HBO’s Watchmen is set in the universe of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel. Moore’s central characters are current and former masked vigilantes, anti-heroes, and psychopaths. While Moore’s masterpiece tackles Cold War paranoia, Damon Lindelöf puts white supremacist violence at the heart of his show. The show opens with the razing of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” in 1921. In the graphic novel, Nixon is elected to a third term and the U.S. is on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In the show, the cultural pendulum swings back the other way, as Robert Redford is elected president and institutes a policy of reparations to African Americans for events like the Tulsa Massacre.
In the graphic novel, Walter Kovacs becomes the vigilante Rorschach when he dons his trench coat and mask decorated with the shifting ink blot of a Rorschach test. Rorschach embodies a zealot’s fervor. He wars on crime with Batman’s conviction, but with no compunction about killing. Rorschach believes that drastic action must be taken against evil and immorality. He follows what 19th-century abolitionists called the “higher law.”
Abolitionists had an awkward relationship to the Constitution. The notorious Three-Fifths Compromise enshrined slavery in the nation’s founding charter. From Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward to newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison to Transcendentalist and pond enthusiast Henry David Thoreau, abolitionists turned to the trope of the higher law to escape this bind. According to this idea, God’s law is higher than man’s. While the Constitution might consider slavery legal, God considers it evil. Although we think of them as being “on the right side of history” today, abolitionists were widely considered fanatics in the 1850s.
Perhaps more than any other abolitionist, Rorschach resembles John Brown. In what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown executed five slave holders in Kansas. He also helped fugitive slaves escape to Canada. He felt called by God, like the ancient prophets, to fight the slave power. Leading a small cadre of followers, Brown seized control of the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. After a series of bizarre tactical decisions, his plan to spark a widespread slave uprising failed and Brown was eventually executed for treason. Brown became the ultimate martyr to the abolitionist cause. Unlike more pragmatic figures like Lincoln, John Brown waged a sacred crusade against evil. Brown was uncompromising; he rejected gradualism, pragmatism, and half-measures. He felt justified dispensing with the law to follow the Higher Law.
Like Brown, Rorschach becomes a martyr. Dr. Manhattan disintegrates Rorschach because the latter is determined to reveal to the world that Ozymandias staged an alien attack to end the Cold War by creating a common enemy for humanity to fight. Rorschach would rather die than keep quiet about Ozymandias’s plan.
In “The Abolitionist Imagination,” Andrew Delbanco argues that abolitionism left us a troubling legacy. The trope of the higher law and the abolitionist fervor to defeat evil leaves no room for compromise, negotiation, or gradualism. While the logic of the higher law is inflexible, its content is infinitely flexible. The KKK follow a higher law diametrically opposed to the one cherished by abolitionists, but both groups justify violence for the sake of their cause.
Inspired by Rorschach, the Seventh Kavalry are a fictionalized version of the Klan. The Seventh Kavalry are terrorists who believe they are carrying on Rorschach’s legacy by killing cops. Lindelöf seems to be satirizing misguided fans’ love for Rorschach. This is a world of masks: like super heroes and super villains, the Kavalry are the eerie doppelgangers of the masked cops they fight.
The show’s third episode features a fascinating encounter between Angela Abar, an undercover cop known as Sister Night, who survived an assassination attempt by the Kavalry, and Laurie Blake, who has forsaken her identity as the heroine Silk Specter in favor of becoming an FBI agent on the anti-vigilante task force. Laurie asks Angela, “What’s the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante?” When Angela replies that she doesn’t know, Laurie says, “Me neither.” Laurie has totally disavowed her past as a costumed heroine and now sees masked vigilantes as dangerous, even when their intentions are good.
The latest installment in the epic Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi, has been met with a potent mix of acclaim and outrage. While some fans are dissatisfied with Finn and Rose’s detour to Canto Bight or the killing off of Supreme Leader Snoke, the film’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker has infuriated many fans the most. In contrast to his portrayal in the original Expanded Universe of novels, comics, and video games, Last Jedi portrays Luke as mired in depression. One of the film’s strength’s is that virtually all of the characters with significant screen time–Poe, Finn, Rose, Rey, Kylo, and Luke himself–develop over the course of the narrative. Last Jedi achieves this with Luke’s character by pitting him against his own sense of failure, inadequacy, and imposter syndrome. The narrative pay off when Luke finally does reclaim his responsibility as the (presumably) only living Jedi master is huge. Yet, whiny Luke wallowing in self-imposed exile has scandalized many diehard fans.
Serious Star Wars fans may be especially disturbed by this portrayal of Luke because it so starkly departs from his portrayal in the original EU. Although he is written slightly differently by various authors, Luke’s core trait in the EU is his undying faith in the Force. This version of Luke is not without flaws, but he is consistently heroic and self-sacrificing and his perseverance in his mission to restore the Jedi order is unflagging–hard to reconcile with the character in Last Jedi. Luke’s resilience is impressive given the number of friends he loses in battle and apprentices who defect to the dark side. In the early days of the New Republic, Luke not only faces the brilliant Grand Admiral Thrawn, but also fights a clone of himself and the insane clone of Jedi master Jorus C’baoth. During the brutal invasion of the Yuuzhan Vong, Luke suffers the deaths of Chewbacca and his nephew, Anakin Solo, as well as slaughter on a massive scale. Luke almost dies in the climactic battle with the Yuuzhan Vong’s Supreme Overlord Shmirra, but soon the galaxy is again torn apart by another civil war. Luke’s nephew Jacen falls to the dark side and kills his uncle’s wife, Mara Jade. After helping save the galaxy from his nephew, Luke voluntarily accepts exile from Coruscant because anti-Jedi sentiment is running high. Luke and his son Ben discover an ancient, parasitic dark side entity named Abeloth, who almost kills Luke twice and wreaks havoc on the galaxy. Despite decades of trauma and desolation, Luke never loses faith in the Force, the Jedi order, or his friends. Two EU storylines in particular serve as important parallels to Last Jedi: the Jedi Academy trilogy and the nine-book Legacy of the Force arc.
The Jedi Academy trilogy depicts Luke’s training of a new generation of Jedi. Luke’s efforts go awry when the ghost of Exar Kun, a long-dead Sith lord haunting the temple on Yavin 4, begins manipulating his apprentices. This parallels Snoke’s nefarious influence on Kylo Ren. Whereas in Last Jedi Kylo destroys the temple and murders the apprentices who won’t join him, in the Jedi Academy trilogy one of Luke’s apprentices, Kyp Durron, steals an imperial superweapon, the Sun Crusher, and destroys the entire Carida system. Once Exar Kun’s spirit is destroyed, however, Kyp realizes his mistake and flies the Sun Crusher into a black hole as an act of penance. Kyp survives by jettisoning himself in a message pod. In later novels, Luke defends Kyp from those who want him imprisoned or executed, and Kyp himself eventually becomes a Jedi master. Despite the structural similarities, the differences between the EU version and the film version could not be more extreme. In the former, Kyp is rehabilitated, justifying Luke’s faith in him. In the latter, Luke is so shattered by Kylo’s betrayal that he abandons the galaxy and retreats from the Force itself.
Jacen Solo’s characterization in The Legacy of the Force storyline parallels Kylo Ren’s in Last Jedi. Both Jacen and Kylo are Luke’s nephews; both explicitly seek to emulate Darth Vader. While Jacen skillfully maneuvers his way into power over the Galactic Alliance, Kylo seizes control of the First Order after killing Snoke. Jacen’s fall to the dark side is even more disheartening than Kylo’s. While Kylo fell to the dark side during a vulnerable period before he was fully trained, Jacen was not only a Jedi knight, but played a pivotal role in saving the galaxy from the Vong. Kylo’s fall is lamentable, but not unprecedented; Jacen’s fall was nearly unfathomable given his many years of Force training and his prior heroism. Jacen’s betrayal would be like Cyclops turning against Xavier or Nightwing against Batman. Although Luke is grieved by Jacen’s fall to the dark side it doesn’t prevent him from leading the other Jedi against his nephew.
Because of the nature of mass market publication and fans’ unquenchable thirst for new content the EU reflects a cyclical view of history in which the galaxy is ceaselessly plunged in and out of war, in which neither the Empire nor the Sith are permanently defeated, but also in which Luke Skywalker never surrenders. Last Jedi‘s portrayal of Luke violates our heroic archetypes, exemplified not only by the EU version of Luke, but by Batman, Superman, the Avengers, Neo, the X-Men, and the warriors in Seven Samurai. These heroes fight to the bitter end. Yet, one character in Last Jedi maintains stoic resolve despite catastrophic losses. While Luke eventually overcomes his despair to use a Force projection to distract Kylo long enough for the Resistance to escape, Leia epitomizes the heroic determination we expected of Luke. Leia has experienced at least as much–if not more–trauma as Luke: her son has fallen to the dark side and murdered her husband; the First Order has destroyed the New Republic; her twin brother has vanished. Despite all of this, Leia embodies hope for the Resistance. She even survives a direct hit to the bridge of her command ship, using the Force to pull herself back to the airlock. One of the best parts of Last Jedi‘s writing is the return of wise-cracking Leia. Whereas The Force Awakens portrays Leia as a bit deadened by heartache, Last Jedi gives Leia back the sharp wit that made her such a great character in the original trilogy.
Portraying Leia as the archetypal hero and Luke as a flawed man who overcomes his self-loathing is part of the film’s larger feminist stance. The Luke/Leia pairing is one of four male/female pairings, in which the men make rash decisions and the women hold steadily to the right course. The other three pairings are Rey/Kylo, Holdo/Poe, and Rose/Finn. Rey resists Kylo’s offer to join him on the dark side (her faith in Kylo mirrors Luke’s faith in Vader); Holdo sacrifices herself to the save the Resistance, while Poe makes a series of reckless decisions that lead to the deaths of many Resistance fighters; Rose prevents Finn from deserting and later saves him from needlessly sacrificing himself.
Last Jedi ends with the Luke fans expected from the beginning. Luke’s heroics in the final sequence don’t compensate for his absence over the previous decades, but that’s not the point. By the end of the film, Luke has truly become a Jedi master and one with the Force.
The third season of Fargo ends with a conversation between protagonist Gloria Burgle and antagonist V.M. Varga in a Homeland Security detention facility. Gloria expects that Varga will soon be arrested and charged with a series of white collar crimes, whereas Varga is confident that his release is imminent. Gloria appeals to hard facts–what really happened–while Varga describes narrative’s power to shape facts through (mis)perception.
This season of Fargo feels much more attuned to Christopher Nolan’s work than the previous two seasons. Varga’s pitch forks-and-torches monologue evokes Christopher Nolan’s Bane and his mantra–that “perception of reality becomes reality”–is reminiscent of Nolan’s Memento. Varga succeeds in covering up his crimes throughout the season by creating the appearance of patterns that aren’t there, such as a serial killer with two M.O.s.
This theme is especially relevant in the context of the “fake news” controversy that has afflicted us since the 2016 presidential election. Varga acts under the assumption that whatever story you put out there becomes true, which is precisely the effect that fake news or propaganda more generally has on the populace. When Varga claims that the lunar landing was faked, he is observing that the event is only “true” insofar as the image of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon was disseminated through television.
The final conversation between Gloria and Varga builds on one of Fargo’s critical moves. The show inverts the central trope of detective fiction, so that instead of the audience following the detective as he or she solves the crime, we watch the characters try to piece together events which we have already witnessed. The third season especially is a sustained exercise in dramatic irony. We already know every detail of the numerous murders throughout the season, as we watch the police try to makes sense of the strange circumstances and seemingly contradictory evidence. Like the show’s first two seasons and the original Coen Brothers film which inspired it, Fargo’s third season suggests that what is true often strains credulity. Human motivations are so tangled and people behave so irrationally that the truth is generally implausible, grotesque, and bizarre.
Although Gloria has managed to uncover Varga’s crimes, even her knowledge isn’t completely accurate. Gloria believes that Varga ordered the murder of Emmit Stussy, although we know that Varga wasn’t involved. Although Gloria closely resembles her counterparts from the original film and the first two seasons of the show–all whip smart female officers hampered by overconfident, unintelligent male superiors–her character is even more plagued by the difficulty of discovering what really happened.
The finale ends, like the ending of Inception, without revealing whether Varga or Gloria is correct. This puts us, the audience, in the uncomfortable position of the characters for the first time all season. Now we have to decide what happened without the omniscience that we have heretofore enjoyed. This ambiguous ending works well because both Gloria and Varga are right. Gloria is right that there is a fundamental difference between events, especially crimes, which “really happened,” and those that are only supposed, conjectured, assumed, or alleged. Yet, Varga is correct that, in practice, (mis)perception creates narratives which become “true” insofar as they are widely accepted.
The animated film Megamind offers a coded analysis of racial passing, as the clever, but largely unsuccessful, villain, discovers that he is actually better suited to being a hero. While the film conveys a number of themes common to children’s movies, such as the importance of being yourself and the value of friendship, it also serves as a reflection on racial passing.
Racial Passing in American Literature
“Passing” generally refers to the attempt by a person of one race to pose as a member of another. Typically, black figures pass as white. Ellen Craft passed as a white man, with her darker-skinned husband posing as her slave, to escape bondage. The protagonist of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man passes as white after witnessing a lynching. In Nella Larsen’s novel Passing Clare Kendry passes as white, marrying a white man who has no idea that she is “black.” Sometimes, however, white people pass as black. Rachel Dolezal, for instance, controversially passed as black while serving as the president of the N.A.A.C.P. In both history and fiction, the issue of passing suggests the fluidity of racial identity which is socially constructed and performed through external signs. Megamind can be read not just as offering a generic message about being yourself, but more specifically as a parable about the temptation to pass.
Megamind as a Re-telling of Superman
An alien from another planet, Megamind has light blue skin. Megamind’s identity as an alien and his phenotypic difference metaphorically liken him to African Americans, especially since all of the film’s other characters are white. His nemesis, Metro Man, possesses roughly the same powers as Superman, but with an all-white costume. Metro Man represents the idealization of whiteness in American society. From childhood, Megamind is forced to occupy the role of villain in relation to Metro Man’s hero, despite signs that he is not suited for it. If Metro Man wears all white, then Megamind must, inevitably, don black. An ingenious inventor, Megamind is much more creative than Metro Man, who relies on his super strength, ability to fly, and laser vision. The hero-villain relation between Metro Man and Megamind reflects the binary opposition between whiteness and blackness, in which white is always superior and black is always inferior. Megamind embraces his assigned role, pitting himself against Metro Man in an ongoing feud. Megamind resembles Lex Luthor, except that he really is not evil. He enjoys puzzles and competition against Metro Man more than he wants to actually hurt anyone.
The film opens with Megamind having captured Roxanne Richie–based on Lois Lane–for the umpteenth time and Metro Man ready to save her. Except this time, Metro Man uses the opportunity to fake his own death. He is tired of being a super hero and wants to become a musician. One can read Metro Man’s decision as a colossal denial of responsibility. Should he not use his powers to continue saving people? Yet, when one interprets Metro Man as embodying the idealization of whiteness, then his decision to abdicate his role as the defender of Metro City seems a salutary attempt to divest himself of the illusory perfection with which his white skin invests him. Metro Man’s retirement from super hero status represents a white man’s resistance to white privilege.
With Metro Man gone, Megamind takes possession of the city. Yet, beyond moving into city hall and stealing some art, his deviousness is quickly exhausted. He simply lacks interest in committing actual evil. The film draws attention to Megamind’s “blackness” through a red and blue poster of Megamind that parodies the Barack Obama Hope poster. The parallel is cemented with the phrase “No You Can’t” under Megamind’s face, parodying Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign slogan. Megamind is further associated with African American men by the fact that he grows up in prison. An orphan from another planet, Megamind ends up living in jail, taking the bus to school every day. This fanciful arrangement metaphorically captures the situation of millions of black men who are incarcerated at a young age. Megamind’s blue skin and orange jump suit equally brands him as a threat to his nice, white class mates.
Racial Passing and Romantic Relationships
Megamind is in love with Roxanne Richie, but can only spend time with her by adopting the identity of the white, intellectual Bernard. Megamind uses a holo-projecting watch to achieve this illusion. Passing as white allows Megamind to begin dating Roxanne, who is genuinely attracted to his personality when it is cloaked in whiteness. While Megamind uses technology to pass, others do so because their skin is light enough to make their racial identity ambiguous. Megamind’s watch malfunctions, however, during a date with Roxanne. The illusory white image of Bernard disappears and Roxanne finds herself kissing a bald, blue Megamind. She shrieks with alarm, as the film dramatizes the moment of recognition when the white partner first realizes that her partner is only passing for white.
In the second half of the film, Megamind and Roxanne get to know each other on more honest terms and renew their romantic relationship. Roxanne gets to know the “real” Megamind, discovering that he is not the villain she thought he was. She helps Megamind stop Titan, an immature and misguided man who is accidentally given Metro Man’s powers.
Megamind resorts to racial passing again, however, in an attempt to stop Titan. Using his watch, Megamind cloaks himself in Metro Man’s image. Posing as Metro Man, Megamind initially scares Titan away, until he perceives that it is only Megamind in disguise. Megamind’s idiosyncratic speech gives him away: he pronounces “Metro City” as “Metrocity” (rhyming with “atrocity”). Megamind’s curious speech patterns–pronouncing “melancholy” as “mell-onk-olly” and “hello” as “oh-lo”–signify the way that minorities often depart from Standard English.
As Megamind passed as the white Bernard to gain Roxanne’s affection, so he passes as the white Metro Man to intimidate Titan. In both cases, however, Megamind’s passing is discovered and he is forced to face the situation in his own skin. The film, therefore, treats passing as an unstable solution to one’s problems, implying that a black person passing for white will inevitably be discovered. Megamind defeats Titan using his own courage and ingenuity, demonstrating that passing is unnecessary.
The film ends with Metro City honoring Megamind for saving them from Titan. Megamind and Roxanne dance to Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” reinforcing the film’s theme of racial passing. In his attempt to remove the pigment from his skin, Michael Jackson embodies the anxieties surrounding passing. The film uses the double meaning of “bad” as evil or cool to humorous effect, as Megamind and Minion argue over what is “good for bad.”
Tony Stark practices neo-paganism and the force he worships is technology. Religious systems mediate power relations. Paganism is a religious system which mediates power through specialized knowledge and ritual. It is polytheistic, acknowledging various local deities, such as the god of a particular river or mountain, whose strength is limited and contingent. Unlike in monotheistic religions, pagan deities have a limited sphere of influence. This attitude is recorded in 1 Kings 20, which describes a war between ancient Israelites and Syrians. After losing a battle to the Israelites “the servants of the king of Syria said to him, ‘Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they'” (1 Kings 20:23). The servants of the king of Syria reason, quite correctly according to pagan logic, that the Israelites’ god could not possibly be equally strong in the hills and the plain. According to paganism, the ultimate power in the universe is beyond these local deities–an impersonal force upon which a skilled priest or sorcerer might draw. Paganism is also transactional. Ancient near eastern communities worshiped Baal as a storm god who would bring rain and good harvests if he received the proper sacrifice in the proper way. This is why specialized ritual knowledge is so important: if the sacrifice is not prepared properly, then the god will be angry rather than pleased. Pagan societies grant special status to shamans or priests because of their esoteric ritual knowledge.
As paganism requires precision, so do computer-based technologies. As a small mistake in a ceremony might provoke a god’s wrath, so the wrong key stroke can botch a string of computer code. Improperly regulated electricity can fry circuits. Atmospheric disturbances can disrupt satellite signals. Too much heat can cause servers to melt and systems to crash. Thor prepares us for this concept of neo-paganism based on technology when, in the first Thor movie, he explains to his astrophysicist girlfriend, Jane, that “your ancestors called it ‘magic’ and you call it ‘science,’ but I come from a place where they are one and the same thing.” Science is “magical” because it achieves the seemingly impossible; magic is “scientific” because it is governed by precise laws.
The Cult of Technology
Tony Stark is a priest in the cult of technology. Like any priest, he has specialized knowledge, in this case of mechanical engineering, weapons manufacturing, and computer programming. As paganism promises that the power of the gods can be summoned to enable humans to defeat their enemies, so Tony harnesses the power of technology to defeat his foes. The religious quality of Tony’s faith in technology is signaled early in Avengers: Age of Ultron by a shot of a bumper sticker which says, “Jarvis is my copilot” a parody of the evangelical Christian bumper sticker saying “Jesus is my copilot.” Jarvis, a computer program named after Tony’s father Howard’s butler, represents the remarkable potential of technology. Jarvis implements Tony’s ideas, running endless calculations and simulations to perfect the Iron Man suit and Tony’s other inventions. Tony has faith in Jarvis even when he and the other Avengers fail to defeat Ultron.
In almost every Marvel movie, Tony performs some kind of ritual re-calibration. In Iron Man 2, for instance, Tony creates a new element to power the reactor in his suit by erecting a “prismatic accelerator” consisting of a circular metal coil, a prism, and a laser. While Tony is experimenting rather than performing a previously established ritual, the scene captures the neo-paganism in Tony’s relation to technology: once the proper formula has been enacted, power is received.
Neo-Paganism in Age of Ultron
In Age of Ultron, Tony and Dr. Banner inadvertently create the villain, Ultron, in their attempt to create an integrated AI system capable of global defense. Ultron becomes a terrorist, however, when he concludes that humanity would be better off dead and that machines are the way of the evolutionary future. After Ultron first goes haywire, Thor blames Tony for playing with forces beyond his comprehension. This is the greatest danger of neo-paganism–unleashing power one cannot control.
Strangely, instead of learning from his apparent mistake–that AI is unpredictable, that something will always go wrong with overly ambitious technologies–Tony doubles-down and convinces Dr. Banner to download Jarvis’s consciousness into the body which Ultron created for himself. Dr. Banner initially suggests they are repeating the same mistake–“this is where it all went wrong”–and Captain America accuses Tony of not knowing what he is doing. Yet, this decision is not merely Tony being stubborn, but touches his fundamental faith in technology. Tony believes his failure was due to a mistaken calibration, as a pagan priest would feel if a ritual were conducted improperly. It would be as inconceivable for Tony to accept that technology could fail completely, that it would be incapable of solving his problem, as it was counter-intuitive for the Syrians to think that the Israelites’ god could defeat their god both in the hills and the plains. Tony’s logic reflects neo-paganism: technology will grant him the power that he needs so long as he performs the correct calculations and calibrations.
The Cult of Technology vs. American Civil Religion
Tony’s seemingly irrational decision, which is perfectly rational following the logic of paganism, leads to one of his many clashes with Captain America. Captain America, of course, is angry because he believes Tony is being reckless and stubborn, but the real conflict between Tony and Cap is religious. If Tony is a neo-pagan worshiper of technology, then Cap embodies American civil religion. While most dictators operate under the premise that “might makes right,” Captain America epitomizes the American ideal that “right makes might”–that good will triumph over evil because it is good. Cap’s courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice, along with his belief in freedom, democracy, truth, and justice encapsulates American ideas of heroism. Captain America was created to fight the Nazis, and his mission reflects the idea derived from the Puritans that America has a special mission in the world. The serum that transformed Steve Rodgers into Captain America not only enhanced his physical strength, but it also multiplied his virtues, making him essentially incorruptible. Tony tells Cap, “I don’t trust a guy without a dark side,” but purity and righteousness are central to American civil religion. Cap will always choose duty over love, as he does in Captain America: The First Avenger when he crashes a bomber into the ice to prevent casualties, even though it means losing Peggy.
A New Pantheon
If Captain America is a kind of saint, the Vision is both literal and figurative deus ex machina: he is a literal “god from the machine” as he emerges from the “regeneration cradle” which Ultron uses to create a body from synthetic organic tissue and vibranium and into which Tony and Dr. Banner download Jarvis. He also serves the typical deus ex machina function by solving a seemingly unsolvable plot problem–how the Avengers will defeat Ultron. The Vision is inexplicably able to lock Ultron out of the internet. Had the Avengers been unable to sever Ultron’s connection to the web, he could have replicated himself infinitely.
The Vision and Ultron function much like pagan gods, each possessing significant power, but lacking omnipotence. If technology in the abstract is a potentially unlimited source of power, then the Vision is an avatar of that impersonal force. The Vision is identified as divine when, in attempting to describe himself, he says, “I am” before trailing off, an allusion to Yahweh’s self-definition as “I am” to Moses in Exodus 3. Yet, the Vision is neither omniscient nor omnipotent; his power is great, but limited, like Zeus’s or Thor’s.
If the Vision is a just, benevolent deity willing to help humanity and even feels compassion toward Ultron, then Ultron is a wrathful deity intent on destroying humanity. Each of them manifests the power of technology for good and evil. Ultron is fond of quoting the bible and comparing his actions to stories of God’s judgment like Noah’s Flood. Ultron’s desire to destroy the Avengers, particularly his creator Tony, reflects the parricidal conflict in which younger pagan gods overthrow older ones. In Greek mythology, the Titan Kronos overthrew his father Uranus. Kronos was, in turn, overthrown by his son, Zeus. Ultron says, “Everyone creates the thing they dread” and suggests that human life is an agonistic struggle between generations, as people give birth to children “designed to supplant them, to help them end.” Ultron’s ultimate plan is to annihilate humanity by raising a massive hunk of earth into the air and then allowing it to crash back to the surface like a meteor strike. He is attracted to an image of “the world made clean for the new man to rebuild.” Ultron perceives himself as the new god out to destroy the old pantheon–the Avengers. Age of Ultron relies on the idea of neo-paganism in its portrayal of clashes between figures of god-like power.
This post seeks to do with Arrested Development what Alan Jacobs does with Flight of the Conchords here and what Paul Fry does with Tony the Tow Truck here and here and here
As one of the seminal texts of the early twenty-first century, Arrested Development is fertile ground for readings from a number of critical vantage points. By way of preface, let me remark that one might conduct a robust structuralist reading of Arrested Development. The entire show is clearly built on a series of binaries—individual/community, George/Oscar, Lucille Bluth/Lucille Austero, Bluth/Sitwell, California/Arizona, etc. These binaries, of course, are always deconstructing themselves. George and Oscar, for instance, are mutually constitutive of each other, constantly replacing and being mistaken for each other. However, I will allow others to explore this avenue in favor of pursuing less arid interpretive possibilities. Similarly, Buster’s mistaken belief that the blue on the map corresponds to land, as well as Gob and Michael’s failed attempt to fool Japanese investors with a neighborhood of miniature model homes, reveals Arrested Development’s engagement with Korzybski’s claim that “the map is not the territory” and Baudrillard’s still more radical claim that in the age of simulacra, “the territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it.” Yet, I will not belabor a postructuralist approach either. Instead, I will adopt an intersectional approach that accounts for race, gender, sexuality, and disability.
Blackness and Masculinity in Arrested Development
In its insistent erasure of blackness, Arrested Development participates in the mainstream literary tradition of the American Renaissance. As Toni Morrison observes of Moby-Dick, blackness in Arrested Development is “the shadow of the presence from which the text has fled.” All of the major—and virtually all of the minor—characters are white. The show is both fantasy and nightmare of white America: the rise and fall of the Bluth company stands for the unraveling of the American Dream, represented by home ownership. The shoddy workmanship of the model home in which the Bluths live reflects white anxiety that their once uncontested dominance is being undermined in an increasingly pluralistic world. Yet, blackness is an absent presence (or present absence) throughout Arrested Development. The rare African American character—Carl Weathers playing himself—offers insight into the show’s construction of blackness.
Weathers is most famous for playing Apollo Creed in the Rocky franchise. Although Weathers appears in Arrested Development as himself, constant attention is drawn to his reputation as an actor by Tobias, who wants to take acting lessons from the celebrity. This allows us to follow the logic of intertextuality and read Weathers’ portrayal in Arrested Development as an inverted, parodic version of Apollo Creed. In other words, if Creed embodies (and critiques) the myth of the black savage, then Weathers as depicted in Arrested Development is a trickster figure.
Apollo Creed’s name stands in ironic contradiction to his persona: while Creed epitomizes physical strength, ferocity, and raw sexual prowess, his name evokes art and intellect. “Apollo” obviously alludes to the Greek god of art, music, reason, and poetry, while “Creed” evokes a system of belief. Apollo is a god of light, yet Apollo Creed is black. Apollo Creed’s name is a misnomer, which can be read as simultaneously subverting and re-inscribing the binary opposition which aligns whiteness with reason and blackness with physicality. Creed’s character recalls black boxing champions from Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali, all of whom had to contend with the myth of black savagery and the long history of white males projecting their own sexual exploitation of black women onto black men. As Gail Bederman has argued, depictions of Jack Johnson demonstrate the transition from a Victorian ethos of manliness to a modernist ideal of masculinity. During Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, black men were portrayed by many white Southerners as rapacious and brutal. The assertion that a black man had raped a white woman served as the standard pretext for lynching. Creed’s characterization as a physically powerful and sublimely confident black male both reflects and defies this discursive tradition. Weathers’ portrayal of Creed serves as what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the “dialogic background” against which Weathers’ portrayal of himself in Arrested Development defines itself (one might pursue of similar line of inquiry in terms of the contrast between Henry Winkler’s role as the Fonz on Happy Days and his portrayal of the Bluths’ incompetent lawyer, Barry Zuckerkorn; Barry is constantly disclosing the homoerotic energy that is always already present in the Fonz’s behavior).
Weathers cons Tobias into paying him $1,100 for acting lessons. He recapitulates the smooth-tongued trickster figure who, in the oppressive regime of the plantation, creatively contrives ways to deceive the white master. Tobias plays the role of the white-master-as-buffoon, who (temporarily) fails to perceive Weathers’ chicanery. If Apollo Creed is a triumphant, albeit, ultimately reifying, assertion of black masculinity, Weathers-as-himself deploys the trope of the trickster figure and re-inscribes the image of African Americans as fundamentally dishonest, lazy, and manipulative. All of the advice which Weathers gives Tobias revolves around getting a good deal—“He always buys his cars at police auction.” When Lindsay works briefly at a restaurant, Carl insists that they take advantage of her employee discount. Weathers incarnates the white paranoia that the black masses are economic parasites living large off the welfare state.
Gender proves as productive a lens as race. The relationship between Lindsay and Maeby stages intra-feminist disagreements. Lindsay is a parody of the paradigmatic second-wave feminist (white, upper-middle class, educated, etc.). She is liberal and politically active, hosting numerous charity events for various causes, including anti-circumcision, vegetarianism, illiteracy, freedom of speech, and environmental protection, yet only cares about these causes insofar as they garner her attention. Maeby rebels against her mother’s care-free parenting attitude by feigning interest in traditional signifiers of femininity. When Lindsay suggests that Maeby get a tattoo, Maeby expresses her desire to star in beauty pageants.
George Michael’s lack of pronounced “masculine” traits is a recurring theme throughout Arrested Development. When Gob loses the “legs” for his sawing-a-woman-in-half magic trick (“Two chicks curl up in a box; one’s the head; one’s the legs”), George Michael fills in. George Michael’s masculinity is not recognizable through biological traits alone—his legs are hairless—but only through performance. As Judith Butler has demonstrated, gender is a parodic performance, not a stable essence or a physiological fact. George Michael enacts masculinity by wearing a muscle suit belonging to the Adam costume for the “Living Classics” pageant, in which George, Sr. dresses as God and Buster dresses as Adam from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of the creation.
Arrested Development and Psychoanalysis
From a psychoanalytic perspective, Arrested Development is a tour de force of neurosis, from Tobias’s repression of his homosexuality to Lindsay’s narcissism to various Oedipal configurations. The incest motif between Lucille and Buster is pervasive throughout the show. George, Sr. remarks that the doctors found “claw marks” on Lucille’s uterus when Buster was born and that he spent eleven months in the womb. Buster has a romantic relationship with a woman who shares his mother’s first name. While Freud’s interpretation of puns—“loose seal” vs “Lucille”—and, of course, the notion of the “Freudian slip” are entirely relevant here, we will not pursue them at length. Perhaps less obviously, Gob’s character is also defined in Oedipal terms: he is bent on replacing his father as president of the Bluth Company, despite his desire to avoid actual work at all costs, and he unknowingly flirts with his mother at a restaurant while posing as a waiter.
While the Freudian overtones of Lucille and Buster’s relationship are obvious, the Freudian undertones of Michael and George Michael’s relationship are more subtle, but no less critical. Michael stands as the superego in relation to George Michael’s ego, with Maeby serving as the id. Maeby embodies George Michael’s pleasure principle, constantly urging him to break the dictates of the superego, or Michael. George Michael implicitly equates Maeby with the id that drives him to defy the Law of the Father when she kisses him in order to scandalize her mother. When George Michael hears the sirens of the police boats approaching the Bluth yacht to arrest George, Sr., George Michael exclaims, “I knew it was illegal,” referring to his kiss with Maeby. Kissing Maeby ignites a longing in George Michael to break the incest taboo. This tension is sustained until it is revealed that Lindsay was adopted and that George Michael and Maeby are not actually cousins. Moreover, the death of Michael’s wife/George Michael’s mother has led to a collapse of the typical Oedipus Complex. Because of his mother’s absence, George Michael’s entrance into an agonistic relationship with his father is delayed. Michael is too attached to his son for George Michael’s healthy development. George Michael is fixed at the anal stage of psychosexual development, never entering the phallic stage. This explains George Michael’s compulsive neatness and minute observation of rules.
Similarly, George, Sr.’s baldness, in contrast to his twin Oscar’s full head of hair, reflects castration anxiety. When George shaves Oscar’s head and Oscar is mistaken for George and arrested, Oscar experiences the same castration anxiety when his hair fails to grow back. It goes without saying that the Banana Stand and corresponding banana suit worn by several different characters at different times is a phallic symbol. Michael’s decision to burn down the banana stand to spite his father is, in fact, an attempt to castrate his father and claim control of the Bluth dynasty.
Arrested Development and Postcolonial Theory
Even more than psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory provides revelatory insight into Arrested Development. George, Sr. built houses in Iraq for Saddam Hussein, acting under the auspices of the C.I.A. The Bluth empire was built, therefore, with profits from Iraq, even as the company cloaked the activities of American intelligence operations for the purpose of the neo-colonial subjugation of a foreign nation-state. Not only is the Bluths’ bourgeois lifestyle funded by the profits from their real estate corporation, but the show deploys a postcolonial critique of the global division of labor. Lucille’s housekeeper, Luce, is constantly in the background, drawing attention to the fact that the Bluths’ socio-economic status relies on impoverished Latin American workers. Lucille’s first-world status is so entrenched that at a telenovela awards ceremony, she believes that the male attendees in their tuxedos must be waiters: “A sea of waiters and no one’s taking a drink order.”
George, Sr.’s corporate empire began with a single banana stand. Yet, the Bluths’ adopted Korean son, Annyong, reveals that George, Sr. actually acquired the banana stand from Annyong’s biological grandfather. The Bluth fortune is built on the exploitation of a Korean migrant. Moreover, for a school pep rally, Annyong is cast as Emperor Hirohito—“man who orders strike on Pearl Harbor”—dramatizing the reification of the Oriental Other. The school interpellates Annyong into an Orientalist discursive order by casting him as Emperor Hirohito, despite the fact that he is Korean, rather than Japanese. This interpellation obscures the significant cultural differences between Japan and Korea, promoting a single, homogenous Asian Other, upon whom all fears and hatred can be projected. The historical irony is that Korea suffered far more from Japan’s military aggression during World War II than the U.S. The school, of course, recapitulates the very same logic of the propaganda campaign used by the U.S. during World War II. Annyong, however, unsettles the seemingly neat distinction between colonizer and colonized by performing what Homi Bhabha calls “mimicry”: Annyong avoids playing the role of Emperor Hirohito by claiming the role of Uncle Sam. A Korean boy in an Uncle Sam costume simultaneously mimics and mocks the figure of the patriotic American. The uncanny semblance of Annyong’s assimilation into American culture, embodied by Uncle Sam, reveals nationalism to be a performance, rather than an essence.
Arrested Development and Disability Studies
Beyond its engagement with the postcolonial, Arrested Development touches the central concerns of disability studies. Michael Bluth is a classic example of what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls the “normate subject.” The normate is white, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied. The normate is the ideal—and nonexistent—subject position against which all others are found deficient. As the protagonist of Arrested Development, Michael is positioned as the sun around which the other characters orbit, even if they don’t realize it, and the only sane character. He is the one with whom the audience sympathizes, re-inscribing notions of racial and gender hierarchies, as well as standards of heteronormativity and able-bodiedness.
Arrested Development relies heavily on images of physical disability. George, Sr. uses his friend, J. Walter Weatherman, who has only one arm, to frighten his children and teach them “lessons.” These lessons consist of J. Walter Weatherman’s prosthetic arm being violently torn off because the children ignored their father in some way. Michael, Gob, and Buster all employ J. Walter Weatherman in various attempts to use their father’s strategy against him. By staging moments of violence resulting in physical disability, Arrested Development re-inscribes the able-bodied assumption that to be disabled is a catastrophe. Yet, as we shall see, the show is deeply ambivalent, rather than unequivocally hostile, toward disability. This is readily apparent when Buster’s hand is bitten off by a seal. The show reveals the able-bodied logic undergirding it when Buster mourns the loss of his hand and when he repeatedly injures himself and others with his prosthetic hand, which is a metal claw. Arrested Development also dramatizes the process of what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls “enfreakment”: Buster’s family is afraid of and repulsed by the spectacle of his physical disability. He becomes an object of the gaze, rather than treated as a person. Filled with self-loathing, Buster screams, “I’m a monster.” Yet, Buster eventually adapts to his prosthetic hand.
Maggie Lizer exemplifies the trope of the disability con, in which an able-bodied character feigns disability. Myriad examples of the disability con can be found throughout literary history, from Black Guinea in The Confidence-Man to Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects to Jack Teller in The Score to Chip Sanders in The Ex. Maggie is a lawyer who pretends to be blind to gain sympathy from the judge and jury. Maggie later pretends to be pregnant—a state blurring the line between ability and disability—as part of a plan to manipulate Michael. The disability con is a classic example of what Mitchell and Snyder call “narrative prosthesis,” the use of disability as an essential plot device without which the story could not be told. Yet, it also reveals the abled-bodied phobia toward disability: the audience is relieved that Maggie is only pretending to be blind, rather than actually suffering such a horrific fate. This conception of blindness as a fate worse than death dates at least as far back as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.
Michael’s one-time love interest Rita reveals the illegibility of neurodiversity to neurotypical characters. Virtually every member of the Bluth family is delighted with Rita (partly because she is rich), failing to perceive her neurodiversity because it has not been sufficiently marked for them. Although much of what she says seems odd and her behavior often violates social norms, they do not mind because they do not realize that she is neurodiverse. They attribute any strangeness about Rita to her Britishness, failing to realize that the “MRF” on her bracelet stands for “mentally retarded female.” Rita’s bracelet depicts the attempt by the medical establishment to categorize people into “normal” and “abnormal.” Yet, because her neurodiversity is insufficiently marked, the Bluth family merely adapt themselves to the quirks of her behavior. Arrested Development, therefore, mobilizes a version of the social model of disability, which claims that disabilities only exist in the context of particular social structures which fail to facilitate equal access for people of all kinds of physical and mental difference. Lindsay only feels that Rita’s style—wearing clothes inside out—is childish when she is told that Rita is “retarded.” Maeby only feels that Rita’s suggestion for her screen play—that two characters should walk across the ocean—is absurd when she learns that Rita is not “normal.” Michael believes that he is in love with Rita until George Michael shows him a video of her attempting to eat fake fruit.
Arrested Development and Queer Theory
Tobias exemplifies Robert McRuer’s claim that compulsory able-bodiedness is often linked with heteronormativity. While Tobias represses his homosexuality throughout Arrested Development, his emotions simply cannot be contained in an economy of heterosexual desire. Not only do Tobias and Lindsay fail to have sex on several occasions, but Tobias’s self-help book, The Man Inside Me, becomes a classic in the local gay community. A central interpretive question is the extent to which Tobias’s obliviousness to his homoerotic feelings is genuine or performative. In some ways, of course, this is a false dichotomy, as authenticity is merely another kind of performance. Bracketing that question, it is no coincidence that of all the characters it is Tobias who experiences temporary paralysis. After his hair implants afflict him with graft vs. host disease, Tobias begins to lose neuro-muscular control over his legs. The longer his hair grows, the more the rest of his body atrophies, until he must use a wheel chair. This reveals that disability and ability are not binary opposites, but rather that ability itself is an illusion—all of us experience various kinds of disability to varying degrees. We all experience disability at some point in our lives, whether due to trauma, aging, illness, or other causes. Yet, like many narratives which link heteronormativity and compulsory able-bodiedness, Arrested Development co-locates the queer body and the disabled body in the person of Tobias.
The competition between Michael and Gob over telenovela star Marta reflects what Eve Sedgwick calls “gender asymmetry” in erotic triangles. Although one might think that Michael and Gob each desire Marta, she exists merely as an instrument through which they can engage in a quasi-erotic way with each other. Michael and Gob are male rivals in a patriarchal society, while Marta serves as the female love-object, the ground on which they compete. Her presence is necessary to facilitate their homosocial bond. Marta’s subjectivity is ignored or undermined at every turn (her body itself is replaceable, as two different actresses play Marta), culminating in a fist fight between Michael and Gob. The brothers share a physical embrace (rolling on the ground) which fuses aggression and erotic longing, but in a socially acceptable performance (the fight over a lover). The climactic reconciliation is not between either Michael or Gob and Marta, but between Michael and Gob, as they reaffirm their brotherhood and implicit joint commitment to the patriarchy. This same asymmetry is manifested in the George, Sr./Oscar/Lucille love triangle and the Buster/Lucille Austero/Gob love triangle.
Given that both The Book of Eli and Mad Max: Fury Road are set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, it is no surprise that they both cast religious demagogues as villains. While Carnegie of The Book of Eli is a petty tyrant, Immortan Joe of Fury Road is a veritable war lord. Both Carnegie and Immortan Joe lose their power by over-extending their forces in vain attempts to retrieve something they want: Carnegie wants the bible carried by Eli, while Immortan Joe wants the women rescued by Furiosa. What most connects the two villains, however, is their shared interest in using religion to manipulate people. Carnegie wants to obtain a bible, so that he can use its words, which he believes to possess almost magical power, to control people. More creative and more successful, Immortan Joe concocts a warrior-death-cult which combines the Norse belief in Valhalla with automotive imagery to inspire his army, mostly composed of his own sons, to reckless feats of violence. Although both religious demagogues control scarce resources, especially water, they perceive that this is not enough to maintain their power.
Religious Demagogues in The Book of Eli
The post-apocalyptic landscape of The Book of Eli draws on the imagery of the Old West–desolate roads, roving bandits, and a fight in a saloon. After the collapse of civilization, might makes right. The antagonist of The Book of Eli is Carnegie, a petty despot sardonically named after steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie rules over a little town which he hopes to expand into an empire. Using his knowledge of hidden springs, he controls access to clean water, and thugs enforce his will. His dictatorial aspirations are clear from the very first shot of him at his desk, which shows him reading a book about Mussolini. Carnegie’s plan revolves around obtaining a copy of the bible. Books are beyond rare because many were destroyed after the war which wiped out most of humanity. Carnegie sends mercenaries to retrieve any books they find out in the wasteland. He believes that the words of the bible have a talismanic power that will augment his ability to control people. “I know its power,” Carnegie tells Eli. Carnegie disguises his lust for power in religious terms: “Just stayin’ alive is an act of faith. Runnin’ this town’s an even bigger act of faith.” He appeals to Eli to give him the bible he carries. He tries to convince Eli that he wants to use the bible to make the world a better place: “Imagine how different, how righteous this little world could be if we had the right words for our faith. If people would understand why they’re here and what they’re doing, they wouldn’t need any of the uglier motivations.” Carnegie implicitly acknowledges that he lacks the charisma to control people without the magical language of the bible: “And I don’t have the right words to help them, but the book does.” Carnegie’s views are a debased exaggeration of the Protestant concept of sola scriptura: the bare words of the bible are so moving that they will enable Carnegie to convince people to obey him. Eli, however, refuses to surrender the bible and kills a number of Carnegie’s men before leaving town. Carnegie orders his right-hand man, Redridge, to round up a crew to go after Eli. When Redridge expresses disbelief that a book is worth the trouble, Carnegie screams, “It’s not a fuckin’ book! It’s a weapon. A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small, fuckin’ town, we have to have it. People will come from all over. They’ll do exactly what I tell ’em, if the words are from the book.” Carnegie never specifies exactly what it is about biblical language–cadence? imagery?–that gives it such power. Unlike other religious demagogues, however, Carnegie does not have a meta-narrative of his own to offer.
Religious Demagogues in Mad Max: Fury Road
Immortan Joe makes Carnegie look like an amateur. Joe has accomplished Carnegie’s aspirations. He dwells in a stone fortress, commands an army–mostly consisting of his own sons–and possesses a fleet of vehicles. Like Carnegie, he controls the water supply. If Carnegie wants to use the words of the bible to manipulate people into following him, then Immortan Joe has crafted an entire cult, complete with its own symbols and rituals, with himself at the center. Immortan Joe is a true theocrat. Whereas Carnegie has a quasi-Protestant belief in the power of the Word, Joe’s religious aesthetics are more akin to Catholicism. Rather than bare words, Joe offers a whole symbolic system. Blending the Norse idea of Valhalla–the hall of fallen warriors–with imagery of chrome and octane, Immortan Joe’s religion meets the psychic needs of his followers. Much as the harvest festivals of ancient religions invest agricultural practices with spiritual significance, Joe transforms the motorized vehicles necessary for survival into potent symbols. With resources scarce and many afflicted with tumors as a result of exposure to radiation, death is all too common and all too meaningless in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Fury Road. Joe’s religion offers the War Boys the chance for a meaningful–even glorious–death.
Immortan Joe possesses all the charisma and creativity that Carnegie lacks. He has no trouble crafting persuasive religious rhetoric to inspire and manipulate his followers. He promises his War Boys that they will “ride with me eternal on the highways of Valhalla.” He tells his people “I am your redeemer it is by my hand that you will rise from the ashes of this world.” Like other religious demagogues, he claims to be his people’s only connection to the divine. He convinces them that he is their best hope for the future, even as he withholds food and water from them. Joe’s rhetoric is always accompanied by profound imagery and ritual. His slaves are branded with the emblem of the cult–a skull in a circle with flames at the top. A similar image is carved into Joe’s mountain fortress. In a symbolic gesture of his beneficence, Joe releases the flood gates that dump water down on the masses–and quickly shuts them again. Like a pastor warning his flock away from riches or alcohol, Joe tells the people, “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.” Joe’s exhortation, of course, is self-serving: he wants to keep the masses content with what they receive and subservient to him.
Joe relies especially on martial imagery. When he discovers that Furiosa has freed his harem of “prize breeders,” the drums sound the call to war. He blends Norse visions of gaining immortality through heroic sacrifice on the battlefield with the terminology of the internal combustion engine. Early in the film, the war boy, Nux, fervently believes that he is destined for Valhalla: “I am awaited.” When each driver takes up his detachable steering wheel from the pile where they are kept, like Vikings grabbing swords and axes, he says, “By my deeds I honor him. V8.” Before attempting insane feats of danger, the War Boys spray their mouths with chrome paint. Throughout the film, Nux chants the slogans which comprise the religion of Joe’s warrior-death-cult, “I live. I die. I live again.” The War Boys’ fervent belief in a blessed afterlife makes them more compliant to Joe’s will. They are ready to risk their lives for Joe because they believe, as Nux says, that “By his hand, we’ll be lifted up. ” Joe promises Nux that if he succeeds in boarding the war rig and stopping Furiosa, “You will ride eternal, shiny and chrome.” When Nux fails, he descends into despair. He tells Capable, one of Joe’s escaped wives, “Three times the gates were opened to me” and “I was awaited in Valhalla. They were calling my name.” Ironically, Nux does sacrifice himself on the battlefield, not for immortality, but to save his new friends.
While The Book of Eli implies that religious demagogues have used the bible to influence people, Fury Road depicts how tyranny requires a fully embodied symbolic system to thrive.
In his review of Man of Steel, Wesley Morris quips that Superman “flies for our sins.” Yet, Man of Steel does not offer a Christology based on substitutionary atonement, but rather on moral exemplarism. Superman does not sacrifice his life to save humanity, but rather his heroism is supposed to inspire humanity to live up to his example. In Superman Returns, however, Superman undergoes a symbolic death and resurrection. He sacrifices his life to save humanity, but survives his near-fatal ordeal. Each film has an implicit Christology, as each likens Superman to Jesus in different ways. A “high” Christology emphasizes Jesus’ divinity, whereas a “low” one emphasizes his humanity. Neither film has a purely high or low Christology. Superman Returns has a high Christology by emphasizing Superman’s difference from human beings, but the suggestion that he is the father of Lois’s child emphasizes his similarity to humans. Man of Steel portrays Clark’s ability to blend in with humans and the incredible powers that make him so different. Man of Steel‘s Christology focuses on Superman’s choice to identify with human beings, as the Gospels portray Jesus’ choosing to embrace his Messianic destiny.
Christology and Moral Exemplarism in Man of Steel
Man of Steel establishes numerous parallels between Superman and Jesus. The main events of the film occur when Clark is thirty-three, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified. As God the Father sends God the Son to redeem humanity, so Jor-El sends his son Kal-El to earth. Moreover, “El” is actually one of the Hebrew words for God. The filmmakers emphasize this etymology when Kal-El’s mother, Lara, tells Zod that her son is named “Kal, son of El.” While floating in space above earth, Superman stretches out his arms, resembling Jesus’ pose on the cross. As Jesus was raised by earthly parents–Joseph and Mary–who did not always understand him, so Clark’s human parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, try their best to raise their superhuman son. Jor-El declares to his wife that their son “will be a god” to the people of earth.
Throughout his youth, Clark conceals his powers, although he does use them to save lives. This is the equivalent of the “Messianic Secret”: in the Gospels, Jesus does not reveal that he is the Son of God for the first thirty years of his life. When Zod demands that humanity turn Kal-El over to him Clark goes to a church seeking guidance. With a stained glass image of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane behind him, Clark wrestles with the decision to reveal his powers. As Jesus does not reveal his identity until the right moment, so Clark chooses to reveal his powers only when humanity is in danger.
Both Jesus and Kal-El’s births are miraculous. While Jesus was conceived by the Virgin Mary, Kal-El is “Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries.” Jor-El’s consciousness, downloaded into an ancient Kryptonian vessel that had lain dormant on earth for millennia, tells Clark that on Krypton “Every child was designed to fulfill a predetermined role in our society.” Jor-El and Lara, however, believed that this was a mistake: “What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended for him or her? What if a child aspired to something greater?” Clark embodies Jor-El’s dream of free choice over rigidly proscribed roles achieved through genetic engineering. Jor-El urges his son to bring hope to humanity: “The symbol of the house of El means hope. Embodied within that hope is the fundamental belief in the potential of every person to be a force for good.” Jor-El hopes that his son will inspire humanity to choose good rather than evil. He knows that this will not happen instantaneously. The moral development of humanity will require a process of growth and maturation. Kal-El offers his son this mission: “You will give the people of earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble; they will fall. But, in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
Superman and Medieval Christology
This closely resembles the logic of the medieval theologian Peter Abelard’s moral influence theory of atonement. Unlike his contemporary Anselm, Abelard did not believe that Jesus’ death on the cross primarily satisfied God’s wrath or redeemed humans from guilt and sin. Abelard did not conceive of the crucifixion as a legal transaction, in which Jesus paid a debt owed by sinners to God. According to Abelard, “what humanity needs is a new motive for action” (Olson 328). Jesus’ heroic self-sacrifice on the cross reveals God’s love for humanity and inspires them to love and obey him in return. For Abelard, the “real atonement takes place within us, not on the cross” (329). As Abelard argued that Jesus’ action showed people how to live in loving obedience to God, so Jor-El believes that Kal-El will become humanity’s great moral exemplar, leading them to new heights of achievement.
As Clark looks down on Lois’s escape pod hurtling toward earth, the holographic projection of Jor-El’s consciousness tells Clark “You can save them all.” Yet, the salvation that Jor-El imagines is not salvation from sin in the traditional sense. This salvation is moral, rather than metaphysical. Jor-El wants Kal-El to save humanity from the mistakes that destroyed Krypton–the squelching of individuality and callous disregard of the environment. The Kryptonians destroyed their planet by recklessly harvesting natural resources, a fate which the film suggests might befall earth if people do not turn toward more sustainable modes of life. Moreover, Zod’s genocidal xenophobia represents an exaggerated version of the racism and ethnic conflict plaguing our world. Zod wants to terra form earth into a new Krypton, sacrificing the human population to recreate his homeworld. Superman can teach humanity to avoid the Kryptonians’ decadence on the one hand and Zod’s fanaticism on the other. He does not offer eternal life, but rather can lead humans to build the perfect society on earth.
Despite these varied ways in which the film highlights the similarities between Jesus and Superman, Jor-El’s vision for his son is not that he sacrifice his life for humanity per se, but that he teach humans how to be better. Man of Steel portrays Superman, not as the Jesus who must die on the cross and be raised from the dead, but as humanity’s ultimate example of goodness. Superman does save the planet from destruction at the hands of the fanatical General Zod, yet the true salvation is the example he sets with his heroism.
Christology in Superman Returns
The implicit Christology of Superman Returns treats Superman as both a moral exemplar and a sacrificial figure. Evoking the Second Coming, the title of Superman Returns sets up the parallel between Jesus and Superman from the beginning. Superman has been absent from earth while traveling to the ruins of Krypton. Irritated with Superman for leaving earth without even saying goodbye, Lois insists that “The world doesn’t need a savior.” Superman counters “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.”
Even Lex Luthor characterizes Superman as a god, albeit a selfish one. Luthor compares himself to Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus, casting Superman as a selfish Zeus hoarding power instead of sharing it with humanity. Speaking implicitly about Superman, Luthor says, “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind.”
While it does not develop it to the extent that Man of Steel does, Superman Returns includes the idea of moral exemplarism. Jor-El’s disembodied voice intones, “Even though you have been raised as a human being, you are not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.” Jor-El’s word’s reiterate the parallel between him and God the Father, each sending their sons to save humanity. Jor-El speaks of Kal-El as bringing light to show people the way, giving them a moral example.
Unlike in Man ofSteel, however, in Superman Returns Superman experiences a symbolic death and resurrection. Superman’s confrontation with Lex Luthor evokes Jesus’ crucifixion. Using crystals stolen from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, Luthor creates a huge and rapidly growing island off the coast of Metropolis. The island is embedded with kryptonite, and when Superman arrives his power begins to wane. As Jesus was beaten and mocked by Roman soldiers before his crucifixion, so Luthor and his henchmen assault the powerless Superman with impunity. As a centurion pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, so Luthor stabs Superman with a kryptonite shard. Unable to remove the kryptonite lodged in his back, Superman sinks into the water until he is rescued by Lois and her fiancé Richard. Superman then flies into the sky, above the clouds. He basks in the sun, recharging his power.
Superman lifts the massive crystalline rock into the air. He carries it through the atmosphere, even though it is laced with kryptonite and draining his powers, eventually launching it into space. Exhausted by the effort, Superman plummets back to earth with his arms outstretched in the pose of Jesus on the cross. He crashes into the planet’s surface, apparently having sacrificed his life to save humanity. Superman is rushed to a hospital where doctors attempt to revive him. Lois visits the unconscious Superman in the hospital. Superman does not revive, like Sleeping Beauty, with Lois’s kiss, but rather disappears later when no one is watching. His empty hospital bed is like the empty tomb Jesus left behind when he was raised from the dead. As Jesus remained dead for three days, so Superman remains unconscious for a period of time before rising.
Superman Returns characterizes its hero as the earth’s badly needed savior, whereas Man of Steel portrays him as a moral exemplar whose mission goes beyond saving the world from danger to leading humanity into a new era of virtue.
Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. InterVarsity Press, 1999.
Dogville is a meditation on the appropriate response to human cruelty. It explores the ultimate insufficiency of mercy to reform the human heart without the aid of justice. The film is shot on a stage rather like a play. The set, which encompasses the town of Dogville with its various buildings, has no walls. The buildings are marked by outline on the stage, allowing us to see the whole town at once, to see what people are doing in the background at any given moment. The invisibility of the walls also suggests that this film is concerned with piercing through facades, with penetrating to the heart of things. The action is framed by the narrator’s witty, incisive commentary.
Dogville is a small, secluded town onto which a “beautiful fugitive” named Grace stumbles early in the film. Grace is on the run and the ironically named Thomas Edison, Jr., who is not remotely inventive, hides her in the town’s mine while he speaks with the men looking for her. The men chasing Grace are gangsters, and their leader gives Tom his telephone number, telling him that Grace is very precious to him. Tom urges Grace to hide in Dogville, rather than attempt to flee her pursuers by way of the dangerous pass over the mountain.
Tom is an aspiring writer, who never seems to write much of anything, and a self-proclaimed moral authority. He conducts lectures for the town, which he calls Meetings on Moral Rearmament. He fantasizes of writing insightful novels and plays which will scourge and purge the human heart and mine the depths of the human soul. In other words, Tom has no job. He is a pseudo-philosopher, exclusively concerned with ideas, but unable to produce any substantial ones.
When Tom suggests that Grace stay in Dogville, Grace responds, “I’ve got nothing to offer them in return.” This suits Tom perfectly because he wishes to use Grace to illustrate what he believes is the fundamental “problem of the human condition–to receive.” The only thing Tom loves more than holding a meeting is “illustration.” He convinces the reluctant townspeople to allow Grace to stay for a trial period of two weeks.
Although Grace is not exactly warmly welcomed into Dogville, she is “fond of them all, even the folk who had greeted her with reluctance and hostility.” Her initial impression of this place is rosy: “All I see is a beautiful little town in the midst of magnificent mountains.”
To endear herself to the townspeople, Grace offers to help them with their work and chores. This proves more difficult than anticipated, as none of the townspeople want to admit that they need any help; they do not want to relinquish the myth of their self-sufficiency. Once Ma Ginger allows Grace to weed the wild gooseberry bushes, however, the other townspeople soon find things for Grace to do.
Grace is quickly incorporated into the rhythm of the town, going from house to house to help with various tasks. Everyone in the town comes to enjoy her company and appreciate her help, except Chuck. Chuck, a gruff man who works in the orchard, is averse to Grace. Chuck tells Grace, “This town is rotten from the inside out” and “People are the same all over–greedy as animals.” He continues, “Feed ’em enough, they’ll eat ’til they burst.” Chuck’s bleak view of humanity proves more and more accurate as the film progresses. The town’s name, which suggests that its residents are dogs, parallels Chuck’s comparison of human greed to an animal’s unrestrained appetite.
After the two week trial period, a vote is held to decide if Grace will be allowed to stay. She needs an unanimous vote in her favor to remain in Dogville. Various people leave gifts for Grace, anticipating that she will be cast out. Everyone votes for Grace to stay, though this turns out to be more because they have grown accustomed to having her help than out of genuine compassion for her plight. Liz, for instance, admits that she had a selfish motive for voting for Grace to stay, as it was a relief to her to no longer be the one “All the men had eyes for.” Liz has ambivalent feelings toward being the town vixen: while she is initially glad that Grace takes attention away from her, she later comes to resent the newcomer for the same reason. The narrator says, “Grace had bared her throat to the town, and it had responded with a great gift–with friends,” but this friendship turns out to be fleeting.
Grace becomes even more inveigled with the townspeople, as she acts as “eyes for McKay, a mother to Ben, friend for Vera, and brains to Bill.” Grace seems to be making the town a better, happier place, as well. At the Fourth of July picnic, McKay says to Grace, “You’ve made Dogville a wonderful place to live in.”
Grace holds Tom’s hand at the picnic, and tells him that she loves him. Tom’s affection for Grace proves to be less noble than her love for him, however. He says, “I yearn to be even closer, to touch you.” Grace gently refuses Tom’s all but spoken desire to sleep with her. She says, “The thing I love about you is that you don’t demand anything of me.” Yet, Tom only lacks the audacity to demand, not the desire.
This bliss is marred, however, when a policeman arrives to put up a missing person poster of Grace. The townspeople grow even more nervous when the police return a second time to put up a new poster–this time a wanted poster alleging that Grace committed some bank robberies. Although they know Grace could not have robbed those banks since she was in Dogville at the time, the townspeople are still uneasy about harboring her. Some of them indulge in unfounded fears about what the law will do if they find Grace in Dogville. The townspeople are purely selfish: they do not want to help a stranger in need until she demonstrates her usefulness to them, and at the first sign of possible danger to themselves, they wish to abandon Grace.
Tom tells Grace that “From a business perspective, your presence in Dogville has become more costly because it’s more dangerous for them to have you here.” Grace’s wages are cut and, as Tom proposes, she visits each house twice each day, effectively doubling her work. Even after her labor is increased, the townspeople become less satisfied with Grace. While once they had denied that there was any work she could do for them, now they are easily irritated by her mistakes. Mrs. Henson scolds her for breaking one of the glasses she is packing into crates for sale. This is deeply ironic because the Hensons, rather than make their own glasses, actually grind the edges off of cheap glasses to make them look more expensive and to sell them at higher prices. This process, of course, weakens the glasses, and so Grace’s breaking one is hardly surprising. The Hensons are typical residents of Dogville: they are industrious only about helping themselves; they make a living by profiting from trickery.
Grace makes herself vulnerable to Dogville. She comes to the town a fugitive in need, yet it takes only the posting of a wanted poster for the townspeople to turn on her. As the narrator says, she “had laid herself open, and there she dangled from her frail stalk like the apple in the Garden of Eden.”
Off-camera, Chuck tries to kiss Grace in the orchard. As they discuss it afterward, Chuck tells Grace, “I thought of blackmailing you into respecting me.” Grace is forgiving, telling Chuck “I would never hate you, never.” This ominous exchange foreshadows Chucks actions when the police return to Dogville a third time. Grace is watching Chuck and Vera’s children when Chuck comes home. With the police in the street outside, Chuck rapes Grace. Grace implores Chuck to stop, but does not struggle violently. She tries to get away from him, but does not try to maim him. She does not cry for help.
Why does Grace not resist Chuck more forcefully? It is not because she is afraid of being captured by the police. Grace’s behavior in this scene and throughout the film stems from her key character trait–her ability to forgive. Her name is apt because Grace embodies absolute mercy. She forgives every crime committed against her, and shows the greatest leniency to those who wrong her. She is mercy utterly apart from justice, and she rationalizes the wickedness perpetrated against her. As she tells Tom, after confiding that Chuck raped her, “He’s not strong, Tom. He looks strong, but he’s not.” Grace thus explains Chuck’s evil act as the result of his weakness, and forgives him. If this seems impossible for a human being, it is because Grace embodies unbounded mercy.
What is the result of Grace’s mercy on Chuck? Now every time Grace helps Chuck in the orchard, he forces himself on her. This fact reflects the film’s core insight: when wickedness is returned with mercy, and only mercy, it is impossible for the evil-doer to recognize the wickedness of his or her actions. The mercy which Grace extends to Chuck cannot be received as the mercy it is because it appears to be mere acquiescence. Chuck has no reason not to rape Grace a second time after not being punished for raping her the first time. Mercy cannot be received as mercy in a context completely absent of justice.
What about conscience? Why does Chuck’s conscience not fill him with guilt and remorse? The conscience is similar to a muscle: it only grows strong through regular exercise. Not having spent much time exercising, Chuck’s conscience has clearly atrophied. People have an incredibly capacity to ignore their consciences.
Martha sees Grace and Chuck in the orchard and she tells Chuck’s wife, Vera. Vera chooses to believe that Grace seduced her husband, rather than that her husband raped Grace. She believes that “at heart, [Chuck] is loyal, and he’s good” though he is emphatically neither of those things. Vera revenges herself on Grace by destroying Grace’s beloved porcelain figurines. Grace had purchased the figurines with the money she earned by working for the townspeople. Even more sadistically, Vera promises to only destroy two of the seven figurines if Grace can act stoically and withhold her tears. Grace fails to do so, and Vera smashes all seven. As the narrator comments, “The figurines were the offspring of the meeting of the town and [Grace]. They were the proof, in spite of everything, that her suffering had created something of value.”
Grace resolves to leave Dogville. She hides in Ben’s truck, while he makes his regular trip to Georgetown to sell the town’s apples. Although Grace pays Ben ten dollars, which she gets from Tom, once they get out of Dogville he wants a “surcharge” for carrying “dangerous cargo.” Ben is ostensibly worried about being caught by the police, but really is trying to blackmail Grace. Ben says, “I have to take due payment, that’s all,” as if he would be remiss by not coercing her into sleeping with him. Grace softly protests, but allows Ben to have his way with her.
Just when it seems that Grace has been humiliated and victimized as much as possible, just when it seems that she has finally escaped Dogville, Grace awakens back in Dogville. Ben’s betrayal is double–he reneges on his promise to carry Grace away from the town. He claims that Grace hid on his truck. Tom does nothing.
The townspeople believe that Grace stole ten dollars from Tom’s father, Thomas Edison, Sr., although it was Tom who took the money from his father’s medicine cabinet. Afraid that his father would not give it to him, Tom took the money, and then blamed it on Grace. The narrator explains, “Grace chose to remain silent in the face of these new charges.” Grace does not seek to defend herself against the false accusations. She is willing to endure any reproach, any slander, any humiliation. She never seeks reprisal against those who wrong her. What the film inexorably shows, however, is that Grace’s superhuman endurance and constant forgiveness of those who victimize her does not actually help them realize their wickedness. Without punishment or the realistic threat of punishment, the townspeople simply believe they are in the right. They resort to greater and greater evil because they never encounter any deterrence. Mercy only inspires remorse and repentance in a context where justice is a viable possibility.
Grace’s debasement and dehumanization reach their nadir when the townspeople put an iron collar around her neck. A chain extends from the collar to a large weight to restrict Grace’s movement and a bell is attached to the collar to prevent her from sneaking off. Not only is this horrifyingly cruel treatment of a human being, but it would be an absurd punishment even if Grace were guilty of theft, which she is not. This essentially makes Grace the town’s slave. Revealing how deluded the townspeople are about their own wickedness, Tom, Sr. says, “Don’t think of this as punishment, not at all,” and consoles Grace by telling her that they made the chain long enough for her to be able to sleep in her bed, as if forcing her to sleep on the ground would be unthinkable.
At this point, if not well before, all but the most deranged viewer will be filled with rage and grief at the people of Dogville. Their treatment of Grace is as reprehensible as can be imagined. Yet, Grace herself never protests. As the narrator explains, Grace becomes numb, entering “the trance-like state that descends on animals whose lives are threatened . . . like a patient passively letting his disease hold sway.” It is not Grace who is diseased, but the people of Dogville. Rather than perform surgery to remove the town’s tumor, however, Grace allows the disease to continue unabated. And things only get worse for her.
With Grace chained up like an animal, children throw mud into her bed. Even more disturbingly, “Most townspeople of the male sex now visited Grace at night to fulfill their sexual needs. The harassments in bed did not have to be kept so secret any more because they couldn’t really be compared to a sexual act. They were embarrassing in the way it is when a hillbilly has his way with a cow, but no more than that.” Grace is made the common sex slave of the men of the town, who have so dehumanized her as to be unable to recognize the criminality of their abuse. Grace is now treated even worse than an animal.
Even Tom fails to help Grace. Not even this seemingly unbearable level of debasement rouses Tom’s indignation. The narrator explains, “Tom saw everything. It pained him. And the sexual visits were a particularly severe blow. But he supported [Grace] as best he could.” The irony is that Tom’s pain is due to the fact that other men are sleeping with Grace, rather than him. If he truly cared about Grace he would stand watch outside her room, ensuring that no one entered it at night, or publicly decry their actions, or try to free Grace from her chains and abscond with her over the mountains. Yet, Tom, growing more despicable and pathetic in every scene, does nothing.
What does Tom do? Tom really only knows how to do one thing–hold a meeting. Tom wants to hold a meeting during which Grace will tell the townspeople the truth. He compares them to children unwilling to take their medicine, and believes that they will “realize that this web of misunderstanding and injustice has only one victim” and that is Grace.
They hold the meeting, and Grace addresses the group. The film does not relate what Grace says to emphasize how little the townspeople are willing to listen. The failure of Tom’s meeting to appeal to “consciences stowed farther and farther away by their owners every day,” as the narrator says, establishes that one cannot necessarily convince a person that he or she is immoral. People are exceptionally skilled at justifying their actions, no matter how disgusting or hurtful. As Tom tells the townspeople, “I asked you here to listen, but you came only to defend yourselves.” Warped by selfishness and self-deception, people are fully capable of rejecting the truth. No seminar will convince people of their capacity for evil.
Tom leaves the meeting to report to Grace on how it is going. He tells her that the townspeople are not convinced, and declares his loyalty to her–“I’ve chosen, Grace; I’ve chosen you.” He seems to think that such a protestation of fealty–though it has no correlative in his actions–will make Grace swoon with desire for him. Although she is clearly exhausted, Tom tries to get romantic with Grace. He wants to sleep with her, but she only wants them to “meet in freedom.” Tom is a bit annoyed, saying “I’ve just rejected everybody I’ve ever known in your favor. Wouldn’t it be worth compromising just one of your ideals, just a little, to ease my pain. Everybody in this town has had your body but me. We’re the ones supposed to be in love.” Tom’s selfishness is utterly astounding. After all that Grace has endured, Tom has the gall to speak to her about easing his “pain.” His lust for her is so disgusting because he ignores the horror of her treatment. Tom is just as selfish as everyone else. Though he does not force himself on Grace as the other men do, he badly wants to sleep with her. With an incomprehensible lack of compassion, Tom laments the fact that other men have slept with Grace while he has not, instead of grieving the humiliation Grace she experienced. In this scene, Tom manages the insanely selfish feat of interpreting the number of times Grace has been raped as evidence of his own deprivation.
Tom leaves Grace and, after returning to the meeting to consult with the other townspeople, he calls the gangster. Although he told Grace he burned the card with the gangster’s telephone number on it, he did not. After five days of anticipation among the townspeople, the gangsters arrive. Tom locks Grace in her shed, thinking it will look better to the gangsters if it appears that they have captured Grace. The extent of Tom’s disloyalty to Grace is apparent when he disingenuously tells the gangsters, “None of us feel able to accept money for just helping people.”
The gangsters are shocked to find Grace chained up. Grace enters one of the cars to speak with the boss, who turns out to be her father.
Grace and her father engage in a robust discussion rich with theological implications. We discover that the gangsters were not trying to kill Grace, but rather to bring her back to her father. Grace ran away from home because she disapproved of her father’s violent methods. Upon their reunion, Grace’s father critiques her policy of mercy: “You do not pass judgment because you sympathize with them. A deprived childhood, and a homicide really isn’t necessarily a homicide, right? The only thing you can blame is circumstance. Rapists and murderers may be the victims according to you. But I call them dogs, and if they’re lapping up their own vomit, the only way to stop them is with a lash.”
According to Grace’s father, Grace is too sympathetic. She excuses evil with recourse to the circumstances, such as a “deprived childhood,” which condition people to do wrong. While Grace admirably is able to understand that even the most despicable people–rapists and murderers–have typically been victimized themselves, her merely excusing their behavior because she understands it falls short of justice. What Grace fails to realize is that her approach involves more than her own victimization. By refusing to resist the evil directed against her, she allows the townspeople to slip ever more rapidly into wickedness. Grace gives the people of Dogville the opportunity to enact their most shameful desires, desires which were, before her arrival, buried in the subterranean depths of the unconscious. Apparently typical humans at the beginning of the film, the townspeople have degraded themselves–through Grace’s passivity–to the level of dogs by its end.
Grace’s father argues that discipline is the only way to stop a dog from returning to its vomit. Grace’s father’s image of dogs returning to their own vomit evokes 2 Peter 2:22, as well as Chuck’s earlier description of people as being “greedy as animals” who will “eat ’til they burst” if allowed to do so.
Grace is not yet convinced, however, by her father’s arguments. She responds, “But dogs only obey their own nature, so why shouldn’t we forgive them?” Grace touches on the paradox of sin and responsibility in Christian theology: if people are sinful, then how can God hold anyone responsible for doing evil? Is it not unjust for God to hold people to standards they cannot possibly meet? The Old Testament is unequivocal that humanity’s inherited sinful nature does not negate its responsibility for its actions. Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” Yet, such passages condemn the stubborn refusal to repent and turn away from evil. God abhors not those who sin, for he, like Grace, fully understands the chain of victimization and abuse that leads people to do evil, but those who perpetually return to their sins–like a dog to its vomit.
Grace’s father’s reply continues in the vein of comparing people to dogs: “Dogs can be taught many useful things, but not if we forgive them every time they obey their own nature.” A savage, wild dog may be free from the commands of its master, but it is not free from rabies and starvation. Likewise, discipline is required to teach people not to do wrong. This is most obviously true when trying to teach children, but is equally applicable to cultivating virtue in adults. Merely forgiving a person for every evil act, or telling him or her the right thing to do is insufficient because of human selfishness. Dogs do not learn to sit or stay or not to bite people by suggestion; they learn through discipline. People cannot be taught to heed commands other than their own desires unless they are punished for doing wrong. Grace’s father’s position is essentially that of Proverbs 13:24: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (See also Proverbs 22:15).
Grace’s father’s position recalls the prophetic books of the Old Testament. God is most angry with the Israelites when they consistently refuse to heed the rebuke of the prophets: “And you shall say to them, ‘This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the LORD their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips” (Jeremiah 7:28). In Jeremiah 31:18, Israel is compared to a calf, “I have heard Ephraim grieving, ‘You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the LORD my God” (See also Jeremiah 30:11). People need to be trained to be good. This disciplinary logic is taken up in the New Testament, as well: “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). The portrayal of God’s wrath as discipline reflects the doctrine of God’s love for humanity: if God was not loving, he would hardly care what kind of damage people inflict on each other.
Even with the opportunity to return with her father, to share his power and responsibility, Grace initially chooses to remain in Dogville. She believes that “The people who live here are doing their best under very hard circumstances.” Grace even goes so far as to think that she would have acted just as Tom, Chuck, Vera, and the others did toward her were she in their places. The narrator poses the key point as Grace sees it, “How could she ever hate them for what was, at bottom, their weakness?” Grace rightly understands that human nature is imperfect. She realizes that people commit evil deeds out of weakness, whether fear or anger or greed. It takes strength to be virtuous. From her father’s perspective, however, understanding the causality of evil does not excuse it. Grace absolves the townspeople of moral agency, whereas her father insists that people be held accountable for their actions.
Grace pities the townspeople, rather than truly loving them. Since doing evil corrupts the evil-doer as much as it harms the victim, loving them would entail forcibly preventing them from destroying themselves through their wicked actions.
As Grace contemplates the townspeople, she has an epiphany. The narrator explains, “If she had acted like them, she could not have defended a single one of her actions, and could not have condemned them harshly enough. No, what they had done was not good enough.” Grace ultimately decides that “If there’s any town this world would be better off without, then this is it.” She joins her father and has the gangsters execute the townspeople and set fire to the town.
Grace instructs them to shoot Vera’s children in front of her, refraining only if Vera can withhold her tears. She thus reciprocates Vera’s treatment of her: as Vera destroyed Grace’s figurines, promising to stop at two if Grace refrained from crying, so Grace gives Vera a taste of her own medicine. As Vera destroyed Grace’s seven figurines, so the gangsters kill Vera’s seven children.
As he watches Dogville burn around him, Tom tells Grace, “I was scared, Grace. I used you and I’m sorry.” Yet, Tom’s apology, and his lack of genuine remorse, is utterly inadequate to the magnitude of his betrayal. As always, he rationalizes his own failures and pursues a policy of protecting his own interests. Even after seeing all of his peers shot to death, Tom does not register the horror of what he has done to Grace. Tom is too proud to admit to being wrong, which leads to his self-deception. This prevents him from noticing his own flaws, which makes contrition and repentance impossible.
Grace shoots Tom in the head herself.
Why does Grace destroy Dogville completely? Why not imprison the townspeople or force them to do hard labor? Why are the men, women, and children alike put to death? The film shows exhaustively that everyone in Dogville is guilty of abusing Grace: the men rape her; the women verbally abuse her and condone their husbands’ behavior; even the children, particularly Vera’s son, Jason, mistreat her. Everyone must be killed, not only because they deserve death for their crimes, but also because if punishment is always withheld, then mercy ceases to be mercy. If people can imagine no possibility other than forgiveness, then active forgiveness becomes passive acquiescence.
The narrator gives another reason why Dogville must be destroyed: “And if one had the power to put it to rights, it was one’s duty to do so. For the sake of other towns. For the sake of humanity. And, not least, for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.” People learn by example.
Dogville reveals that justice and mercy are interdependent: justice is merciful because it prevents people from sinking deeper into corruption; mercy cannot be perceived or received as the grace that it is in a context absent of justice.
There Will Be Blood is the story of at least three pairs of fathers and sons. There is oil man Daniel Plainview and his adopted son H.W.. Opposite them are poor Abel Sunday and his preacher son Eli. The strangest pair is Daniel and Eli, between whom an abusive father/son dynamic develops throughout the film.
Daniel and H.W. Plainview
As with all good beginnings, the opening scene of There Will Be Blood perfectly encapsulates the character of its protagonist, Daniel Plainview. Daniel chisels for ore in a mine shaft. A brief shot of him huddled by his camp fire emphasizes his utter solitude. He lights some dynamite and climbs out of the shaft. After the dynamite goes off, he descends back down the shaft. One of the rungs of his ladder breaks, however, and Daniel falls down the shaft, breaking his leg. Through sheer force of will, Daniel hauls himself out of the shaft with the help of a rope. He then drags himself on his back to the nearest town where he can sell the ore he has found.
Just a few short shots convey Daniel’s greed, ambition, determination, and isolation. His broken leg reflects the injuries that he inflicts on himself in his greedy pursuit of wealth. His dragging himself back to town signifies his unflappable will that never relents in the face of opposition. His being alone reveals the isolation that results from these traits. Daniel’s greed and isolation feed each other, as he admits, “I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone.”
Daniel Plainview has no wife, yet he has a son. He inherits his boy, H.W., when the boy’s father, one of Daniel’s workers, dies while digging for oil. After H.W.’s father dies, Daniel is shown staring in consternation at the helpless baby. One might assume that Daniel raises H.W. as his own son out of compassion or benevolence. As the film unfolds, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Daniel is not an altruistic person. Daniel wants a young man to shape in his own image. He realizes that having a young boy at one’s side makes a salesman’s life much easier. In his first speech in the film, when Daniel makes a sales pitch to a rowdy group of villagers, he introduces “my son and my partner, H.W. Plainview.” When he introduces himself to the people of Little Boston, most of whose land he has recently acquired, he says, “I work side by side with my wonderful son, H.W,” and goes on to emphasize the value of family.
The people Daniel seeks to swindle–the towns folk whose land he wants to buy–find a single man much more predatory than a widower with a young son. Referring to H.W., a rival in the oil business tells Daniel that “Life must be easy when you’ve got such a cute face to carry around with you.” A single father raising his boy on his own is a far more noble figure than a profiteering bachelor. The same man even jokes with H.W. about his share in his father’s business: “I’ll be your lawyer if you need to draw up some contracts. Make sure you don’t get swindled, boy. Get half of what your dad’s makin’.” Daniel accepts the obligation of raising H.W. with an eye to the long-term payoff. Adopting H.W. is not an act of charity, but an investment. When he is asked about his wife, Daniel readily replies, “She died at childbirth . . . It’s just me and my son now.” What Daniel seems to enjoy most about H.W. is having a sidekick, a younger version of himself to share his scheming. Daniel cannot abide those who oppose him, however, and as a schism develops between father and son, Daniel’s apparent affection for H.W. turns to spite.
Early in the film, Daniel obviously enjoys teaching H.W. about the oil business. Yet, once H.W. is cut off from Daniel’s commanding voice, their relationship fractures. Too close to the derrick when it first erupts with oil, H.W. loses his hearing. As H.W. realizes “I can’t hear my voice,” the geyser of oil catches fire. Despite the protests of the terrified H.W.–“Don’t leave me”–Daniel leaves his son to deal with the burning oil. Yet, no one is in immediate danger from the fiery plume. In fact, when Daniel leaves H.W. all he does is give a few orders, and then watches the fountain of burning oil with glee. He triumphantly exclaims, “There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet, and no one can get at it except for me.” The infernal image of the flaming jet of oil seems to embody Daniel’s insatiable envy, always burning with the desire for more. As they watch the oil burn, Daniel’s right hand man, Fletcher Hamilton, asks if H.W. is okay. Daniel replies, “No he isn’t,” without a trace of tenderness in his voice. Fletcher immediately rushes off to check on H.W.; Daniel remains fixated on the geyser of oil, and all the wealth it will bring him.
Daniel quickly becomes frustrated that H.W. can no longer understand him. “Can you hear me? Can you hear me in there?” Daniel says. Because he cannot explain to H.W. what is happening, he has to wrestle with him so that a doctor can examine the boy’s ears. H.W.’s deafness is the true test of Daniel’s feelings toward his adopted son. His impatience and lack of empathy reveal that his affection for H.W. only lasts as long as H.W. is useful and submissive to him. He tells H.W., “I can’t stay here with you all day. I have to take care of our business.” In a scene parallel to an earlier one in which Daniel dips the baby H.W.’s bottle in whiskey to quiet him, Daniel forces H.W. to drink milk mixed with whiskey, so that he will sleep. H.W. clearly does not want to drink it, but Daniel forces him to do so, holding the bottom of the glass.
When Henry suddenly appears, claiming to be Daniel’s half-brother, H.W. realizes that he is not the man he claims to be, but Daniel does not. Perhaps Daniel accepts Henry’s story because he is so accustomed to lying, to bending the truth as he wishes, that he can no longer discern between truth and falsehood. Or, perhaps, he is so glad to have a new junior partner to replace the now useless H.W. that he relaxes his suspicion. Henry’s arrival perfectly coincides with H.W.’s deafness. Daniel is glad to take Henry under his wing because the man is a lesser version of himself. He relies on Daniel fully, and thus Daniel is not threatened by him. H.W. cannot tell his father that Henry is an imposter, so he shows him symbolically by creating a trail of oil to Henry’s bed and lighting it on fire. Daniel does not perceive the meaning in H.W.’s sign-act, however, and soon puts him on a train to a school for the deaf. Daniel boards the train, but leaves before it departs. When the train rolls out of the station and H.W. realizes that his father has abandoned him, he calls out to him. Daniel walks away, deaf to his son’s plaintive cries. Henry now fully replaces H.W. as Daniel’s sidekick.
Even after H.W. returns, the rift between father and son remains. Daniel embraces him, but H.W. hits his father several times, clearly still angry at being sent away without explanation. Daniel makes no effort to learn sign language. He simply wants his son to be fixed, and grows increasingly impatient with H.W.. Mary Sunday, however, learns sign language eagerly from H.W.’s tutor. When they grow up, H.W. and Mary are married. While Daniel, like many hearing people, stigmatizes his son’s deafness, Mary embraces it.
As the film nears its end, the adult H.W. visits his father. Daniel has descended into decadence. He lives in a luxurious home, shooting at household objects with his pistol out of some combination of rage and boredom.
H.W. sits across from his father. He says, “This is very hard for me to say, but I will tell you first: I love you very much. I have learned to love what I do because of you. I am leaving here. I’m going to Mexico. I am taking Mary and I am going to Mexico . . . It will only be for a time. For me to do my own drilling and to start my own company.” Daniel responds to H.W.’s honest, loving sincerity with scorn. Instead of recognizing his son’s legitimate desire to go out on his own, he says, “This makes you my competitor.” Earlier, in a rare moment of self-understanding, Daniel admits to Henry: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.”
This sense of competition, that life is a zero-sum game in which there can only be one winner and no cooperation between allies or true friendship rules Daniel’s life. It is the result of his boundless ambition. This animosity toward others allows Daniel only two possible relations with other people: enemy or subordinate. His enemies, such as Eli, he treats with contempt. He is only capable of showing affection toward those who remain utterly subordinate to him. Therefore, when H.W. announces his desire to go out on his own, he irrevocably moves from the category of subordinate to that of enemy in Daniel’s mind. Although the film does not reveal the events between this scene in 1927 and the earlier parts of the film taking place in 1911, it is clear that the relationship between Daniel and H.W. has deteriorated in the intervening years.
Whereas H.W. “would rather keep you as my father than my partner,” Daniel refuses to even remain H.W.’s father. Daniel maliciously disowns H.W., saying “You’re not my son” and “You’re an orphan.” Daniel projects himself onto H.W.: “I should have seen this coming. I should have known that under this all these past years you’ve been building your hate for me piece by piece. I don’t even know who you are because you have none of me in you. You’re someone else’s. This anger, your maliciousness, backwards dealings with me. You’re an orphan from a basket in the middle of the desert, and I took you for no other reason than because I needed a sweet face to buy land.” Here Daniel admits what the film has already suggested: he adopted H.W. out of opportunism rather than charity. Daniel’s words, though directed at H.W., are an accurate assessment of his own character–he is angry, malicious, and double-dealing. He is a creature of spite and envy with no loyalty even to H.W.. While Daniel accuses H.W. of being hateful, it is Daniel who builds up his hate piece by piece until it is an impenetrable fortification. Earlier, he admits to Henry that “I’ve built up my hatreds over the years little by little.”
Daniel Plainview vs Eli Sunday
The relationship between Daniel and H.W. is contrasted with that between Abel Sunday and his son Eli. Daniel is domineering, controlling, and ruthless; Abel is weak-willed, foolish, and impotent. Daniel always speaks firmly; Abel has a perpetual quiver in his voice. Daniel controls H.W. for most of the film, but Abel cannot rule Eli.
After being humiliated by Daniel, Eli finds someone weaker than himself–his father–to humiliate. Still covered in the mud through which Daniel dragged him, at the dinner table, Eli calls his father lazy and stupid, mocking him for being swindled by Daniel and letting him “walk all over us.” Eli tells Abel, “Do you think God is going to come down here and save you for being stupid? He doesn’t save stupid people, Abel.” He then crawls across the table to assault Abel, who can only cower helplessly. Eli forces his father to the ground, berating him for being gullible and allowing Daniel to buy their land. Abel begs Eli to stop, but Eli covers his father’s mouth with his hands. In this scene, Eli actually imitates Daniel. As Daniel humiliates him, so he humiliates his own father. Daniel has become Eli’s role model and father figure, albeit an abusive one.
Daniel and Eli are more alike than either would care to admit. Each tries to manipulate others to gain the greatest advantage for himself. Daniel is simply better at it than Eli. While Daniel uses his expertise in drilling for oil to get rich, Eli uses his rhetorical ability to gain power as a preacher. His church is called the Church of the Third Revelation because he has crafted the persona of a prophet; his words ostensibly come directly from the Holy Spirit to reveal truths not found even in the scriptures. Eli speaks of the “new spirit” inside of him, and purports to cast an arthritis-causing demon or “ghost” out of an old woman. He softly chants, “Get out of here, ghost,” over and over, his voice gradually growing louder and his gestures more exaggerated. At the crescendo, Eli pantomimes throwing the evil spirit out of the door of the church, and triumphantly announces its departure. He then dances with the old woman to the adoration of his congregation. Daniel’s commentary–that the exorcism was “one goddamn hell of a show”–is apt.
Daniel and Eli alike use their words–and a pliable relationship with the truth-to cajole and coerce others into doing as they want. As Eli uses religious language to control his congregants, so Daniel uses the language of commerce to manipulate the people of Little Boston. Daniel, too, uses Christian rhetoric to manipulate the pious people of Little Boston, frequently referring to God’s blessings in his public speeches. When Eli’s brother Paul asks Daniel what church he belongs to, he says, “I enjoy all faiths. I don’t belong to one church in particular–I like them all–I like everything.” To like all faiths is to follow none of them. Daniel believes in nothing but his own self-interest. He will adopt whatever jargon or buzz words necessary to ingratiate himself to those around him. He could fake devotion to any religion. If Daniel adopts Christian language to please those around him, then so does Eli. The film’s ending reveals his devotion to God to be no less of a charade than Daniel’s.
The power struggle between Daniel and Eli begins as Daniel negotiates the purchase of the Sundays’ land from Eli’s father, Abel. While Abel acquiesces to whatever Daniel suggests, Eli seeks to get more money for their land. Abel has no idea what a fair price for his land would be, but Eli knows the market value–$6 an acre. Abel does not realize that Daniel is fleecing him, but Eli does. Eli wants $10,000 for his church, though more to enhance his personal prestige than out of piety. Daniel offers $5,000. Daniel speaks to Abel coaxingly, but his tone grows spiteful when he addresses the interloping Eli, who is costing him money. Abel believes that God has sent Daniel to them, and that his offer of $3,700 for their land is a gift of Providence. Daniel plays off of Abel’s feelings, claiming that “the good Lord’s guidance” brought him to the Sunday ranch.
Their rivalry continues as Eli seeks to make converts of Daniel’s workers. Eli wants to bless the first oil well in Little Boston. Daniel agrees in order to appease Eli. During the ceremony, however, Daniel does not call upon Eli to bless the well, which he names after Eli’s sister, Mary. Eli asks Daniel to introduce him as a “proud son of these hills,” and Daniel mocks Eli by referring to his sister as a “proud daughter of these hills.” Daniel finishes with “God bless these honest labors of ours,” and sends H.W. to start the drill.
The contest of wills between Daniel and Eli escalates to physical violence when Eli tries to hold Daniel to his promise to give $5,000 to the Church of the Third Revelation. Eli asks for the money; Daniel slaps him in the face several times. Daniel continues to hit Eli, taunting him about claiming to be a “healer and a vessel for the Holy Spirit.” Eli’s voice becomes shrill as he continues to demand the money. Eli crawls away, but Daniel drags him by the hair into a pool of mud. Daniel pushes Eli down into the mud. He straddles the shrieking Eli and covers his face and hair with mud. He says, “I’m gonna bury you underground, Eli.”
Eli gains a victory over Daniel, however, when Daniel’s ambition to build an oil pipeline forces him to acquiesce to Mr. Bandy’s desire for him to be “washed in the blood of Jesus Christ.” Since Bandy owns the land on which Daniel needs to build his pipeline, he is forced to endure humiliation at Eli’s hands. Bandy will only let Daniel use his land if he is baptized by Eli at the Church of the Third Revelation. Despite offering first $3,000 and then $5,000, Daniel cannot negotiate with Bandy. He insists that Daniel be baptized by Eli.
This scene is a performance for Daniel and Eli alike: Daniel performs a false contrition; Eli performs the role of the charismatic preacher. Eli makes Daniel get on his knees before the church, and hits him repeatedly to expel Satan from his body. Eli forces an obviously furious Daniel to admit that he is a sinner, and to beg for the saving blood of Jesus–“I want the blood. Give me the blood, Eli.” Eli makes Daniel admit that he has abandoned his son. Something cracks in Daniel a bit when he confesses that he has abandoned his son. This is one of the few moments in the film during which Daniel expresses a hint of remorse. Three times he yells loudly that he has abandoned his son. For an instant, the power of the ritual seems to draw Daniel into a genuine confession of sin. Eli drags Daniel’s conversion on as long as he can, continuing to slap him to drive out the devil. He clearly relishes his moment of triumph over Daniel. After they pour water over Daniel to baptize him, Daniel mutters, “That’s a pipeline.”
Their final confrontation comes years later in the film’s final and most chilling scene. Eli leaves Little Boston, achieves some measure of success only to apparently lose all of his investments when God “failed” to warn him of a “panic in the economy,” and returns to Daniel desperate for money. Eli has been working in radio. He is more worldly now, dressed in a suit, with a gaudy cross around his neck. He pours himself a drink, though he condemned the evils of alcohol when he was younger. Mr. Bandy has died, and Eli seeks to negotiate the sale of Bandy’s land to Daniel. Eli thinks Bandy’s thousand acres will be tempting to Daniel. Daniel uses the opportunity to humiliate Eli one final time. He demands that Eli admit that he is a “false prophet and that God is a superstition.” Moreover, Daniel wants Eli to say it with the theatrical voice he uses in his sermons. He prompts Eli to say it over and over again, each time with more zeal. Eli speaks to the empty bowling alley in Daniel’s mansion as if he were preaching to his congregation. Daniel then reveals to Eli that the oil from Bandy’s land has already drained into the surrounding areas, which Daniel has long owned. This is Daniel at his purest–rejoicing in the humiliation of one weaker than himself. His last trump played, Eli seeks Daniel’s pity. Daniel exults, “Did you think your song and dance and superstition would help you, Eli? I am the Third Revelation!” Eli begs for Daniel’s forgiveness, but Daniel will not be deterred. Daniel relishes his final victory over Eli, mocking him relentlessly before beating him to death with a bowling pin. In this final scene, Eli is not only unmasked as a false prophet, but as a failed imitator of Daniel. He is a lesser version of Daniel, who seeks the same control over others through rhetoric and deceit, but lacks Daniel’s skill. Just before Daniel murders him, Eli declares the he and Daniel are old friends and even brothers–father and son is more like it.
The last two scenes–Daniel’s disowning of H.W. and his murder of Eli–essentially parallel each other. Neither H.W. nor Eli is Daniel’s son by blood, but each has stood in that relationship to him, and he has betrayed them both. H.W. and Eli each imitate different aspects of Daniel’s life: H.W. goes into the oil business, while Eli emulates Daniel’s penchant for deception. Yet, H.W. understands and rejects that which is evil in his father, whereas Eli does not.