This will naturally be a spoiler-heavy post, so look away if you want Xenoblade‘s story to remain a surprise. I’ve been trying to understand the ending for about two weeks and so far I’m left with many more questions than answers.
Here’s what I do understand about Xenoblade‘s ending: the party travels past planets like Jupiter and Mars on its way to fight the final boss, then Alvis teleports them to Zanza. The big bad talks up how he has two Monados, claims that they have the power of creation and he has all that he desires, and says there’s no more need for the life on Bionis. Like the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, he offers to grant Shulk unimaginable power in exchange for becoming his apprentice; like the Emperor in Revenge of the Sith (except not a lie), he also offers immortality and power over death. I’m following along up to this point, but then things get weird.
Melia asks him if he regards all life as his playthings and says he doesn’t know how it felt for her to kill her High Entia brethren who transformed into Telethia. Zanza explains that the Telethia were their true forms and that he considers it a mistake that he gave them intelligence. Alright, sure. What’s confusing to me is that he just ignored the playthings question, but that’s that’s the more important part. We have to know the answer to this.
After all, Zanza just spoke the words that he has all he desires. If that was a lie and he still has one more desire, which is to wipe out the life on Bionis, then we need to know why he’s doing what he’s doing. If it’s true that he now has all he desires, that would mean that he doesn’t desire to wipe out the life on Bionis anymore. If that’s the case, there would be no reason to kill him, especially considering the personalities of this story’s heroes.
That last line might need explanation, so let’s take a step back. Near the beginning of the story, a Face Mechon basically kills Fiora, which is the initial impetus for the journey. Later on we find out it was Mumkhar, who betrayed Dunban—the original wielder of the Monado—at the very start, and so begins a long chase after him that ends at Sword Valley.
Mumkhar’s a bloodthirsty madman who’s having the time of his life killing people and turning them into machines. Skip ahead to 9:00 and Dunban wants to slash his face in two for some sweet revenge, but Shulk stands in his way and stops Mumkhar’s death because he’s a person. Of all the crazy things, Shulk then asks Dunban what if he had to kill Fiora, as if killing a crazy murderer is a nice comparison to killing an innocent girl. I was on Dunban’s side here, but apparently he sees some kind of logic in Shulk’s argument and becomes convinced that killing Mumkhar isn’t the answer.
One more step forward. The party eventually confronts Egil, whose stated goal is to destroy all life on Bionis. At first Shulk doesn’t even want to fight, but raises his sword after it becomes obvious that unless he does, Egil won’t stop. At 16:15, Shulk’s about to eat death, but the goddess Meyneth inhabiting Fiora releases her power to save him. Egil’s miffed that Meyneth has turned on him, awakens the Mechonis, and begins controlling it to attack the Bionis. This culminates in a later battle:
After all Egil’s done, Shulk is still talking about finding a way to live in peace, but he’s not having any of it. The fight begins and at 3:18 we see a vision that Egil is going to obliterate this story’s equivalent of a planet in just 120 seconds. The party manages to prevent that and at 6:50 Shulk is about to finish him off in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker style, but now Fiora’s against it. The Monado taunts him to kill Egil and Shulk actually shows some resolve this time, but Alvis’ voice interrupts, saying that he must find his own Monado, and Shulk holds back at the last moment and literally says the words “I don’t have any reason to kill you.” He sets up the Batman-Joker dynamic: while he can’t kill Egil, he can stop him over and over, as many times as he needs to.
There’s more from the above video that I’ll bring up later, but now back to the ending of the game. Here’s my first big question:
What makes Zanza worth killing that wasn’t true of Mumkhar or Egil?
Part of Batman’s uniqueness and what makes him memorable is that he doesn’t kill. Period. He could be fighting Calendar Man (thanks Batman: The Brave and the Bold) or teaming up with Superman against Darkseid, but no matter what the villain’s threat level and power is, he won’t kill. Fans can raise logical questions about this, like “Why would you keep sending the Joker back to Arkham Asylum when he’s just going to get out again and murder innocents?”, but everyone knows the answer even if they don’t understand or agree with it: “Because he’s the Batman.”
So whenever I see characters like Shulk, Dunban, and Fiora who refuse to kill a world-destroyer, top-tier-evil villain like Egil, I don’t expect their principles to change without warning. If they do change, then I start looking for explanations and I only came up with two possibilities for why Zanza is the one guy they actually feel like slaying:
1) Zanza wants to destroy the world, but he’s not sympathetic enough to be spared. Egil and Zanza both wanted to destroy the Bionis (or so I assume with Zanza), but Egil experienced the suffering of the genocide of his people, so Shulk, Fiora, and company felt sorry for him and didn’t want to kill him. I don’t want to believe this is the explanation because it would mean that whether someone deserves to live or die depends on how much you like them. That’s pretty twisted.
2) Zanza is a god. Shulk’s specific defense of not killing Mumkhar was that “[He’s] people! Like us!” The first part raises a philosophical question: what makes someone a person? The most common answers are “sentience” or “sapience.” Based on what Zanza says about the High Entia and how we’re meant to sympathize with Melia, Xenoblade‘s story seems to agree that intelligence in general separates a person from lower life forms—but Zanza has intelligence, which makes him a person. So that means the difference between him and Mumkhar is in the “Like us” part of Shulk’s comment.
In other words, Zanza’s worth killing because something about him makes him not like the Homs. This explanation kind of sounds like racism, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt and thought about this line of reasoning. Based on everything in the story to this point, the only answer I have that makes Zanza different from Egil or anyone else is that “he’s a god.”
…but what does it even mean to be a god in Xenoblade? That’s my second big question and we’ll examine that in part 2 on Wednesday.