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In the Face of Armageddon: Watchmen and the Problem of Nihilism

Posted in Alan Moore, Apocalypse, armageddon, comic books, cosmicism, DC Comics, Ernest Becker, Existentialism, fiction, graphic literature, graphic novels, Kierkegaard, Literature, Love, mortality anxiety, Myth, Mythology, Nietzsche, nihilism, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, Science, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2014 by Uroboros

SPOILER WARNING

Deconstructed Superheroes

Deconstructed Superheroes

Mythic heroes are supersized embodiments of a society’s highest values, and their struggles represent its deepest fears. One way or another those fears revolve around our anxieties about death and the problem of nihilism, the belief that life is devoid of intrinsic meaning and ultimately pointless. In The Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker said hero narratives are a kind of ‘psychological armor’ that generate:

  • [A] feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning…’an immunity bath’ from the greatest evil: death and the dread of it…Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal.

The emergence of multi-billion dollar superhero franchises over the last fifteen years, therefore, raises some interesting sociological and philosophical questions: what do these particular narratives say about Western culture’s most cherished beliefs? How do they reflect our fears and frustrations? This is what Alan Moore and David Gibbons explored nearly thirty years ago in their groundbreaking superhero comic Watchmen. Philosopher Iain Thomson says Watchmen deconstructs “the very idea of the hero, overloading and thereby shattering this idealized reflection of humanity and so encouraging us to reflect upon its significance from the many different angles of the shards left lying on the ground.”

Smiley FaceWatchmen is set in an alternate 1980s where the existence of superheroes, especially the Superman-like Dr. Manhattan, has resulted in an American victory in Vietnam, more terms in office for Nixon, and a clear strategic advantage in the Cold War. That is until Dr. Manhattan, fed up with humanity, decides to leave earth and live on Mars, thus escalating the threat of nuclear annihilation. The future of the human race looks pretty bleak. This set-up allows Moore to dramatize various reactions to death-anxiety and nihilism. Thomson says that, with Moore’s ironic heroes, “nihilism is a natural fall-back position. It is as if…since our values are not absolute, they must be relative—their absolutism having led them falsely to assume these alternatives to be exhaustive.”

Variations on an all-or-nothing, extremist approach to nihilism are clearly expressed in The Comedian, Rorschach, and Ozzymandias. The Comedian believes life’s lack of intrinsic meaning renders the world absurd, a cosmic joke he chooses to parody with a cynical life-style ironically symbolized by his smiley face button. The Comedian pursues the American Dream by brutalizing, abusing, and killing—enjoying the carnage with a sense of glee, unconcerned with the impact it has on others—because, if the world is doomed to atomic conflagration, why worry? Be happy.

RorschachRorschach agrees that the world is meaningless, but decides to double-down on the need for moral absolutes by taking it upon himself to impose them—vigilantly, violently, if necessary—on a street level, one criminal at a time. He is an extreme deontologist: immoral acts are never tolerable even if their long term consequences are desirable. He says evil “must be punished, in the face of Armageddon I will not compromise in this.” His harsh ethical code is symbolized by his mask: “Black and white. Moving. Changing shape…But not mixing. No gray.” Thomson says Rorschach embodies the modern world’s “deep fear that we are powerless to live up to our own ideals” as well as the “even deeper fear that these ideals themselves are mere projections with which we cover over and so conceal from ourselves ‘the real horror’” i.e. the universe’s utter indifference to our efforts to make it a purposeful place.

 

Ozzymandias

Ozzymandias

Ozzymandias is the most distorted version of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch solution to modern humanity’s existential crisis. He is willing to sacrifices millions of lives in order to save humanity. He has raised himself up to a level of such megalomaniacal self-importance that he no longer feels bound by any moral principle, save the cold utilitarian calculations he thinks necessary to humanity’s long term survival. In the end, Ozzymandias has become the most despicable character in a story full of monsters masquerading as heroes. He’s a genocidal fascist.

Dr. Manhattan represents the opposite strategy. Instead of ironic engagement, he chooses apathy and detachment. His superhuman status gives him a perspective on time and space that makes humanity’s problems seem so small and petty. He reduces the universe to a clock without a maker, an accidental enterprise with no end goal in mind. “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles,” he says. “Structurally, there is no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?” Thomson argues that Dr. Manhattan embodies the scientific disenchantment of the world, “a world science takes to be intrinsically value-free, and so ultimately meaningless.”

Dr. Manhattan

Dr. Manhattan

And yet it is this very detachment and withdrawal that allows Dr. Manhattan to revise his nihilism and create new meanings. By helping Laurie re-evaluate her own existence, he comes to see each human as a “thermodynamic miracle.” The unique causal chain that culminated in the emergence of ‘Laurie,’ and every individual for that matter, is an event “with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible.” Doc’s change of heart may reflect Moore’s underlying optimism about the scientific method: by dispelling the objective existence of divinities and spirits, science by definition disenchants the world, but, by relocating the supernatural in the imagination itself, a scientific worldview also opens up the possibility for new kinds of re-enchantment. We can still find miracles in the observable cosmos, especially in the most precious thing of all: the emergence of life itself. In this way, Dr. Manhattan represents a transhumanist perspective: once humans unravel the mysteries of how our own minds and bodies work, and thus transcend the very physiological limitations that shaped us, the challenge then lies in discovering a new life-affirming sense of wonder. Or what is the point?

Dan and Laurie a.k.a. Nite Owl and Silk Specter II

Dan and Laurie a.k.a. Nite Owl and Silk Specter II

For Dan and Laurie, the point is intimacy. While the other characters are on a Nietzschean quest to create superhuman values, Dan and Laurie turn to each other and take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith into the comfort of romantic love. The horrific aftermath of Ozzymandias’ genocidal plan makes Laurie find value not only in human life itself, as Dr. Manhattan helped her see, but in the beauty of the relationships those individuals can create. “Being alive is so damn sweet,” she tells Dan. “I want you to love me because we’re not dead.” Laurie and Dan’s new truth, their new purpose, is grounded in their commitment to each other, a self-sustaining source of order and meaning.

Now, lest one think he’s selling out his ironic ethos by embracing some lovey-dovey, hippified solution to the problem of nihlism, Moore undercuts the Kierkegaardian leap when Laurie says their love smells like “Nostalgia,” a reference to a perfume ad, so Moore is perhaps suggesting that the concept of romantic love is one more commodified myth we are persuaded to buy into, one more fiction we consume in hopes of filling the existential gaps before our time on this planet is up. But if Moore is as thoroughly postmodern as he appears to be, he’ll also acknowledge that ‘commidified myths’ and ‘consumable fictions’ are all we have, so why not buy into ‘love’?

Watchmen‘s deconstruction of superhero tropes twists the function of the text by interrogating its own readers. It asks: what are you really looking for in these panels? What patterns do you see in its words and images? Which ideas and values still resonate long after you’ve closed the book? This is how great art addresses the problem of nihilism, not by teaching us what life means, but by creatively representing the complexity of the issue and giving people the space to think and draw their own conclusions. Watchmen does what all good myths do: they tell stories that help us make sense of the world.

The Dark Knight: Why So Existential?

Posted in Alan More, Batman, Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne, Christopher Nolan, comic books, Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises, DC Comics, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Film, Frank Miller, Gotham, graphic literature, graphic novels, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Knight of Faith, Literature, Morality, Nietzsche, nihilism, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, superheroes, teleological suspension of the ethical, The Dark Knight Returns, The Joker, The Killing Joke, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2012 by Uroboros

Four years after first seeing The Dark Knight, I still marvel at how Christopher Nolan managed to sneak so much thought-provoking material into such an action-packed Hollywood flick—how, amidst all the clever heists, over-the-top chase sequences, and ear-popping explosions, this sleek auteur didn’t shy away from post 9/11 political commentary; he neither neglected the psycho-social dimensions of the characters, nor waved his hand at the existential implications of the film’s wildly suspenseful dilemmas. Like no other filmmaker before him, Nolan and his co-writers, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, respect the literary depth of the comic source material. They see, and unapologetically embrace, the existential potency at the heart of the Batman mythos.

Influenced by the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, existentialism focuses on the individual’s struggle to find meaning in the modern world, one increasingly devoid of traditional notions of order and authority and constantly threatened by the specter of post-Darwinian nihilism. Existentialists argue that the cosmos doesn’t have a clear, predetermined plan. There’s not even an essential ‘human nature’ to help guide us through life’s obstacle course. There is only the purpose we create through our choices, and we can’t know with absolute, God-like certainty whether we’ve made the right ones. Rational debate and scientific research can help, but ultimately such truths, being contingent upon the evidence we have at the time, are provisional and may be revised in the future. Free will, an existentialist is likely to argue, is predicated on a state of inescapable doubt.

Kierkegaard, a 19th century Protestant theologian, coped by imagining a kind of philosophical hero tailor made for an uncertain reality. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes the ‘Knight of Faith.’ Exemplified by the biblical patriarch Abraham, a Knight of Faith doesn’t tremble at life’s uncertainties or delude himself about its fundamental absurdities. He embraces them as a call to adventure, a test of one’s commitment to his or her most cherished beliefs.

Kierkegaard’s paragon of faith resembles the Dark Knight in several key ways. Existential quests begin with absurd events that defy easy explanation and haunt our thoughts long after they’ve passed. For Bruce Wayne, of course, it’s his parents’ senseless murder. At eight years old, the orphaned Bruce inherits a fortune but is robbed of one of life’s true treasures: the sense of security that comes from belonging to a loving family. He spends the rest of his adolescence struggling to overcome grief, terror, and rage–the deafening psychological echo of the gun shots fired in Crime Alley on that fateful night.

Existentialists are quick to point out that we don’t choose to exist (our parents do that for us), but at some point, we do get the chance to take the reins and make decisions that shape our destinies. As Bruce matures, he refuses to become a helpless slave to his emotions. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, he says, “We must believe that our private demons can be defeated.” His parents’ murder teaches him that “the world only makes sense when you force it to.” Instead of becoming fatalistic, Bruce takes up the cape and cowl in pursuit of something that will bring meaning back to his life: a sense of justice.

The choice of the bat totem isn’t arbitrary. It symbolizes Bruce’s mastery of the fear and rage that threaten to turn him into the very criminals he’s battling against. In Nolan’s Batman Begins, Alfred, Bruce’s butler, asks him about his preoccupation with bats. “They frighten me,” Bruce replies, “and it’s time my enemies share my dread.” Batman takes on Gotham’s underworld and tries to rectify the forces that victimize people. This is how Bruce atones for the loss of his parents, who used their wealth and power to make Gotham a safer city.

While Bruce embraces conventional philanthropy, too, his fractured psyche craves a more concrete way of pursuing his goals. Batman turns fear and grief into an existential weapon, stalking the shadowy space between institutional order and criminal chaos, placing himself beyond the law, but not above it. It’s a place of paradox and uncertainty—a place also explored by Kierkeggard’s Knight of Faith. Through what Kierkegaard calls the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical,‘ the Knight Faith doesn’t have to limit his passion for moral order to conventional understandings, which are always temporal and flawed. Likewise, Bruce never lets the letter of the law get in the way of preserving its spirit, especially when the institutions charged with protecting us are so corrupt. That’s why he feels compelled to dress up as a bat and “strike fear in the hearts of those who prey upon the fearful.” It’s a leap of faith that, to others, looks irrational and absurd, but, according to Kierkegaard, that’s a risk the Knight of Faith has to be willing to take, and Bruce/Batman does, using all of his physical and mental abilities toward his teleological end.

A superhero’s greatness, however, depends on the nature of the nemeses who stand in his or her way, and arguably there’s no better rogue in any graphic lit gallery than the Joker. His relationship with Batman is a yin-yang of stark existential contrasts. For example, while Batman struggles to create order, Joker revels in disorder. Where Bruce’s world revolves around his parents’ murder, the Joker’s past, prior to the chemical bath that hideously deformed him, is ill-defined. In Alan More’s The Killing Joke, the Clown Prince quips, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” In Nolan’s The Dark Knight, each time the Joker explains how he got his scars, he puts a different spin on the story.

These dichotomous hero-villain origins reflect the diametrically-opposed nature of their subsequent crusades. Born of a singular act of random violence, Bruce channels his passions and focuses on a clear, if ultimately unachievable, goal: a war on crime itself in order to create a safer, more just society. The Joker, on the other hand, lives to create total chaos and debilitating fear. In the spirit of his ‘multiple choice’ origins, he is an advocate for meaninglessness, a champion of the purely arbitrary.

The Joker mocks Batman’s attempt to protect Gotham’s citizenry. In The Killing Joke, he claims the average man is “nature’s mistake.” With an air of dark, Nietzschean glee, he argues that it takes a “deformed set of values” and a “clubfooted social conscience” to pretend that life is anything but “mad, random, and pointless.” This was the point of his ‘social experiment’ in The Dark Knight. The Joker puts seemingly ‘good’ Gothamites in a situation where the corrosive power of fear would erode their consciences and reveal what lies beneath: a horde of primitive, selfish little ids only pretending to be civilized folk governed by high-minded morals. To him, the Dark Knight’s quest is the ultimate absurdity because life itself is just one big cosmic joke: “Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for,” he says in The Killing Joke, “it’s all a monstrous, demented gag.”

This contrast is part of what makes the Batman mythos one of the most profound in all of graphic literature. It speaks to the fundamental things we cherish and fear. The philosopher Heidegger says we are ‘thrown’ into existence, and once we wake up to the reality of our predicament, the rest is up to us. The true challenge is to face one’s fears and be an authentic person. As for the anxiety and dread of being a self-conscious creature, it’s the price of free will, and the suffering that comes with it is what makes the pursuit of happiness worth the effort—it’s the dark background against which moments of illumination stand out in joyous relief, the bitter seasoning that makes little successes along the way taste so sweet.

Batman and Joker represent divergent paths in the struggle. There’s Bruce’s effort to accept his past and prevail, not in spite of his suffering, but because of it. He chooses to make it meaningful. Then there’s The Joker’s quest, which starts with the question: “Why so serious?” and ends in chaos. He embodies the nihilistic suspicions that haunt anyone trying to lead a sensible, purpose-driven life. Batman overcomes these suspicions and commits himself to a worthy cause—even if it requires a seemingly absurd leap of faith in order to sustain it. Nolan brilliantly captured this yin-yang dialectic in The Dark Knight, and I never get tired of watching the interplay of all those wonderful ideas.

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