Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Something wicked

Been thinking about what I wrote yesterday about how our popular entertainment---TV, movies, mystery novels, the news, and, yes, that's entertainment---likes to portray evil as the work of an Other.

Always good to think about what you've posted. Better to do it before you post. My New Year's Resolution, already broken. But I have been thinking that recently there have been some serious attempts to break away from this usual formula.

The usual formula being that all evil in the world is the work of Outsiders and Monster Outsiders at that. Psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists---beings with no souls and no life apart from from the evil they're perpetrating.

Hold onto your hats. I'm about to say something good about George Lucas.

A villain is a villain is a villain is a monster. Whenever it turns out that a "good" character is actively evil, we're assured that that person has been a monster all along, that their goodness was an act and like Elmer Fudd in Looney Tunes Back in Action they've been "secwetly evil" or that somehow, offstage or offscreen, they were transformed into a monster.

Either way, the important point is that they are not like us anymore.

Rarely are we put on the side of the monster. We are almost never given a villain for a protagonist, as Shakespeare did with Richard III and Macbeth. When we are, it's usually a version of Richard not of Macbeth, a charismatic monster like Ripley we can side with as a way to escape vicariously from the oppressions of our own consciences, inhibitions, super-egos, shames, and fears, and only for the length of time it takes to read the book or watch the show or sit through the movie.

Almost never are we asked to identify with a Macbeth and then left to wonder, full of self-doubt, how we would respond if faced with his temptations, if our ambitions, our egos, our very lives depended on committing a sin or perpetrating a crime or inflicting a cruelty.

I haven't watched The Shield. Sometimes it looks to me from previews or reading about upcoming epsisodes that this is what's going on---after all, we're dealing with a character who started off his series by murdering a fellow cop, a good cop, too, to protect himself from the consequences of his own bad behavior and to free himself to continue the good work that he does manage to do despite his sins and weaknesses.

Other times it seems to me that he's a Richard and we're supposed to just enjoy his badness.

And then there are times, and these are the times that have turned me away from the show, I get the feeling that we're not supposed to just enjoy his badness but to admire it and recognize that it's necessary in order for him to do the good work that he does do.

I was also intrigued by this article in Salon detailing the very strange downward spiral of Daredevil in his comic book.

The thematic conflict in the first half of Batman Begins is over what kind of superhero Bruce Wayne will allow himself to become---a weirdly costumed Boy Scout like Superman or a twisted vengeance machine like the Batman of the Frank Miller Dark Knight era in the comics?

He chooses Boy Scout but lets everybody think he's the twisted vengeance machine.

But the most prominent recent pop art example of a hero who turns into a villain is, of course, Anakin Skywalker.


I'll save for later discussing how in Revnge of the Sith George Lucas muddies his own themes, gets in the way of his own storytelling, and otherwise makes a hash of what he's trying to do. Right now, the point is that Anakin is a hero, the audience, especially kids, have been encouraged to identify with him through the first two prequels, the junior novelizations, the comic books, and the Clone Wars cartoon series, and he turns into a villain without much of a change in his character. He does not become a monster in order to become evil.

Yes, he becomes a monster...afterwards. That's his punishment. It's not his evil revealed. Anakin looks, acts, and comes across as heroic right up until the moment he chokes Padme and his heroism isn't much diminished even after that. When he begins his duel with Obi-wan it's still visually hard to distinguish which of the two is the true hero. Anakin never acts like a villain, because he never stops thinking of himself as a hero. He had a moment of guilt after he helps kill Mace Windu, but that's not the same as a moment of doubt. His conscience bothers him because he's turned against his former friends but not because he's turned to the Dark Side. He's violated his sense of loyalty but not his sense of right and wrong.

If anything, he's become more convinced that he's now on the side of right.

This is an amazing moral for a piece of American popular entertainment to preach to an audience that is mostly children---It's possible, kids, for you to be doing the wrong thing while you think you are doing good.

Evil is always something that comes from the Outside, it's not always the work of an Other.

Sometimes evil is the work of heroes. Sometimes evil is done by those we love and admire.

Sometimes evil is something we do.

Too bad Lucas couldn't write dialogue worthy of his own theme, but nevermind. Anakin is a tragic hero, a Macbeth not a Richard, a Brutus not an Iago. His tragedy is deepened by the fact that at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith he has become what he thinks Obi-wan has prevented him from becoming, what he believes the other Jedi are too jealous to let him be. He is not just a hero. He is the hero. Obi-wan knows this and he tries to tell him so. He has even begun to defer to his former apprentice. He's on his way to taking on the role with Anakin that he will later take on with Luke---after Vader kills him. Obi-wan sacrifices himself when he does because he knows that the job of hero now belongs to Luke. He would have sacrificed himself similarly, if not as literally, for Anakin, for the same reason. If Anakin hadn't gone over to the Dark Side, if he'd listened to Obi-wan, he'd have become the greatest Jedi ever.

If only Anakin had listened. If only he'd had more patience. If only he hadn't wanted...more.

In the one moment of emotional maturity the clunky dialogue allows Hayden Christensen to play as Anakin, Anakin admits to Padme, and to himself, his fatal flaw.

He wants more.

He is tempted by greed and vanity, the two most common temptations.

And both are temptations that come from within.

The whole Saving Padme from Death thing is a distraction, one of the ways Lucas gets in his own way.

Anakin's main problem is that he wants more.

Which is to say that his main problem is that he's human.

Like I said, this is a strange and unusual moral for an American movie these days.

Evil isn't the work of monsters.

It's the work of human beings.

Even of good ones.

Like us.

Related: Dr Pepper has some thoughts on Batman Begins.


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