Veiled valiant virtuoso vigilante verbalizing vacillating virtuosity/vowing vast vendettas; valid venom. Vanish. Garnish with a British accent, please. In other words, I just watched 2005’s V for Vendetta, the film based on the popular limited series DC comic of the same name by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. Now, I had previously watched it thereabouts when it came out, but that was 15 years ago, and frankly, a.) I don’t remember it much besides Natalie Portman (who plays Evey) and her shaved head, and b.) since I don’t remember it well, I figured it probably was underwhelming or not that interesting to me? But re-watching it today, I would rank it as one of the best comic book films I’ve ever seen.
The short premise is that England has become a fascist police state in the wake of America’s collapse, and through V (played by the brilliant Hugo Weaving), and his terrorist attacks (or uh, freedom fighter attacks?), he helps to ignite a groundswell that topples the fascist government.
First, I think it’s worth remarking upon that Natalie Portman was the “girlfriend” of a vigilante in V, and then of a Norse god in the Thor movies, and that Hugo Weaving was the vigilante V, and then went on to play one of the best villains in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, Red Skull, a fascist Nazi!
Speaking of fascist Nazis who remind you of Adolph Hitler, the High Chancellor Adam Sutler (played by John Hurt), really helps make this film, and director James McTeigue sells Hurt’s phenomenal performance in two ways: 1.) putting Hurt’s face in close up on a big screen as he yells his invective at his subordinates who are literally below him on chairs, and 2.) by having the Sutler character look aged and ragged as the movie, and V’s “terrorism” goes on; in other words, Sutler begins to look more and more crazy and thus, more and more like he’s slipping, or um, being pushed, out of power.
“People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”V.
We also get something reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, where the Party used, “War is peace/freedom is slavery/ignorance is strength,” as a rallying cry; here, the fascist party uses, “Strength through unity; unity through faith.” It’s almost more Aldous Huxley in Brave New World than it is Orwell in that, the fascist government is trying to make it seem like the people need the government for their betterment — look at America! She’s enveloped in a civil war! — rather than doing it necessarily through brute force, albeit, that’s there, too, to be sure.
Folks, if you haven’t realized it by now, V for Vendetta isn’t just any old comic book movie; this one is trying to make you think and it’s coming at you hot and heavy not only with the stylized action and grandiose set pieces, but with Big Ideas™. Again, remember, this is the early 2000s. America’s War on Terror post-9/11 is at its apex. George W. Bush being reviled is at its apex. Critiquing America is at its apex. Yes, this is taking place in England (and Moore was critiquing Thatcher most likely since the source material came out in 1982, which goes to show, as I will show later, that the source material is timeless; first, applied to the 1980s, then the early 2000s, and now the present time), but it all really hinges on America’s collapse. For example, there’s a scene in the film that looks like it could’ve been shot at America’s “terrorist” (I only put that in quotes because nobody has been formally charged and/or convicted of anything) detention camp, Guantánamo Bay, otherwise known as Gitmo. Which, it should be noted, IS STILL A THING ALL THESE YEARS LATER! Also, anyone remember rendition? That used to be all the talk. When the government would secretly arrest you and take you to a foreign detention center. Rendition gets name checked here.
Critics at the time expressly thought the film was a critique of Bush and the War on Terror, and it’s easy to see those connections for the aforementioned reasons. But what’s interesting is that watching the film 15 years later, it feels timely again because of its echoes of the Trump administration, and because contrary the book (which uses a nuclear war as a reason fascism came to England), the movie argues that a biological attack, aka, a virus, caused the descent into fascism. But instead, it turns out that the government did it, and through that process, they actually are the ones who created V. Now, to be 100 percent clear before I go further, I’m not saying the Trump government or any government unleashed COVID-19. I’m saying, it’s interesting that watching it in 2020, the background issue is a virus. Although, the virus feels rather, uh, quaint here since the virus attack killed 100,000 people in the film.
“Artists use lies to tell the truth while politicians use lies to cover the truth up.”Evey quoting her dad.
But the connection to Trump is that he and Sutler are both blowhards, and the film explicitly says Sutler didn’t care about the political process. Trump didn’t care about the process, either, and askewed all conventions and norms. Another way, is that Deitrich (played by Stephen Fry), a closeted gay talk show host, satirizes Sutler by making him out to be a buffoon and a clown to not be taken seriously. Nothing destroys authoritarianism more than not taking it seriously, and not being afraid, but rather, mocking it and belittling it. The same happens of Trump; he’s treated more like a carnival barker than someone to actually be feared. A clown rather than a colossus, if you will.
And again, to throat clear, Trump isn’t a fascist in the way that Sutler is; the most you can say about Trump, is that he’s a wannabe fascist and strongman. He doesn’t exactly hide his love of foreign strongman and his desire for authoritarian tactics. Even being a wannabe bad guy is … bad! But he doesn’t have the brain to actually get there; plus (and this is a huge plus), American institutions are actually rather resilient, even to an outsider like Trump. The guardrails are still there, if a bit weathered. I’m also not the only one to notice the connection between the film and today. See here.
Of course, V is a bit, for lack of a better word, “problematic” depending on how you view his actions. He’s blowing up buildings, killing members of the fascist government, and in the case of Evey, he kidnaps her, lies to her, tortures her, and threatens execution, as if he was the government, so in order to bring out Evey’s inner strength. That is, he made Evey realize that there are worse things than dying, and that’s not living free. Evey was willing to die for lack of freedom. She realized there was something bigger than herself. It all works in the end, but there’s obviously an argument to make that V is a complicated, crazy figure. Conversely, where V made Evey realize she had something more inside her than she thought, she made him realize as much, too, mainly, her and love. She became the wild card, as one friend put it, in his decades-long plan to crumble the fascist government. He’s not even the one who pulls the lever on the big bomb at the end; it’s Evey who does.
Another point that’s interesting to me is at first I thought V was dumb. As in, he had the element of surprise at the beginning of the film on Nov. 5 when attacking the government, and instead, flat-out said he would wait a year until the next Nov. 5 to essentially finish the job. Well, now you’re giving the enemy (the fascist government) time to regroup and plan for what’s coming. But as that same friend from before pointed out, on the contrary, what V was doing was quite brilliant. He was planting the seed in the minds of all British people watching his broadcast, so they, too, could blossom something bigger than themselves buried deep within like Evey had. And by the film’s end, in a moment that gave me chills, they do. The masses rose up against the government.
One other small theme I love that seems prevalent in a plethora of genres and across philosophy is the simple, but beautiful notion that dancing is fundamental to our freedom. That happens here, too, with V and Evey sharing a lovely dance. There’s something very human, very revolutionary about being able to dance freely.
But, so, that’s the big weighty issues and themes. Wonderful and thought-provoking as they are, there is also just a fun, kick-ass film here. The action is superb. One of my favorite scenes is the counter-conventional method whereby V is killing people who made him the way he is one-by-one, and he gets to Delia Surridge (played by Sinéad Cusack), the coroner and head physician at the Larkhill Detention Centre where V formerly was. It’s a rather somber scene, as Surridge is the only one of the bunch who actually seems remorseful for what she did. So, she asks V if he’s going to kill you. “I already killed you 10 minutes ago.” Amazing. He injected her with poison before he even started hearing her pity party monologue. I love that, as dark as it is.
Even the beginning of the film is also counter-conventional. At first, I was eye-rolling because Evey is walking somewhere when she’s accosted by Creedy (played by Tim Pigott-Smith) and his men (or maybe it’s just his men? in any event), as part of the Finger, a weird name for the secret police of Britain. But you don’t know that, and I’m thinking, okay, here we go again. Comic book movie? Check. Damsel in distress because of muggers? Check. Superhero swoops in to save the day? Check. But I think it breaks the mold by establishing that it was the police doing it. And establishing that we’re dealing with a very bad government. It also established V as a bad-ass.
Speaking of Creedy, probably the best scene in the entire film is when V is staring down Creedy and all of his men, who have guns, mind you, and V takes all their bullets (as in, literally gets shot multiple times in the chest and face), then starts knifing the crap out of every single person there. Then he gets to Creedy and finishes him off. It was done in slow motion, but with adrenaline pumping ferocity.
This is just a great film, tickling both my mind and whatever synapse fires off my adrenaline. The Guy Fawkes mask looks great. The action looks great. As pull-quoted above, there are lot of great lines, too. The British accents are sexy as hell. And for an early 2000s film, especially a comic book one, on both its themes and its action, it holds up extremely well all these years later. It’s timeless. That’s the best test of how great a film this actually is.
Off the top of my head, for what I’m looking for in a comic book film, I would put this right in the mix with The Dark Knight and Winter Soldier as great thinking comic book films, but which doesn’t sacrifice the great action, either.
If you’ve seen this film, what do you make of it?