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Ambiguous Start of Darkness

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"Oh, you got to talking with Ra's, huh? Does it make it easier for you to think my little dip in his fountain of youth turned me rabid? Or is this just the real me?"

A Face–Heel Turn can happen for many reasons. Perhaps the character is Weak-Willed. Perhaps they were broken beyond repair and went mad from the revelation. Maybe they are Brainwashed and Crazy. There is always a precise moment when they turn, or begin to turn, to the other side.

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But sometimes there isn't. Sometimes the character has slowly been turning off-screen and you are only shown that they have crossed over at some point. Sometimes being brainwashed takes time. Perhaps they were Evil All Along, and they were actually playing you the whole time, or they were still playing you, but originally for good reasons. Maybe they were always an Anti-Hero, but at some point off screen they Jumped Off The Slippery Slope. For whatever reason, the audience is not shown the exact moment when the character has crossed the line and whether or not they were Evil All Along or just went too far. Everything before the official Face–Heel Turn is left to Alternative Character Interpretation.

Most of the time this is used when a character is Brainwashed and Crazy, has a Split-Personality Takeover, or a victim of possession. Sometimes the process takes a long time and there is no clear turning point shown when they are no longer who they used to be. To make matters more confusing, it usually happens to a Manipulative Bastard, since much of their true motives are behind closed doors anyway.

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This only applies to a character who is established to be good or at least not-as-threatening at one point previously, but Took a Level in Jerkass. Some characters are introduced as a fully evil, and though it is possible they have a Freudian Excuse or were good once, it is either never explored or is outright stated or shown. Character Development must be occurring in some form.

This is Ambiguously Evil when applied to the Start of Darkness. It only applies to a character that was shown to be good in the past or earlier in the story; if they were always a bad person but just covered it up it's Evil All Along. The Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist likely has this question raised in terms of whether they were ever genuinely well-intentioned. A villain with a Multiple-Choice Past likely involves this. Sub-trope of Ambiguous Situation.

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Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Death Note, it is ambiguous whether or not Light was a sociopath even before he obtained the Death Note. It is both possible that he numbed himself as a defense mechanism to help cope with killing, even if for good reasons, or if he was always heartless but never had the means or reasons to kill anything. Especially called into question during the Memory Gambit due to Amnesiac Dissonance. For his part, Near is convinced that Light was always messed up in the head, and argues that he wouldn't have used the Death Note like he did if that wasn't the case.
    • In-depth examination of the character makes all of this even more confusing considering that we know very little about his interaction with his peers and his personal life before picking up the notebook. It is vaguely implied that he was adored by his peers and was a model student; however, when his memory is extinguished, we notice that he has an incredible lack of emotional intelligence and a Hair-Trigger Temper, even without the influence of the notebook.
  • Dragon Ball Super: There's some ambiguity on whether Zamasu was already going to turn evil without Goku shaking up his views on gods and mortals. He already shows disdain for mortals, and Future Zamasu doesn't hesitate to join Goku Black in his Zero Mortals Plan when learning he's an alternate self, however the interactions with Goku clearly show him becoming more extreme. The manga adaptation avoids any ambiguity by Zamasu never meeting Goku in the present, portraying him as a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing from the start.
  • In EDENS ZERO, where just about every antagonist is a deplorable piece of work, the small handful of villainous backstories don't delve into any detail other than how nice they appeared to be.
  • Walter's Face–Heel Turn in Hellsing. When he was turned is unclear. Some fans think it's when he was captured, others believe he had switched sides before the beginning of the series.
  • It's unknown when Manami from Life (2002) became The Bully. She's introduced as a friendly, sweet girl who befriends Ayumu but she goes off the deep end when her boyfriend dumps her, and she starts thinking he's interested in Ayumu which causes her to become a terrible case of Teens Are Monsters. It's possible, and somewhat implied, she was pretending to be Ayumu's friend all along as a part of her bullying.
  • This provides the main Driving Question and is a major theme in Monster-was the titular Johan Liebert driven evil, or was he always a monster?

    Comic Books 
  • Some of DC Comics' villains are ambiguous on when they turned evil, or if they ever were good.
    • Batman: The Joker is the poster boy for the Multiple-Choice Past. The only thing consistent is that he was a low-level crook who got dunked in chemicals to become the Joker. While some origins (most notably The Killing Joke) have him being forced into crime, others have him as already a sinister criminal beforehand. Batman (1989) and Batman: The Animated Series choose the Evil All Along interpretation.
      • Batman even points it out to Harley Quinn in Batman: The Animated Series:
      Harley: Joker told me things, secret things he never told anyone...
      Batman: What did he tell you, Harley? Was it the line about the abusive father, or the one about the alcoholic mom? Of course, the runaway orphan story is particularly moving, too. He's gained a lot of sympathy with that one. What was it he told that one parole officer? Oh, yes... 'There was only one time I ever saw dad really happy. He took me to the ice show when I was seven...'
      Harley: [crying] Circus... He told me it was the circus.
      Batman: He's got a million of them, Harley.
    • Green Lantern: Larfleeze was supposedly made greedy from his early life as a slave, and clearly misses his family. However his memory is spotty and the possibility exists that he was a slaver instead of a slave. He's genuinely disturbed by the idea.
  • In Judge Dredd, it's never definitively shown just what caused Dredd's clone-brother, Rico, to go bad. He himself attributes it to a head injury in the irradiated wastelands, but admits that no one can say for sure.
    Dredd: So take it how you will. Either something happened to Rico to make him go wrong... or nothing happened, and the potential for evil is in us all. I like to think it's the former, but the thought that it might not be has always kept me vigilant. Let it do the same for you.

    Fan Works 
  • It's ambiguous in RWBY: Scars whether Neo became Ax-Crazy after she was raped and beaten by an anti-Faunus racist or whether she always had a knack for violence. As a young child, she attacked her classmates and threw rocks at animals, but whether she was doing it out of malice or acting out due to other's Fantastic Racism towards her is vague.

    Films - Animation 
  • Discussed in Batman: Under the Red Hood. After his death at the Joker's hands, Jason Todd is brought Back from the Dead by Ra's al Ghul's Lazarus Pits, later becoming the murderous Red Hood and an enemy of Batman. While both Ra's and Batman believe that Jason Came Back Wrong, Jason himself throws it back in Batman's face, suggesting that Bruce just prefers to think that his recent actions are the result of the pit "turning him rabid" because it's easier to digest rather than entertain the thought that the real Jason is finally showing himself. The film ends without confirming either possibility.

    Films - Live Action 
  • In Looper, this applies to (and later creates some possible Fridge Horror out of) The Rainmaker. The film implies that it was the death of his mother at the hands of Old Joe that drove him over the edge and set him on the path to evil, but there are hints that it was already there like when he throws tantrums and when he killed his aunt.
  • Repo! The Genetic Opera: A montage during Rotti Largo's Villain Song "Gold" shows that the horrible things he did, like legalize organ repossession, only happened after Marni left him for Nathan. Before that, he was hailed as a savior for solving the organ failure epidemic. The film as a whole leaves it ambiguous if Rotti was a Villain with Good Publicity who stopped caring about the "good publicity" part after Marni, or if he's a straight example of Love Makes You Evil.

    Literature 
  • Tolkien's Legendarium makes it clear that nothing was evil in the beginning, not even the Dark Lords, so like the rest of creation Morgoth and Sauron were once good Ainur as faithful to Eru Ilúvatar as any other. But we never actually see Morgoth before he fell. Even during the Music of the Ainur, when the world was created and he was still called Melkor, he intentionally messed everything up and introduced evil to the creation. Before this, he wandered the Void alone searching for The Power of Creation, and the narrative implies that too was an evil act. From the other direction, it is rather murky whether he went bad all at once or retained some good in him until later. Was it when he declared himself King against the opposition of the other Valar? When he threw a hissy fit and fled Arda when the others called him on that? When he started seducing Ainur into his service? When he undid the other Valar’s creations? When he destroyed the Two Lamps? When he corrupted living beings into Orcs, which the narrative calls his vilest act, is the latest possible point, as before then there was no life other than Ainur who entered the world from outside and could not be permanently harmed by him, but the Incarnates were completely at his mercy and ruined forever. As for Sauron, he was supposedly still good for quite a while, but due to how Tolkien wrote the story, he never appears until the tale “Of Beren and Lúthien”, by which point he had been totally evil for thousands of years and his original motivation for turning evil forgotten, so we have even less of an idea.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Breaking Bad, at one point Mike gives Walter a speech about how he doesn't believe in second chances or half measures, because when he was a cop Mike tried to do a Scare 'Em Straight with a serial Domestic Abuser, only for the guy to kill his wife two weeks later. Combined with Hank's statement that Mike's time as a cop "ended dramatically" most fans think the abuser case was why Mike broke bad, but it's never actually confirmed. Better Call Saul shows that Mike (along with the rest of his department) was already a Dirty Cop before he moved to New Mexico after the revenge-killing of two crooked cops who killed his son Matty for not being entirely willing to play ball. However, it's unclear if that was his first murder, or if he already covertly worked as a hitman while on the force.
  • In Deadly Class, Chester Fuckface's first kill was his own father, in revenge for his father killing his beloved dog, because his dad objected to the way Chester loved the dog. It's left unclear whether Chester's dad was jealous of Chester's affection for the dog, or whether Chester, who has a thing for dogs, was having sex with the dog. The former would imply that his start of darkness occurred with the death of his dog. The latter would imply that his start of darkness might have begun earlier.
  • Doctor Who: Upon his return in the Revival Series the Master's insanity and evil was retconned to be because of drums in his head. It was revealed these drums were put in his head by the Time Lords at the end of the Time War in a plan to try and escape. Since he obviously didn't show signs of the drums in the Classic Series, it's ambiguous whether this is a Retcon or an in-universe change to history and the Master didn't have a known reason for being evil originally. When the same Master returns in Season 10 his drums are removed, but he's still just as evil. Though it's possible at this point the damage has already been done, drums or no drums.
  • Gotham: Jeremiah Valeska is introduced as an unassuming, moral person before his psychotic twin brother Jerome tracks him down to prove that Jeremiah has the propensity to be just as evil as himself, also alleging that Jeremiah framed him and his normal persona is just a mask. He later sends Jeremiah a gas which transforms him into the Joker. However, Jeremiah himself claims that the gas did not alter his personality, and whether or not Jerome was right about Jeremiah's past is deliberately ambiguous.
  • Supernatural: Lucifer's propensity for trying to invoke Sympathy for the Devil makes when he turned evil unclear. He was corrupted by anger and jealousy by the Mark of Cain, however God has stated he was already prideful and arrogant before God gave him the Mark, and never liked humans to begin with. While it made him worse, it's up for debate if he was ever truly good. The reveal of God's true nature as a Manipulative Bastard who orchestrated all of the events in the series, including Lucifer's fall, for his own amusement, means that God's statement on the matter can't be taken at face value either.

    Video Games 
  • John Doe in Batman: The Telltale Series is set up to become its incarnation of The Joker from the beginning, but acts more like The Mentally Disturbed than genuinely evil until Bruce pushes him over the edge at the end of Season 2 Episode 4. However, there's hints that he may have always been manipulative and Joker-like from the start and that some of his earlier personality may have been an act. It's fitting for the trope namer for Multiple-Choice Past.
  • In Borderlands The Presequel, it's left ambiguous as to when Jack became the villain everyone loved to hate in Borderlands 2. Which betrayal pushed him over the edge and which dogs he kicked rather than shot are up to the player (if, indeed, they don't conclude his adorkable wannabe hero persona at the start of the game wasn't a ruse in the first place). It's even ambiguous to characters In-Universe; Athena finally leaves his employ at the end, Moxxi was convinced enough that he was already on the path to villainy that she tried to kill him when he'd saved the moon and Lilith and Roland turn against him after he murders his own scientists.
  • It's revealed later in The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap that the villain Vaati used to be Ezlo's harmless apprentice before stealing the Wishing Cap. Although Ezlo explains that Vaati became interested in humanity's potential for evil and tried to follow their example, he cannot say for sure whther he became that way over time or was always a Deceptive Disciple. The manga adaptation depicts Vaati breaking down from serving as Ezlo's Beleaguered Assistant.
  • Mass Effect
    • It's clear that by the third game that The Illusive Man has been indoctrinated. However, since he is a Hidden Agenda Villain, you aren't shown enough of his behavior to know what actions he takes were and were not influence by the reaper indoctrination. It is very possible that he had been indoctrinated through much of the second game, and possibly even since before the first game, but it's equally possible and implied that it was between the second and third game.
    • Saren in the first game. He was always a brutal Knight Templar, but it was ambiguous whether he was always a monster or a Well-Intentioned Extremist, when he was indoctrinated, and how many of his actions before the first game were influenced by the indoctrination.
  • Mega Man X: Sigma, once the leader of Maverick Hunters, became a Maverick himself in the first game, and the fourth game shows that, in the past, he might've contracted Maverick Virus from Zero that messed with his mind until he eventually "became one" with the virus. The remake/rebooted timeline, Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X, on the other hand, makes it ambiguous when exactly he had the idea of rebelling against mankind; the scene of his rebellion, as depicted in this game, looks like he simply chooses the right opportunity to strike, implying that he previously bode his time while he was still the leader of Maverick Hunters, and "Zero being the source of the Maverick Virus" may not be true in this version.
  • Red Dead Redemption II is the story of Dutch van der Linde's ambiguous start of darkness. While there's a clear point where his behavior changes (the failed robbery where he shot a girl), no one even in universe can agree on whether that was the moment he allowed The Mole to be a Toxic Friend Influence who manipulated him into directing his paranoia and stress over the gang's losses at the wrong targets, or the moment where he realized he couldn't keep up a Mask of Sanity full time any more. The protagonist, Arthur Morgan, has conflicting feelings on the matter (High Honor Arthur says he doesn't know what to believe, while Low Honor Arthur thinks Dutch was manipulating him), and John's opinion seemingly changes during the Time Skip to Red Dead Redemption (it's unclear whether this is the Nostalgia Filter taking hold after 12 years, or a minor continuity error because Dutch's story wasn't fleshed out when the original game was made)- in the second game, he thinks Dutch was Evil All Along, while in the first game he thinks Dutch originally had good intentions. And to make things even more confusing, Dutch suffered a head injury during a different mission, so there's no telling what's Dutch slipping of his own accord and what's the concussion talking, as cranial trauma is known to cause behavior changes.
  • Ruina: Fairy Tale of the Forgotten Ruins:
    • The Witch of Varamere was stated in one legend to have been betrayed by Titus I, making it seem like she was forced to become a demon lord. However, the River Girl legend states that she used a love potion to seduce Titus, making it seem like she was the one who corrupted him in the first place. It's not clear which legends in the game are true, making her morality before becoming a demon lord ambiguous.
    • For that matter, did Titus I turn evil because of the princess's love potion or did he succumb to his ambition and power of his own volition? Due to the conflicting lore, it's not clear what changed him.

    Webcomics 

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Ozai from Avatar: The Last Airbender, in part because we know so little about his personal history. Zuko says that they used to be a happy family, but when did this stop? When he contested Iroh's position for the throne? When he (possibly) agreed to kill his son? When he banished his wife? When he blasted Zuko's face with a fire blast for speaking out of hand? Sometime before all of this?
    • Ozai's grandfather, Sozin. We know he had become thoroughly evil by the point that he left his former best friend, Avatar Roku, to die (after pretending to save his life, at that) to stop him from interfering with Sozin's plan to Take Over the World. But it is not clear whether he had ever truly believed what he had originally said about sharing prosperity with the rest of the world, or whether that was always an excuse for imperialism. The whole backstory is told by Roku's spirit, and he was absent for decades at a time, and by the time he learned what was happening Sozin had already fallen so far as to consider any and all criticism treasonous.
  • In Fairly OddParents, the continuity is a bit wonky on when and why Vicky became evil. In "Snow Bound", she claims to have had a bad childhood, hinting at a Freudian Excuse, but in "Tiny Timmy" it's said that the part of her brain that generates niceness never "showed up to work" and she owns a portrait of her scowling as a baby, both of which suggest that she was born evil. To add to the confusion, "It's a Wishful Life" implies that she wouldn't be evil if Timmy had never been born, even though it had been established that she was already evil when they first met, and "Vicky Loses Her Icky" implies that Vicky is evil because she has a parasite.
  • Robot Chicken: A sketch parodying Calvin and Hobbes has Calvin gets given Hobbes for his birthday and while he does call Hobbes a "real tiger", he doesn't do anything too unusual for a six-year-old and mainly acts like his canon self. His parents, however, think something's "wrong" with him and they take him to a doctor who gives him pills and shock therapy, after which Hobbes tells Calvin to kill his parents, which he does, and claims Hobbes did it, so he gets taken to an asylum, all the while pretending to go to Mars. The skit ends with him sitting on the floor in the asylum repeating, "Mars is amazing" in a stereotypical "insane" voice. Some people think that Calvin was always insane and evil, which is why he said that Hobbes was real, but others think that he was just a normal kid until he got the shock therapy, because he only seemed actually insane or evil until after that (young kids often claim their imaginary adventures are real, so that alone doesn't prove he's insane).
  • Moral Orel: It's not clear exactly when Clay turned into the screwed-up person that he is today. Even before his mother died, he was shown to be very ill-behaved. And while his personality in adulthood is very dysfuntional, he did appear to be somewhat well-adjusted before marrying Bloberta.

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