So over the last few days I've been exposed to a number of opinions, delivered from a position of passionate, self-styled underdog defense, about how there are no more heroes in our fiction, no more ideals, and how nothing could be more terrible. This has generally been in regards to comic books, heroic fiction, and space opera. This always grates on me a little, in part because there alway seems to be the quiet implication to it that if you don't like uncomplicated good vs. evil stories that's a moral failing on your part. Lately it's been really bugging me.
So here are some responses.
1) I don't believe good and evil are that easy.
The good versus evil narrative structure is constructed. In part it's a question of position- if you know the personal tragedies of your hero and nothing about your faceless, masked antagonists, of course they look evil- this is doubly true in something like Lord of the Rings with their orcs or Star Wars with their battle droids: you have things in universe who were explicitly created with the sole purpose of being evil. How many people does Luke Skywalker kill while being a good guy? Yeah, they were all shooting at him or at his friends. He was also shooting at them. There's not automatically a right side in a gun fight. It's certainly not automatically the side you're on.
To tell a black and white story, there's all sorts of gray you have to deliberately avoid looking at, or do insane world-building gymnastics to make not an issue.
2) I don't believe your heroes were ever all that good in the past.
People keep bringing up Superman and Captain America here. As the internet may or may not have informed you yet, Superman could be kind of a dick back in the day. One of the guys in the podcast brought up "the way our parents' generation talks about presidents". Like Calvin Coolidge, one wonders? Herbert Hoover? And then there's Terry Goodkind's objectivist heroes, who are all about the genocide and openly hating on pacifists. Or, you know, you have Indian fighters in the Old West.
The truth is that pulps, fantasy, and science fiction, have always been full of people who were less than morally upstanding. Conan was a thief and a pirate. The best selling comics before the comics code were crime and horror. Your noir detectives were drunks and perverts more often than meaningful cops. People have always wanted stories about Billy the Kid as much as they have about Wyatt Earp.
We had a blip of profound censorship- this is especially true in comics. A Batman who had previously been dropping people to their death off buildings became a goofy, colorful, prop-centered pun fest, while most of his contemporaries were thhrown away and forgotten completely.
I think more than anything this has to do with childhood: what you take in when you're still young stays with you. You're told it's right and that's all you need to know.
I go back now and watch some of the things I loved as a kid- Indiana Jones is a good example, as, honestly, is Star Wars- and the stories are more nuanced than I remembered. The heroes are a little dingier, even darker. And honestly, I like them better that way. They steal, they lie, they do cowardly things sometimes (did you remember the part where Indiana Jones uses a bunch of kids as human shields? Because I didn't), but in the end that makes their decision to do the right thing more meaningful.
(There's also a really disturbing thing that goes on where the heroes are, at best, marginally less destructive than the villains, but the heroes are coded as heroic and the villains are coded as villainous, and there's no talk about how they're all basically doing the same thing).
3) I don't believe there aren't heroes out there now.
Superman is still there, and still selling loads of books. Captain America is the head of a brand new Avengers team on the big screen. Heck, most of the best selling movies of the last couple of years have been heroes doing heroic things.
Heck, Captain Marvel still sells books and shows up in media, and you can't get any more boyscout than that.
What about Katniss from the Hunger Games? What about stuff like Mistborn? What about Paksenarion?
Half the times I hear someone gripe about there not being heroes, they're gearing up to sell you their book. About the types of heroes you just don't see anymore. I'm up to at least a dozen people I've heard say this as a preamble to a pitch.
Yeah, there's some grim stuff, and it does well. People like it. But I put it to you that you can still find the type of heroes you want, if you go looking. You're not guaranteed every book you pick up will have them there, but that's not the same as them being gone. Superman doesn't stop being Superman because he's sharing a shelf with Lobo.
4) Shades of gray are not the same thing as total moral equivalence.
People always seem to want to reduce the opposite position to: there's no difference at all between the good guys and the nazis, and that's not what I'm trying to say, even with the Luke Skywalker example above.
The main thing, I feel, is that you can't take the difference for granted. There has to be a reason your guy shooting people is better than the other guy shooting people, and I have trouble accepting reasons like: the story is from his point of view, he has the white hat on, he's the one who looks like an American teenage boy.
If he's exceptionally good, does not shoot anybody, carries old lady's groceries across the street, and always says please and thank you, why? What about his life made him like that? How does he feel about it all?
I actually like quite a lot of Superman stories for this reason. In the best ones, you see the Kents, you hear Smallville Kansas coming through every time the guy opens his mouth. You see the clash of that smalltown idea of right and justice, not just with extradimensional monsters, but with his cosmopolitan friends, with other heroes, even with pushy barristas. Or you see him being apart and alone, holding back from people so that he doesn't hurt them, and imagining Krypton, where he would actually be completely at home. Superman is a fantastic character and "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" is only part of it.
Of course, part of that might be that I don't think he's always right. Sometimes that mindset is a liability for him- he can't plan or anticipate the way Batman can. Very often he trusts authority and it costs him. He trusts people and it costs him.
Sometimes the way he sees the world causes him to make honest mistakes that hurt people baddly. Sometimes those are the best stories. For my money it beats the heck out of him just punching a guy in different colored spandex in space.
All of that doesn't come from the fact that he's the "good guy". He doesn't proceed outward naturally from a position of truth and justice. He's someone who has a history, a mindset, a set of advantages, and a set of limitations, and he makes what he can of it.
Likewise, if your villains are hideous monster spawn straight from the depths of hell.. well, honestly that's okay. I like the primal horror side of things. But if your villains are people, and they're acting like they're straight from the depths of hell, I tend to require one of two things: either a specific, personal reason they are like that, not just "because they're fascists/muslims/rednecks/men/feminists/whatever other group I don't like"; or complete horror from every other character who sees their actions (inclusive of members of whatever group the guy belongs to, seriously, his/her own mother should shrink back in disgust).
It's totally cool for one of your dudes to be a better person than the other. There's a lot of fun conflict in that. But it doesn't come just because they have a badge, or they're the king, or they're the chosen one, or they're the viewpoint character. It comes entirely from the way they distinguish themselves through their actions, especially relative to the people they're claiming to be better than.
I think that's really the heart of it- the two guys punching each other in space thing. We're asked to believe one is good, because he looks like us, because he has our colors on, whatever.
I'll believe your hero when both he and his antagonist rise believably in a gray world, and live in that gray world, however light or dark they themselves are able to become.
So... yeah. That was kind of a ramble, but it's what I think on it.