From Mav: A few weeks ago, I started one of those conversations we’ve all been a part of on social media. I made a Facebook post where I postulated that Luke Skywalker was a fucking psychopath who just likes doing murder. Of course, this is a variation on a thought experiment that Star Wars fans have been arguing for years; it’s even immortalized in Kevin Smith’s Clerks. So of course, people were sort of prepared to call me on it; they’d had plenty of time to think about it. But so did I! Someone says that the Death Star was only full of soldiers doing war crimes, I point out that most of the people on it had nothing to do with that, and that that Luke was working with a bunch of terrorist insurrectionists with no nation state standing who were attempting to overthrow the sovereign government just like on 1/6/21. Someone points out that all of Luke’s hand to hand killings were in self-defense, and I point out that he, his enemy of the state mentor, an army deserter with a criminal record, and their large brown hairy ethnic friend who speaks no English, killed a bunch of people in a bar in their first appearance, and never slow down. Yes, Luke and company might be cool. They might also be morally right, but my argument is that they’re a bunch of homicidal maniacs that we only root for because the narrative positions us to be on their side and with a few directorial tweaks they become massive villains.
We do thought experiments like this with out pop culture, all of the time. Wayne has said both on the show and just generally in life that he doesn’t understand a superhero world with the Punisher and Captain America in it, because he can’t believe that Steve Rogers allows himself to sleep at night while Frank Castle walks the streets. He’s right. It doesn’t really make any sense. Some comics have tried to deal with their ideological differences, but just as often as not they’ve been put in situations where they team up anyway… because… uh… cool. And it doesn’t make any sense. Of course, I could extend that problem to any number of other superheroes with technically illegal methods that Cap just lets slide… because they do… a little less (though not zero) murder? Hell, several of Cap’s best friends are straight up murderers (Black Widow, Nomad, fucking Bucky!) and Cap has killed quite a few people himself; I’d argue that one of the things that makes Cap interesting is that he often represents the hypocrisy of the American dream as much as anything else.
There’s any number of these. How many hot take articles did you read after [insert MCU movie here] that [Thanos, Killmonger, Loki, whoever] was right? Wouldn’t Gotham be better off if Batman ignored “his one rule” and killed the Joker (and honestly, it’s really much more of a rough guideline anyway)? How many criminals ultimately walk free because they were denied due process when some crazy dude in a mask broke into their house, abducted them, and webbed them to a lamppost outside of the police station? Why are so many heroes against “killing” but perfectly okay with causing obvious traumatic brain injury and crippling people. As Hannah has pointed out on our show, why are people like Bruce Wayne, Reed Richards, Tony Stark, and Ted Kord, walking around with advanced military arsenals and attacking individual criminals when, as multi-billionaires, they could do far more to help the greater good by taking their considerable wealth and ending childhood poverty, funding community outreach programs, or investing in infrastructure and clean energy and stuff? Apparently because punching people is way more fun.
It’s not just superhero narratives that do this. Aren’t most of the Mario games about him killing a bunch random indigenous creatures who are just trying to live their best lives? I’ve pointed out on other episodes that, while he’s very much a sexist and belligerent asshole to Belle, as far as things go with the Beast, Gaston pretty much is behaving entirely heroically given the information he has available to at the time. Sometimes the media even specifically goes out of its way to make us ask these questions. The Mandalorian specifically brings up all of my points on Star Wars several times in season 2. Hunger Games specifically asks us to consider the fact that Katniss is on the wrong side several times throughout the story. Considering who “the real monster is” is the entire point to I am Legend and even Frankenstein. Asking these philosophical questions is totally the end to The Matrix trilogy (everyone forgets because they hated the last movie… mostly because it ends with just asking you to think a whole bunch).
We do these kinds of thought experiments with our pop culture all the time. Hell, there’s a whole YouTube industry built around them. We actually ask these sorts of questions a lot on this show. And honestly, just in general, they’re the kinds of arguments that internet fan communities are based on… well, you know, that and porn, but we’ve done shows on that before. Friend of the show Chris Gavaler and his collegaue, Nathaniel Goldberg, have a whole book on Superhero Thought Experiments, which investigates how we use superheroes to work through philosophical issues. We’ve invited them on to a future episode to talk about it. But I want to expand the question beyond just superheroes to pop culture in general. Why do we have such a fascination with these kinds of questions? Why do we argue them so vehemently when people disagree with our own personal hot takes on thought experiments we made up in the first place? Give us your thoughts in the comments and let us know some of your favorite pop culture thought experiments so we can discuss them on the show.