Existentialism is a complex philosophy, the main gist of which is that the world is essentially meaningless and that humans must make their own choices in order to imbue meaning for themselves and the world. It's a complicated philosophy, but one that has been the subject of numerous books, as well as, surprisingly, a number of comic books, movies, and television shows. This is my attempt to explain some of them.
(Warning: this article contains spoilers for Firefly, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a Marvel One-Shot.)
"Existence Precedes Essence": The Philosophy of River Tam and Jubal Early
One of the most existential episodes of television in the very last episode of Firefly, "Objects in Space." Most of the themes come from Jean-Paul Sartre's existential book Nausea and both River Tam and the bounty hunter Jubal Early display existential beliefs...but in two very different ways.
In the beginning of the episode, River sees a gun — a weapon, a machine made for killing — as a branch, something beautiful. Early, on the other hand, comments on the "pleasing weight" of his gun, the design of it. Both are divorcing the object's existence from it's essence — the meaning that others have imbued on it. But while River decides to imbue something beautiful, Early instead uses his worldview to inflict pain and suffering.
This is one of the central tenants of existentialism — "existence precedes essence." Our existence (our ability to live, choose, act) comes before our essence (the categories that we find ourselves in). This means that a person must choose to act in a good manner to become a good person; the same is true with bad people.
In "Objects in Space," however, Jubal Early displays something called "bad faith"; he insists that he has no choice in doing bad things, it's part of the job. River, however, insists that it's why it took the job, why he made the choice to be a bounty hunter. Existence precedes essence. River chooses to save her friends and family and while both characters essentially end up as "objects in space," River is happy with others, while Early is alone.
"The Myth of Sisyphus": The Meaning and Meaninglessness of Angel
Kate: I just couldn't ... My whole life has been about being a cop. If I'm not a part of the force, it's like nothing I do means anything.
Angel: It doesn't.
Kate: Doesn't what?
Angel: Mean anything. In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There's no grand plan, no big win.
Kate: You seem kind of chipper about that.
Angel: Well...I guess I kind of worked it out. If there's no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters...then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause that's all there is. What we do. Now. Today.
— Angel, Season 2, Episode 16, "Epiphany"
You wouldn't think a show about a vampire with a soul would have such an existentialist bent, but Angel does. It is one of the few noir trappings it kept from the first season after it shifted from noir to urban fantasy (film noir is filled with existentialist despair, primarily due to the filmmakers' experiences in World War I and II). But as the show went on, those trappings revealed a deep underlying meaning: that any attempt at saving the world, at redemption, was useless. That the world doesn't run in spite of evil, it runs because of evil. That the universe is meaningless, even the single Power That Be that Angel encounters is a gross abomination who tries to force world peace by taking away free will. And yet, even with the meaninglessness shoved in their faces, Angel and company still fight on.
This is the central theme of The Myth of Sisyphus: what happens when you realize the futility and absurdity of life? Camus argues that the only reasonable response is rebellion — rebellion against society, against social mores and values, against the march of time and history. And yet even this rebellion is meaningless — it will fail, after all. Sisyphus pushes the boulder up the hill and it always tumbles down, but he keeps doing it again and again.
Gunn: What if I told you it doesn't help? What would you do if you found out that none of it matters? That it's all controlled by forces more powerful and uncaring than we can conceive and they will never let it get better down here? What would you do?
Anne Steele: I'd get this truck packed before the new stuff gets here. Wanna give me a hand?
And yet what else can Sisyphus do? He keeps pushing the boulder because "the struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart."
And Angel and company? Well, unlike the characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they don't get to triumph over evil and end with a smile. The last episode, "Not Fade Away," ends with Angel (having already signed away his reward, making his quest for redemption literally meaningless) and his still living friends facing a horde of demons that will surely kill them. Buffy ended with a smile; Angel ends with a sword. For Angel was all about the struggle, the ability to push the boulder, even knowing it will still fall down.
(I'm ignoring the later Buffy and Angel comics, because, well, they had to make the characters survive, which sort of subverts the point of the end of the series. But still.)
"Being and Nothingness": Beta Ray Bill and the Gods of the Marvel Universe
This panel comes from Secret Invasion Aftermath: Beta Ray Bill - The Green of Eden #1. It's a one shot that leads into a three-issue mini-series called Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter. But it's interesting for it's look at religion, especially Beta Ray Bill's atheism. In the Marvel Universe, where the gods are real and Beta Ray Bill wields the power of a god, how can he think this?
Well, you can take a look at the facts: that the Asgardians are aliens who merely claim to be gods and then extrapolate that to all the gods of the Marvel Universe. But then there is the Living Tribunal and Eternity and the One-Above-All, so is the Marvel Universe really meaningless?
Well, yes and no. True, there are cosmic beings that preside of everything...but they have hardly any impact on all the "lower" lifeforms. They may have the ability to do things on a cosmic scale, but they are so far above the regular Marvel characters, the things they do are incomprehensible and absurd.
Beta Ray Bill knows this: after all, he led his people away from destruction at the hands of demons and found them a new home, only for that home and his people to be destroyed by Galactus. So what was the point of his journey, of even saving his people if it was meaningless?
In Sartre's Being and Nothingness, Sartre contends that everyone is free to make any choice, but every choice constricts us, leads us into an inevitable destiny. "Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does." Even though "all are on principle doomed to failure," we still act out our lives in some attempt at meaning.
Beta Ray Bill's contends that there is nothing out there, no god that dictates that we should be good and righteous. The Skrulls, having just ended a religious crusade dictated by their gods, look to him as a savior, but his assertion instead shows them that they do not need a god to be good. Even if they still believe, they know they can do good merely by searching for a god, even if this search is doomed to failure. They act out their lives, just as Beta Ray Bill acts out his, because if nothing we do matters, then the only thing that matters is what we do.
And if there is nothing but what we make in this world, brothers, then let us make good.
Part Two: Something about Watchmen probably. Also maybe Twelve Monkeys / La Jetee. That is, if I actually decide to write another one of these.