Meaninglessness in Wonder Woman

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“Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.”

“Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be… or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.”

The Raimi Spider-Man movies and Snyder’s Superman movies offer opposing takes on morality: Spider-Man (a human being with human problems and duties) is only good when he does justice to his responsibilities, while Superman (having no limits to his power and no one to be accountable to) is good when he follows his desires.

This is why no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, Spider-Man will always have to face the cost of his actions: It is his sacrifices in order to do what is right that makes him the good guy. Superman on the other hand, when he considers what others might think in doing stuff, or when he subjects his abilities to the whims of others (Zod and Luthor, for example) does more harm than good.

Spider-Man follows Kantian categorical imperatives (nerd): what is good is good and it is always rational to do it. Superman is a Randian egoist: what is good is good only if we really desire to do it.

A striking similarity however, and I think what makes their stories a tad simplistic at times, is that it is always clear what they have to do and who they have to fight. The questions tackled are always whether they should choose to do that thing or not, and how they should do it. And the world always hangs upon the balance with them making the choice.

This is, why Wonder Woman stands out. The movie isn’t about whether we should choose to do the right thing, as doing the right thing is a given for Diana. It’s about figuring out why should we do the right thing if the right thing seems insignificant. Wonder Woman does this by establishing Diana as a well-intentioned, capable individual who always wants to do the right thing out of both responsibility and desire and then subverting the trope of the hero getting what he desires at the end.

When doing good doesn’t make things “better”

Much of the film concerns proving to the audience that Diana will always do “the right thing” given the circumstances.

Image result for wonder woman child scenee

When she desired belonging back when she was a kid, she “did the right thing” by doing what her community thinks she should do.

When she decided to step out of her comfort zone to achieve her purpose by going to Man’s World and stopping the war, she “did the right thing” by doing what gets her closer to our goal, even if it means shedding off some parts of her identity.

When she encountered what the undeniable suffering of others she “did the right thing” by coming to their aid, even if it means putting off her own agenda.

 

 

But the real drama of the story happens in the last act, where she accomplishes her goal and yet nothing changes. She didn’t get what she was promised.

Wonder Woman did all the right things according to her responsibilities (like Spider-Man), and took joy in doing so (like Superman), but the prize was absent. The War still went on. People were still dicks. Spider-Man and Superman had it easy: they at least got their reward. Diana didn’t, despite losing everything.

I personally find it more relatable as a character arc, because most of the time we know we should do good, we just can’t find a reason compelling enough to do it, especially at times we feel insignificant given the circumstances.

And this is the central question of the film: if the things we did did not yield yhe results we wanted, does that mean that those actions are worthless? Diana’s answer is no. The things we do do not matter because of the results they deserve, but because of what we believed they stand for. In our actions, we communicate the values we espoused by doing them. Sometimes they are not enough to solve the problem or change the situation, but they are important because they inspire others to rally behind a meaningful cause.

Diana may not have ended all wars by killing the General, but she has inspired her newfound friends to go above and beyond their call of duty comfort to stop the genocide of millions. She has inspired others to step up and save the day. And while in the end, she learned that stopping Ares won’t stop humans from killing each other, she learned from the actions of her friends that the capacity of human beings to sacrifice themselves and rise beyond their limitations mean that they are worth saving.

Our good actions may not yield the results they deserve. They may even mean very little to us. But even so, they can mean the world to people who pay attention to the good we are doing, and we may only save the day, but they can save the world.

This makes doing something better than doing nothing. Because while actions may not lead mathematically to desirable results, they can still inspire and move people. We just have to believe in the capacity of people to understand, and do the things needed to communicate the values we want to see in the world.

Previous superhero movies have shown us that our choices matter to the fate of the world. But Wonder Woman shows us that sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it just matters to some people. Yet, getting those people to follow our lead andthe replicate the values we fight for is at times the very thing that can win the war. Superheroes have long saved humanity on their own. What the world needs now are symbols who create more heroes. Hopefully, the film inspired many people to do something other than nothing, especially in these trying times.

Rewatching Batman v. Superman

(We could honestly end there. But I promised my Facebook friends an extended cut. If you find yourself bored after the first few paragraphs, it’s okay.)

As Wonder Woman sheds some insight on Diana’s motivations and her approach to “heroism,” we can watch Batman v. Superman in a different light. I think it is a good mental exercise when trying to learn from movies from a “cinematic universe:” isolate one character and examine his or her journey throughout the films.

This becomes difficult as Wonder Woman has only a few minutes of screentime. We don’t know what changed in her ideals between World War I and the present time. But I think we can learn a lot from comparison, and comparing Wonder Woman’s actions when she was fresh off the boat from Paradise Island to the her actions in the events leading up to the fight against Doomsday tells a lot about how her character developed.

We have learned from the Wonder Woman  movie that the Great War has shattered Diana’s assumptions on the simplicity of morality and resolving conflicts among humans. And as Batman v. Superman clearly paints a picture of a Wonder Woman who is unsurprised and unshaken with a battle between gods and monsters, it seems to suggest that for Diana, it is just another battle in an endless series of battles that is the history of “man.”

Perhaps it is because she was taken out of classical myths that she is not overwhelmed by the idea of flying men and a monster of pure rage. But even if she isn’t, it is not difficult to conclude that it might have something to do with the amount of violence and suffering she has lived through being immortal. In Batman v. Superman, we see a Diana who is burdened by sorrow, far from the idealistic and enthusiastic Diana from the beginning of Wonder Woman. It might be why she chose to live in seclusion (and I would like a film which explores Diana’s further descent into detachment). Or maybe she has remained active during the period leading up to the present, and either she was just that good at hiding it or the world wasn’t just paying attention.

But it is very likely that historical events took much toll on Diana. I can only imagine her pain for humanity during the Second World War, the Cold War, the Gulf War, and the ongoing strife in the Middle East. (Disclaimer: I’m not ignorant of the actress who portrayed her’s political beliefs, but I try not to let it distract me. Shittier people have done more movies. I don’t have to like her to enjoy and learn from her films.) If that is the case, then it further emphasizes the earlier point regarding doing good things despite its futility in the grand scheme of things.

If Wonder Woman has lost her initial idealism and enthusiasm, what could possibly she still involve herself in conflict? Where can we find the drive to continue struggling to do good things in a world that refuses to thwart us with meaninglessness and suffering?

It could always be simply her ego. Our drive to do good things could just be a conscious choice out of our desire to do things. And in fairness to Martha Kent, that does not necessarily take away from the goodness of the good things that we do. Yet, I think it is barely sufficient to sustain continuous involvement, especially if you have lived for a long time and have experienced and seen a lot of bloody truths.

Doing a few good things here and there cannot be simply fueled by selfish desires. Neither do selfish desires stop us from doing bad things. Knowing that Superman, if he follows his objectivist mother and his ghost dad, could just be following his own heart in doing the good things that he does gives legitimacy to Batman’s fears in the beginning of Batman v. Superman. I would argue that Wonder Woman is not fueled by selfish intentions given that: 1.) she still finds it in her to save the day even if the situation is not new; and 2.) from what we know, she has not instead turned to abusing her power and immortality (although it does pose an edge in the museum curator job market).

Maybe she is more Spider-Man than Superman in this sense. She still answers the call to heroism because of a sense of responsibility. This would make sense to us if we consider people from our lives who have put up with som much shit and yet, still do the things they are supposed to do because of a sense of duty. We rarely ever see them happy in doing their jobs, and yet, they do it anyway. For these people, even if the desire to derive meaning or joy from the duty has been dissolved by the cost of doing things to one’s ego, time, or convenience, doing the job still matters, because it is something beyond their own well-being. The world is shitty, their job is shitty, but the job is the job and it has to be seen through.

But maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle. Maybe Wonder Woman, in spite of the meaninglessness of helping out in the grand scheme of things, has found happiness in simply helping out over and over again. Albert Camus, using the tale of Sisyphus in his illustration, calls this “embracing the absurd.” Even if our job is pushing a boulder up a hill over and over only for it to roll downhill every time, we can still find purpose and meaning in the job. The absurdity of the job becomes us. We become absurd heroes.

There is, however, another approach to the marriage between doing good things over and over out of happiness and doing them out of the sense of duty, and it is the Aristotelian concept of virtue. Because we do certain things out of habit, it reaches a point where it ceases to be an imposed duty and becomes an integral part of ourselves. And because it is part of our identity, we reasonably derive happiness from doing such things. If we always practice honesty, we become honest people. If we always seek justice, we become just. If we always answer to the call of others, we become heroes. At that point, we don’t do it because we have to, but because it feels natural to us.

Perhaps Wonder Woman has already reached this stage of so-called “eudaemonia.” But if not, I think it is a good direction to take the character towards. If Wonder Woman only ever does battle because she feels obligated despite her acquired cynicism, or because it is the only life she has ever known, or maybe even because she just feels like it, it would be interesting to see how any of these cold and depressing (although real and warranted) motivations evolve into something which gives her happiness and affirmation. That would be an interesting struggle to explore because we all face that at different points in our life: as children, as students, as employees. And people like me, who are tired of involving themselves in a painful and meaningless world but are still compelled by some inescapable itch to do so, really need it right now.

That, or Diana’s arc could just be about a more external conflict. But if it isn’t about her addressing the roots of violence and ending all senseless wars and senseless destruction, then it’s just another meaningless superhero movie where nothing changes and no one grows and nothing is learned or gained by doing anything. If I wanted that, there’s always Guardians of the Galaxy II.

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On Exemptions from Crime and Punishment

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“‘In his article all men are divided into ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary.’ Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don’t you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary. That was your idea, if I am not mistaken?'”

This was Crime and Punishment’s main character, Rodya Raskolikov’s belief, as articulated by his primary accuser, the magistrate Porfiry Petrovich, who was investigating the recent murder of a shrewd old pawnbroker.
Rodya, of course, was responsible for the crime, and is in fact haunted by his guilt at the time, when Porfiry, who was rightly suspecting him, confronted him about an article Rodya wrote as a student in the University.
This statement was an admitted oversimplification deliberately made to put Rodya in an uncomfortable position. However, without losing his cool, the antihero was quick to correct the detective in doing so:

“I don’t contend that extraordinary people are always bound to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such an argument could be published. I simply hinted that an ‘extraordinary’ man has the right… that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep… certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfilment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity).“

The philosophy of Raskolnikov is reminiscent of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief in the ubermensch or the overman (or superman, in other translations). Nietzsche believes that naturally, there are people who excel everyone else in terms of their ability, resilience and will to dominate others. However, compared to ordinary people, they are quite few in number. Thus, finding strength in numbers, the ordinary men bound together to form ideas such as morality, the law and God to create a semblance of equality among otherwise unequal human beings.
These power structures, at least based on my understanding of Nietzsche, are contrary to what nature has preordained. And so he says that naturally, the overman has the natural right to transcend the obstacles provided by such constraints.
There are minor deviations made by Raskolnikov in his articulation of the philosophy behind the extraordinary men. Perhaps because on the outset, it is really hard to embrace the radical idea of Nietzsche of inequality and domination as the proper state of affairs, and Dostoevsky, while disapproving of the thesis, is just enough to provide a rational justification for believing in such a way of life.
The most significant deviation is that the overman is only allowed to “overstep” the hindrances provided by societal norms and codes in so far as he is moving humanity forward. Overmen, therefore, are really like Siegel and Schuster’s Superman, whose benevolence leads the people to see him as a symbol of hope rather than fear.

“I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men,“ Raskolnikov explains, “Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound… to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity.”

Of course this would be more sympathetic than the murderous, tyrannical overlords we picture from Nietzsche’s philosophy. But the idea remains the same. As Raskolnikov explains further: “I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course.”
Of course we know that this is coming from a man who just murdered an old woman. And perhaps, he was just passing the blame of the cruelty of murder to nature, as anyone of us would. Following the story of Raskolnikov, we know that he murdered the pawnbroker and her sister not for money, but to express his transcendence of the moral laws that govern ordinary men. We see his insecurity and shiftiness after the crime, and how he is led to the conclusion that these “weaknesses” manifest because he is not, after all, an extraordinary men.
This leads us to inquire further about the philosophy of the overman. Raskolnikov has said that his thesis was not new, and has been professed a thousand times before. Not only to extraordinary men, but to ordinary men as well.
It has been told to people over and over that they are allowed the right to set aside morality to somehow “push humanity forward.” But even if it were true, that such overmen exist, how is one to know that he is one without trying to exercise his will over others? What if ordinary men believe that, like the overmen, they have the natural right to kill, steal and rape for humanity?
This is not far from reality. We have seen people who act as if they were above the law, as if their interests were to be pursued at the expense of others. In the novel, we see Rodya, who was not driven by the natural urge to ascend to power in killing, but rather the fear of being ordinary.
The belief that there are such people, overmen, urges the power-hungry, proud and insecure germ in us to question whether or not what we have is enough, and whether or not we are entitled for more. And it gives us the license to appeal to nature whenever we overstepped the limits dictated by morality and conscience. And even if most of us think that this is too ridiculous to be true, we know from experience how the animals in us would rather turn to lies and be satisfied, than be confronted by reality and find themselves to be inadequate.
Perhaps there are overmen. Perhaps not. But even if there were, I would much rather live in a world where everyone were gods and had no idea, than live in one where everyone believed themselves to be gods when they are really not.

Crime and Punishment: Cruelty, Justice, and Simple Arithmetic

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If an act needs to be justified, does it mean it is inherently wrong?

If an act needs to be justified, does it mean it is inherently wrong?

“Kill her and take the money so, so that afterwards with its help you can devote yourself to the service of all mankind and the common cause: what do you think, wouldn’t thousands of good deeds make up for one tiny little crime? One death for hundreds of lives – it’s simple arithmetic! And what does the life of this stupid, consumptive, and wicked old crone mean in the general balance?”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

It was as if the world wanted Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov to do it. It was as if the universe wanted the young man to hack old Alyona, the spiteful pawnbroker, dead with his axe. Just when he had almost decided to let go of his plan to murder the old woman and scurry away with her money, he overhears two men at the pub contemplating whether killing off the crone would be just.

Of course, like most discussions and debates concerning justice, this one arises from an acts moral ambiguity. We do not argue over acts which are self-evidently and undeniably good, like dying for one’s neighbor or country or paying one’s taxes. We argue over the justice of acts which seem to be evil at first glance, like not dying for one’s neighbor or country or not paying one’s taxes. This is because almost all of us know and accept that sometimes a lesser good may be sacrificed for a greater good. Questions of justice are questions which ask whether the goodness of an act relative to a greater cause necessitates and justifies sacrificing a particular lesser good. In this case, the question is: Can one kill an indecent human being if it is done as a favor to mankind?

The lesser good to be forgone according to the speech given by the student is the life of an old, rich, and nasty, pawnbroker, while the greater good would be the redistribution of her wealth to several poor, dying families. If one is believes in utilitarianism, the problem seems to be indeed, simple arithmetic, for the goodness of an act ultimately depends on the amount of pleasure it creates. The happiness of one may indeed be sacrificed for the happiness of many others, if one is to follow this line of thinking. An underlying problem, of course, being disregarded or taken for granted I think by most utilitarian thinkers is whether human life is in fact as dispensable as other goods. But utilitarianism is not on trial here. What this article aims to shed light upon is how the problem may be resolved in the novel itself.

Prior to hearing the conversation, Rodya Raskolnikov was contemplating on whether to kill the Alyona the pawnbroker. Being a reflective, insightful University dropout, Rodya puts much thought into first, whether it is plausible and executable, and then whether it is just. What almost drives him significantly to have at it was that it was in fact executable, as he overheard that the pawnbroker’s sister, her only companion, shall be away for a while. But then he was shaken when he received a letter for his mother regarding her sister, who was to be married off to a rich though unlikeable man for his and his mother’s sake. Holding on to his love for his sister and his own ego, he could not let this be so, and yet he could find traces of his own reasoning and motivations in the letter regarding the murder of the pawnbroker: a woman’s life and worth being given up to satisfy the needs of others.

This was reinforced by the dream which followed. In it, Rodya pictured himself as a little boy witnessing the beating of an old mare to death by its owners. He could not stand this. While it may be said that the horse was old and useless, and its beating was causing entertainment for its owner and his friends, the sight was simply too ugly and cruel to behold. One could easily say that the horse was Alyona the pawnbroker and he was the mare’s master. But I think the dreams profundities do not simply end there.

The conversation between the officer and the student ended with the officer asking the student if he could in fact kill the woman. The student, saying that the point was not whether or not he would do it, but if it was just if someone did, said no. Of course. Everyone likes the idea of a war, a revolution, of just desserts. Yet nobody wants to get their hands dirty. No one wants to clean the dishes.

We talk about the justice in murder and killing that we oftentimes forget how ugly it is. In talking about the death penalty, for example, we do not consider how cruel a feeling it would be to be the one strapping down a criminal in the electric chair, or the crucifix-shaped bed where he or she would await the lethal injection. We do not even consider if the one to be punished is someone whom we loved. Or if it were us in the receiving end of such punitive justice. Objectively, we claim, it is just to kill murderers and predators. But what we do not see is that we are blind to the cruelty of “an eye for an eye.”

Of course, some have the cold adamant sense of justice that would tell them that such cruelty to be experienced by the criminal, whoever’s son, daughter, father or mother it might be, is well deserved. But even they, if only they would honestly consider the amount of mercy and grace they receive for the little acts of evil they get away with, would question whether mercy and grace should be extended to the individual as well. Such is the wisdom Jesus exhibited when he asked which one of the sinful woman’s accusers were qualified to cast the first stone.

This is the first thing the dream tells us. It is that violence however we may justify it is violent. Torture is always ugly. Killing is always cruel. We may turn to philosophies and ideologies to say which acts of violence are justified, but their justice does not exempt them from their evil. It does not wash the blood away.

Secondly, though it may have come before the dilemma, the dream answers the question posed by the conversation of the student and the officer. A thousand good deeds will not justify a tiny little crime. A thousand happy people does not make the torturing of a mare any less brutal. Good acts and bad acts, no matter how complimentary they may seem, are isolated from one another, just as the act of beating the horse dead and entertaining the people watching it are isolated. The inherent badness of lying is not negated by any end it was done for. “Justification” is a matter of whether or not such badness may be forgiven. And one does not forgive right things, only wrong ones.

Ultimately, the dream teaches us that we are hypocrites. While the mare may simply signify Alyona, it may also signify Rodya’s sister who was being betrothed to a man she does not love for their family’s sake. While Rodya was blind to the evil of killing the pawnbroker, a similar evil was visible to him in the case of his sister. And that evil, the evil of a victim tortured for the satisfaction of others, was incarnated in the dream of the tortured mare. Most of the time we see things as morally ambiguous or gray because we try, like hypocrites, to detach emotions and humanity in our judgment. We are hypocrites because we do not do this in cases which involve those whom we love. We turn to utilitarianism, relativism and subjectivism when it wins the argument. But when lives are at stake we appeal to conscience, authority and objective morality, the very things we deny in our moments of intellectual masturbation.

Our actions and their morality matter. This is why we philosophize about ethics and morality. But when we care about ethics and morality and philosophizing about them more than we care about what we actually do, we become something less of a human. When we value what constitutes a just murder more than what constitutes a good life, which is I think all we ever talk about these days, we become something less of a society.