Thursday, May 7, 2015

Avengers: Morality is Hard

If only they'd built a fat man barricade!
Moral philosophers like to probe the makeup of ethics by presenting the Trolley Problem.  It's a simple question: If you have the power to save X people from dying by choosing to kill Y people, do you do it?  Play with the numbers X and Y until you find the range where a person will answer yes or no.  To make the game more interesting, you may say "okay, but what if the Y is your mom and a litter of newborn kittens and X is your in-laws?"

It's been shown that if you try taking a fine-toothed comb to most peoples' sense of right and wrong, you'll find it's a hairy incoherent mess.

I have no idea why this might be.

Are you on the "laugh at Stark's hubris"
bandwagon yet?  You should be!
There's a guy by the name of Tony Stark.  He likes to fly around in a magical suit and likes to imagine himself the savior of the world in spite of repeated peripeteia-tastic moments that indicate the contrary.

Stark believes that if he merely continues to fly his suit around and shoot bad guys, his efforts will ultimately be futile and zillions of people will die. But he believes he can avoid those deaths by writing an ominously-named computer program that no existing hardware can run.  Unlike folks in a philosophy class, he doesn't clearly know how many innocents are going to die when he switches or doesn't switch the trolley tracks.  Not even Captain America actually knows when he dissents against the Ultron saying that "Every time somebody tries to win the war before it starts, an unspecific number of people -- probably some multiple of 1000 -- die.  Every time!"

See, Tony, this is what
humility looks like!
It's a lackluster moral quandary when you're asking people to make values judgments without actual values to compare.  It appears as though the writers of Age of Ultron realized this after they'd written most of the script because they decided to make the entire thing explicit.

"Forsooth!" quoth the Avengers, "A megahuman city is to be weaponized to destroy the entire world just like in (insert old testament or paleontology reference here)!  To act is to kill lots but to not act is to kill all of them!"

This is certain to build suspense and catch the nuance of a moral judgment.  Clock's ticking, Avengers and the Trolley is loaded with all the humans!  Even the ones who are on the alternate route!

The protagonists are stalling for time, trying to avoid choosing between something horrific and something infinitely more horrific when along comes Nick Fury all messianic-like in his propeller-hoisted chariot of fire!  Deus ex literal machina!

Since when does she
wear the Tron suit?
Remember that ethical choice you were confronted with a second ago?  Yeah, me neither.

It's a good thing the writers spared us the burden of watching somebody choose between a single city's doom and absolute extinction!  With stakes that high, the audience would be wringing their hands clean off!

I don't begrudge the Avengers movie this hilarity.  I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to take my wife to see it.  It was more entertaining than the Agent Carter show so my expectations are met.  Not everything needs to be an exploration of moral philosophy in order to be good entertainment.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, however, does.  It's no secret that we here at Jenny's Spoilers are massive, squealing fan$(GENDER)s for this show.  It was captivating from the get-go precisely because it was a philosophy show of quality above not only other children's programs but above TV as a whole.  The animation, the story and the magic karate were all tied up in a neat little bow that hailed topics of self-discipline, responsibility and morality.  Rather uncharacteristic of the network that brought us Ren and Stimpy and game shows about dumping green slime on faces.

Maybe Black Widow's outfit
glows when she's in the
Avatar state.
The series was building itself up to a continent-reshaping showdown between the mad Fire Lord Ozai and the cryogenically tardy tweeny monk boy.  The point of suspense wasn't really a matter of fearing the mortal dangers involved with battling a crazed dictator who farts napalm but rather the ethical dilemma; how does one stop wanton burnination of the countryside humanely?  Because it must, as a matter of principle, be humane.

This was the thing that most terrified Avatar Aang as his encounter with the king antagonist loomed.  Could the kid beat his foe?  Probably.  If he could kick off the shining eyes-and-tattoo trick, definitely.  Could he do this while also keeping the body count at zero?  If it wasn't zero, would he be any better than the enemy he defeated?

Dang.  Morals are hard.

This is one of the reasons that I find Avatar so compelling; Aang's moral dilemma wasn't just one of playing a game of golf-score corpse counting.  He already knew that Ozai was a genocidal jerk-face.  For Aang, it wasn't a matter of piling deaths on Athena's scale.  Everyone he loved had already been killed by Ozai so he had a visceral understanding of the threat and yet his conscience compelled him to make a judgment above and beyond his grief.  For Aang, morality was about being accountable to himself for his own actions.  Where others may entrench themselves in the game of graphing the number of acceptable deliberate vs unacceptable accidental deaths, Aang deliberated over killing one man to save millions.  Not because he was an indecisive or irrational kid but because he had a clearer sense of his own ethics than most people do.  This is integrity.

This is also why the show ended up frustrating me so much with its ending.  It was clear that the writers understood what they were doing.  They'd spent 2.6 seasons building tension, setting things up for the ultimate measurement of Aang's moral fiber -- a thing far scarier than an agni kai for the fate of the world.  But when the moment of the climax was supposed to come, they side-stepped the whole issue, threw in a surprise magic trick, and Aang was allowed to get away with making no decisions at all.

You must master the Avatar state
by letting the bad guy hit you really
hard in your lightning scar.
Other writers had the courage to confront so difficult an issue head-on in Man of Steel and Trigun in completely opposite and equally compelling ways.  Avatar had demonstrated the potential to deliver in so many other ways that it was incredibly jarring to watch the series end on such a monumental cop out.

Some try to defend this anticlimax by saying "it's just a kids show" but I resent that kind of talk.  Do we really want to teach our kids that the solution to moral dilemmas is to avoid them until a one-eyed man in a trench coat shows up on the back of a Lion Turtle and solves the problem for us?

The whole ending was a wanton betrayal of everything the show had built up to that point.  We're told by Guru Pathik that mastering the Avatar state requires sacrifices that Aang ultimately never made.  In fact, Aang ends up winning and getting his Raava mode back all by accident.  So he can just end up marrying Katara just like he always dreamed with no heroic sacrifice, no personal growth, no real effort required.

That Avengers only wanted to joke about the existence of morals is fine by me.  It never pretended to be that mature of a show in the first place.  But, Bendyshow of Magic Karate, you had all the makings of greatness!  It hurts to see you wield the sword of moral awareness for two years only to drop it into the ocean and watch it rust in the moment it was most needed!

Sigh.  Whatever.  Morals are hard.  Let's go shopping.

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