I’m watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (my favorite of the series), and thinking about something I’ve thought about hundreds of times over the past ten or so years.
Antagonists aren’t always “evil”. Consider in Last Crusade the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword. This is a group that initially is in direct conflict with Indy and his companions because they’re sworn to protect the Grail and are willing to do whatever is necessary to fulfill their mission. Once they realize Indy is more interested in finding his father than in finding the Grail, they back off from him and start following the Nazis.
On the other hand, Walter Donovan hires Indy to find both his father and the Grail. His sole goal is really the Grail and the power that’s fabled to come along with it. He really doesn’t care where Dr. Jones, Senior, is, nor does he care what happens to Indy or any of his men. He’s willing to sacrifice all of them to make sure the Grail ends up in his possession.
Really, “evil” is a subjective concept to begin with in many stories. Because we’re shown the story through the protagonist’s eyes, the antagonist becomes “evil” or “bad” because they’re opposite the protagonist. For some stories, it’s really not that simple. The Brotherhood appears “evil” because they seem to want Indy dead, when really they’re just trying to do a job that most people would probably agree isn’t “evil”.
Sometimes, it’s the protagonist who’s actually the “evil” one. Consider Light Yagami from Death Note. His motivation to create a better Japan by killing off those who commit truly vicious crimes seems noble at first. Who among us hasn’t wished for some way to make the world a lot safer? We can identify with Light’s intentions, and can possibly even go along with the idea that this isn’t inherently bad. But then things keep going, and between the two Kiras that Light really doesn’t bother to rein in when they act beyond his own modus operandi, the ability to identify with the “good” guy goes out the window because you just aren’t sure that the protagonist is the good guy anymore.
I love any book, television show, or movie that scrambles the idea of the good protagonist versus the evil antagonist.