Sunday, March 28, 2010

Batman & the Failure of Moral Absolutism

Earlier this week I read Kevin Smith’s new collected Batman tale, Cacophony, which takes the villain Onomatopoeia from his run on Green Arrow from about ten years ago (!) and sends him after the Caped Crusader. Smith acknowledges in his introduction the series’ main weakness, the excessive dialogue in the first issue, but he then overcorrects in the final two, leaving too much unsaid. The guy can write dialogue, and while I could have done without the reference to a green merkin, the shift made the later issues seem too sparse.

Anyway, Onomatopoeia really serves as a catalyst for a Batman/Joker story in which the Joker is shot, the bullet nicking his aorta, and Batman must decide whether to seek help for him or pursue Onomatopoeia. Knowing what one does about Batman, that he is a thoroughly good person despite the fact that he beats the shit out of petty criminals on a regular basis and spends millions of dollars on gadgets that could otherwise be used to clean up Gotham’s slums, it’s obvious what decision he makes. Even with Jim Gordon arguing forcefully that the Joker is a horrible person who killed a school full of children earlier in the series and should be left to bleed out, Batman can’t do it. This leads to a pretty good scene at the series’ end where the Joker, filled with anti-psychotics, explains to Batman that he will never be at peace until he is able to kill him. So the dilemma is that Batman can’t live with himself by killing the Joker, but if he had killed him then the Joker would be at peace and Gotham would be (relatively) safe, or if he himself was killed then the Joker would be at peace. Not terribly compelling, but Smith did a reasonably good job with it.

But what bothers me is that such a conversation is so blindingly obvious that it needn’t have happened. Of course Batman couldn’t kill the Joker, for his character is good while the Joker is evil. There’s no grey area, and thus by not protecting all life, the character would be forever tarnished. But placing such a virtuous character in such a situation makes for a disingenuous story, because who among us wouldn’t let the Joker bleed out in that situation? Batman didn’t shoot him, in fact he let the shooter escape to save him. So we, the audience, are Jim Gordon arguing for real justice and the understanding that moral absolutes are at times counterproductive, while Batman remains better than humanity. This of course may mean that as a result of his moral stance, Batman isn’t so much better than humanity, but that he stands apart from it as an Other.

This sort of thing isn’t unique to Batman and comic characters, but also infiltrates the realm of the utopian future society in Star Trek. So-called evolved humanity at times seems so distant from current humanity as to be unrelatable, something that obviously doesn’t click with viewers as exemplified with Voyager and Enterprise. The Federation has moral absolutes about how other people should be treated, how a society should act, so it prevents them from violating said morals for the greater good. In fact, some of the most popular and resonating episodes of Star Trek involve someone breaking the moral code to effect a necessary change, like the members of Section 31 or Captain Sisko conspiring with Garak to bring the Romulans into the Dominion War.

I don’t want to get into a metaphysical discussion about why the ends can sometimes justify the means, not just because it is an unwinnable argument but also because it’s not important here. I merely want to make the point that by setting up characters or societies with moral absolutes that are inviolable, an honest portrayal of the human experience will be near impossible to convey, for while we may one day hope to be like Batman or to live in the utopian Federation, it nevertheless will be difficult to ever relate to these types of characters as their experiences and worldview are necessarily so different from our own.

1 comment:

Steve said...

I think the problem isn't so much setting up moral absolutist societies, but depicting characters who can actually live up to them all the time. I suspect most people consider a number of things "wrong" on some level that they still do all the time. Don't most people fail to live up to their ideals usually? Probably.

The debate here sounds kinda contrived-- surely pursuing Onomatopoeia, a known mass-murderer, is a great good than saving the Joker? I'll have to pick this up; I've wanted to see more of Onomatopoeia ever since Sounds of Violence.