Category Archives: Gaining Your Abilities

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.

Gaining your ability- Good old fashioned hard work

Having read the last two posts on gaining powers, I’m sure you’ll agree that gaining superpowers or building super-weapons is difficult, morally challenging, and quite frankly more than a little dangerous.  If either of these methods is not your strong suit, then do not despair!  There is one more method available to the aspiring superhero, and in many ways, it is the “easiest” method of the three.  I’m talking, of course, about getting out there and training until you are fit, toned, and so skilled that nothing can stop you.

Generally speaking, there are three main types of the insanely skilled hero.  The first is the special forces type who just happened to be in the most elite service unit in the military and who learned some really neat things while serving.  For example, the Punisher.

T-shirts like that only come in one color


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Gaining Your Ability- Technology

Greetings, superheroes!  As promised, this is a continuation of a previous post on how to gain your powers in a heroic manner.  The last post covered the high-risk high-reward scenario of attempting to gain superpowers.  The unfortunate part of attempting to gain an ability that way it that you are far more likely to kill yourself than come away with any real benefit.  Sure, you might become a huge green hulk after being exposed to a gamma ray bomb, but more likely the bomb will do what bombs are designed to do: kill you.

Pictured: Survival Highly Improbable.  Chance of becoming a Hulk: Certain.

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Gaining your powers

Before you plan on saving the world, you’ll need an ability to use in order to save the world. As a rule, homebodies you sit around and watch tv don’t accomplish much in the house. It requires hard work, connections, and talents used to their maximum potential. There are hundreds of ways to do the right thing using these resources, but as a superhero, the hard work and the connections tend to come after you gain your all-important ability. But gaining an ability, a category which includes superpowers, is no walk in the park. If fact, you might want to consider working on a political campaign or starting a neighborhood watch group before you try any of the following methods. Some of them are downright risky. There are plenty of other powers you can use besides superpowers, such as technological resources and good old fashion training, and we’ll cover those in later posts.

One thing to consider before you gain your superpower is that you are a superhero. I know that seems obvious, but think about it for a second: superpowers do not make you a superhero. Villains have superpowers, too, and their powers are just as effective as yours, often more so. Since you are living out a superhero story, you need to gain your powers in a manner befitting a hero, not a villain. Now sure, it’s tempting to tell yourself that giving yourself superpowers is the only time you plan to do something selfish and after that you’ll be altruistic. But you may find its not so easy to switch back and forth. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Thus, you have to acquire your powers in a heroic manner so that it becomes part of your heroic story.

If the comics and movies have taught us anything, it’s that superpowers, those abilities that make you extraordinary, can come from anywhere. A superpower can come from aliens, meteorites, magic, the right chemical,  radiation, genetic mutation, a magic soda, anywhere! Never overlook the potential of some odd event if you’re on the lookout for superpowers. After all, it’s that one-in-a-million event that will make you super.
Of course, you can’t just start hanging around nuclear test sites and hoping something comes of it. Purposefully altering yourself in order to become “superior” is not a heroic action. Giving yourself abilities beyond that of a healthy human is known as transhumanism, and it’s not looked upon favorably. In fact, Francis Fukuyama called transhumanism “the world’s most dangerous idea.” Hardly the kind of behavior you expect from an aspiring superhero. And even a brief glance through superhero stories reveals very few heroes who gave themselves superpowers. Captain America volunteered to help however he could. The X-Men were born with their powers. And the Green Lantern was given his powers from an outside source. The opposite holds true for villains. While many villains stumbled onto their powers, many such as Dr. Doom and the Green Goblin purposefully gave themselves powers for nefarious reasons. This gives us heroes a bit of a handicap in the powers department, but so far we’ve been graced with plenty of superpowered individuals. We maintain faith more will come along.
While you can’t simply give yourself superpowers, comics and movies show there are plenty of things you can do to improve your chances of gaining super speed, flexibility, or lots of other cool abilities. For example:

1. Become a scientist- The ranks of superheroes contain more PhDs in science than most universities. Mister Fantastic, Hank “Giant Man” Pym, Bruce “The Hulk” Banner, and Ray “The Atom” Parker all hold doctorates in science and all were researchers of one kind or another. Others, like Peter “Spiderman” Parker and Wally “the Flash” West are passionate about science, even though they don’t hold advanced degrees. There’s a great reason for this: science is cool. Understanding the universe gives you great power to make the world a better place. It’s also a noble endeavor in and of itself. Science has cured disease, improved communications, and impacted the lives of millions of people all around the world. It also exposes you to all sorts of neat forces, unique objects, and advanced materials which could easily lead to superpowers. As evidenced by the number of scientists in our ranks, a career in science easily leads to superpowers.

2. Sign up for experimental medical procedures- Hospitals and medical research facilities provide exposure to all sorts of new and untested procedures that won’t become mainstream for decades if ever. Your best bet is to sign up for something that is high risk and rare. Look for the following words: radioactive, mutation, genetic, or any phrase ending with the word “-ray”. This is how Steve “Captain America” Rogers got his powers, and the knowledge gained from your participation could potentially save lives.

3. Become a test pilot/military serviceman- like scientists, several well know heroes began their lives in the high risk area of test piloting experimental aircraft, most notably Hal “The Green Lantern” Jordan. Military service in general has produced multiple superheroes with superpowers, and regardless of bad policy decisions, most of those in the military are in for the right reasons.

There are other methods, but this should give you a good start. Keep in mind, however, that this is the highest risk method of gaining superpowers. You’re more likely to end up dead or with horrible diseases than with the ability to shoot lasers out of your eyes. But despite the risk, there is a greater lesson here. In each of the methods described here, the action taken is heroic even if no superpowers result. And perhaps this is the take-home lesson to this category: heroism is a way of life. If you want to be a hero, just start doing heroic things. And if you are meant to be a superhero, it will happen in the course of a heroic life. Heroism is truly a holistic existence which touches every aspect of your life and living it in small ways teaches you to live it in big ways, too. Gain your abilities, but gain them in a heroic way. It will put you on the path to even greater things.

We’ll cover technology and other abilities in the next few posts.