finally return the white from the original movie with Will's son Henry and his love interest Carina.
  • In Dracula Untold, Vlad makes a deal with the Elder Vampire (who himself made a deal with a demon) for demonic power to save his people and and his gruesome past is told as having razed villages and impaled thousands in the past feeling nothing. He admits his monstrous past and is ashamed of it, but all of his evil deeds including becoming a vampire are to prevent something worse from happening. The Sultan Mehmet plans to conquer all of Europe, force religious conversion, and demands a thousand boys including Dracula's son so they can be turned into soldiers.
  • The British in Utu are the villains who started the war by massacring defenceless villagers, but the Maori rebels commit many atrocities of their own against the white Determined Homesteaders.
  • All Dogs Go to Heaven: Charlie B. Barkin is an Anti-Hero who starts out manipulative and gradually learns to mend his ways and ascend to Heaven, while Carface is unambiguously evil.
  • Wizards: Blackwolf is unambiguously evil, while his twin brother, Avatar, despite being the hero, is flawed.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: The Big Bad is a genocidal slaver who bathes in the blood of his opponents and slaughtered an entire prison population just to cover his tracks. The "heroes" range from petty criminals to assassins, who are more interested in personal gain rather than saving the world. Even the Nova Corps are morally grey, due to their harsh treatment of prisoners. Yeah they become genuine heroes in the end, but their criminal tendencies still shine through. Eventually though, they do make the effort to move past it in the next installment.
    Rocket: Question: what if I see something that I wanna take and it belonged to someone else?
    Rhomann: You would be arrested.
    Rocket: But what if I want it more than the person who has it?
    Rhomann: It's still illegal.
    Rocket: That doesn't follow. No, I want it more, sir, you understand me? [Gamora walks off with him] I can't have a discussion with this gentleman?
    Drax: Say someone does something that irks me, and I decide to remove his spine.
    Rhomann: Th-that's actually murder, one of... the worst crimes of all. So, also illegal.
    Drax: ...Huh.
  • The early comedies of Adam Sandler tend to fall straight into this basket, since they pit a Sociopathic Hero (Sandler, of course) against cartoonishly evil villains. This is taken to extremes in Little Nicky, where Sandler plays the son of Satan...and a good guy (his mother is literally an angel who passed on some latent powers to her son, and he has to defeat his unambiguously evil half-brother). A notable exception is The Waterboy: Bobby Boucher is (almost) too stupid to be anything other than innocent, and none of the major characters are truly evil (it being a sports movie and all).
  • Phil in Savages Crossing is a psychopathic serial killer, gambler and wife beater who wants to murder his wife and take her house. Sue hires a hitman to kill him and claim his life insurance.
  • Just about everyone in The Big Short qualifies. While the big banks are undeniably the villains of the movie by fraudulently selling risky CDOs as secure investments, the protagonists are motivated simply to make money by betting against the banks' greed and stupidity.
    Jared Vennett: I never said I was the hero of this story.
    • Ben Rickert calls out his teammates about it when the two start dancing over the deals they made.
      Ben Rickert: Do you realize what you've done? You've bet against the American economy.
    • Explicitly stated by the S&P officer, who points out that the main reason Baum's group want them to rate the CDOs more accurately is because they stand to make a huge amount of money when the CDOs collapse.
      Mark Baum: That doesn't make us wrong.
      S&P Officer: No, it just makes you a hypocrite.
  • The World of Kanako: While the main protagonists Akikazu's actions (beating up and sexually harassing other people) cannot be morally justified in any way, he's still upset by the deeds other characters do (usually just For the Evulz).
  • The protagonist of Stoker is creepy, passive-aggressive, emotionless, Nightmare Fetishist India Stoker. But she's surrounded by her Lady Drunk abusive mom, classmates that sexually harass her, and her murderous Uncle Charlie, who is trying to groom her to be with him. Compared to them, India ain't so bad. At least until she becomes a murderer herself at the end.
  • Den of Thieves: The cops flout the law when the have to, and the crooks don't kill civilians, but they still mass-murder cops.
  • Captain America: The First Avenger is a straightforward tale of Black-and-White Morality set during World War II (the Mad Scientist worse-than-a-Nazi Johann "Red Skull" Schmidt wants to Take Over the World with an ancient artifact and the Captain Patriotic Supersoldier of the Allies Steve "Captain America" Rogers stands up to him to see that doesn't happen). Its sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier shifts the setting to The New '10s and becomes this trope, with a constant overriding theme of "freedom vs. security". The big twist of the movie is that, in actuality, a world of Black-and-White Morality works better because then you know who the enemy actually is. Paranoia of a world gone mad has allowed Schmidt's old organization, HYDRA, to become a shadow organization that operates behind S.H.I.E.L.D. and triggered several major events in world history since the end of the war, with people voting against their own freedoms out of fear.
  • Oh, boy, God's Not Dead. These films have portrayed "atheists", or anyone who's not a Christian in general, as God-hating monsters who are hell-bent at destroying Christianity, albeit such portrayal is inaccurate. However, the Christians aren't any better than the non-Christians, including Josh, as they themselves have no qualms insulting those who don't believe in God, saying how inferior they are in terms of morality, among other things.
  • The Sting: The central conflict pits two con men against a mass murderer.
  • Wheels of Fire: After the apocalypse, a group known as The Ownership is willing to do unethical things in order to rebuild civilization. The Ownership's rivals are Scourge and his hordes of rapists and murderers.
  • Mars Attacks!: The Martians are some of the meanest and most evil aliens you will ever find in fiction, but many of the humans are assholes as well. There are a few good characters who you can root for.
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: Scott Pilgrim is a selfish womanizing man child who leaves behind a string of failed relationships, but he also does genuinely love Ramona and wants to become a better person. His conflict with the women in his life can come off as Grey-and-Gray Morality at times, especially with Envy. But at the end of the day, the The League of Evil Exes is a group of manipulative, controlling, violent, toxic jerks who want to posses Ramona more than they actually want to be in a relationship with her.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: