This past year or so I’ve been up to my neck in Joss Whedon. Firefly, Buffy, Angel, Avengers, references to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Must be the company I keep. After a while, you start to notice patterns in a guy’s work, start to work out what he believes about the world.
Hanging out with the same folks that got me into Whedon, I’ve also watched a lot of Christopher Nolan. He is a far better writer and director, with films like Inception, the Batman Trilogy, Memento, and the Prestige under his belt. I began to notice as well that while he takes himself far more seriously than Whedon, they hold certain things in common.
By now it’s obvious that I’m going somewhere with this, and I’ll just show you my hand. When I watched the House series finally, the theme clicked into place across that series and both bodies of work. All of them take a certain view of death, the meaning of life, and how we are to live in response to it.
House has always struggled with death, firmly believing that there is nothing after. Life, he believes, is meaningless and ends in meaninglessness. We’re just, as the now aging adage attests, ugly bags of mostly water. In the final episode this is brought into startling clarity. But his response is interesting: he keeps on living. In every episode, from the first to the very last, we are told never to give up. Objectively, life may have no purpose, but it’s still worth living, still worth giving a little bit of our own purpose.
To keep it short, we’ll stick with Whedon’s Buffyverse. In both Buffy and in Angel we are told, pretty explicitly, that this world is hell. Buffy knows that in contrast with the peace of death, life is not worth living. Angel has seen that there’s a little bit of hell in every person, some amount of darkness that they infect the world with. We’re trapped in a world of pain and darkness. But Whedon is one step above House, and a bit more theatrical. He insists not merely on keeping on living, but on fighting the evil, again and again, with every apocalypse, even if there is no final victory. And he expects his heroes, and heroines, to do so in epic style.
Christopher Nolan, sticking to film, is much more cinematic, and therefore requires a slightly different form of analysis. But take a while and you’ll notice the same thing. The Joker, in Dark Knight, is right that everyone has some amount of evil in them. Yes, a hardened criminal may find it in himself to throw a detonator overboard, but that won’t stop Gotham’s great hope from going evil, or the whole city from blaming Batman. In Inception and Memento, the truth doesn’t matter as much as the feeling. The world is hell, keep on moving, do the best you can.
There are differences, of course. Nolan is actually a bit more despairing, and he’s honestly more concerned with truth and subjectivity than he is with the meaning of life. House is just as much about whether people can change as whether this world is hell. Whedon doesn’t always care much about the literal truth of materialism and life after death as he does about despair, heroism, and redemption. But they all do have the common theme that the world ought to make us despair, but we can’t just give up.
As a Christian this is both frustrating and heartening. I’ll start with the heartening part. Despite the utter meaninglessness of the universes these men create, they refuse to live like it has no meaning. They are determined to struggle on, even half-heartedly, because they recognize that there is something good in this world worth fighting for. There is a reason to live, even if they don’t know what it is.
But it’s frustrating, because they never come to an answer. They tell us to fight, but their reasons are vague and empty. It’s all passion, emotion, and attachment to our dreams, with no concrete answers. This is because if they gave those concrete answers, if they were consistent, Firefly would end in a bitter Mal dying alone in despair somewhere in deep space. If Nolan was consistent, there would be no third Batman. If House was consistent, he would have overdosed on pain killers long ago.
You can see this tension in the way their heroes live. In the Buffyverse, nine out of ten times there is a romance, it will end in death or betrayal. And if it ends peacefully, the death and betrayal comes later. In House, every character careens from cold, cruel self-interest that cuts their neighbors, to a tough sort of love because if they have no friends, what is left to live for? And Nolan’s world is just dark.
This is not to say they don’t have heartwarming moments, or grand scenes of self-sacrifice. All of them do. But they can’t account for it. The heroes do this because they know it’s right, but according to their own view of the world, it’s not. There is no meaning in life, and without meaning, there’s no point in living one way and not the other.
I am frustrated because I am a Christian. These are skilled men who have done a lot to shape the world of entertainment, and they’re incapable of giving answers to the questions they have to ask. As a Christian, I know these answers. There is a God, not just a vague deity, but a Father better than the absentees of House’s world. He created a world that was perfect. Then, by our choice, all the pain entered into it that Angel sees, all the hypocrisy House points out, all the cruelty of the world that Nolan scripts.
But here’s the other side: Whedon is right. This hell still is worth fighting for. Not only that, but it has already been fought for. The ultimate apocalypse has already occurred. The hero did die, and saw the other side, and now he’s back. But unlike Buffy, he didn’t bring a demon with him. And unlike House, his return is not an ending. Unlike Nolan’s heroes, the victory he earned is real.
But purpose is more than past plot, it points towards an ending. It points at the happiness that Whedon pictures in every romance while it lasts, and that House ends with in so many hopeful episodes. According to the Gospel, Christ’s victory is spreading, making itself known, developing in this world. Eventually, death itself will die, and with it all the pain that sin brought into the universe.
And what is our purpose? What is the drive that keeps us going despite the pain? It’s that God is worth glorifying, and we’re built to do it. It’s that God’s creation is worth enjoying, and that’s what we’re made for. On a grand scheme, that’s enough. But on an individual level, the beauty of the Christian hope is that we all have a specific purpose. We have our own gifts to glorify God with, our own pleasures we take in his creation. We not only have purpose in general, we have specific, personal meanings.
But this leads to a different life than House’s self-interested dissolution and partying. We’re not just after our own pleasure. Drugs and sex with every woman we can get our hands on is not only a distraction, it begins to be wearying and painful. It loses meaning. But, as every hero shows in a moment of truth, self-sacrifice does give meaning. Living for others, for God’s own creations through which he is glorified, that is our code of conduct. That is how we live.
I have nothing but respect for the wonder and excitement and crazed insanity with which Joss Whedon crafts his worlds. I hope one day to achieve the tension and heartwarming moments of hope and humor House is capable of. One day I want to rock the writing world like Nolan rocks the box office. But all of them miss the Gospel. All of them ask the questions they cannot answer. The hope of a Christian artist is to be as good as the pagans, and better, but to offer a hope they can never match.
And, in my case, to pray these guys come to Christ. A Christian Joss Whedon could change the world. I hope one day he does.