Marvel and DC: The Endless Competition

Marvel and DC: The Endless Competition

I wrote this! It’s not very good, but I wrote it.

It is more of a observation of pop culture than a commentary on its cultural value, but I do believe this media war has cultural value. These names are dominating the hearts and minds, young to old, of millions all over the world, which means they are deciding the direction of our future. That’s a broad and presumptuous statement, of course, but the influence cannot be denied. Superheroes rule the world right now, and as we celebrate the golden age of their cinema, video games, television, and graphic literature, it’s exciting to know we will also bear witness to the world that will follow their reign. I can’t wait to see it.

Hope you enjoy!

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Fate Exposes Character in Macbeth

The true content of the human heart is revealed when one is confronted with the certainty of fate. If you knew what your destiny was going to be would you avoid it or ensure its fulfillment? What would this reveal about you as a person? In Macbeth, several of the characters learn what the future holds for them, and each reaction shows how willing the characters are to either control their destiny or let it control them. Macbeth and Banquo hear from the three witches (representing Hecate, a mythological chthonic figure) that Macbeth will become king of Scotland and Banquo’s family line will succeed him; each person’s inner character, be it foul or fair, is laid bare by that knowledge. Macbeth’s wife is also changed by the news he sends her of the prophecy, and she takes action to ensure its fulfillment. At the end of the story, everything the witches foresee comes to pass, and all because of how each character reacted to the certainty that it would.

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The play’s title character Macbeth is shown to be a good man, a loyal subject, and a fierce warrior at the beginning of the story. This image is immediately besmirched when he learns that he is fated to become king of Scotland, and his ambition emerges as his thoughts turn to assassination. This is the first glimpse we have of Macbeth’s true nature, and as he approaches the future this nature becomes more apparent. When faced with the actual murder plot, he hesitates, allowing his moral sanity to get a grip on his ambitious nature. However he eventually succumbs to his avarice and kills Duncan to seize the crown. This sets Macbeth on the slippery slope of tyranny dragged down by his true nature now in full command of his actions. Once more enticed by the knowledge of the future, he goes further and has his companion Banquo murdered because his family line is prophesized to surpass Macbeth’s on the throne. His paranoia and ambition drive him to seek another audience with the witches who relay warnings about his demise. Macbeth reacts to this information with self-preservation in mind, bringing out violent survival instincts. The more the prophecies influence his decisions, the more his true nature as a murderer manifests. He becomes mad with power and arrogant at the supposed invincibility that the witches predict for him; he sends murderers after Macduff’s family and laughs in the face of all danger besetting him. Macbeth allows his darkest side to take over in the end and any hint of remorse or remnant of human kindness is lost from his words and actions. The knowledge of his ultimate fate drives him off the deep end and to his final end.

In complete contrast to Macbeth, Banquo reacts to the news that his sons will be kings rather positively. He admits that dark thoughts cross his mind after he receives the information, but he controls himself and his true nature is revealed just as Macbeth’s is. The difference is that Banquo is essentially more kind-hearted than Macbeth; his sanity remains intact and he is even of sound mind to leave Macbeth’s castle after Duncan is killed, suspecting Macbeth himself to be the culprit. Whereas the prophecy inflames ambition in Macbeth, it sparks only acceptance in Banquo who is pleased at the idea of his sons becoming kings but does nothing to ensure it. Banquo has further moral revelation when he is faced with his ultimate doom; as the murderers descend on him and Fleance, Banquo immediately cries out for his son to flee. Even in the face of certain death, he fights to keep his child alive rather than himself, and for this his bloodline is rewarded with kingship. Banquo’s true altruism is revealed in his final words and actions because he is aware of their finality.

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Sir Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Dame Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth in 1976

The last character to react to the play’s opening prophecy is Lady Macbeth. Upon reading her husband’s letter, she “unsexes” herself and allows the dark spirits of mankind’s foulest nature to overcome and transform her so that she is capable of the murder that will lead Macbeth to the kingship. This response is a clear revelation of her true character; to ensure that the prophecy comes true and the Macbeth name rises to power, Lady Macbeth turns herself into a pitiless monster disregarding everything in her way to that power. Being a woman and therefore inherently nurturing to human life (as the Elizabethan perspective prescribes), she must give her soul an extra push into depravity so that she is ready to effectively destroy life. She is willing to go to such depths because she is certain that the prophecy will come true as a result of her sin; this sudden willingness is a stunning disclosure of her disregard for moral consequences. At the end of the play, the guilt of the murder is so powerfully repressed in Lady Macbeth’s mind that it drives her mad. Although her nature as an individual is so corrupt, her nature as a woman and a human being returns to deliver the punishments she cared so little for. Her choices, inspired by the certainty of success, are indicative of her overall character, while her punishment reveals the human psychological response to such choices.

Just as we all do when faced with the inevitable, the characters in Macbeth show their true colors when certain success or certain doom is in sight. Macbeth’s greed overpowers his loyalty because he cannot fail in usurping the throne, and his cruelty consumes his sanity because he thinks he is beyond death. As a result of this shift in character he dies a mad tyrant. Banquo accepts his personal fate and defends his posterity in the face of death; he is truly selfless and his children live on to rule Scotland because of his pure character. Assured of her fated success, Lady Macbeth drags herself to the depths of human immorality in order to plot regicide. Her conscious self-dilapidation shows her inner evil, and retribution strikes her down despite the overconfidence of her sin. The characters in Macbeth provide a showcase for human nature in light of fate; the foul and fair of the heart is distinguished just before the life is extinguished.

“What Fools These Mortals Be”

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the irony of Puck’s statement is realized in Puck’s own folly, which instigates the action of the play. The lovers’ quarrels with each other are the result of the wrong people being drugged. Oberon rebukes Puck after discovering the mistake, “This is thy negligence. Still thou mistak’st, / or else committ’st thy knaveries willfully” (III, ii, 345-436). Puck admits it was a mistake but also admits he enjoys the follies of the lovers, “And so far am I glad it so did sort, / As this their jangling I esteem a sport” (III, ii, 352-353). Puck himself is a fool because he made an error, and it is in this action that ties the play together. The many realms of reality in the story (the Lovers, the Fairies, the fictional play of the Mechanicals) are divided by awareness: the fairies are aware of the mortal’s actions while the humans are not, etc. But the realms are united by unawareness of self, which is the making of a fool. Puck doesn’t realize his own mistake and so interferes with the mortals’ lives. Bottom is unaware of his own form as an ass, but finds himself united to Titania, and the lovers are oblivious to their own infatuations while enchanted. All characters are fools, making all the realms part of the larger pageant that is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This brings irony to another of Puck’s lines: “Shall we their fond pageant see?” (III, ii, 114) Puck thinks he is the audience to the comedy of the mortals’ follies, but really he is but another character – another fool – in the “fond pageant” (translated into modern English as “foolish exhibition”) of Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare calls out this theme in yet another instance, when the players put on Pyramus and Thisbe and fail to realize they also partaking in a foolish exhibition. Their lack of awareness tie them to the rest of the fools in the story, and their play within the play adds yet another layer of reality. It’s an important detail to note that Puck is a jester in status because a jester is fully aware of folly and aims at revealing it, whereas Puck is unaware of his own, thus making him a fool rather than a jester.

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Bottom is the comic peak of the play because of his oafish nature. He acts foolish is every word and action, so his transformation in the forest becomes a realization of what he really is: an ass. Focusing on this moment is important: the Mechanicals flee from the man-turned-ass, and right before Peter Quince makes his exit, he says, “Bless thee, Bottom! Bless thee! Thou art / translated” (III, i, 118-119). There are many examples of Bottom and the Mechanicals misusing words, especially in their line-reciting, so this use of the “translated” rather “transformed” makes sense in context and has intense thematic value. To translate something, at least in words, is to change something from one language to another while maintaining the meaning of the words. Bottom is translated into an ass; the man whose name means ass actually becomes a being who’s name IS “ass.” The meaning remains after his “translation.” His nature as a dumb and narcissistic man remains intact in this form, and most importantly he is unaware of his nature as an ass. This is central to his position as a fool. Titania is a fool for falling in love with such a creature, and this grotesque visualization of the insanity in infatuation is a reflection of the lover’s reality.

The focal point of foolishness in the play has to be the lovers. They’re young and in love, which right off the bat is foolish, so their exaggerated love when drugged is a commentary on the real life notion of young love. Puck calls the mortals fools when it is his fault for drugging the wrong mortal. He is calling their whole ordeal foolish, despite being responsible for it. Demetrius and Lysander epitomize the folly by nearly fighting over Helena, a girl no one sought just moments before. Despite being drugged, they are naturally prone to such infatuation as made evident by the strong bonds they begin with. Helena never gets drugged, but still makes the foolish mistake of alerting Demetrius to his rival’s plans in the very beginning. She, like Puck, makes a stupid decision because she is unaware of her own nature. The enchantments placed on the mortals are magnifications of their inner selves: the lovers love unreasonably and Bottom becomes an ass. None of them are aware of it, thus they are fools. It is said that dreams reveal our subconscious thoughts and feelings we are unaware of, and so the play itself being a dream reveals something Shakespeare was feeling: we are all, on every realm, fools.

Bentham, Kant, and Batman

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Everyone knows who he is. He’s famous worldwide as the Dark Knight of Gotham City who deals out justice to the criminal underworld on a nightly basis. Whether he’s painted on the page or portrayed on the screen, the character has always upheld a steely moral code defined by one ultimate rule: he will not take a life. As an extraordinary vigilante, he finds a way through every impending crisis and hostage situation, always (sometimes) coming out the hero with no blood on his hands. However there is a questionable aspect of this code when it comes to his affirmation of life: keeping the Joker alive. Batman’s arch nemesis has been responsible for a catastrophic amount of deaths in every interpretation of their rivalry for decades, and in many notable stories these include the Caped Crusader’s closest companions as casualties.

The 2010 animated film, Batman: Under the Red Hood, calls back to an important event in the Bat-mythos: the Joker brutally murdering Jason Todd who was Robin at the time. At the end of the film, Batman himself explains that even with that on the Joker’s track record – with the graveyards he has personally filled and the chaos he exclusively causes – Batman refuses to end the murderer’s life because it would be too easy and make Batman a murderer himself, and there would be no coming back from that. The act of killing is too wrong to recover from, and Batman simply will not go there in order to obtain justice. Instead he locks Joker back up in Arkham Asylum, from which he’ll inevitably escape to wreak havoc again in another story. Is Batman culpable for these future deaths, or is he just following his own moral code, disregarding the consequences?2206113-batman_under_the_red_hood

In order to answer this question with a morally discussed solution, we must first analyze the perspectives on this argument. The Principle of Utility has been a strong moral instrument for people searching for answers to ethical issues for decades; it advocates for actions that result in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people and the least amount of suffering. The entire belief system that stems from this philosophy, called Utilitarianism, produces minds like Jeremy Bentham who developed a hedonistic calculus to better predict the consequences of actions and determine how much happiness or pain would come out of it. After all, as Bentham says, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters. They determine what we ought to do and shall do. They govern us in all we do, all we say, and all we think.” These are our natural instincts to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and there is no escape from their influence because we are just sophisticated animals in the eyes of Bentham. To him, a science of morality can be developed to help us make decisions that create the most pleasure and least pain, thus perfecting our natural inclination. Bentham claims that this urge begins psychologically, and we have a moral obligation to expand the happiness we create for others. The political principle defines the need to produce the most happiness for the most people, and in general people follow this reasoning in moral quandaries. But the problem with this path is the contradiction in Bentham’s principles; when considering self-sacrifice for the pleasure of others, how can the psychological principle allow personal pain to be an outcome of a decision? Bentham himself says that humans are not born with innate empathy for the feelings of others, and giving up happiness for them negates our nature. Yet he also claims we are obligated to perform self-sacrifices for the good of the many simply just because it’s moral.

While flawed, the philosophy still runs strong in arguments as proponents put moral focus entirely upon actions and their consequences. The circumstances surrounding an action determine its moral value, and intentions rob no moral worth from an action as long as it produces more pleasure than pain for the parties involved. Seeking things like Heaven or karmic gratification is still a pleasurable motivation to do things that produce pleasure for others, and even if the action were deplorable under different circumstances, the happiness produced by it then would outweigh the act itself morally. From Bentham’s standpoint, moral deliberation for an action requires intense calculation of the quantity of pleasure in the outcome; this includes analyzing the seven dimensions of pain and pleasure to find out how intense, long, certain, pure, near, the pleasure is and what the chances are that it will be repeated. Continually using this process for each moral choice, keeping in mind the welfare of others, will lead to a happy life filled with pleasurable results. That’s what Bentham says, at least.

Jeremy Bentham

If a Utilitarian like Bentham looked at Batman’s choice to let the Joker live after all of his crimes, he might slap the Dark Knight upside the head. Looking at the consequences, killing the Joker would be an absolute act of service to Gotham; with his history of mass killing sprees and no prospect of getting healthier, it only makes sense to rid Gotham of his filth when you think of the lives it could save. If Batman had done it sooner, he could have saved Robin among countless others of his comrades and citizens who depended on him to protect them. To a calculating Utilitarian, the happiness that results from the murder would certainly outweigh the pain, as only the Joker would suffer an obviously deserved death and Batman may regret the decision, but the citizens of Gotham would be free of his reign of terror forever. The numbers seem to play out but only immediately, for the philosophers who focus on consequence don’t consider the prolonged effects of this action and what kind of pain it could cause in the long run. Look at Batman’s reasoning for not killing the Joker: he says that once the decision is made to go into that dark place, there’s no going back. This shows that Batman does think of the consequences of this potential action and has decided that his personal suffering would be too great and it might cause more. Batman can’t allow himself to be as bad as the Joker, or else everything he fights for would become meaningless. Utilitarianism would call this sense of morality antiquated because bloodshed becomes necessary when a thousand more lives are at stake, and Batman’s moral state is of no concern because he would be doing it only for the purpose of saving them. And even if that isn’t his intention and he just wants revenge for the death of his partner, the result would be saving all the Joker’s potential victims, and that’s all the justification Bentham needs to approve of such an act. Bentham would analyze the direct effects of it using the seven dimensions of this theory: the intensity of pleasure would be the continued living of the people of Gotham, and the fear of death would be removed. This continued living would continue understandably until the citizens die, which will hopefully happen after many happy years as they are free from Joker’s terror. When it comes to certainty, Bentham can argue that Joker was certain to kill more people, and putting him down saved those lives, which will certainly enjoy the pleasures of living. The propinquity of pleasure is immediate to the killing and the suffering he causes ends immediately. It’s the purity of the pleasure that needs to come under more question, for Batman openly believes that the pleasure he’ll experiences from the act will turn into pain without a doubt. He can’t live with the decision even if it does save lives. The fecundity of the pleasure should also be analyzed, as killing one villain to save lives could very easily lead to another; if the Joker deserves death because of his track record, then the other villains would be deserving as well. This would logically cause a chain reaction of vigilante murders all justified by the result of saving more lives. Bentham and Utilitarianism would say it’s all morally righteous, but the issue can be looked at in different ways, which make it more complicated than pain and pleasure.

Immanuel Kant defined pure reason as the capacity to extract from sensuous experience to get at the underlying invisible laws that determine the phenomena. Human beings have used pure reason for centuries to extract underlying scientific laws from nature like gravity and quantum mechanics, but Kant believed if properly applied, humans could also discover universal moral laws using practical reason. This means that laws can exist that hold regardless of the contingencies of the situation; to understand the morality of an act we have to forget the irrelevant circumstances around it like consequence. Fed up with the disputes over “the good life” and how to find happiness, Kant began his project by simply trying to define a moral act and what it would look like. The primary condition for the possibility of an act having moral worth or value is that it has to be the result of freewill. There’s nothing immoral about natural disasters because they’re governed by natural laws, but we have freewill and our decisions can have moral worth based on our intentions. In fact, by simply using our freewill to make decisions we make them moral because so many things can constrict our choices. Kant saw animals as slaves seeking pleasure and pain, and to be moral beings we need to use the reason we were granted to see moral choices over wanting pleasure. We can bend our will to do the right thing especially if it’s not exactly what we want. Kant did exactly this to discover a universal moral law: the Categorical Imperative, which stated that humans are ends and not means because they are moral agents each independent of each other and free to make their own choices. To Kant, there is nothing in the world or out of it that is good without qualification of limitation without the goodwill (or the desire to do the right thing); intelligence is good but can be used for even purposes, just as riches or good health can. It is only when the goodwill is infused with will that it can have moral value, but the will can be blind so reason must be employed to discover the right thing to do. If we discover that we don’t really want to do it, we have to bend our will to accomplish it simply because we have reasoned it to be just. Any undesirable consequence or conflicting force (like doubt or even instinct) should be neglected in favor of the intention of doing the right thing because you ought to. Kant has a system for distinguishing a “moral act” from a “beautiful act” (act that looks moral but has no actual value), and with it people can find the elusive “truly moral act” that Kant doubted even existed. One must attempt to universalize the maxim of the action in question without logical contradiction, and if one is not found then it has moral worth. For example when the Joker steals a valuable diamond, we put forth the maxim, “It is morally right for the Joker to steal a diamond right now because he’s greedy.” When we universalize it we get obvious logical contradictions: “Everyone ought to steal anything at any time for any reason.” In a world like this, chaos would run rampant, so we must break down every decision we make to find the moral laws underneath.

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Kant would definitely make a good comic book villain

A lie is a lie and stealing is stealing, doing it under any circumstances is merely trying to justify an immoral action, so in the case of Batman and the Joker killing is still killing, no matter who does it for whatever reason. Just as any other action that can’t be logically universalized, Kant would claim there is no moral value in killing the Joker because the intention is to end the life of an independent moral agent. No matter how crazy the victim may be, The Categorical Imperative itself states that human beings should not be used as means, and murdering the Joker for the happiness of Gotham turns the victim of the murder into a means to their end. To Kant, there is a fundamental distinction between persons and things: things (like a knife) have use value and if they become useless (like if the knife becomes dull and can’t cut) then they lose their value. Things can be replaced and bartered for based on their value, but people have inherent value that makes them irreplaceable. Human beings are infused with reason, which make them capable of decisions, so it is the obligation of every other human to allow them to make those decisions. Putting any influence on the freewill of another human is the ultimate crime against their nature. The Joker is capable of making decisions; he chooses to murder and terrorize using his rationality that becomes immoral because it lacks goodwill. Batman chooses to protect the innocent and hunt down and bring justice to criminals; his intentions to preserve life at every turn make his acts imbedded with goodwill and therefore of moral worth. But in Under the Red Hood when faced with the option of killing the Joker in order to bring peace to Gotham, Batman refuses on the grounds that doing so would make him just as bad and there would be no going back. Batman shows a strange moral contradiction here; he is bending his will against the external force of the temptation to end the clown’s life, but does so because of the consequence it would cause for him. He doesn’t speak for the victim’s independence nor for the happiness it would cause the masses, but rather the moral toll it would cost him to drop to the immoral level that the Joker occupies. This reasoning wouldn’t satisfy Kant, and while the act of preserving life is beautiful, it is not entirely moral (at least in this interpretation of Batman). But he can universalize the maxim proposed in the act without logical contradiction: “everyone ought to preserve life at all times.” This in fact is Batman’s overarching maxim for crime fighting, and he has never regretted it.

In my opinion, Batman is entirely morally justified in his reasoning for abstaining from murder because of the middle ground he treads between Utilitarianism and Deontology. To Batman, killing is an immoral act that hurts not only the victim, but also the killer himself. Every murder is a crime because it removes one more person from the world and adds another murderer to it. Batman ruthlessly pursues killers and finds their actions irredeemable, and it is precisely because of that that he refuses to become like them: there would be no return from the path of a killer. It’s the consequence that Batman avoids, but he does so because of how he values human life. In taking a life, a murderer soils his own, and even if the life has been tarnished to the point of being inhuman (as with the Joker), it’s still a human life that deserves to be preserved, just as the killer’s life should be preserved. When Batman prevents murder he is not just protecting the potential victim, he is protecting the would-be killer. Many stories involve Batman talking young criminals out of committing their first murder; he would not have the same influence, if he were known to murder his own enemies. He sees this as doing more good. He views the consequence of death as essential to avoid (Utilitarian value) but refuses to perform it to bring about a good consequence (Kantian value). As a character that is meant to be realistic, he is able to tread the line between two strict ethical schools. Utilitarian values are well intentioned, but to demand Batman to sacrifice his own moral code for the benefit of society turns him into a means, which is unacceptable to that code. Batman is able to create happiness for the citizens of Gotham with all of his crime fighting, and to soil his soul with the mark of a murderer would only do bad. Kant demands that pure reason should drive all our moral actions, but if Batman universalized everything he did, he would be advocating dangerous vigilantism for everyone in Gotham, which is not what he wants. Batman pushes himself to the moral limit of his very soul breaking many rules, but never makes the decision to jump into the life of a killer. He pleases Kant with a beautiful act, and does enough work to satisfy Bentham, but in the end it is his moral code that takes from both philosophers that drives him. It is that code and the good it demands from him that separates Batman from the Joker.

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The Death of Jezebel, Gustave Doré

The Death of Jezebel, Gustave Doré

The Defenestration of the Biblical Queen Jezebel at Jezreel. She was the wife of the seventh king of Israel, Ahab, in the Hebrew Book of Kings. She was charged as inciting her husband to abandon worship of Yahweh and turn toward lower deities, Baal and Asherah, instead. She was thrown out of a window by members of her own court and fed on by stray dogs. A gruesome death, even for a Biblical character. It’s interesting to see how her story has led to the association of the word “Jezebel” with prostitutes and false prophets; there’s a certain debate to be had about the power certain literary women have over male characters and the consequences they face for using that power.

Individual huma…

Individual humans may not be super beings, but the organism of which we are all tiny cellular parts is most certainly that. That life-form that’s so big we forget it’s there, that turns minerals on its planet into tools to touch the infinite black gap between stars or probe the obliterating pressures at the bottom of oceans. We are already part of a super-thing, a monster, a god, a living process that is so all encompassing that it is to an individual life what water is to fish. We are cells in the body of a three-billion-year-old life-form whose roots are in the Precambrian oceans and whose generic wiring extends through the living structures of everything on the planet, connecting everything that has ever lived in one immense nervous system embedded in time.

Grant Morrison, Supergods.

This book is Morrison’s love letter to the industry that has culled so many imaginations across the planet: comic books. He dives into the history of our beloved pop culture icons and explores the psychological origins of the ideas they put forward. Morrison marries passion to intellect as he interprets modern comic book mythos through the prism of cultural myths and philosophy, of which he has extensive knowledge. I highly recommend the book for any lover of comic books, either for the simple fun or the rich cultural value it has for modern society. A wonderful read!