The Birth of the Man in Black

Andrew Hawkins

The Man in Black is an imposing and ominous character. In films, the faceless government agent that usually wears a suit and tie will more often than not be an antagonist working against the main characters. These figures have become almost a trope when it comes to movies that contain plot lines involving government conspiracies, science fiction stories that feature extraterrestrials, and the occasional dystopian tale that grounds itself in heavy sociopolitical commentary. To say the least, the Man in Black is a complex character.

In games, the Man in Black often manifests itself as an adversary, but not always. In the popular IO Interactive Hitman series, the player controls a quintessential Man in Black. No name. No history. A face that fades from memory instantly. A shadow among us. The concept takes many shapes in pop culture. Author Stephen King’s most expansive villain, Randall Flagg, is a character who literally goes by the name The Man in Black at times. Though he’s hardly anonymous, there is a “hide in plain sight” approach to his wiles. The Man in Black can refer to a very signature style in a group of faceless automatons in various forms of media. In many ways it simply means “stay away.”

Even Johnny Cash’s moniker was less about his wardrobe and more about his attitude.

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Where did the Man in Black come from?

In early Noir films made during the golden age of cinema, characters typically identified by black hats, suits and trench coats started popping up every time an innocent man wound up trying to run from the government. The idea of a shadowy government agent was a staple of detective stories that crossed paths with CIA and FBI officials. The government agent would usually be feared by the protagonist, making the character out to be not only a threat, but also a boogeyman of sorts. Anybody familiar with Hitchockian and Kafkaesque films like Double Indemnity and The Third Man will be all too familiar with the image of a cloaked figure with a long brimmed hat, smoking a cigarette while silhouetted in shadow.

At times, the protagonist in Noir films embodied the characteristics of the Man in Black. Typically, this would reflect on the ambiguity of the character. The main detective in these stories may be nihilistic, misanthropic or just a plain old vigilante trying to do what’s right despite everything. Elements like style, setting and even technical aspects of the film can reflect the motives of the Man in Black. Sometimes all you need is chiaroscuro lighting and the right costume to add suspense. Even the classic Inspector Javert trope can be connected to this when you have a stern chase plot and a main character wrongly accused of a crime.

In many, The Man in Black is a perfect armature for video game villains because they are emotionless, dangerous, and seemingly endless. Even Agent 47 in the upcoming Hitman is just a face in the crowd and one of many. The noir influence does often permeate, but a lot of that is due to the vital monochromatic palette the character’s namesake implies.

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How has the character evolved over the years?

This figure constantly changes with each new era as our culture continues to evolve. With changes in the American and world governments, and the constantly shifting global conflicts that spurn wars between nations, the Man in Black has grown to be a versatile label that can reach all the way from the lowest ranking soldier up to the highest official in office. The label is one that can even identify what is known as a sleeper agent and once the character’s true motives are revealed, action is taken to ensure that the government’s mission is executed. This kind of plot device and trope extends to all entertainment from movies to television to games, and works well for any kind of genre film needing a thriller element.

In recent years, genres across the board have used the Man in Black to great effect. The X-Files is a prime example of how this figure can be used as a hunter and a killer while he pursues Mulder and Scully. The Alien Bounty Hunter played by Brian Thompson is well known for his cold and calculating manner, and having his character be able to change form makes the threat even more unpredictable. This kind of Man in Black is very supernaturally based and can also be seen in other properties like The Matrix and They Live.

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What does the Man in Black actually do?

In Science Fiction stories, the Man in Black is typically a government agent or an appointed foot soldier that actively works to ensure that secrets stay buried. UFO sightings that include proof, extraterrestrial life forms that have been discovered and revealing documents about coverups are all reasons why a Man in Black would be deployed to thwart a character from spreading the truth. This can lead to capturing characters and locking them away, framing characters in some way or assassinating anyone who knows the truth.

Government conspiracies are widespread these days in all forms of media, and video games are no exception. Shadow agencies can be a key plot point for any story that deals with government overthrow, widespread panic that enacts a police state, and even catastrophic events that destroy entire countries. Warfare can be conducted on all fronts to even include cyber attacks, but loss of life is always a major part of the story when these kinds of themes are explored. The Man in Black can be the puppet master behind everything, or he can just be a member of the cleanup team that stalks the city for survivors while keeping everything under wraps.

The Man in Black isn’t always the bad guy.

Men in Black featured a comedic and light-hearted take on this trope. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones playing the roles of Agent K and Agent J are perfect examples of how this character can be used for good. The idea that a secret government agency uses its resources to keep the world safe from invading extraterrestrial forces is clever and incredibly imaginative. Even director Terry Gilliam in his film Brazil featured a cloaked individual who seemed like a threat, but wound up being just a pawn in the greater scope of the picture.

When it comes to this character being driven by independent motives, there is almost always a drive or force behind every action. In The Matrix, Agent Smith is at first a small part of the whole, but then evolves to become a hive minded entity bent on control. The aliens in They Live share the same kind of construct, but they are all jointly driven by conquest through oppression and deception. The Man in Black doesn’t always have to be the ominous figure smoking a cigarette in the corner while mulling over sinister plots, but when it comes to films and games that deal with these subjects, the character is not to be messed with.

Additional text by Nick Nunziata.

Andrew Hawkins
Andrew Hawkins is a fan contributor at Fandom. He has been on the fan media scene since 2011. Arriving at Fandom by way of CHUD and GUY.com; Andrew loves Sci-Fi Horror movies and supervillains. His dislikes include jargon and presumption.
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