Way Past Cool
Sonic and Robotnik’s Symbiosis of Absurdity
Ashley L. Whitaker
Celebrating 30 years of Sonic the Hedgehog in 2021, Paramount Pictures unleashed a live-action film where the blue hedgehog’s supersonic speed and electrifying energy in the film become his arch-nemesis Dr. Robotnik’s bounty. In the games, comic books, and cartoons in the Sonic franchise, harnessing the hero’s speed isn’t one of the villain’s typical schemes. Robotnik’s IQ of 300 far surpasses that of an Einstein or a Hawking, and isn’t the result of some Silicon Valley-esque microchip implant. A perpetual atomic force of unadulterated chaos and madness run amok, the fictional genius deploys an egomaniacal focus dead-set on nothing short of total disaster and annihilation of the planet Mobius. He takes personal pleasure in the cataclysmic havoc wreaked by every new robot concoction, especially on Sonic and his friends. Yet try as he may—by, say, manipulating time, reviving dead monsters, or dumping apocalyptic-levels of pollution—Robotnik’s efforts never quite thwart Sonic, illustrating a deep and necessary symbiosis between these fictional characters that has always been central to the franchise. Sonic chooses his path, but so does Robotnik. That path involves Sonic always foiling Robotnik’s devious plots, winning battle after battle but never winning the final war ending his enemy’s mischief once and for all. Robotnik for his part cannot bring it upon himself to give up this absurd situation, happily retreating to conjure another act of mayhem but never succeeding for good.
Abandoned and unloved, Robotnik (sometimes known as Eggman) is the epitome of the archetypal evil genius. In cartoons like Sonic SatAM and Sonic Underground, citizens resistant to his whims are roboticized into mechanical shells of their flesh and blood, wholly subservient and obedient to his demands. His ploys are so dastardly and sinister that they make those of Bowser—of Super Mario Bros fame—pale in comparison. Robotnik is not typically represented as bearing positive human qualities (like empathy), although his selfishness is very human. Nor is he attuned to the common concerns of daily life, given his endless desire for senseless destruction and his penchant for psychopathic levels of deceit.
The opposite in almost every way—except, perhaps, in the desire to win—Sonic is the perfect foil. He represents the power of play and childlike innocence, a pure soul roaming free for fun and enjoyment. Sonic’s laid-back personality and steadfast service to truth and acting virtuously present as very human-like qualities, despite his being a hedgehog. Whereas technology has encroached on the leisure time of many across the world, we do not see Sonic interacting with machines of any type; and, his knack for arriving at the scene of trouble at precisely the right moment suggests an intuition drawn from a great connection to—and affinity for–natural places. As a vigilante, Sonic’s motives and choices are not colored by social propriety or concern about his reputation. Scarfing down chilidogs by the ton and running at odd moments for the pure enjoyment of going fast are the polar opposite of the expedience and efficiency inherent to the mechanized, technologically-driven lifestyles brought on by the Industrial Revolution and the Internet. Yes, Sonic moves fast, but, unless danger is imminent, his need for speed is not motivated by trying to get somewhere in particular to the desire to accomplish anything.
Considering these differences, then, it might appear that Robotnik is anything but existential. A short definition or explication of existentialism is in order here: in brief, I mean by existentialism the broad area of philosophical inquiry concerned with givens of human life such as issues of meaning, paradox, absurdity, and the inevitability of death. Appearances are deceiving, however, since Robotnik chooses to live as he does, to continue on his path of madness and destruction, guided by a fear of mediocrity. Existential theorist Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of existential ethics partially argued that because all of our future experiences are unknowns, our present decisions carry significant weight—the consequences of what we do right now might not be realized for some time to come. Furthermore, in a Kierkegaardian sense, our decisions every moment are either/or; that is, each path in life means the explicit dissolution of any and all other paths. In this sense, as existentialists tend to suggest, Robotnik creates his own essence apart from any social expectations. His actions give him a superficial sense of meaning insofar as they mirror back the boundlessness of life. Yet for Robotnik, life is not bounded by constraints, and so none of his actions determine who he is as a person. Ultimately, his actions do not matter if life does not matter, either. Therefore, Robotnik is an emblematic living depiction of the most ruthless form of nihilistic, egoistic consciousness—the part of ourselves that sees personal gain as supervening over any other concern, including the fate of others and the planet itself.
To compensate for life’s paradoxically banal nature, Robotnik, disregards rationality altogether. Given how little that rationality has served him in the past, this is hardly surprising. While the autonomous decision to live dangerously and violently, to the complete disregard of others, can be viewed as inhumane and indeed inhuman, Robotnik is entirely human, at least in one sense, and also quite comfortable with machines. A quitter from an existential point of view, Robotnik is depicted as sane as anyone else in the Sonic movie, which is unsettling because it means that we all have the potential for significant evil. Robotnik has been defeated more times than Sonic has appeared in his own franchise—and provided the prolific spinoffs in the canon—which is a testament to the villain’s unquenchable perseverance.
Existentially, the absurdity of the situation is painfully apparent. After a hundred defeats or so, thwarting Sonic’s antics to foil the mastermind’s rotten plots, rationality might suggest that the odds of conquering the Blue Blur are decisively low to warrant the further risk. Every video game, every comic book, and nearly every cartoon episode in the Sonic canon feature new contraptions conceived by the evil doctor to carry out some plan or other that involve capturing or obliterating his arch-nemesis, inflicting collateral damage on natural places, or kidnapping and roboticizing laypersons, who are typically animal humanoids like Sonic. Sonic lacks Robotnik’s brain but more than makes up for it in heart, which is why he is precisely the power grid that Robotnik needs and ought to crave in the latest film: controlling a force faster than the speed of sound is sufficient to gain dominance over the entire world. In the case of the live-action Sonic movie, that world is our own. It’s the gravest form of nihilism—that nothing matters except one’s personal gain, and there are no consequences to one’s actions. To the extent that there are consequences, they don’t matter if they don’t affect me personally. Robotnik is extremely dangerous not just because he lacks empathy but because he is devoid of compassion. Robotnik believes he is superior to everyone else because of his intelligence, and physical control over others isn’t his ultimate motive. He wants the world to bow down to him and realize his immense creativity and intellect for what they are. As the smartest man in any room, his rationale is that his smarts naturally entitle him to rule the planet and modify it to his liking. According to de Beauvoir, the urge to oppress others arises out of the rationalization that others are not entirely human, amounting to littler more than material objects that lack an intrinsic quality of humanness only shared by creatures considered human beings.
That the planet itself ought to be destroyed in exchange for money illustrates the lethal nature of this nihilism on a grand scale. Prizing life over profit is Sonic’s mythos, not Robotnik’s. Humans possess impressive levels of intellectual and social intelligence, but have failed thus far when it comes to environmental stewardship. The grandiosity and self-importance of corporations and government bodies, allowing atrocities like ecocide and genocide to occur for financial gain, draw straight from the Robotnik playbook. His delusions convince him that caging carefree humanoid animals and turning them into scrap metal servants is good. Rounded individuals, beyond intelligence, embody empathy, charisma, and imagination. Unlike Sonic, Robotnik exhibits no comprehension of any human trait aside from a psychopathically driven intelligence. Others are viewed as obstacles to Robotnik’s ambitions, instead of ordinary laypersons who could benefit from his ingenuity. Worse still, anyone other than Robotnik is viewed as wholly and intrinsically inferior to himself.
Great heroes require great adversity and a great villain is adversity on steroids. Iconic though he may be, Robotnik tends to be trivialized due to the ease and frequency of his defeats by Sonic and his friends. Miraculously, neither Sonic nor Robotnik particularly cares about the distant horizon; time is of the essence, in the present. Nowhere in any medium have either of the two protested that their efforts fall short of meaningful. Etched in an eternal present analogous to Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence, they live out their most optimal lives performing their roles immaculately by wholehearted determination. Thousands of rescues and robot designs later, for all fans know, the feverish excitement for the hedgehog and genius to pursue their ambitions is as hot now nearly 30 years later as it was back in 1991. Were both to exist thousands of years from now, the race to capture Sonic and unleash total annihilation of Mobius would go on exactly as before. Without Sonic, Mobius is ripe to be overthrown by criminals and mobs, except it’s Robotnik’s devious attacks that end up being business as usual rather than an anomaly. Were everybody to be enslaved by the evil genius, no role would wait for him once his vision came to life. In essence, Robotnik is horrified at the thought of being an average guy. Sonic would be bored senseless if life grew too peaceful. Any conflict the two become engulfed in provides enough action and thrill to motivate both to continue their efforts to stop the other.
Ashley L. Whitaker, Ph.D., MBA, is a neurodivergent psychological researcher specializing in existential, humanistic, and transpersonal approaches to psychology. Her primary scholarly interests center on applying transpersonal perspectives in addressing existential concerns and the juxtaposition of existential thought with popular culture.