Since the invention of the atomic bomb, the idea that one human could destroy the world, or save it, has been a recurring theme in American speculative fiction. As nuclear weapons grew more deadly and numerous, the world began to fear that a madman might unleash a nuclear holocaust--the plot of Dr. Strangelove--but it also occurred to some nuclear strategists that an American president might choose to kill innocents to save the world. This is the scenario of another 1964 film, Fail-Safe, where the president orders the nuclear destruction of New York (and by extension the death of his wife, who is visiting the city) after the US accidentally nukes Moscow. Tit for tat, the American decision to sacrifice New York prevents an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union, sparing the world from destruction.
Historians have noted that words like “heroic” and “glory” became hollow in the wake of military technology that could kill at a distance, e.g., the gatling gun of the Civil War. The advent of nuclear weapons compounded this effect, as the decisions surrounding a potential nuclear conflict would no doubt involve determining what would be an acceptable number of lives to sacrifice.
I suspect the problem of heroism in a technological world is what has prompted Joss Whedon’s preoccupation with these sorts of dilemmas, probing what it means when one person has that kind of power. What is “heroic” in world that can so easily be destroyed by one person?
Whedon began developing this theme in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The titular character struggles with what her status as slayer (and protector of humanity) means, and she vacillates about what she would do in these apocalyptic scenarios throughout the series. She is willing to die herself, but if saving the world means having to kill her lover or sister, then maybe the world isn’t worth saving, she concludes by season 5. As she accepts her destiny towards the end of the series, she becomes more superhero than human and admits that she is willing to sacrifice people she loves to protect the world.
The Whedon-penned film The Cabin in the Woods (spoiler alert) ends with a character having to decide to kill a friend and save the world, or let her live and watch the world die. It is a classic Whedonesque scenario, and the character chooses to let the world perish--concluding that the world isn’t worth it. But neither character is heroic, and the ending is a chaotic, bloody, human mess.
The Avengers serves as a counterpoint--this is what heroes do. Whedon sends Iron Man into outer space to save the world from destruction, after Captain America suggests that Iron Man isn’t selfless enough to give his life for the world. Iron Man, that most narcissistic of heroes, only becomes heroic when he’s willing to sacrifice what he loves most--his life. In that moment, Whedon shows us the difference between a Favreau definition of heroism versus his own; the Iron Man films are glib, loud and bright without much of anything other than Iron Man’s reputation at stake.
The writers of the Fox series Fringe seem to be drawing upon Whedon’s body of work, and the show has been exploring these sort of apocalyptic moments since season 1. (spoiler alert) Walter Bishop damn near destroyed this verse and another by daring to cross the boundaries between two parallel worlds to save another version of his son. In season 4, he is faced with another decision--let the universe perish but save his son and his son’s lover, Olivia (whom he has grown to love) or kill Olivia and allow the universe to survive. He kills her, but Fringe’s writers cheat--Walter only kills her knowing that he can resuscitate her.
Fringe isn’t about heroism, so Fringe’s answer is forgivable. Walter doesn’t think humans should have that sort of power, and it will be interesting to see if he ever truly solves that dilemma. In all likelihood, Whedon would agree with Bishop, but Whedon plays in a world of superheroes who need to be better than the rest of us. Being better than the rest of us means sacrificing the people you love, your soul, to save the world.
Whedon’s obsession with this scenario and how it relates to heroism bespeaks the fraught conception Americans have of themselves. The modern superhero emerged in the United States and embodied an optimistic vision of a country bent on defeating tyranny, wherever it appeared. The first superhero, Superman, fought the Nazis in a simplistic battle between good and evil. Like Superman, an alien who continually intervened to save a species not his own, the American public memory of World War II suggests that we fought a war not our own for a greater good--freedom.
Since World War II, Americans have been trying to save the world in one way or another, but of course we’ve really just been saving ourselves. The quote “we had to destroy it in order to save it” attributed to an anonymous military officer during the Vietnam War pinpoints the contradictory nature of an American self-conception as a heroic country. We fight wars to continue our way of life, even as we tell ourselves it’s for the good of the world.
We Americans no longer resemble the superheroes, either of the Golden Age (of comics) or of the now. Whedon’s apocalyptic moments suggest that to be truly heroic, a superhero must be willing to do what the US president did in Fail-Safe. But that movie remains shocking, because perhaps we aren’t capable of that kind of sacrifice.