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Grey And Gray Morality / Live-Action Films

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  • The Matrix sequels and supplementary materials retconned the human/machine war into this, with the robots repeatedly trying to settle matters diplomatically, and the humans revealed to be lazy, arrogant, and decadent as the result of robot labor relieving much of their previous responsibility. Fortunately, peace is borne once more when Neo makes a truce with the machines to stop Agent Smith from destroying everything, thereby uniting humans, machines, programs, etc. once more.
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  • Robert Altman and David Fincher films portray this trope is almost all their films.
  • Star Wars:
    • While the Clone Wars saw the Separatists being led by a bunch of corrupt corporate executives and Sith Lords and a homicidal cyborg, a lot of the worlds joining them were only doing so to oppose what they with some justification saw as a corrupt Republic. To grey out the other side further, as Anakin Skywalker observed, even the Jedi Council was feeling compelled to move into a more pragmatic and less moral direction. Ultimately, though, Anakin's protestations about such morality when he has fallen to the Dark Side are ironically empty, as he has chosen to join with the altogether black Big Bad who was behind it all from the start and who makes him eat kittens. Still, it should be mentioned that the Separatists are still on the darker end. Yes, the Republic ended up becoming the Empire, but the conduct of clone troopers before Order 66 was much better than the droids. Also, contrast the Jedi Generals with General Grievous, and consider the fact that many Republic generals and statesmen later became rebels. Furthermore, that corruption in the Republic? It largely originated from those same Corrupt Corporate Executives that led the Separatists. The Republic isn't perfect, but at least they don't have a reputation of wanton brutality.
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    • The trope is invoked in the opening of Revenge of the Sith, where the blurb briefly mentions that "there are heroes on both sides." In the films proper, however, there aren't any good Separatists shown on-screen. The Star Wars: The Clone Wars series attempted to rectify this, by actually showcasing some of those heroic Separatists.
  • In the 2007 Chinese film The Warlords, the three main characters are all grey, and so are pretty much all the characters. There are no heroes or outright monsters. This is a film that challenges the viewer to decide which is the more moral choice. Sometimes the moral thing to do results in greater harm or loss of life than the socially reprehensible thing to do.
  • Prevalent in King Kong films, especially Peter Jackson's remake. Kong, an aggressive animal who kidnaps a human but wants to protect her as well, fights first a film crew — greedy, but they don't initially want to hurt anyone and only capture him as a last resort, and later the army, who want only to defend their city.
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  • The Chinese/Korean coproduction Musa The Warrior shows both sides of the conflict (exiled Korean soldiers and defeated Mongol horsemen) to be somewhat sympathetic but deeply flawed people bound by both grim necessity and inflexible ethical codes to slaughter each other in a series of running battles which ultimately achieve little but tragic attrition.
  • In Election, Tracy is a sweet but borderline psychotic overachiever who tears down Paul's posters in a fit of rage, Paul is a well-intentioned but fairly clueless guy who's only running because he was told to by his teacher, Tammy is only in the race to get revenge against Paul and Lisa, and Mr. McAllister cheats on his wife and rigs the ballots to deny Tracy the victory. None of them are particularly "good," but all of them have their reasons for behaving the way that they do. The original novel is even grayer. Tracy's sociopathy and Paul's ditziness were greatly increased from their original characterizations, and Mr. McAllister's buffoonishness was a detail Alexander Payne, who wrote and directed the film, invented from scratch, purely for the sake of having a buffoonish protagonist. In the book, the characters feel more realistic and believable, making it that much easier for the reader to understand and side with them.
  • Inception is a curious example in that it has neither heroes nor villains. Fisher, despite inheriting a major corporation, is an innocent; Saito is a business rival of his; and Cobb and the team are only in it for themselves (Cobb in hopes of getting home to his family, Ariadne for thrills, the others for money). The antagonist, Mal, is, in the dreams, a manifestation of Cobb's self-destructive subconscious with no free will of her own.
  • In Air America, there are definitely good guys and bad guys, but none of the good guys are pure white-hats, not even Billy Covington and Corinne Landreaux, who probably come closest, and none of the villains are pure black-hats, not even Major Lemond and General Soong. Yes, granted, Soong, Lemond, and Lemond's assistant Rob Diehl are drug runners, but there is no evidence that Lemond and Diehl are enriching themselves, and even Gene Ryack, who is more or less neutral for most of the film, points out that it is impossible to win a war in Southeast Asia without controlling the opiate trade, so Lemond and Diehl, and even Soong, are just doing what is necessary for the war effort. Ryack himself is a gun runner, and it is made clear that pretty much all the pilots are running illegal scams on the side. Corinne, again, might seem closest to being a pure white-hat, but she's dating Rob, one of the villains. Senator Davenport turns out to be a good guy at the end, but he's willing to look the other way at Gen. Soong's rather dodgy "recruitment" techniques. So all in all, no one in the film really seems all good or all evil.
  • Blade Runner was certainly an example of this. On one hand, you've got the murderous replicants who simply want to be human, and on the other you have the people who hunt them to keep the streets safe who aren't entirely saints themselves.
  • In Now You See Me, the Horsemen are smug jerks and thieves, but they're stealing from bad people. The only main characters who stand out as good guys are Dylan Rhodes and Alma Vargas. Dylan ends up being the fifth Horseman and Alma is complicit when she finds out.
  • Roger Ebert panned The Dying Gaul basically for having no redeeming character, but each character has their own highs (which are relatively middling) and lows (which get shockingly low). This was also Ebert's problem with MouseHunt. Essentially, the movie never really decides whose side we're supposed to be on. You can't fault the brothers, who are flat broke with sympathetic backstories, for wanting to get back on their feet. Nor can you blame the mouse for defending its home and its life. At the film's close however, it manages to subvert this by giving both sides a Happily Ever After. This trope is also true of the majority of the Tom and Jerry shorts which this movie borrows heavily from, so perhaps it was done on purpose.
  • Rush goes out of its way to not pit either James Hunt or Niki Lauda as the 'hero' or the 'villain' in the story. Neither are bad people per se, just two very different people with two different and equally valid lifestyles and driving styles.
  • As Will points out in Transcendence, RIFT wants to take down potentially useful technology, and they won't hesitate to kill anyone to do so. On the other side, Will's move toward hybridization and group consciousness, no matter how peacefully he goes about it, is seen as a threat by everyone, including his closest friends and his wife.
  • The fraternity from Neighbors, especially Teddy, are depicted surprisingly sympathetically, while Mac and Kelly do some pretty dark things during the feud. Neither side comes across as fully bad nor fully good.
  • In Thank You for Smoking, the Merchants of Death, for the most part, are pretty unscrupulous, but while the actions of the MO+D Squad are questionable, they don't cross any serious lines. But their opposition, Senator Finistirre isn't above a bit of manipulation, either.
  • Planet of the Apes:
    • Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Yes, the apes have good reason for rebelling, Humans Being Bastards of course, but it's not like the experiments being conducted on them were for the fun of it.
    • In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, there's really barely a single wholly unsympathetic character in the entire film. Out of the film's main antagonists, Dreyfus is more misguided and ill-informed than malicious and Koba has a solid Freudian Excuse for hating the humans and fearing what they could do if given too much lenience. Even Carver, the Jerkass who accidentally kicks off the hostilities with his bad behaviour, is clearly acting more out of fear and misplaced blame towards the apes than malice or sadism.
  • Vera Drake. The film revolves around a back-alley abortionist who is keeping her profession a secret from her family. No one on either side of the issue, with the arguable exception of her son Sid, is portrayed as heroic or villainous.
  • The Chinese Wuxia film Hero has the tagline, "In any war, there are heroes on both sides." The conflict is ultimately revealed to be between two morally grey sides. On one side, there's an emperor who wants to unite the Chinese kingdoms into a single nation under his iron rule. On the other side are ruthless assassins who wish to preserve their local culture, but at the cost of perpetuating factionalized conflict. Ultimately the film sides with the emperor, but only on the condition that he deserve his authority and rule a united China justly.
  • Over the Edge: The kids of New Grenada are a collection of drug-abusing hoodlums. But they act out only because their parents are success-absorbed people who built a town with nothing for them to do. The parents in turn crackdown hard on their children, but only because they want peace, but their crackdowns only anger the kids even more.
  • Enemy at the Gates is set in the battle for Stalingrad during the Great Patriotic War. Both the Nazis and the Soviet authorities are depicted as brutal and poor, but ultimately the Russian main characters are just trying to protect/avenge their loved ones and survive the war even when they have to do bad things by their horrific circumstances, while German sniper Major König is presented as a duty-bound Affably Evil Anti-Villain with no real interest in Nazi ideology.
  • Parasite (2019). The Kims are a family of Social Climbers from a poor background doing morally questionable and downright criminal activities to run a con on the Parks, but they are still a loving family who just don't have many other opportunities in life, if any. The Parks are a family of Upper Class Twits who are oblivious and unempathic to the conditions of the lower classes but not actively malicious or out to hurt them - they are just a family (albeit a relatively fake and loveless one) living day by day. And the caretaker Moon-gwang is just trying to save her husband who is hiding in the Parks' basement to avoid some loan sharks. Sure, the Kims are manipulative jerks, but the Parks are no better.
  • Big Miracle: Unlike most other feel-good environmental dramas, there's no clear-cut heroes or villains. Every character wants to save the whales and tries to help, but for very different reasons, whether it be for good PR (the oil companies), to preserve their image (the Inupiat tribe), or to get a better position in their job (Adam and Jill). However, all of them are decent people despite their motives, and their efforts do help to rescue the whales. Even Rachel, who has no ulterior motive, is shown to be self-righteous, tactless to the point of being rude, and not the most pleasant person to be around.


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