V, The Bully, And Our Justifications For Evil

God Bless Youtube auto suggestions and the awful internet community. It’s surprising what you’re inspired to talk about.

I’m going to talk about violence for a little bit here. Particularly I’m going to talk about the violence in V For Vendetta, a movie that I think, if I rewatched it, I’d probably call kind of average, even if I did quite enjoy it and still sort of think I should stand by that opinion. The movie – moreso than the book – has been unfortunately used as a symbol for a special variety of awfulness, the embrace of the anonymous culture, people adamant for their privacy and needs and dismissive of those of others, but whatever.

Thing is, rewatching that core speech, that three-minute long monologue that drives the whole narrative of V for Vendetta’s central conflict, I noticed that it isn’t really very good. There are nice snappy one-liners in it, there’s a lovely rhetorical swell, it builds up to its structural point and whatnot, but broadly speaking, the actual speech, the point it makes, the arguments it forwards are… really quite guff.

“There’s something wrong, isn’t there?” the speech asks, which is the sort of rhetorical trick you see used by preachers who want to show the audience what it is they’re meant to agree with. Nod here, comply here. And that’s sort of all that speech has going for it. V doesn’t need to make a convincing point or argument, he just needs to stand up in front of an audience that already agrees with him, and he is accorded respect. The narrative treats this as a great, cunning achievement – which you know, it sort of is because of the difficulty taken in getting the message out, but really, all he does is stand up and say ‘The government, right? Amiright? Amiright? Yeah, I’m right, bollocks.’

This is emphasised in what amounts to the final fight scene of the movie. V isn’t really a character in this story, he’s more of a force of nature, and in the books this was partly highlighted by the finale of the story mostly being about losing this force of nature, and how the story followed Evy taking on that role. The movie doesn’t do that – it culminates with V, in his big metal death-cock, fucksploding Big Ben to death and that solves everything. That means the final fight scene in the sewers is the sort of climax of V’s character arc, and looking back on it I’m a little bothered by how it works.

See, that scene does have this lovely catharsis to it, something I can definitely appreciate, the moment when a bully hits you very hard and expects you to stay down. Then you stand back up, show that you are strong enough, and retaliate with amazing force that makes it clear who was always the bigger badass. When those moments happen in real life, they are liberating and intense but they’re almost always moments of recognition and revelation. When you stand up after someone beats you and don’t stay down, you often didn’t think you could stand up.

V does. V knows he’s going to win this fight, he knows the cost he’ll have to pay to win it – which is his life – but he still does it, and he does it with flash and aplomb. There’s even some ridiculous stricture of fairness to his behaviour – he lets his enemies unload on him, confident that nobody will shoot for the head of a man standing still, and then, he kills a room full of (effectively) unarmed men with knives. The knives is particularly interesting because it means the kills are honestly kind of ridiculous – including at one point stabbing a man in his groin. V is strong enough to throw a knife hard enough that it will puncture a person’s skull, after that same person shot a metal plate covering V which would normally have enough force to break all his ribs regardless of armour.

Whatever, movie combat.

But the thing that this drives home to me, on a second watch, is that V knows he’s going to win this. V is strong enough to survive almost everything they do to him. V kills them all in an inefficient and cruel way, and he does it this way under a veneer of being the underdog. Sure, in greater societal ways, he probably is, but in this particular space and time, he is the bully. He lets them take their hit – fairness – and then he kills them in response. Not because he has to but because that’s what he’s decided to do. After all, they can’t kill him.

In the end, this is a sequence of an unstoppable bully killing people weaker than him, many of whom are just cogs in a greater machine.

But it’s okay. We justified it, because V did it, and V’s the good guy and the government’s the bad guy.

I’m not saying this sequence is itself a bad thing, or even that I can’t appreciate this in narrative, but in the case of V for Vendetta it really plays through this sort of strange, inverted fascist power fantasy. Rather than creating an implacable invader to justify any loss of freedom, this story creates an implacable government to justify any act of inhumane rebellion. Removing these scenes from the greater whole, and focusing on V as an individual character rather than a force of narrative of the whole – as he is in the books – loses something, to me, and mostly it’s in that he’s empowered by being what the audience wants. It’s a power fantasy beyond Batman, masquerading – haha – as something it isn’t and can’t ever really be.

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