Amazingly, my two lists have caught up with each other, so I can start alternating between the two!
#12: V for Vendetta (2005)
Alright, things are starting to get pretty serious now, because we’re getting into the part of the list where I could easily see any of these being my favorite film of all time. (Yeah: that part of the list starts at number twelve. Have I mentioned that superhero movies have gotten good?) I expect this entry to be fairly controversial. There is justifiable debate as to whether V for Vendetta can properly be considered a superhero film. Furthermore, there are serious questions about its efficacy as an adaptation. I intend to address both.
V for Vendetta is, at its core, about a character, “V” (Hugo Weaving) who puts on a mask in order to fight injustice. We are introduced to this character as he saves a woman, Evey (Natalie Portman) from being raped by two members of the secret police. In the film’s very first scene, it simultaneously introduces the primary conflict of the film (a corrupt, fascist government) and deliberately riffs on the superhero motif by placing V in the traditional role of rescuing an innocent from harm. Furthermore, when his origin story is revealed, we learn that he gained enhanced abilities due to medical experiments carried out upon him by the government.
The easy protest here is that V’s enemy is not the criminal elements of society, but rather the “legitimate” power structure in place. But when that structure is in itself not only corrupt, but actually a clear and present threat to its citizens, wouldn’t a superhero quickly find herself or himself struggling against that very government? Sure, it might be a much shorter struggle if that superhero were someone like Superman. It might not actually be all that different if he were Batman, but we’ll get to that. V’s goals are political, so his tactics often end up being political. He blows up a building, then hijacks a propaganda broadcast intended to cover up the incident as a demolition to expose it for what it really was: a sign that the fascist government of Britain is not invincible. He uses this as a rallying call to the people of Britain to rise up against their government, telling them to meet him next fifth of November outside the Houses of Parliament.
V becomes a symbol. When a huge contingent of citizens does show up outside of the Houses of Parliament a year later, they wear the same Guy Fawkes masks as V. When Evey is asked V’s identity because she had seen beneath his mask, she replies that he is “all of us.” My one real complaint here is that Evey herself did not directly take up the mantle of V, as she did in the graphic novel. Moreover, V’s belief that she will be the primary builder of the new society to take the place of the old one that he tore down is not even hinted at.
This provides a nice segue into my next defense: this film as an adaptation. Although I did have a problem with those omissions in Evey’s character, I didn’t have a problem with the broader changes that have bothered a lot of fans, and Moore himself. Moore’s original story was a response to British Thatcherism, and how easily he could see a state becoming fascist in the aftermath of, say, a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union. The atmosphere in which this film was released was quite different, with very few (if any) people supposing a nuclear war to be imminent. The descent into totalitarianism here as depicted in a montage late in the film is consequently much different, but believable to modern audiences. What made the graphic novel brilliant is also what made the film brilliant. Namely, a terrifyingly believable depiction of a society sliding into fascism and being lulled into complacency about the freedoms being stripped from them and the horrors going on around them, only to be shaken from their complacency by a determined genius and his brilliantly-crafted plan.
There are certainly advantages the graphic novel had over the film. The film must unfortunately sacrifice some of the complexity of the graphic novel. Because of the much greater “screen time” afforded to the graphic novel medium, situations and characters are developed at a much slower pace, making his genius much more shocking when things begin “clicking” into place. One of the most dramatic examples is in the chillingly brilliant scene where we see every thread of V’s plan beginning to fall into place framed by V’s game of dominoes. Much more than the film, the graphic novel astonishes us with V’s brilliance.
But the film gets so much right, it’s difficult to fault it for what’s really an inherent disadvantage the medium must overcome, not a failing of this film in particular. Like the graphic novel, the film has a way of humanizing and personalizing big themes. One of the most horrifying (and believable) elements of the original story is the way in which the fascist government rounded up “undesirable” minorities and imprisoned or executed them. The graphic novel personalized this by having an imprisoned Evey read the story of a lesbian actress (Valerie Page, played in the film by Natasha Wightman) who was dragged off as part of the government’s purges of minorities. The film preserves this section word-for-word, and also depicts Evey’s boss (Gordon Deitrich, played by Stephen Fry) as a closeted homosexual who is deeply afraid of discovery. Both the graphic novel and film managed to vividly confront us with our vulnerability to those in power, should they decide to strip life and liberty from those it finds “undesirable.”
The acting in this film was brilliant. Hugo Weaving gave V the dramatic weight the larger-than-life character needed, and this is one of the strongest performances I’ve ever seen from the talented Natalie Portman. Stephen Fry and Natasha Wightman personalized the horror of being helpless to stop a powerful government from stripping you of everything (including your own life) because of something deeply personal about yourself. And Roger Allam was brilliant as Lewis Prothero, “The Voice of London.” Prothero is a clear nod to propaganda apparatuses like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.
This film explores huge themes both on the grand scale they naturally seem to lend themselves to, and (arguably more effectively) on a smaller, much more personal scale. It is a deeply moving film, and easily one of my favorite films of all time. The only thing that stops it from being much higher on this list is that it already exists in a superior film (the graphic novel version), and that when composing a list like this I must confess a bias for films whose identities as superhero stories are less ambiguous.