Exeter, Devon UK • Jun 22, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Screen Tropes: The Morally Grey

Tropes: The Morally Grey

Kerry Myers discusses different representations of morally grey characters, and their reception in popular culture.
2 mins read
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Image: Ramdlon via Pixabay

Within cinema, tropes can aid viewers in deciding how to feel about certain characters, and whether or not they can support their actions. This aid can come in the form of lighting and colour schemes (e.g. the binary of dark and light, and connotations of specific colours), as well as the narratives assigned to the characters. For instance, morally ‘good’ characters may be used to represent bravery, righteousness, and wisdom, while the morally ‘bad’ characters might be associated more with power, greed, and extreme displays of certain emotions – anger, jealousy, or even love. I want to explore more specifically, the narratives assigned to the polarised representations, and how narrative perspectives can change which category they are placed in.

One of my favourites to discuss is Albus Dumbledore of Harry Potter; he is seen by many characters and viewers as the ‘wise old man’ trope who guides Harry, Ron and Hermione on their inevitable quest to defeat Voldemort. The story being written from the perspective of Harry only adds to this as, for Harry, Dumbledore is so closely tied to the place that he calls home. However, many of Dumbledore’s actions undermine this characterisation. Does a good person allow a child to return to an abusive household at the end of every school year? Does a good educator allow their students to perform detention in a forest that is otherwise out of bounds? Yet all of this is veiled behind the misguided imposition of the good, wise old man trope upon his character, allowing his more questionable decisions to be ignored.

…all of this is veiled behind the misguided imposition of the good, wise old man trope upon his character, allowing his more questionable decisions to be ignored.

Another beloved character is the MCU’s Tony Stark. In the comics and early presentations of him, he appears morally grey, but the closer you get to his death, the more this is veiled by a morally good, father-figure. Viewers and certain characters appear willing to overlook that he allowed Peter Parker – a legal child – to get involved in a civil war of superheroes, and his company is responsible for building the bomb that killed Wanda Maximoff’s parents. Unlike Dumbledore, this change in presentation may be explained by character development, however, his past actions should not be forgotten.

Neither of these characters, and other’s who may be similarly classed as morally grey, are necessarily bad characters, and their reception is often influenced by the underlying writing. The question is, whether these characters should be designated as specifically either good or bad within their respective stories. It’s understood within popular culture that there is a greater desire to impose binaries of good and evil upon characters, but in efforts to involve more morally grey characters, there seems to be a greater acceptance by viewers for characters who might have otherwise been characterised as ‘bad’ but for a few good deeds, such as Snape of Harry Potter, or the MCU’s Loki. Yet the bad actions of ‘good’ characters gets swept under the rug for the sake of maintaining the binary of narrative tropes.

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