Moviegoers want superheroes. That much is clear from the box-office blitzkrieg of everything from the Spider-Man movies to The Fantastic Four. Much less clear is what we want from them—which looks less like protection and more like liberation. Last year’s successful invigoration of the Batman movies featured a Caped Crusader battling top-down corruption; the archvillains included a ruthless law-and-order star chamber and a madman skilled at exploiting shapeless mass fear. The mutants of the blockbuster X-Men franchise fly beneath the radar of a restrictive government that essentially manufactures its own enemies. As a message moment, the scene in X2 where the teenage mutant “comes out” to his parents, only to face instant ostracism and appeals for conversion, is more blatant than anything in Brokeback Mountain.
With V for Vendetta, the contemporary superhero movie outs itself as an agent provocateur. Subversion—or at least the idea of getting away with grown-up material in the guise of greasy kid stuff—is built into the genre, with its secret identities and subterfuge and smudged parallels to current events. But if this free-swinging attack on the War on Terror is subversive, then Operation Iraqi Freedom is covert. Stoked with revolutionary fervor all the way to its concluding Malcolm X-Gloria Steinem mash-up, the Wachowski brothers’ first major project since the Matrix movies attempts the unthinkable: radical mainstream art.
It gets close enough that the Wachowskis are bound to make Bernard Goldberg’s next list of America’s enemies. Adapted from the Alan Moore-David Locke comic books (Moore asked to have his movie credit removed) and directed by James McTeigue, their V for Vendetta offers a rousing updating of Orwell and Alexandre Dumas to fascist near-future England. Having squandered its superpower on civil war, plague-stricken America now begs scraps off Britain’s table. Blighty subjects its own populace to curfews, surveillance and the absentee rule of a talking-head prime minister and his shadow government—all in response to a catastrophic terrorist attack 20 years in the past.
The thugs who patrol the streets succeed mainly in politicizing the placid populace. When they attack Evey (Natalie Portman), a lowly PA at the movie’s omnipresent FOX News clone, they drive her into the arms of her rescuer: a caped crusader known as V (Hugo Weaving). His scarred face and secret agenda hidden by a mask—the visage of Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century proto-terrorist who conspired to blow up Parliament—the swashbuckling V means to incite the citizenry to revolt, rattling the corrupt rulers with a bombing to get their attention. “People should not be afraid of their governments,” V intones in his lavish Phantom of the Opera lair. “Governments should be afraid of their people.”
Strong words, yet hardly the most incendiary of the movie’s provocations. Leading with a re-creation of Fawkes’ gunpowder affair, the movie posits that distinctions such as terrorist or freedom fighter are verdicts of the ruling powers. The name “George Washington” is invoked, but if you follow the movie’s explicit contemporary parallels—lone figure commits shattering act of violence, defies superpower, eludes capture—the tracks lead inescapably to Osama bin Laden.
This isn’t as radical-chic nutzo as it sounds. As in the Matrix movies, the Wachowskis are fascinated by the power of myth. By leading with Fawkes, they’re examining the various mythic functions of the terrorist as scapegoat, bogeyman and rallying figure, not apologizing for the Axis of Evil. At the same time, they’ve undeniably made a movie that advocates violent resistance in the face of tyranny, then identifies the tyrants using topical references so of-the-moment they take your breath. These include nods to Dick Cheney’s secret quarters, the fear-mongering properties of Asian flu and institutional hostility to gays.
It’s not always a coherent attack, as when the movie introduces Holocaust imagery into a government-conspiracy subplot. And the introduction of loaded political themes into the Wachowskis’ already crowded synthesis of pop culture, myth and philosophy sometimes scrambles their impact. Casting John Hurt as the Oz-like talking-head dictator causes all kinds of associative ripples: he not only played Winston Smith in a filmed 1984 but also a V-like rogue agent in Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend. Yet his Hitler-style ranting here seems misconceived: he’d have been scarier and more believable (and more on point) giving off Tony Blair’s warm fuzzies.
The reason these points are worth arguing, though, is that V for Vendetta brings back the kicky thrill of pop discovery that the original Matrix had. The action sequences are more exciting for being less frequent, and V’s love for Evey has the tragic grandeur that the movie version of The Phantom of the Opera so notably lacked. The late cinematographer Adrian Biddle uses color sparingly but to gorgeous effect: V’s trademark blood-red roses could have come from Michael Powell’s hothouse. And the actors have the life’s blood that Neo and his pals seemed to be missing.
Ordinarily, an actor would be hobbled spending an entire movie behind an immobile mask: Hugo Weaving’s heroic physical bearing makes it work, along with his delectably plummy line readings. It helps that he’s got a great mask, capable of expressing cruelty, wit or sorrow with a shift of the light. Whether it’s because of McTeigue’s direction, the source material or the Wachowskis’ sense of freedom from their runaway creation, this film has a romantic, operatic spirit missing from the lifeless Matrix sequels.
It’s also a Hollywood blockbuster that encourages blowing up government buildings. That gives the movie an extra shuddery, seditious allure, I confess. But it also makes me wonder how I’d have responded if the targets weren’t on foreign soil, and if the superhero theatrics weren’t so safely metaphorical. After all, we don’t just need mythic superheroes to save us from our worst imagined enemies. Sometimes we need them just to save us from ourselves.