The Dark Knight Rises- Growing up as a Hero

(this post also appears at Subculture for the Cultured)

(By the way, before this post, let me put in a plug for my friend Johann Roduit, who has submitted an entry to have his thesis illustrated.  His entry is entitled, Becoming a Superhero:The Ethics of Human Enhancement and the Ideal Self, and can be found at PhD Comics.)

Welcome back fellow heroes!

Before we go on, this is a piece on The Dark Knight Rises and the ethics surrounding the end of the movie.  You’ve seen the movie by now, right?  If you, for whatever reason, plan to see this movie without spoilers, you shouldn’t read this.  The main ethical dilemma arises at the end of the movie, and that’s what we’re discussing.  Still here?  Good.

Viewed from a wholly practical point of view, Batman’s final decision in The Dark Knight Rises is as irrational as they come.  At first glance he “sacrifices” himself in the classic, desperate hero’s death in order to save the city, so forgetting a few loose ends can be forgiven.  But wait, he survives?  He’s right there in Italy with Anne Hathaway the whole time?  Well, then his action was premature.  Did he forget that Bane and Scarecrow are still on the loose?  Did he leave the city with no bridge for supplies and no source of law and order beyond a depleted police force?  Why did he turn over the persona of Batman, a role he filled after years of training, to an ex-cop with no training or experience outside of the police academy?  If Wayne needed to quit being Batman, fine, but he left plenty undone.

But there’s something else here.  As Jim Emerson said, “when a movie shows blatant disregard for story logic, it may be a (bat-)signal that it means to be read on some other level. That’s definitely the case here. On the level of plot, it’s as preposterous and irrational as any of its predecessors, maybe more. But Nolan is more interested in implanting thematic ideas — even if he doesn’t do anything with them.”  So what other themes are present in Nolan’s story?  What common threads can be pulled together to make something that makes sense?

Comparing the struggles of the protagonist and the antagonist yields a helpful parallel.  Wayne has spent the last several years as a recluse, and on his dresser are two sets photos, one of his parents and one of his dead love, Rachel Dawes.  These two sets of characters led Wayne to withdraw from society and essentially stop his life.  Wayne never finished college due to his plan to murder his parents’ murderer, and once his chance to avenge his parents was taken from him, he kept their memory close.  But recall Alfred’s hope: that he would see Wayne, living a life far away, in a healthy relationship and maybe even with children.  But Wayne could not have that, not so long as the memory of his parents’ death consumed him.  Wayne sought to stop his parents’ death retroactively, by becoming a symbol.

Now consider the primary antagonist (major spoiler!): Talia al Ghul (aka Miranda Tate, aka that crazy lady from Inception).   She’s trying to blow up Gotham, mostly to fulfill the dreams of her father, Ra’s al Ghul.  She changes her identity, sleeps with he hated enemy, and lives the life of deception, only to fulfill her father’s life work: the destruction of Gotham.

Wait, we see a trend.  Is this movie about the dreams of the characters’ fathers?

The movie is not the story of Bruce Wayne’s heroic sacrifice: as we’ve already established, for Wayne, there is no sacrifice.  This is a story about growing up.  Bruce never grew past the night his family died, and his only attempt to grow further through a relationship with Rachel was cut short by her death and Alfred refusing to share the she had chosen someone else.  Afterwards, Bruce never formed new, trusting relationships outside of being Batman, and he never developed new interests and skills.  Batman wasn’t a means of progress: he was a roadblock to Wayne’s growth.  Batman existed to exacerbate the pain of Bruce’s losses over and over again.  Wayne became Batman at the cost of becoming an adult.

Emotionally, nearly the entire trilogy takes place at this moment.

Gaining practical experience and becoming more mature is referred to in ethics as gaining phronesismoral or practical wisdom.  This is why the generosity of adults usually does more good than the generosity of children- because the adult knows how to effectively use charity and good intentions, while the child may do more harm than good.  According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Aristotle makes a number of specific remarks about phronesis that are the subject of much scholarly debate, but the (related) modern concept is best understood by thinking of what the virtuous morally mature adult has that nice children, including nice adolescents, lack. Both the virtuous adult and the nice child have good intentions, but the child is much more prone to mess things up because he is ignorant of what he needs to know in order to do what he intends.

Which brings us to back to Batman: Batman allowed Wayne to express the remorse of his parents’ death, but stopped his path to gaining more phronesis.  Batman then died, so Wayne could live.

As a sort of proof, the scene in which Bruce escapes the well is full of references to Wayne’s father.  When Bruce first encountered the bats, it was at the bottom of a well.  He was rescued by his father, who both asked him “Why do we fall down?  So we can learn to get back up” and told him “Don’t be afraid”, the exact two phrases he needed to escape.  So once again, metaphorically, Bruce’s father allows him to escape a prison of his fear.  Exiting the well indicated that Wayne finally learned the lessons his father tried to impart years before.

Moreover, Batman also allowed Wayne to do something he was never able to do as Batman, fulfill the legacy of his father.  Thomas Wayne was the symbol Batman always strove to be: the first movie specified that Thomas Wayne’s death galvanized the fight against poverty which saved the city from the League of Shadow’s original assault.  Batman repeated the act: through his sacrifice, Batman not only repelled the attack of the League twice, but he also became the symbol the city needed: evidenced by a statue in city hall.  Batman’s “death” allowed Bruce to do the thing being Batman could never do: live up to the sterling reputation of his father, then move on with life and raise a family.

That’s why this movie is entitled The Dark Knight Rises.  Batman finally rises to become the symbol Bruce wanted him to be-by dying.  And, of course, Wayne is now able to move past his parents’ death and, as all children must do, leave his parents’ shadow and start a new life.  Having emulated his parents’ work as Batman, Bruce is free grow, not as Batman, but as an ordinary hero, living life one day at a time, gaining phronesis and growing towards a happiness and a well being, a “happiness worth striving for” referred to as eudaimonia by many neo-Aristotelian philosophers.

Hence, Batman’s sacrifice at the end of TDKR may have been somewhat premature.  But, once all the villains are defeated, Batman also won the fight to free Wayne from the past, a victory both spectacular as well as long, long overdue.

Is the Hulk a Moral Agent? Also, intro to Subculture for the Cultured

Greetings fellow heroes,

Before we begin, there’s a reason the latest few posts are so far apart.  I’ve started writing for a second online source, the Subculture for the Cultured.  Its a great site, and I encourage you to check it out, especially if you love superheroes, comics, and taking these things seriously.

That said, enjoy the following, which is posted here, too.


Warning, spoilers abound.

Greetings, heroes!

After returning from viewing The Avengers this weekend, we decided to put aside our planned post and discuss the Hulk instead.

He made a compelling case

Joss Whedon’s interpretation of the Avengers is second to none (seriously, go see it), and the Hulk’s character is likewise amazing.  Whedon brilliantly captures the terrifying power of the Hulk and contrasts it with the demur and frightened Bruce Banner’s struggle to contain that power.  Because if Dr. Bruce Banner, brilliant physicist, becomes angry, he transforms into the Hulk and places all those around him in danger.  Any attempts to stop the monster directs the Hulk’s deadly fury against those who try to contain it.  While the Hulk is on his rampages, he lashes out at anyone and everything he perceives to be a threat while providing clumsy protection to those he loves.  But Whedon gave the Hulk a telling moment in The Avengers.  In the climactic battle, Captain America gives orders to each member of the team.  He concludes by turning to the Hulk and saying,

“Hulk, Smash!”

To which the Hulk smiles and proceeds to smash.  Effectively.

If anyone has the ability to give the Hulk an order, its Captain America.  And without denigrating Cap’s superlative leadership, telling the Hulk to smash is like telling a dog to sniff or a clock to tick; its in his nature.  But the moment the Hulk smiled and acknowledged the order, it implied that the Hulk had a choice, accepted it, and was pleased by the choice.

And that, fellow heroes, presents a dilemma.

If the Hulk has the ability to make decisions based on morality, he is what’s known as a “moral agent”.  This means that he can examine a situation, consider actions which are “right” or “wrong”, and understand and act based on that decision.

On the other hand, the Hulk may not have the ability to make moral decisions.  He may simply react to stimuli and respond without thought, in which case Cap’s order to him made him happy for the same reason a dog is happy when its master throws a ball.  He is like an animal, and at most his will follows the philosophy, as Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, that

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
in other words, the Hulk can “make decisions”, but simply doesn’t have choices: he makes the obvious decision available to him at any given time.
Determining the Hulk’s moral status may be impossible, and the consequences are tragic if he turns out to be a moral agent.  That would mean it is fully aware of its actions, and is thus responsible for the death and destruction it causes.  But in addition to being held responsible for ruining billions of dollars of military grade equipment, leaving thousands without homes, causing his part of the $160 billion to New York, and the collateral civilian casualties caused by his smashing, it also means that the Hulk is also being held as a prisoner by another individual: in short, the Hulk is illegally imprisoned inside Bruce Bannner.  Moreover, Banner is forced to serve as a caretaker to another moral being, regardless of his desire or ability.  This is problematic, as our society goes through great pains to remove moral beings from those who are incapable of caring for them, think of unfit parents. Thus, if Hulk is a moral agent, it creates a whole host of moral problems which would require the patience and wisdom of a saint to untangle.  This one may be beyond even Reed Richards’ genius.
Fortunately for human rights lawyers in the Marvel Universe, a group which includes Bruce Banner’s cousin, She Hulk, it would appear the Hulk is not a moral agent.  The Hulk has always served as an analogy of the nuclear age, and just as a nuclear weapon cannot be blamed for the damage it causes, the Hulk is merely a weapon which causes massive collateral damage amongst both friends and foe.  The Hulk means well, but like a bomb dropped with the best of intentions the devastation wrought is tragically more than predicted.  And there is no doing away with the Hulk.  There is no putting the nuclear genie back in the bottle, and the best the scientists like Bruce Banner can hope for is to contain the monster in as dispassionate a manner as possible.  The tragedy is that they will not always succeed.
Peter David’s Hulk: The End neatly illustrated this point.  After humanity was wiped out by, of all things, nuclear war, only the indestructible Hulk remained, suffering as a modern Prometheus for the decision to unleash nuclear fire into the world.
From Incredible Hulk: The End, 2006   From Incredible Hulk: The End, 2006
From: Incredible Hulk: The End

The story ends with Hulk, alone, without Banner or any living human anywhere.  The Hulk is finally by himself, the remnant of humanity’s nuclear ambition and a symbol of the uncontrollable power which destroyed it. But this decision, though satisfactory, does leave us with a moral problem.  If the Hulk is not a moral agent, who is responsible for what he does?  Do we blame Bruce Banner for being in the way when the gamma bomb went off?  Do we blame the military in the form of Nick Fury (and thus, the government) for not ridding of or at least containing the danger?

Unfortunately, neither answer satisfies, as neither can control the monster.  The nuclear problem is such that, just as in The Avengers, it would only take one decision maker, either government or scientist, one moment of unrealized anger and passion to unleash nuclear death on the world.  And this may be the ultimate message of the Hulk: the key is not to make the holder of the weapon angry, and if we are the ones holding the weapon, not to become angry ourselves.  While emotions have their place, when dealing with a Hulk or a bomb that has no moral agency of its own, we need to exercise our own moral agency to the absolute best of our abilities.  Because all of the Hulk’s strength ultimately lies in our hands.

And as Bruce Banner’s struggle for control demonstrates, the greatest strength is avoiding the power until it is truly needed.

Welcome Visitors

I noticed a spike in traffic this morning, and wondered to myself, what on earth could that be?  And then I remembered the Cracked article I submitted so long ago.  I’m not going to lie to you, this is a very different kind of site from the article I wrote, but none the less, welcome, and I hope you find your stay pleasant and enjoy my off-beat references to other people’s hard work. 

I was looking for a good post to send you to, but realized I don’t know, and I need to update several posts, and really, just hope something here makes your day better.  Enjoy!

Business Ethics #4 Keeping up with business

Greetings heroes!

As we mentioned in the last post, there are three ethical options for superheroes trying to succeed in business.  The first is attempting to keep up as best as possible, obeying the rules and conventions.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many superheroes who own their own business (Iron Man and Batman being notable exceptions), and those that do don’t seem to face this problem all that often.

This site also accuses them of being the same plot line. They have a bit of a point...

Before providing illustrations, a little background first:

Continue reading

Coming soon: Batman in real life

Hi everyone,

I’ve been researching business ethics for the last few weeks to write my next three posts, and am still waiting on a book to come in from an out of town library.

Since you guys have been so patient, MSN has reported that the police in Brazil have hired a man to dress up as Batman and patrol the streets of Taubate.  I am so not joking.

What’s even better to me is that the guy they hired is an ex-army soldier who is a local Batman impersonator.  And just to give you an idea of how Batman is perceived in Brazil:

And just so you don’t assume Batman is the only comic superhero incarnated, a small Washington town has Deadpool.

Good luck, heroes.

Business Ethics #3- How Do You Play Fair and Play to Win?

Greetings heroes!

The previous two posts have dealt with the problem of conflicts of interest, which is a somewhat easy topic to discuss because there is a direct right and wrong: it is wrong to perform certain tasks if you have a strong competing interest which prevents you from fulfilling that task.

You can't be both an ok Deadpool and a terrible Green Lantern

But let’s say you get pas the conflict of interest and go to work in the business world.  You go to work every day, and you do your best to make money without breaking any laws or causing any harm.  Sounds simple, right?

Well, no, that’s not all.  Let’s pretend I was talking about sports instead of business.  If you were playing hockey, you would never play with the goal of just not breaking the rules.  In order to be a good game of hockey, you also have to try to win.  And that means playing to win without breaking the rules.  And these two goals are often at odds with one another.  If you don’t do everything you possibly can to win, its not a good game.  And if you don’t follow the rules, its also not a good game.  If you are on a team of superior players, this is not an ethical challenge: you simply play your best and you’ll win.  But what if you’re the underdog?

But here’s the other thing about sports: if you cheat at everything, you lose everything, too.  Because if the game becomes no fun to play, no one will want to play it.  And then there will be no game at which to excel.

But sports is only so strong an example because, even if you lose, at the end of the day you’ve only lost a game.  But what if the stakes are much, much higher?

For example, what about war?

Continue reading

Business ethics, Part 2-Counseling ethics

Greetings again, heroes!

After reading the last post, some of you are thinking, well, I know how to be amazing in my work and avoid those conflicts of interest: I’ll just be a counselor!  Or a teacher!  Or something equally awesome!

Google search for "Awesome", I love you.


But while its popular to think that taking up a career in which one sacrifices the allure of large paychecks for arguably noble goals is automatically heroic, we only value those positions in society because they don’t take advantage of their noble post.  Teachers and counselors also need to avoid conflicts of interest. Continue reading

Heroic Careers-Business Ethics: the Conflict of Interest

Greetings superheroes.

So we’ve established that you shouldn’t be supervillains.  Now that we’ve done that, a problem presents itself: how exactly do you make a living without being evil?  After all, since you have to eat somehow, and you can’t be evil, well, how do you do both?

Recalling that ethics addresses right and wrong, good and evil, it makes sense that these rules would extend to business as well.  After all, we all know that there are plenty of ways to do evil business, and the last few years have shown that evil business practices affect everyone, even those only tangentially related to the marketplace.  Evil should have no place in business.

And yet....

Business ethics covers a broad range of situations and topics, Continue reading

Rationalizing Super Villainy- The problem of Individual Pragmatism

Greetings fellow superheroes!

After fighting crime and standing in the moral good for some time, you may get to thinking that this superhero thing is great, but there are some real drawbacks.  You never have the money to buy nice things, you’re always tired, and just once you’d like to be able to buy your spouse or significant other a nice dress or a night out.

You took me to the moon last month.....

None of these motivations are evil in and of themselves.  Heck, most of them are considered downright noble.  So maybe, you think to yourself, maybe I’ll do just a little supervillainy.  You know, on the side. Continue reading

Vigilante Scenario #4: The State has Enacted Good Laws and Enforces Them

Greetings heroes!

So far all of our scenarios have involved situations in which, for one reason or another, the state fails to enforce the laws it is expected to enforce or the political will to pass the laws which require enforcing.  But for most of us living in America, we don’t have that problem.  For the most part, we have good laws on the books, and for the most part, those laws are enforced with justice and compassion.

And, occasionally, weapons from Star Trek

So what should you and I, superhero, do when we encounter vice and villainy in such a scenario? Continue reading