One of the popular tropes of superhero fiction is that the characters are better, faster and stronger than mere humans. DC Comics character Cyborg is no different, with technological enhancements that set him above and beyond our standards. He's scheduled to star in his own movie in 2020, preceded by appearances in two "Justice League" films. So parent company Warner Brothers must have big plans to show just how strong and fast Cyborg is. Probably with a lot of punching.
But while discussing cyborg research on a recent STBYM episode, we imagined getting more out of a "Cyborg" film. The movie's crew hasn't been announced yet, but consider this an open letter to those involved. Whether you're David Goyer, Zack Snyder or the character's creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez, here's five themes we'd love to see explored in a Cyborg story.
Comics writer and DC Comics' Chief Creative Office Geoff Johns has called Cyborg "the modern-day, 21st-century superhero." In 2011 Johns said about the character: "He represents all of us in a lot of ways. If we have a cellphone and we're texting on it, we are a cyborg -- that's what a cyborg is, using technology as an extension of ourselves."
Mathematician Norbert Wiener would probably agree. In his 1948 "Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine," Wiener saw cybernetic systems as constituted by flows of information. For instance, if a blind man uses a cane, Wiener considered that "cybernetic," because it provided information in the form of sensory feedback. This information theory extends to other cybernetic activities, from throwing a ball to launching a missile. This would be interesting territory for "Cyborg," especially since Wiener advocated for militaristic cybernetics to make better killing machines at the same time he was envisioning them as a humanist endeavor. Whether it can be both, and how Cyborg processes that information, would be a fitting conflict for the character.
Deficiency vs. Enhancement
Let's go back to Wiener's "blind man with the cane" concept. Does that mean cyborgs have modifications that compensate for their deficiencies? Or are they actually designed to enhance normal functions? Here's another dichotomy the movie could explore, especially since most Cyborg origin stories involve an accident that wounds and disables him. In this case, Cyborg's technology saves his life, allowing him mobility again. But it also enhances his physiology through science, one of the more common tropes of the Silver Age of Comics.
The word "cyborg" was coined in a 1960 paper by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline called "Cyborgs and Space." Their basic idea was to make space travel more efficient by retrofitting the human body, instead of carrying Earth's encapsulated environment to the stars with rockets. This makes a degree of sense when you consider their argument that "human fuel" like oxygen, food and fluid, has a weight of 10 lbs. per day in space. It would be nice to see "Cyborg" acknowledge its own history by applying the hero's capabilities to space exploration.
Clynes and Kline recommended inserting all kinds of things into a person to make space easier: drugs, enzymes, pressure pumps, fuel cells, plumbing and other engineering. What they didn't consider however, were the ethical implications of doing all this to a person.
Too much cyborg fiction agonizes over the tortured nature of being part-human, part-machine. That doesn't mean that it should ignore the ethical quandaries of whether a cybernetically enhanced brain is still human. Think more "Black Mirror" and less "Robocop." An excellent starting point for the crew of "Cyborg" is Grant Gillett's 2006 essay "Cyborgs and Moral Identity," published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
Gillett proposes some creepy case studies, from reconstructing a three-old's brain after severe injury, to reprogramming a depressed woman to be happier. From there, Gillett observes that we're less concerned about cybernetics when they're incidental to a person's psychological identity. We get more concerned when having to engage in a relationship with something that's "non-human."
For the movie this begs many questions: How do other people treat Cyborg? How should they? And how much different is it from how we treat people already through our interactions via computers?
In a 2010 interview, Manfred E. Clynes explained that he originally saw cyborgs as a means to "enlarging the human experience." That sounds an awful lot like transhumanism, especially when we bring in Donna J. Haraway's infamous "Cyborg Manifesto." Haraway sees cyborgs everywhere: in war, sex, medicine and capitalism. We were cyborgs because of athletic footwear long before smart phones entered the picture.
For Haraway, being cyborgs makes us all chimeras that breakdown boundaries between gender, humanity, machines and physicality. If everything can be reconstructed between technology and biology, then everything is up for grabs. Right? Being cyborgs challenges all our basic assumptions about identity and "how things are." This further calls into question our fascination with cyborgs, especially since they contest our boundaries of class, gender and ethnicity. With an infinity of possible cyborg identities, there's a lot to explore. Haraway says it's no longer about binary dualities like good and bad, or nature and nurture. "It's messier than that."
Will a big budget superhero movie include transhuman ideas that contest everyday identity? Probably not. But imagine how engaging and thought-provoking it would be if it did. Now that would be a movie worth waiting in line for.