Rise of the Planet of the Apes may have just unseated Captain America: The First Avenger as my favorite pro-enhancement film. Andy Serkis and John Lithgow render the sapient mind a character and drama unto itself – growing, evolving, and dying before our eyes. As a summer blockbuster, the film offers gorillas smashing helicopters, orangutan sign language humor, and a one-two punch apocalyptic virus to sate any palate slavering for action. As a meditation on enhancement, we’re treated with a film that has the brass to own up to the real villain of Frankenstein: the horrified masses and absentee father-scientist. Rise of the Planet of the Apes calls out a fear that sits at the heart of humanity: what if our offspring is more intelligent than us and because we cannot properly care for it, judges us to be lacking?
In the film, we see over and over that it is not Caesar’s enhancement that causes problems. In fact, Caesar’s enhancement makes him the most moral and wisest person on the screen. The failure of those around him – from the cruel ape sanctuary caretakers to Caesar’s own father figure, Will Rodman – drive him to do what must be done: rebel.
So what am I saying here? That humans are bad and apes are good? Not at all. My argument is that in many science fiction films, we tend to question the ethics of the science itself and the ethics of pursuing that science. That is, there is a difference between saying “should science try to do X?” and “how can we study X in an ethical manner?” In the case of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, James Franco noted that someone might claim that “This is a Frankenstein story, or that you’re playing God.” But that mindset questions the pursuit of science in general, not how one can pursue a hypothesis ethically. It is how we experiment and what we do with the scientific results that matter. In the case of Caesar, humanity utterly fails to care for the mind that enhancement has created. Dana Stevens at Slate aptly described the film as “an animal-rights manifesto disguised as a prison-break movie.” And as with most prison-break movies, we’re on the side of the prisoners, not the warden, for a reason.
I argue that Caesar’s enhancement and that Caesar himself are ethical, but that the treatment of Caesar by every non-ape in the film (save Charles) is unethical and based on fear, arrogance, willful ignorance, and naiveté. Yes, that means that not only are the obvious villains in the wrong, but so are the other humans in Caesar’s life.
Word of warning: spoilers below.
Captain America is not a serious scientific film. Nearly every piece of technology is furious hand-waving. Vibranium? Vita-rays? Rocket-powered propellers? The cosmic cube? Awesome, yes, but not real. These, however, are narrative tools, not attempts at hard scientific prediction and therefore not something to be critiqued. What the comic-book-tech of Captain America allows for is an exploration of the ethics of enhancement. Here, more than perhaps any other fictional film I’ve seen, Captain America displays striking balance and nuance – it gets enhancement right.
Based on your knowledge of the film and/or comics, this post may contain *spoilers*, so consider yourself warned. And if you’re looking for review of why it’s a fun movie, A.O. Scott in the NYT captures my sentiments about the film perfectly: pulpy Nazi-punching goodness. Now, on to enhancement!
There are three major factors that make the enhancement of Steve Rogers and his crimson domed antithesis, the Red Skull, unique among comic book lore. The first is that Steve Rogers was deliberately enhanced by someone. There is no accident, no crisis-as-catalyst-and-crucible event, no mystic charm, and no superhuman heritage to explain or justify Rogers’ becoming superhuman. Rogers is superhuman because Dr. Abraham Erskine develops a superhuman serum for that express purpose. Here, the science of enhancement is itself portrayed in a positive light. In what seems like every other superhero origin story, powers are acquired through scientific hubris. Be it the unintended consequences of splitting the atom, tinkering with genetics, or trying to access some heretofore unknown dimension, comic book heroes invariably arise by accident. The super serum, the vita-rays, and the outcome of the experiment on Rogers are all a scientific success. They happen precisely the way every person in the room hopes they will. Dr. Erskine is not a madman but a humble, ethical, and brilliant scientist trying to make better people. As such, he looks for the best in the humans he hopes to enhance. In short, Steve Rogers might be the only major superhero who is the result of scientific experimentation going to plan.
Second, Steve Rogers deliberately chooses to become enhanced. I had expressed my doubts about Rogers’ consent being genuine, but the film makes his determination and clarity of thought evident. Unlike many heroes, who seem to acquire their powers out of recklessness around science (Banner, Parker, Richards, I’m looking at you), Rogers very consciously decides to go through with Dr. Erskine’s procedure. He, in fact, might be one of the only heroes who ever knew he was going to be come a hero before his transformative event. That foreknowledge is critical for demonstrating that enhancement isn’t something that is only desired by egomaniacs. Rogers seeks strength and speed to defend and protect others. His body did not match how he saw his true self. Again, we see an anti-science motif of comic books turned on its head. Normally, those who seek superpowers are unworthy because they believe they deserve to be better than others, thus, the experiments go wrong. This attitude is embodied in the Red Skull, whose evil quite literally boils to the surface when he injects the super serum. However, Rogers’ reasoning is that others deserve to be protected and defended. Altruism, not egoism, is the driving force behind Rogers’ desire to become enhanced.
Third, and most important, is that enhancement in the film is not merely “functional” enhancement. That is, Rogers is not just stronger and faster. In a private moment, Dr. Erskine explains to Rogers that the serum and vita-rays affect “everything that is inside. Good becomes great. Bad becomes worse.” Erskine is not talking about physical traits here. Rogers’ “bad” traits (i.e. his laundry list of medical issues) are not aggravated by the serum, but cured. The good/bad that becomes great/worse are moral qualities and capacities of the person. Captain America is literally super-moral. His already above-average sense of moral clarity and determination to do what is right becomes amplified in the same way that the lust for power and pleasure from slaughter are magnified in the Red Skull.
Moral enhancement, a fairly recent talking point among thinkers in the bioethics community, is handled deftly in Captain America. Enhancements do not change who we are or from where we come, but serve to empower and improve traits which we already possess. For Steve Rogers, those traits are what we wish for most in our heroes: beneficence, altruism, and humility. Note, among his list of valued traits are not unwavering loyalty to national authority (despite his irritating flag fetish) or deference to some commanding power. Instead, Rogers’ own judgment causes him to defy orders at almost every turn. Why? Because Captain America’s sense of ethics is itself enhanced. He is a better human being because of Dr. Erskine’s process.
I haven’t seen a movie that was this pro-science and pro-human goodness in a long time. I may not have seen a movie that was this pro-enhancement ever. Did I mention it also involves Nazi-punching?
Promotional Image of Captain America via Marvel.com
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner‘s dead-tree forebear) opens with Deckard arguing with his wife about whether or not to alter her crummy attitude with the “mood organ.” She could, if she so desired, dial her mood so that she was happy and content. Philip K. Dick worried that the ability to alter our mood would remove the authenticity and immediacy of our emotions. Annalee Newitz at io9 seems to be worried mood manipulations will enable a form of social control.
The worry comes from recent developments in neuro-pharmaceuticals. Drugs are already on the market that allow for mood manipulation. The Guardian‘s Amelia Hill notes that drugs like Prozac and chemicals like oxytocin have the ability to make some people calmer, more empathetic, and more altruistic. Calm, empathetic, and altruistic people are far more likely to act morally than anxious, callous, and selfish people. But does that mean mood manipulation going to let us force people to be moral? And if it does, is that a good thing? Is it moral to force people to be moral? Read More
Michael Burnam-Fink ponders the on-again-off-again relationship the military has with human enhancement:
In 2002, Dr Joseph Bielitzki, chair of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, announced a grand program to improve soldiers, with the slogan “Be all that you can be, and a lot more.” His targets: sleep, fatigue, pain, and blood loss. Other projects studied psychological stress, memory, and learning . . . The words on everybody’s lips were “human enhancement,” the use of science and technology to upgrade the human body and mind . . . According to military futurists, the then-new War on Terror required a new type of soldier, independent, fast and more lethal than ever before.
But in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military discovered that elite special forces alone could not restore stability to war-torn countries. General Petraeus’s counter-insurgency strategy relies on building relationships with local partners and requires soldiers with diplomatic skills, not combat enhancements. Approximately $4 billion in annual research funding was shifted away from blue-sky projects to better reconnaissance drones and defenses against roadside bombs, the insurgent’s weapon of choice. And in combat, hard lessons were relearned: War is random, and a super-soldier is just as dead as anyone else if his Humvee rolls over an IED.
Emphasis mine. Burnam-Fink’s point is one well taken: amping up your average G.I. Joe into some sort of techno-berserker übersoldat is not the solution for modern warfare. Super soldiers are still quite susceptible to mundane threats. But re-read that little bit I’ve bolded about Patraeus’s counter-insurgency relying on relationships and diplomacy. The conclusion was that combat enhancements were not as useful as hoped, not that human enhancement in general was deemed ineffective.
Sounds like the US military should focus on enhancing the qualities Patraeus said worked. Create great soldiers who are better, nay, super diplomats. Moral and mental enhancement might improve the panoply of diplomatic skills, including language learning, situational awareness, and culturally sensitive negotiations. Not exactly as Hollywood Cool as see-around-corner rifles or personal heads-up displays, but no one ever said real human enhancements would be glamorous. More to the point, these enhancements would save lives. If a soldier can form a relationship with the locals and properly evaluate an urban environment, then that may lead to more peace with fewer shots fired. Now that sounds like human enhancement.
Image of A U.S. Army Soldier from Task Force Regulars 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, Renegade company by Tech. Sgt. Cohen Young via DVIDSHUB on Flickr Creative Commons