While Evil Versus Evil may be fun, it carries the risk of making people say "Too Bleak, Stopped Caring": 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 dangerously efficient operator 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 A Lighter Shade of Grey, Nominal Hero, and Shades of Conflict. An exaggerated form of this trope is Evil Versus Oblivion. The polar opposite of Viler New Villain, when a villain is shown to be worse than the nobler villain. For a downplayed form, see Black-and-Gray Morality.
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.
- The Magnus Archives: Sure, the Magnus Institute works to stop the potentially world-ending rituals of eldritch fear gods and their followers... but only because the Institute follows its own eldritch fear god and wants to get its own world-ending ritual completed before anyone else's.
- 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 Kojimagun. Minoru simply became that unlikable since taking over and making it Suzukigun.
- Madison Eagles and Jessicka Havok became this when Nicole Matthews won the SHIMMER Championship belt. Eagles still had an unhealthy obsession with the title, Havok was still Havok, but Matthews was something of a coward, something no SHIMMER Champion had ever been before and Jessicka was after Nicole's Tag Team partner Portia Perez, a Hate Sink who once tried to kill a baby. Furthermore, most baby faces, while threatened and intimidated, were mostly spared during the two's Roaring Rampage of Revenge against Matthews and Perez, who happily hid among other heels like The Kimber Bombs.
- 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-Gray Morality.
- Level5 vs W-FIX in Chigusa Nagayo's Marvelous. They are both opposed by Nagayo's student Mio Momono but Level5 is merely Tomoko Watanabe and Yuu Yamagata's continuous effort to corrupt Natsumi Maki, and anyone else they can, as they know their careers are winding down. KAORU, while sometimes showing Affably Evil tendencies off ring, is individually worse than all of Level5, happy to end the career of any young wrestler that crosses her path, even if they aren't contracted to Marvelous, and is just one member of W-FIX, who are all almost as bad or worse. The worst is Chikayo Nagashima, who works overtime to ensure every last part of Marvelous suffers, including Level5.
- This is what Warhammer 40,000 has instead of Good versus Evil, and is presumably what fans of the Lighter Black factions (Tau, Craftworld Eldar, the nicer Imperium sub-factions such as the Salamanders, Necrons) see in playing on the side of such horrible people; they're fighting against the very incarnations of cruelty (Dark Eldar), savagery (Orks), consumption (Tyranids) and, well, Chaos.
- The Tau were basically created to be this trope, despite Fan Dumb forcing them to get darker since their introduction. It says a lot about the state of the universe where the race with a collectivist manifest destiny motif who openly seek to conquer the universe and make all other races part of their empire, who resort to violence if their efforts to subsume other races diplomatically fail, and who are implied (in a comment of dubious canonicity) to set up concentration camps and forced sterilization programs for races who resist, are still relatively good guys.
- The Imperium of Man: a massive Vestigial Empire choked with a Tautological Templar bureaucracy that preaches zealotry, ignorance, and militarism while completely disregarding the individual — yet it's made up of humans just trying to survive in a universe where Everything Is Trying to Kill You. Or at least, some of it is; a lot of its other sub-factions aren't really distinguishable from Chaos or Tyranids in their behavior to other factions or even other elements of their own faction. Plus, at this point in the setting, the galaxy is so screwed up that fixing it might actually cause the apocalypse.
- Among the Astartes, the Lamenters chapter is the best fit for this trope. They are the only chapter that will go out of their way to defend the innocent and defenseless of the Imperium. They also get regularly and thoroughly thrashed by whoever they tussle with. The Grey Knights and their holdings are another good example. They're brutal, but devoted totally to fighting The Legions of Hell. They'll even help and trade with xeno races like Craftworld Eldar and Necrons as long as they don't get in the way of that all-important goal. Another example among the Imperium is the Rogue Trade empires, de facto independent realms that get to defy standard Imperial policy in a lot of places, most notably via coexistence and cooperation with aliens and non-Imperium human polities. Keep in mind they'll also ruthlessly exploit those same neighbors if they're weaker and it's profitable to do so, they just (usually) won't exterminate them and will also play nice if it's profitable to do so; the British Empire to the wider Imperium's Nazi Germany, if you will.
- Most (non-Dark) Eldar default to this. Like the Imperium, they consider all other races to be worthless compared to their own citizens; unlike most of the Imperium,note they usually don't actively try to exterminate outsiders that don't get in their way, and mostly just want to be left alone. They're also the most likely race to cooperate with aliens (including humans) and generally aim their military efforts at the Always Chaotic Evil factions (they, are notably, the only race that hasn't had a real conflict with the Tau). The Necrons who aren't utter Omnicidal Maniacs are similar in that regard.
- Among the forces of Chaos, the Thousand Sons (especially Magnus) are sort of this. The Emperor kept secrets from Magnus, and his attempt to warn the Emperor of the Horus Heresy damaged the Emperor's secret work, and resulted in the Thousand Sons being forced to join the traitors. Afterwards, Ahriman managed to turn most of the legion to dust, leaving the Thousand Sons as a broken legion, just as engineered by Tzeentch.
- Likewise, in Warhammer:
- The Empire is a fanatical religious theocracy where the minor nobles are corrupt (and a good number of them are secretly Chaos worshippers), the Church employs Witch Hunters who burn people, dark Gothic iconography is everywhere, and life generally sucks for anyone outside the major trade cities. But it is undeniably a bulwark that protects the civilized human nations of Bretonnia, Estalia and Tilea against myriad madmen and monsters who would tear it all down; they are brutal and have to be, because their enemies are all horrible.
- Norsca as depicted in Total War: Warhammer is lighter than the Beastmen and the Warriors of Chaos. Bloodthirsty warriors of the Dark Gods who nevertheless abide by a certain code of honour and possess a dark humour that prevents them from becoming utterly terrifying. In addition, the Norscans have the option of turning on Archaeon the Everchosen and potentially averting the End Times.
- The Wood Elves of Athel Loren ruthlessly kill most trespassers into their forest home and are known to occasionally raid and skirmish Bretonnian border communities, but they also can be trusted to repay debts, can respect particularly principled non-Asrai like Emperor Karl Franz, and recognize distinction between "crude ignorance" and willful malice. As such, the Asrai have been known to aid humans against Beastmen, Northmen and Greenskins once in a blue moon. The Dryads and Treefolk with whom they share Athel Loren are cruel Absolute Xenophobes who see everything including the Wood Elves themselves, as mere vermin to be exterminated. The Asrai see it as their duty to defend the outside world from the ever-expanding magical forest as much as defend the forest from the outside world, and encircle it with magical waystones to prevent its expansion, lest the forest either be destroyed by contact with humans, or become so evil and determined in its extermination of the mortal races as to be indistinguishable from the forces of Chaos itself.
- 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 smart (they don't live long if they aren't), 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, because this only means they must be hiding something utterly depraved in there somewhere... but nobody knows what it is. (They're still not as scary as Aztechnology, though.) Turns out it's metahuman experimentation on Technomancers.
- Ares Macrotechnology is generally considered this trope in the shadows. It's not that Ares aren't doing shadowy, dirty business (they are) or that they give a hoot about making the world a better place (they don't), but Ares (perhaps due to their Lovable Rogue CEO or the fact that shadowrunners continuing to exist raises demand for their products) tend to understand 'the game' between shadowrunners and corporations better than most. A run against Ares is a run where if you play by the rules, so will they. If you get hired to do work on their behalf, odds are better than average that the Johnson actually intends to pay you at the end instead of backstabbing you. Also they were on the ground in Chicago when the Insect Spirits attacked
- In an interesting example Saeder-Krupp is this trope to the rest of the world, while managing to be the darker shade of black to the Player Characters. Saeder-Krupp sheer pragmatism means that it doesn't have a hidden agenda beyond standard corporate profits and expansion. In fact the companies policy of safe guarding their computer systems meant that Europe was able to ride out Crash 2.0 mostly unharmed. However to any Player Characters, they are the worst company to do runs for. After all, you never cut a deal with a dragon.
- In Pathfinder, The Lawful Evil God Asmodeus, firmly sits in this trope, even among other Lawful Evil Gods. He's the God of Slavery, Tyranny, Pride, and most importantly, Contracts. He will uphold his part of any contract and agreement he enters into. You just have to make sure what you think is his part and what actually is his part are one and the same. Even the Chaotic Good Gods go to him for advice on occasion, and he would give them honest advice. Because giving them honest advice means they would rely on him more, and would fall into his circle of power and influence. His worshippers are one of the only Evil Worshippers allowed to openly worship as they tend to cause less trouble then anyone else. Then there is the fact that he fought alongside all the other gods against Rovagug, and personally forge the lock to his cage. Free of charge.
- 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.
- Hank J. Wimbleton from Madness Combat is a mass-murdering Blood Knight who kills people over a boombox in the first episode, and graduates to a cop-killing sociopathic mercenary in the second. In later episodes though, Hank becomes at least nominally heroic, given how his opponents now include Tricky the Clown and The Auditor, who are responsible for warping Nevada into a Crapsack World full of senseless violence.
- RWBY: Raven Branwen is the leader of a Bandit Clan, a ruthless believer in the idea that the strong survive and the weak die, and is someone who doesn't care about the lives of the people she hurts; she will even kidnap people for ransom purposes if the price is right. Volume 5 pits her against Cinder Fall, a sadist whose hunger for power cannot be sated and who enjoys pain and killing; she thrills at the destruction and suffering she causes to the city of Vale, picks off people to die just to torment their friends, and is willing to work for someone who wants to destroy humanity if she can obtain great power out of it. Cinder's lust for power is so great, she's even willing to attach Grimm body parts to herself to aid her search for power, an act that disgusts Raven.
- DEATH BATTLE! has a few episodes with two villains pitted against each other, but one of them is more morally-gray or has a good side as compared to the other who is flat-out villainous. Examples are "The Shredder vs. Silver Samurai", "Sephiroth vs. Vergil", "Carnage vs. Lucy", "Lex Luthor vs. Doctor Doom", "Homelander vs. Omni-Man", "Apocalypse vs. Black Adam", and "Michael Myers vs. Jason Voorhees", all seven of which have the former being the more evil of the two.
- 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 duel that causes one of her sisters to die. And yet compared to her eldest sister Snadhya'rune, who's an outright sociopath who views people (even her children) 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.
- 8-Bit Theater gets a fair bit of mileage out of this. Red Mage in particular tends to fill this role in the Light Warriors, compared to Fighter (the Token Good Teammate) and Black Mage and Thief (incredibly evil). Red Mage is amoral, borderline insane, and has a total disregard for life, but he tends to be less evil than the latter two because his actual motivation is simply to finish the adventure and win fame and power for himself. This causes him to frequently balk at their methods for being senselessly cruel — even though he's done some pretty horrible things himself, he did them because he thought they were the best way to accomplish his current objective (they rarely were, but Red Mage is not good at planning).
- Lackadaisy is about a gang war between two booze joints in the 20's USA. The eponymous Lackadaisy gang is mostly presented as a group of good friends and underdogs who got into organized crime due to circumstances or for some of them out of desperation, while the rival Marigold gang is a group of experienced and hardened criminals who seem to enjoy their job way too much and have very few (if any) redeeming qualities.
- The war between Batea and Alemi in Anecdote of Error is a textbook case. On the one hand, Alemi is led by a bunch of psychopaths who kill their prisoners in some of the most horrific ways possible, who invade boarding schools while children are present in order to gain the weapons inside, and whose soldiers brag about all the cities they will sack once the tide of the war turns in their favor, and claim that someone being torn limb from limb is an appropriate response to being held and questioned. On the other hand, Batea is a place where children are sorted into unequal castes once they reach a certain age, and can be drafted into wars, and housekeepers have very few rights, and the faculty of a boarding school decide to summarily execute an enemy soldier without thinking twice, and the teacher who explains this thinks that it will make the children she is telling it to feel better, and is hinted to have alienated the entire rest of the world such that they are willing to ally with Alemi in spite of all its crimes against humanity. A lot of readers want both sides to lose, but if forced to pick, would want Batea to be victorious, not just because the protagonists are from there, and are just normal kids caught up in a horrible situation, but because Batea is merely an oppressive tyranny, whereas Alemi is a fanatical horde that will destroy for the sake of destruction. There are a small handful of Alemi citizens who aren’t this bad, but not enough to classify the conflict as A Lighter Shade of Gray instead.
- Dreaming Freedom: Ultimately, Jeongmin and Siyun in comparison to Juhyeon. While Juhyeon is a relentless, cruel bully who manipulates others with ease, neither of the two leads are entirely good either, with Jeongmin blackmailing Sora and Siyun having violent tendencies, including stabbing Juhyeon via a dream and beating Jaehyeok to a pulp.
- The Death of Russia:
- While the Chechens are allied with Islamists in their fight for freedom, the Russian Army's actions in Chechnya are simply nightmarish, most infamously in the village of Vedeno, with the entire male population down to roughly twelve years old in the village executed before most of the remaining females were raped.
- Alexander Lebed has a low opinion of democracy, but he's merely a charismatic military strongman, which makes him a much better contender in the Second Russian Civil War compared to the Communists and Fascists, nor is he a Politically Incorrect Hero. Combined with intending to restore access to resource deposits in Siberia, this serves as incentive for him to get under-the-table support from corporate sponsors.
- Epic Rap Battles of History uses this in its most famous, recurring matchup: Darth Vader Vs. Adolf Hitler.
- Seiji from Only Villains Do That isn't particularly likeable, but compared to the goddess of evil Virya he's a saint.
- 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.
- 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.
- Captain Planet and the Planeteers: Sly Sludge is this compared to the other villains, as he is more negligent than malicious. He works in waste disposal, which could actually be very beneficial to the environment. The problem is that he's a Lazy Bum who goes about it in the most careless ways, just dumping his polution wherever he can and burning it to make acid rain. He isn't truly evil, and he eventually turns himself around and starts properly recycling.
- Harley Quinn (2019) does this with Harley and her friends. They're ever so slightly nicer than their enemies, which makes it possible to root for them. Harley herself is still a Card-Carrying Villain who wants nothing more than to be invited to join the Legion of Doom, but she at least gets the benefit of a sympathetic backstory and isn't as extreme in her evil acts as the Joker.
- In Star Wars: The Clone Wars and its Sequel Series Star Wars Rebels, Maul is certainly not a good person, what with his desire for revenge on Obi-Wan and his general lack of morals. However, he is also given some tragic elements to his character and a somewhat humanizing relationship with Savage Opress and Ezra Bridger. This places sympathy on his side when he gets into conflict with his former master Darth Sidious, a total sociopath motivated only by selfish lust for power.
- Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, more prominently in the tie-in sequel comics, have Amanda Waller as this. Amanda Waller is far from a heroic, pleasant, or likeable individual, but the comic points out quite clearly she had done good things. Meanwhile the two she's competing with for the Get Out of Hell Free Card, Vandal Savage and Reverse-Flash, are complete monsters with no redeeming features or good actions to their names.