Sympathy for the Dark Side

It’s an old observation, but if you take a moment to consider language, you can see how it can stifle our perceptions.  The one I’ve noticed quite a bit lately is the use of “light” and “dark” as stand-ins for “good” and “evil”.  It is ever-present, and while there are a lot of logical reasons for that, it certainly makes a big assumption.

While watching Rise of the Guardians I was struck by the fact that our primary hero, Jack Frost, is pale and white.  As are all the heroic characters, who are bright and shiny.  Meanwhile, the Boogieman is gray and dark.  And his name is Pitch Black.  What makes this weird to me is that none of the other characters have alternate names.  The Sandman is just The Sandman.  As is the Tooth Fairy and Santa.  Meanwhile, it’s not enough for the Boogieman to be just the Boogieman.  He has to go that extra step and have a sinister name that is two synonyms for darkness.

Even visually, the only dark elements are that of evil forces.  When they are beaten, they miraculously lighten.  Which makes sense from a visual tradition, and I’m not criticizing the film for sticking to what works.  But we want to believe that there isn’t a predisposition toward distrusting dark things (and, let’s face it, people), yet it is a constant throughout most cultures.

I’m sure you can find some dark characters and traditions that are viewed in a more balanced light, but the bottom line is that if a character has dark elements, even visually, they are often at least tinged with sinister elements.  Even if it’s the hero-with-a-dark-side idea embodied by characters like Batman.

What’s most interesting to me about this perception is that it often trumps everything else.  Batman, for instance, is seen as deeper and more emotionally flawed than Superman.  The only reason to really believe this is because one guy flies around wearing bright blue and red while the other dresses in drab colors and stalks the shadows.  In essence, they share the exact same motivation: to protect their world against evil.  Both heroes save the day.  One just does it while dressed in black, thus making him edgier.

(Yes, I know he’s an orphan, but I’ve always felt that was overplayed.  Bruce Wayne took a tragic moment and redefined himself because of it.  While that might make many folks see him as emotionally damaged, I see a guy who made a pretty healthy choice because he lives in a superhero universe.  That’s something a lot of folks seem to miss.  Bruce Wayne didn’t grow up in the real world.  He grew up in an alternate universe where dressing up in a funny costume and beating up criminals isn’t a unique decision.  But let’s not get into that whole discussion again.)

While I liked Rise of the Guardians overall, I have to admit I think it would be awesome to see a film where The Boogieman is the good guy.  The closest I can think of in mainstream media is The Nightmare Before Christmas.  The actual Boogieman might be the bad guy in that film, but in a way Jack Skelington embodies the joy that can be found in darkness.  But that entire film is a bit of an exception because all the characters are dark and sinister, which is why, I’ll bet, the Boogieman is a bit bright and lives in neon.  He’s bright and shiny to distinguish him from the dark and gray good guys.

That’s not a complaint.  It’s an observation.  But it’s an observation worth making.

When I wrote A Nameless Witch, I very deliberately made the white knight a dark man.  I figured why not, but I think it’s important to do so more often.  Too often, we are fed dark is evil without even thinking about it.  And while I’d like to think we can mature and grow, there is probably some influence when, even from the youngest age, we are constantly exposed to the shorthand that being dark is code for being evil.  Or at least a little bit questionable.

When Smurfette was evil she had dark hair.  When she turned good, she went blonde.

Venom is evil Spider-Man, dressed all in black.

Darkseid, one of the most powerful villains in all of comic books, has dark right in his name.

Darth Vader is clad entirely in black to symbolize his fall to the dark side, only to become a glowing light spirit when he’s redeemed.

And, in a movie filled with fantasy characters like Rise of the Guardians, the only dark character is not just the bad guy, but the embodiment of fear.

I’m not going to criticize every such choice.  That wouldn’t be fair.  And Rise does go out of its way to make the Boogieman more than just a cardboard villain, instilling in him more depth and character than, say, Skyfall‘s villain, for instance.

But more heroic dark characters would be great.  This is why Heimdall from Thor is one of my favorite characters.  I am not a big fan of the film overall because, while it has its moments, it’s just a tad underwhelming when it comes to action (which is how I primarily measure superhero stories).  But Heimdall, as played by Idris Elba, is a badass guy who happens to be black.  Even then, (very stupid) people complained because . . . you know, I don’t even have the energy to argue with those types of idiots anymore.

I don’t know if I consider this a real problem or not, but it is worth mentioning.  And once you’ve seen how often the dark/ light, evil/ good expectation is played out in fiction, you can’t help but see a world where a little more balance couldn’t hurt things.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Doug Johnson
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Good observations all. I’d add that the orphan issue is a non-starter, as Superman is an orphan also. It is part of myth that the hero comes from other, or nowhere, or is an orphan. Yes, there are heroes with families, I’m sure, but the “classic” hero has no beginning and no end.

  2. Victoria C.
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    I guess evil is usually represented as dark because people fear what’s lurking in the dark itself.

  3. Sachi
    Posted December 19, 2012 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    For a good representation of a good boogie man I would direct you to Terry Pratchett’s “hogfather”. Not only is it a good read but it is also an interesting–and humorous–take on the power of belief.

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