Metaphysics at the Movies: Hollywood’s Philosophical Turn


The Following Essay Appears in the Fall 2012 Issue of Fare Forward

It has been said, by First Things editor-in-chief R.R. Reno among others, that the American public has no taste for categories like nature, order, and perfection. Those of us interested in moral pedagogy should avoid heavy, “metaphysical” reasoning and stick to categories like responsibility, independence, and self-rule, on the theory that the American mind is incapable of thinking philosophically beyond the terms of the Declaration of Independence. There is an air of prudent pessimism about this argument. Choose your battles, it says, so you can fight another day. Pessimism may win the day, but it usually forfeits the war— and in this case it is simply wrong. While much of the Christian world twiddles its thumbs over the problems of “engaging the culture” and “winning young minds,” we are missing the signs of the times.

In the past few months, the filmmaking world has released a series of reflections on political authority, legitimacy, and civic identity based on the very categories supposedly too arcane for the American public. The growing interest in these topics among writers, producers, and directors has gone unnoticed—in part because the questions they ask are not motivated by partisan interests, but mainly because the conversations they spark are concealed in the plots of a dozen blockbusters across a wide swath of genres. Of course, themes related to citizenship and political order are perennial in Hollywood, but the ideas at play in films like Snow White and the Huntsman or Ridley Scott’s Prometheus are remarkable because they reflect a trend toward more abstract and philosophical analysis and a preference for reactionary problematics.

Consider the plot of Snow White and the Huntsman. Instead of the flimsy—even propagandistic—question of whether people prefer freedom to tyranny (cf. The Avengers), Snow White, a tale with little inherent political content, has us ask about the qualities of a good ruler, and it chooses to answer this question through the distinction of two opposed forms of beauty. On one side is the evil queen’s beauty, which is taken by force from her subjects, enabling her to create a morbid peace within the realm: the queen is the locus of all life and freedom, and everything else dies in order to hand itself over to her. Standing opposite is the honestas of young Snow White, a beauty consistently described as “pure” and shown to be the combined result of personal virtue and natural blessing. At a moment near the middle of the film, nature itself takes on the form of a large elk to offer her its benediction. Snow White is a blessing to those she meets, healing their wounds, comforting their children, and even leading them in battle.

Long before the anticipated blows are exchanged between princess and queen, Snow White has the upper hand. The harmony of nature (of which Snow White’s virtue is a species) is the only legitimate source of authority, and the usurper queen’s own nature rebels against her, killing her from within. Natural right, designated by blood and confirmed by character, is defended by the instinctu naturae of characters across the landscape, including a pack of noble dwarves who had fallen into banditry under the queen’s evil reign.

There are a few clumsy strokes in the movie, but in its larger themes it bears a striking resemblance to Aquinas’s thought. That beauty is employed as a reflection of nature and a sign of legitimate authority is evidence enough, but the thoughtful tenor of the film shines especially in its conclusion. The film portrays Snow White’s triumph as both a personal victory and a prelude to romantic pursuits, but primarily as a triumph for the common good: the restoration of justice to a realm and the vindication of nature against the evil queen’s exploitation and deception. The queen’s ultimate demise at the hands of a brave innocent is a symbolic endorsement of nature’s role as guarantor of justice and right within the political order.

The pessimists among us might smile and think Snow White’s metaphysical bent an accident of unintended subtexts, but the past year’s movies have been rife with similarly earnest philosophical reflection. Another example is the recent adaptation Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, which, like Snow White, opened at the top of the box office.

The film is first of all an environmentalist propaganda piece aimed at children. In a society where health food and ecology are among the highest moral values, a movie like The Lorax comes as no surprise. What does surprise is the choice of categories used to frame its message. The word “environment” is conspicuously absent from the screenplay, as are the appeals to social justice commonplace among conservation groups. The writers may anthropomorphize forest animals in order to associate deforestation with theft, but they also unequivocally portray big business as the source of material prosperity.

The opposition in the film, contrary to expectation, is not between the inefficient and the eco-friendly, nor even between capitalism and justice. No distinction is made: pollution and disease are attributed to manufactured goods in general, and the possibility of a green city is implicitly rejected. Instead, the conflict at the core of the film is between natural and artificial order. The natural order flourishes in the tranquility of true peace. Its governing authority rules by law and not by tribunal: when the Lorax threatens that nature will avenge the massacre of the trees, vengeance comes as a direct consequence of the act, not from a thunderbolt or mystic guardian. In the artificial order of the commercial utopia, tranquility flows from total consumer autonomy: the town is walled in and the air stinks, but this does not matter so long as there are new diversions and un-purchased goods. Thneedville, the fictional town, is the expansion of Snow White’s evil queen into a society. Totally divorced from the natural order in the pursuit of power and luxury, Thneedville has become the locus of life by glutting itself on the surrounding region. The industrialist who created the city gives it his own artificial concept of nature, a fusion of extreme laissez-faire-ism with social Darwinism, which results in a society turned in on itself, with man as the giver of his own law and the sole object of his pursuits.

The film’s resolution is striking. Where Thneedville had alienated itself from the natural world, the young protagonist forces the citizens to look out upon the surrounding desolation. He holds up a sprouting seed, calling for a new way of life. The seed represents nature, and as it is planted in the heart of the city, an implicit exchange takes place. Humanity resumes governance of the natural world, where government is understood to be a matter of care and responsibility. The one who abdicated the care of nature and rejected the natural order surrenders all authority, and the capitalist is exiled. On the other side of the exchange, nature relieves humanity of its aimless self-obsession. The walls of the city are destroyed, marking its dispersal into the natural world. Instead of being wrapped up in themselves, the population turns outward to find natural perfection. At the close of the film, the man responsible for Thneedville’s creation finally emerges from the prison of his regrets to make peace with the Lorax, who proclaims nature’s law to humanity.

Nor is the natural order the only classical philosophical category lurking in this year’s hit films. In Brave, Pixar continues its tradition of giving narrative expression to key moral and political principles, this time focusing on the balance of powers in social and political systems. A balance is shown at the beginning of the film between the centralized power of federated tribes and their independent character and self-rule. This balance is reflected in the film’s main plot line, a conflict between mother and daughter which proves to be directed as much at parents as at their children. The overbearing parent and the rebellious child are shown as two sides of the same flawed character. Both are compared to a legendary prince who becomes a monster while striving for dominion over his realm. For the mother, the monstrosity lies in her insistence on total control and her intolerance of the unique personalities of her children. For the daughter, it comes from the rejection of parental rule and insistence on self-determination. As the conflict comes to a head, the two need each other to survive and must reach an understanding in order to avoid disaster. The resulting compromise, however, does not reduce parent and child to equals, but shows the balance of powers at work. The beauty of Brave’s plot is its use of familial relations as a model for political federalism, and vice versa. To put it in Roman terms, Brave shows us that the true pater patriae acts as pater familias to the nation and its subsidiary parts—that filial and civic piety are of the same form.

Civic piety, of course, brings us to the elephant in the room: the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. In the first two installments, Nolan has laid the psychological and moral groundwork for the trilogy’s keystone, and just as psychology and ethics are a prelude to political science in Aristotle, Nolan’s concluding episode is teeming with political ideas that were left undeveloped in the earlier films. Central among the myriad thoughts and problems expressed in the film is the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Gotham: What sort of citizen is he? What sort of hero? Genuine superheroes fall somewhere between omnipotence and mediocrity, and just as Superman flirts too much with omnipotence, Bruce Wayne at times feels too ordinary to be called a superhero. In a typical superhero plot, a monster appears (through some accident of nature or science) whose inclination to destroy and dominate the civilized order. Against this supernatural threat a hero rises, vested by fate with the unique ability to destroy the monster and protect civilization. The struggle between hero and monster takes place in the midst of the city, but on a different plane; the hero’s fight is not shared with the average citizen, though the former may enjoy all the latter’s favor and adoration. Instead, the combatants are lifted away from the rest of the world to pit the “principles” of good and evil against one another and to demonstrate a larger truth.

In other words, the conflict of an essential superhero drama is free, except in accidental tragicomic aspects (Lois Lane, Aunt May, etc.), of personal, political, and economic entanglements. The hero is never an agent of the polis, and his actions can never be seriously held up for scrutiny by civil law (the foolish politician or journalist trying to rein in the “masked vigilante” is a perennial theme in comics). The hero has his own personality and modus operandi. More importantly, he has what we might call his own nature—the mark of an elevated, almost providentially determined place in the order of things. Nature settles all questions of privilege and merit in favor of the hero. He cannot be judged or overseen, because he is naturally designated for his task—which is impossible for everyone else.

In returning to Gotham, the problem is this: in Nolan’s version of the story, Batman fails our litmus test on most points. He has no distinguishing powers, no fateful election to the class of supermen. All he has are money, gadgets, and some brilliant assistants. He is oftentimes a partner of the police force, and he is interested in the fight on every level: personal, political, and economic. The villains he faces are not endowed with awesome abilities, but are generally gangsters and madmen who derive their power from the cooperation or manipulation of Gotham’s people. Both hero and villains are merely citizens who have an interest in shifting the lines of power in the city and choosing which law binds it. Batman is not a conventional superhero because the fight he fights is not between good and evil, and it does not take place in an empyrean realm of ideas. It is a political struggle in the fullest sense, at times resembling a civil war. When Bane, the latest masked villain, sets out to destroy Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has him imitate the Reign of Terror: there is a Bastille, a Revolutionary Tribunal, and a guillotine. The guillotine is referred to as “death by exile,” and Bruce Wayne is the first to go. In this most politically conscious of superhero renditions, Nolan sets Wayne in the place of Louis XVI.

Who is the Batman? He is Gotham’s guardian, its protector and king. The mask is his crown, the mark of his office, without which he is merely a private citizen. At the end of the second film, Batman had resigned his office as Gotham’s hero, buying peace with a lie. The trials of The Dark Knight Rises are the price of his abdication and ultimately the path to his restoration. Nolan ends his trilogy with a defense of aristocracy. It is tempting to draw grand conclusions from the trends in these four films. Is a change of tide occurring in the culture wars? Has a monarchist conspiracy found its way into Hollywood? These questions will have to be considered by others: for now, I would like to suggest an alternate explanation. In Ridley Scott’s new alien flick Prometheus, a group of scientists are driven to the edge of space in search of man’s origins. Fragments of religion litter the film, from the dying capitalist who wants to meet his alien creator to the crucifix worn by the protagonist. The mythic fragments propel the film forward: everyone is looking for some answer and hopes to find the key that completes the fragments and explains everything through the film’s quest. Many have criticized the film for its inconclusiveness, but I believe Prometheus tells us something about ourselves.

We are drawing close, as a society, to becoming Nietzsche’s Last Men. Many would say that science and prosperity have obviated religion, and some might even consider it unlikely that Christianity will be still be taken seriously at the turn of the next century. Remarkably, though, many of us still share a hunger for a fuller truth. How should our decaying republic be rebuilt? What is the authentic basis of political order? Most of the culture remains oblivious to these problems and repeats empty clichés in defense of the status quo. But what Prometheus shows us—what all the films I have discussed demonstrate—is that the pursuit of intellectual and political progress without guiding metaphysical principles terminates inevitably in disaster. More encouraging still, they show us that the human mind has a natural aptitude for moral and political truth, and that several of our best storytellers still have an interest in telling it.

Elliot Milco

Elliot Milco graduated from Yale University in 2011 with a B.A. in Humanities, and the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in 2013 with an M.A. in Systematic Theology. He currently teaches theology at a Jesuit high school outside Chicago, and blogs at