Avatar: The Last Airbender was a mid-2000s children’s TV show chronicling the journey of Aang, a young superhero aiming to master control of the four elements.
Set in a pseudo-Asian mythological world, Avatar leant heavily on eastern philosophy, drawing on ideas of balance and harmony, flow and self-restraint. The show presents these ideas visually, in the form of martial arts represented in the ‘bending’ (telekinetic control) of air, wind, earth and fire.
The most unique aspect of the show however, is its pacifist superhero. Aang, despite being the most powerful being in his world – or because of it – refuses to use his powers to kill. Instead, he uses his powers to disarm his enemies, to immobilize them and to redirect their attacks away from himself to prevent harm.
In pursuing pacifism, Aang brings up an important question that we should ask of every superhero film. If the heroes are so powerful, then why are they killing anyone? Why aren’t they using their powers to bring people together and to rehabilitate their enemies?
History teaches us that mythologies say a lot about the societies that create them. So, when our modern mythologies endorse the use of violence by superheroes in the latest blockbuster film, then do we condone the violence of the powerful in our society – those who are most capable of creating peace?
This is the philosophy of pacifism, according to Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The story of Avatar begins with Aang, the newest Avatar, awakening from a deep slumber after being frozen in ice for a hundred years. He wakes to a world at war, with the imperialist Fire Nation seeking control of the four nations. In other words, world domination.
One of the four nations, the Air Nomads, have already been wiped out. The Fire Nation have killed them in a genocide. Aang is the last remaining member of the Air Nomads, and therefore the only person in the world capable of controlling the air with his mind. His fighting style is thus different to any other character in the show. As an air wielder, he is shown to redirect energy away from himself through centrifugal motion.
The fact that he is an air wielder is significant to his portrayal of pacifism. The element of air is shown to be about flow and balance, counter-flow and counter-balance. Visually, this is shown in the Chinese martial art style Ba Gua (originating from the same school as T’ai chi). Ba Gua is a martial art that focuses on centrifugal movement. The practitioner walks in a circle constantly, working through rapid changes in direction and force.
Aang struggles with the idea of using his power of Air against his enemies. Even when pushed to do so by his friends, he refuses to kill anyone.
Consider it. This is a character whose entire people have been killed in a genocide, yet he refuses to punish his enemies in the same vein. He has enormous power, but what makes him a hero is his refusal to use it.
Avatar reflects an active version of pacifism, where force can be used for self-defence and for the maintenance of peace but not for the killing of opponents.
This is different to other modern films, where violence is frequently shown as justified and necessary, even by those who are extremely powerful.
Consider the last Star Wars trilogy.
In the first reboot film, we are introduced to the idea that the Stormtroopers, the previously robotic-looking legions of nameless soldiers, are both human and capable of rehabilitation. A central character is shown to learn the error of his ways and reform into a hero through the first two acts.
By the end of the same movie, a giant space installation filled with thousands of Stormtroopers is destroyed by the heroes of the film. The heroes commit an act of mass destruction against those capable of reform, and are celebrated for it by the audience.
Acts of extreme violence and genocide are surprisingly common in superhero films. In the 2013 Superman reboot, for instance, the hero kills an entire alien species, committing genocide whilst the audience again is primed to applaud.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the kill count of each hero character can be graphically depicted. Seen visually, the number of kills rises dramatically when the heroes eliminate entire armies or cities at once, using bombs or other weapons of mass destruction. Again, these are meant to be the good guys.
Our modern mythologies are steeped in violence and destruction, reflecting a dismissive and often condescending understanding of the philosophy of pacifism in pop culture.
It is commonly said that pacifism is naïve or childish, so perhaps it is not surprising that we need a children’s television show to prove this theory wrong.
Superhero movies endorse the idea that the most powerful people on earth should be capable of wielding violence, killing thousands and committing genocide, and should be celebrated for doing so. Despite their power, the films seem to suggest, they have no choice but to be violent.
But where does this idea come from?
To a large extent, it comes from pacifism having a bad PR campaign.
The philosophy of pacifism has a long and troubled history in the West.
It rose to prominence and, to some extent peaked, at the end of World War 1. Following the destruction of an entire generation during the war, the allied nations rallied together to create the League of Nations. The League’s purpose was to prevent another World War, by facilitating diplomatic dialogue between countries, thereby creating world peace.
In theory, the League was a great idea. In practice, it excluded the United States and, even more ominously, Germany. Without these major countries at the table, the League was doomed to failure. Pacifism only works when the enemy is in the room, when everyone has a seat at the table to negotiate.
In the 1930s, the Nazi regime came to power in Germany, and so began the re-militarization of Europe. At the time, numerous political figures, scientists and writers still subscribing to the philosophy of pacifism (Including Einstein). The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, met with Hitler and signed the Munich Agreement, trying to appease Germany in exchange for peace.
Hitler ignored the agreement, invaded Poland and France, and plunged the world into a second world war. Chamberlain became a laughingstock of the Western World, and the idea of pacifism, and negotiating with your enemy for peace, became the punchline of a joke.
Comic books, which sprung up in the decades following World War 2, showed violence as a necessary force against tyrannical supervillains; people who continually wanted to destroy the world. The only way to keep them in check, the comics said, was to kill them.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang is faced with a character who closely resembles Hitler. He could kill him, but he comes to a very different conclusion.
Ozai, the leader of the Fire Nation, is an imperialist, seeking to control the whole world using the destructive power of fire. In his final confrontation with him, Aang is troubled with the idea of killing Ozai. Aang has been raised to respect all life and feels that killing Ozai will make him succumb to the worst impulses he has been fighting against.
Instead of killing him, he immobilizes him, taking away his power to use fire. The equivalent would be to remove the cannons of the Deathstar without killing the Stormtroopers inside.
Demilitarization, or disarming oneself and one’s enemy, is an active form of pacifism, that aims to end war not through violence and death, but through the prevention of violence and death.
In our new age of superhero movies, packed with violence and gore, we have reached a point where we have suffered a failure of imagination. We can no longer imagine the powerful pursuing pacifism.
When we picture superheroes as people who use violence on our behalf to defend us, we justify the use of violence by the supremely powerful, against those who are weaker than they are. We justify war.
If our modern mythologies reflect our society, then what does that say about us?
What does it mean when we no longer question genocide or mass destruction on screen, but instead clap and applaud the heroes who commit it?
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