written by David Steffen
Note before you read any further that this article will definitely include spoilers for the Marvel/Disney movie Big Hero 6, so stop now if you don’t want it spoiled. If you haven’t seen the movie, I would recommend it! (it was reviewed here previously) It is one of my favorites–fun, funny, flashy, action-packed, and with an overall very likeable cast of characters. The most likeable character in the story is the topic of this essay: Baymax.
Baymax, in his own words, is a “personal healthcare companion.” He is a prototype designed by Tadashi Hamada, a resident of San Fransokyo, who died tragically young in a building explosion before he could do more than private experiments on the prototype.
After his death, Tadashi’s brother Hiro finds the robot in their shared bedroom and Baymax with his medical skills discovers that Hiro is grieving and attempts to help him, by connecting him with his and Tadashi’s mutual friends from a college of advanced technology, and by helping him find the person responsible for Tadashi’s death.
Baymax develops more and more of a superhero-persona as Hiro tries to reinvent him as a powerful superheroic juggernaut with martial arts powers, jets, and projectile fists. Baymax goes along with this on the thin premise that this is all part of Hiro’s treatment to prevent depression and largely goes along with whatever Hiro wants until Hiro asks too much and asks Baymax to take a human life and Baymax refuses. Blinded by grief, Hiro removes Baymax’s nurse chip and the rest of Hiro’s friends narrowly prevent Baymax from killing while he is not himself. This is a major turning point in the movie as Baymax draws a personal boundary and refuses to let Hiro cross it, not allowing Hiro to access his programming chips again afterward. But in the end Baymax forgives him and they join forces again to win the day, and Baymax even gives what can be considered a selfless act to save Hiro’s life (while also doing his best to prolong himself).
Throughout all of this, Baymax is very empathetic, funny, sweet, and helpful. Hiro’s well-being is his primary concern, as much of his actions in the movie are justified by helping Hiro find closure, as well as combating depression with adrenaline rushes. Baymax’s programming is focused around caring for others and it shows in the way he nurtures his team, including acting as a flotation device when the whole group drives a car into water, and then helping them warm up by generating his own heat.
There’s no question that Baymax is likeable. But, is he likeable because he can’t possibly be otherwise? Is he simply a product of his nature? He was designed to act as a nurturer and healer, does that mean that he is actually compassionate, that he is a good person?
He certainly is a nurturer and healer in effect–he never harms a human being in the film, and others are often in better health or better mood because of him. Even when he’s not directly working in a clearly healthcare-related way, his attempts to empathize bring him closer to the people who surround him. In one scene, as he is watching fireworks with Hiro, Hiro has his legs extended in front of him and swings his feet back and forth in an idle motion, and Baymax imitates him in a show of connecting with him.
But, deep inside, is Baymax really compassionate? Or is it merely that he can’t help but take compassionate actions? Does Baymax feel anything or is he just a process of his programming?
I think there is some evidence that Baymax goes outside of his programming in the course of his film. In particular, the fact that he is so easily convinced to take Hiro on dangerous actions, to a degree that I don’t think is fully plausible if healthcare is his only concern. I think that if that were true, then Baymax, instead of giving in to almost all of Hiro’s demands, would be questioning Hiro’s increasingly risky behavior and whether it signals some kind of mental condition that needs treatment for the safety of himself and others.
These questions have often crossed my mind since I watched this movie, and more and more I have come to the conclusion that: it doesn’t matter. When we deal with our fellow human beings, we can’t see into their minds, we can only judge a person by their words and their actions. Baymax is no different. Or, if he is different, he’s simply easier to judge as having a compassionate effect because it’s easier to take his actions as not having ulterior motives since we know what he was designed for.