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Analysis Of The Trend Of Nihilism In Film And Television

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Looking at youth culture and identity allowed me to explore what is popular in youth culture. This led to further exploration into the idea that there is a relationship between certain philosophies and youth aimed media. From examining film and television that is popular in youth culture such as the Television shows such as Bojack Horseman and films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) such as Spiderman: Homecoming, there is a noticeable trend of nihilistic narratives and characters. According to Oxford Dictionaries.com, the definition of Nihilism as a Philosophy is ’the belief that nothing in the world has a real existence’. Other interpretations of this philosophy include there is no objective truth or morality. Nihilism can be seen as quite a dismal philosophy. However, there are augmented interpretations of this concept, where some find meaning through trivial diversions or through more meaningful ideas like family. Nihilism is so culturally embedded into the fabric of society as it is one of many philosophies that can be used to try and answer the big existential questions about the world. Nietzsche’s and his works such as The Gay Science allowed the philosophy to reach mainstream consciousness and become a philosophy with significance. Nihilism being explored in popular media such as films, music and television shows, is not a new concept, for example, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a character that is inherently nihilistic with lines such as “Life… full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. However, I believe there is a case in arguing that nihilism is a concept that is popular in current youth culture, particularly in film and television. There is an array of examples to illustrate nihilistic characters and narratives in popular television programs such as Bojack Horseman and The Good Place. On Netflix’s animated adult series Bojack Horseman, the characters explicitly reference different philosophical concepts and figures. An example of this is when the main character Bojack Horseman says in the episode ‘A Fish Out of Water’, ‘Hey, I stand by my critique of Sartre, his philosophical arguments helped tyrannical regimes justify overt cruelty’. In regards to this particular statement made by the protagonist about Sartre, it reflects more about his character than any assessment made about Sartre’s arguments. The character is criticising the philosophy by the actions of others and ignoring if there is any validity of the argument itself. This is telling about the character as throughout the series Bojack Horseman refuses to be accountable for his terrible actions so it could be argued that he is projecting his problems on to Sartre’s ideas. Ideas in which are of an existentialist nature whilst Bojack Horseman’s actions and characteristics tend to be nihilistic in nature. This demonstrates that the creators of the show are aware of philosophical concepts and are using these concepts for character and story development. Nihilism is arguably one of the biggest themes of the show.

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The philosophy is understood and explored through the personalities and stories of the different characters. Some characters are optimistically nihilistic, for example, in season 1 episode 12 Mr Peanutbutter who frequently makes comments similar to this ‘the universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead’. Other characters such as Bojack Horseman decide to offset their nihilistic dread with drugs and alcohol. Additionally, the theme of nihilism, particularly optimistic nihilism is shown through the presentation of the animation and the writing. Each episode has jokes, puerile character names such as Princess Caroline and brightly coloured anthropomorphic characters among humans while discussing and examining concepts such as existentialism, nihilism and social issues such as sexism or gun control. Overall, the creators of Bojack horseman are not advocating for nihilism but using the philosophy as a device to explore different concepts and themes. NBC’s The Good Place is another programme that also overtly discusses philosophical subjects and figures such as The Trolly Problem, Aristotle’s virtue ethics and Jonathan Dancy’s moral particularism. However, the characters on The Good Place use philosophy to try to become better people. One of the themes the show is change, as all the characters in the main cast slowly realise their errors and make small changes. This is particularly remarkable as a sitcom advocating for change is rare in comedy. It can be argued that this is to the popular writers rule that characters should not change, this is best explained by comedy writer James Cary in his blog ‘13 Rules of Sitcom’, where he states that ‘your characters and situation don’t change’. The Good Place does explore nihilism in the episode ‘Jeremy Bearimy’ where one of the characters, Chidi goes through a nihilistic breakdown and says ‘the world is empty there is no point to anything and you’re just gonna die, so do whatever’. There’s a case in stating this portrayal of nihilism suggests that the philosophy is completely pessimistic in nature. It can also be argued that this portrayal of nihilism was shown for mostly comedic effect rather than an exploration of the philosophy like in Bojack Horseman. Even if that it is the case that nihilism argues that there is no inherent meaning in the world, it does not suggest that a person should think nothing is meaningful, instead there is a choice to find meaning. This particular viewpoint on nihilism can allow for more hopeful interpretations of the philosophy. Although, this argument can be seen as redundant as this particular viewpoint regarding nihilism is essentially existentialism. When looking at nihilistic trends in popular films, the most notable examples come from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, specifically their villains.

An example of this is Thanos, the main villain of the MCU, the character turned from a conventional, evil for evil’s sake villain traditionally seen in action adventure movies to an all-powerful being with a nihilistic outlook. Another example is the Spiderman: Homecoming villain, The Vulture, who decided to choose a life of crime, after the actions of big multinational corporations caused him to lose his job. Black Panther’s Killmonger is a villain with nihilistic and arguably anarchistic rage, against his complicated past and the systemic oppression of people from all across the African diaspora. These shows and films are extremely popular and are making companies such as Disney billions each year. An example of this is that Black Panther ‘global ticket sales reached $1 billion within four weeks’. This trend is affecting the creative industries, particularly what kind of stories that are being told. Other companies are seeing the audience’s need for complicated villains with interesting narratives that usually tap into nihilistic ideas. An example of this is the upcoming film The Joker which will be released later this year. This film is focusing on the DC comics character The Joker and his origin story. All of the modern adaptations of the character such as the comic books, animated series, films, video games, graphic novels particularly The Killing Joke and The Dark Night all have nihilistic themes. The sample film footage from The Joker suggests that it will be heading in the same direction as all the modern adaptations of the character. There is definitely an argument that this current trend is not just a phase in storytelling but a symptom of something more significant. The success of the aforementioned shows and films will cause an increase in villain led narratives, especially if The Joker becomes a huge box office hit. The trend of nihilistic narratives and characters will affect what kind of characters are created, what films get funded by studios and investors and subsequently how popular culture is formed. This idea of flawed characters being the protagonist is not a new concept, the greatest example being the film The Godfather. Audiences loved seeing traditional villains become multifaceted interesting characters in their own right. It can be argued that films like The Godfather are reflections of the political and societal turmoil of their time and the change in values. This could be a factor of why these types of criminal/villain led narratives resonated with the audience. There are parallels that can be drawn from the societal upheaval from certain social and cultural institutions at that time to the shift in perspectives of the stories being told. Just like the films and television of the 70s reflected its society, the current nihilistic trend could be considered as a gnarled mirror for our times. Some audience members may relate to The Vulture in Spiderman: Homecoming as his struggle is relatable and viewers can resonate with the injustices that working class people can face from mega-corporations. Even if a viewer hasn’t been directly affected, the residual frustrations of systematic injustice, such as the 2008 bank bailouts from the government, could allow for an audience member to sympathise with the villain.

Just like an audience member could sympathise with Thanos, even though his actions were evil, his intentions could be seen as credible. Thanos’ actions are fundamentally nihilistic as to aim to half the entire universe randomly highlights that the characters see no substantial value in the individual and no individual has a defined and justified existence. The viewpoint in regards to ‘Thanos’ is distinctly impactful when some of the reasonings and justifications of his actions are the same philosophical arguments that some in monotheistic religions use to explain the reason for suffering, pain and evil. One of the philosophical arguments being sceptical theism. Sceptical theism is the viewpoint in which any actions of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient being can’t be given a moral justification of right or wrong as we will never have the same amount of insight as a god-like being. This could be also understood as God has a plan in which we will never have an equal understanding of, thus moral judgements can’t be made. If the sceptical theism philosophy was applied to Thanos’ actions, the same argument could be made. Thanos’ god-like justifications imply a god-like characterisation. This is an important aspect to the character as in a world that is becoming increasingly secular, particularly in the western world, having a god-like being placed into the role of the final adversary in the mainstream action and adventure franchise is telling about the audience’s wants, needs and expectations in their narratives and characters. This also relates to Nietzsche’s The Twilight Of The Ideas in which he states ‘there are altogether no moral facts’, it could be argued that his statement could be used as an atheistic replacement of sceptical theism to justify Thanos’ actions. As in the removal of the ideas and attributes of God, it could be argued that we are just left with facts so just as a theist would argue we cannot understand God, therefore, no moral judgements can be made, another argument could be that there are no inherent morals or moral facts. Moral facts as in there are no absolute truths in looking at what is right and wrong. It could be argued that actions and are just actions. To give an overall alternative view, all of the factors regarding nihilistic characters and narratives in television and film can be explained by a quote from an Anderson Paak song lyric ‘the idle mind is a dangerous place to be left in’. The human race has made significant improvements as a whole, and in some parts of the world there is not only a primal instinct to mate, find food and shelter but to explore what is our purpose, why is there evil and have a variety of existential crises. As more of the human race begins to live a somewhat comfortable life, all we can do is search for answers. As a result, our human anxieties will be explored through the art we create which subsequently means that it will be explored in our popular culture. To conclude, there is evidence for nihilistic themes in popular youth media, and it can be attributed to a variety of factors. This is having an effect on the types of stories that are being shown in film and television.


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01 February 2021

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