Like it or not, comic books are no longer the domain of nerds and adolescents. Driven by the box-office success of adaptations of such four-color legends as Spider-Man and X-Men, Hollywood has positioned the comic-book world as a farm team for its big-screen blockbusters. It was only a matter of time, then, before the world of costumed heroes collided with the film industry’s increasingly dominant political consciousness. The result is V for Vendetta, a mildly entertaining dystopian pulp adventure weighed down by some of the most muddled political messages to land on multiplex screens in a long time. Warning: The confused ideas of this undercooked bit of popcorn subversion may cause choking.
Based on an anti-Thatcher graphic novel by comic book hermit-auteur Alan Moore, the film was written and produced by the Wachowski Brothers (Bound, The Matrix). Here, their flair for dark, elegant imagery and outlandish action is once again on display, nicely capturing the comic’s atmosphere of barely-subdued dread.
Despite the fact that the notoriously strange Moore (he is a practicing magician who claims to worship a Roman snake deity) has disowned the adaptation, the pairing of the creators is apt: Like Moore, the Wachowskis are reclusive, eccentric characters known for bringing a heady aesthetic to pulp material. V for Vendetta is certainly no exception. As with the Wachowskis’ Matrix sequels, the script is sopping wet with ponderous philosophical exchanges. For these brothers, dialog isn’t so much about clarity as it is about polysyllabic posing and flexing.
Unsurprisingly, the film’s backstory has been rigged to promote a slew of contemporary causes. Vendetta takes place in a futuristic, totalitarian Britain where, after the implosion of the U.S. and a series of bioterror attacks on major British targets, a fascist regime with theocratic overtones rules in malevolent, dictatorial style. In this future, the British Conservative Party, led by the bombastic High Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), has sprouted a pronounced authoritarian streak. Not wanting to depart from the long history of dystopian fascist states in 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, they roll out the greatest hits of futuristic fascism: revoking privacy rights, banning most art, restricting homosexual activity, disseminating lies and propaganda through the media, and generally treating the citizenry with total disdain–all in the name of God and country.
Lurking somewhere in this fog of fascist clichés is V (Hugo Weaving), the costumed vigilante whose swashbuckling anti-government exploits drive the film forward. Weaving plays V as both shadow-bound menace and zany philosopher, alternating between clashes with evildoers and mundane domestic duties–both of which can be used as fodder for his convoluted philosophical musings. Clad in a cape, a wide-brimmed hat, and a Guy Fawkes mask, he blows up public buildings and assassinates government figures, all in the name of…well, something that the movie never quite makes clear.
Ostensibly, V’s mission is one of liberty. He decries the discrimination, lack of privacy, and, eventually, outright violence committed by the government. But the Wachowskis’ script strays off on so many useless tangents that it’s hard to get worked up about V’s declamations on freedom.
The Wachowskis take every opportunity to stroke their pet issues. Government sponsored homosexual discrimination figures heavily in the film, but for all the time devoted to the subject, it provides very little significant plot movement. It’s strongly hinted that America’s downfall was caused by its military presence in Iraq. The British government uses a color-coded curfew system as a method of keeping the citizenry in check. None of these elements does much for the central mystery, but they inject themselves into the proceedings with annoying regularity.
The film seems to have a special disdain for religion, portraying the British state as a sneering den of religious hypocrisy. A government puppet figure blasts the U.S. for being “godless,” blaming America’s downfall on “God’s judgment.” In one totally outrageous moment, a priest tries to rape a young girl. In cased anyone missed the point that religious belief is just a tool for manipulation, the government continually preaches “Strength through unity, unity through faith.” The film has only sympathy, though, for those who want to keep a Koran around–provided he or she ignores its religious instruction and simply “appreciates its beauty.” Sacred texts, we are to understand, are great just as long as no one actually pays any attention to what they say.
On the subject of terrorism, the confusion reaches almost frenzied levels. Governments that attack their own people are bad, of course, but the proper response to it is apparently to–surprise–attack one’s own people. “Blowing up a building can change the world,” V says, and somehow we’re supposed to sympathize with him when he wants to use London’s subway system to blow up prominent buildings.
It would be one thing if the Wachowskis had constructed their narrative in a way that allowed organic integration of these issues. Instead, they seem to have poorly retrofitted Moore’s original story, ripping out sizable chunks of his plot to make room for their pretentious gabbing. Particularly noticeable are the changes made to Chancellor Sutler. In the movie, he’s a fire-breathing Hitler caricature, the sort of Saturday-morning cartoon villain you expect to see shaking his fist and yelling, “I’ll get you next time…” Moore’s graphic novel made him an honest believer in the necessity of fascist rule to preserve his beloved country–a far more compelling, complex enemy. Changes like this abound, and they are telling: V for Vendetta may be the first movie to come off more one-dimensional and cartoonish than a comic book.