Posts tagged ‘sociopath’

Kick-Ass: why?

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

a rare un-bloodied moment for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

“What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen, asshole.” – Dave Lizewski

Of the two Kick-Ass texts, the comic is far more faithful to the world it depicts (one seemingly defined by a lack of Alan Moore). The fundamental difference is that the graphic novel blatantly loathes its audience – and is therefore able to more accurately and comically present that group’s foibles and masochistic fantasies – while the film abandons this worldview mid-Act 2 in favor of pandering to the demographic.

Dave Lizewski is an Asperger’s-esque teen who suffers from what he describes as “the perfect combination of loneliness and despair,” which drives him to nick an identity from the comics he adores (obsessively, of course – no fictional fan has any other interests). The film and comic diverge pretty quickly, despite a surface similarity. Both present the sudden but natural death of Dave’s mother as both a vague motivation and something to be resented for lacking a good revenge arc. Neither seems to mourn very much, only noting the effect it’s had on Dave’s dad, who would do well to attend a support group hosted by Charlie Swan. Movie-Dave is a lovable loser who tries to make friends with those even more socially outcast than his geek-clique and picks two men who’ve repeatedly mugged him as his first heroic effort. Comic-Dave seethes with resentment that others don’t see how wonderful he is and picks relatively harmless-looking graffiti taggers as his first target. Unexpectedly (for the genre), both Daves fail spectacularly and spend several months recovering in hospital, and both choose to continue putting their bereaved father through financially ruinous hell rather than give up their delusional identity.

Watchmen was one of the first in-universe texts to confront the fact that anyone who chose the vigilante lifestyle would not only be mentally disturbed but probably only make the world a more dangerous place through their efforts. Kick-Ass attempts to update this concept to the 21st century by using cell phone cameras and Myspace as a direct conduit to Coincidental Broadcasts, upping the childish cynicism by half, and lowering expectations of audience IQ by at least as much. One cover announces its mission statement for the slower readers:

Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!

And yet the comic is less insulting than the film, which promises graphic deconstruction and provides Rambo-esque clichés. Dave gets beaten down, but then gets Real Mad and kills bad guys with a Gatling-enhanced jet pack and a rocket launcher (with no fear of the justice system). He gets the assigned most beautiful girl in school, after shamming as a GBF in order to amass the Nice Guy points that will make her owe him a relationship. He rescues one of the city’s only genuine superheroes and becomes he school “protector.”

All this with nary a synapse spark over committing mass murderer.

In a straight popcorn flick, this might be good enough, given that Kick-Ass was the hero of the movie named after him. But he’s not. He’s a mildly irritating prologue glommed onto Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s star turn. From the moment the appear on screen or paper, , Kick-Ass becomes part of the audience. This works – on its own level – because the father-daughter team is both more competent and far more interesting than the talentless and asocial imitative fanboy. Watching real superheroes do their thing is his natural level. The film demands a suspension of disbelief and basic humanity appropriate to a later Die Hard sequel, then flings an affectless and brainwashed 11-year-old serial killer at us.

She hacks and slashes her way through a room full of stereotypical thugs – and there is something primal and wonderful about that sight familiar to any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just as it’s oddly heartwarming that a father would train his daughter to be tough rather than decorative, how not to freeze when faced with the physical threats a small and pretty girl is likely to encounter as she ventures into the world.

Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl

Father-daughter bonding, Macready-style

But Buffy spent entire seasons mourning her lost potential of becoming someone who didn’t spend her nights killing other sentient beings. Hit-Girl and, more importantly, her father have no such qualms.

The film takes the easy route again by giving Big Daddy the standard Antihero’s Journey – a good cop framed by the Mob he refused to work for, which somehow leads to his wife’s suicide – and a clear mission of revenge. Comicverse Bid Daddy made this story up and picked a target at random. He was just an accountant, and obsessive comic book fan – an adult Dave Lizewski and obvious sociopath – who ran away from his career and wife into fantasy, kidnapping his daughter and raising her to live out his violent daydreams. He never comes near the bad guys, sending his daughter in alone and watching from a safe distance through the scope of a sniper rifle.

Hit-Girl, the only real superhero (and innocent), is the only comic character who catches a break in the end.  She avenges her father’s completely deserved death and gives up mass murder in favour of a relatively normal (if bully-proof) life with her mother. Actually, Dave’s father, whom the comic never marginalises as much as the film does, also breaks even. His son gives up getting beat up and running up hospital bills, and he even begins to move on from his paralysing grief to begin dating again. Big Daddy and the local Mob branch all die badly, and Dave (thank god) is roundly rejected by the object of his obsession when he confesses his deception and “love.” He tries to comfort himself that he’s changed the world by inspiring a legion of mentally unbalances poseurs, but the last frame goes to one of these deluded souls, the Armenian about to become pavement pizza when his homemade wings fail twenty floors up.

The uncompromising comic is a far superior story…but neither is worth the time it takes to see – or review – them.

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Silo of traumatic kernels: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland"

The Nostalgia Critic’s Bum Review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland sums up this film (and much of Tim Burton’s oeuvre) so well almost no other review is necessary: Seriously, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ looked great, but GOD was it stupid.

The overarching plot is pretty dire and derivative, even among the  ‘adolescent from the real world stumbles into fantasyland where he becomes Messiah-with-a-sword for the land’s darling anthropomorphic inhabitants’ genre. There are, however, a lot of nice touches underneath that made the film intermittently fascinating. For instance, Alice brings the fearsome bandersnatch over to her side by simply returning the eye taken from it in an earlier battle, one in which they’d been on opposite sides and the bandersnatch had given her a bad injury just beginning to fester. There’s no bargaining, no ‘I’ll return this if you let me get at that magic sword you’re guarding,’ only simple decency toward a dangerous enemy. After a night’s contemplation, the beast comes to the decision to disinfect her wound and hand over the key to the swordcase, and later helps her escape and partners up in battle. It wasn’t Hollywood ‘clever’ of Alice to make that gesture rather than using it as leverage, but it was quietly genuine and made for a real connection between the two.

This film also aces the Bechdel test, offering a variety of female characters who usually interact with each other in arguing about the right way to rescue Underland from the sociopathic Red Queen. Many of them are fairly complicated characters, as well, particularly the nominal white hats (some of them literally in white hats). The White Queen, for instance, has taken a mysterious but seemingly regretted vow to never hurt a living thing and swans about in an exaggerated Disney Princess posture – but she takes great glee in mixing up embiggening and ensmallening potions out of noxious or dead ingredients (which Alice, good sheltered daughter that she is, drinks down without hesitation even after seeking how they’re made). There’s a lingering worry that Underland will not fare much better under this differently-insane ruler, beautiful white dress or no.

Speaking of dress, Burton does a wonderful and almost subtle thing with the progression of Alice’s clothing. It is first a mark of her inability to truly fit into heteronormative standards, when her mother remarks in horror that she’s sneakily refused to wear her corset or stockings, items that make running or sweating difficult and uncomfortable.  She must improvise as she shrinks and grows, her pretty dress always an impractical inconvenience, progressing from a child’s pastel frills to a more punk-style red dress, to a tunic and trousers reminiscent of 1970s’ Maude, and finally into a suit of armor, coming to literally wear the pants in a gesture toward her future as a merchant businesswoman.

Still, that particular ending managed to be both anachronistic and out of date. A young woman choosing to guide her own future via a high-flying career hasn’t been cutting-edge feminism in generations, and no 19th-century lord would have taken on a female apprentice, no matter how much guilt he felt for not supporting her recently deceased father. And no person of any time period would choose a business heir immediately after she’d humiliated his son by publicly refusing his marriage proposal, alienated his bitter and domineering wife, and demonstrated a level head by literally running away from a decision, falling down a hole and knocking herself unconscious, and performing a pee-pee dance as dramatic punctuation to several condescending pronouncements to her various elders.

There’s also the awkward and quickly dumped romantic element with Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, something that was initially almost sweetly rueful despite its perfunctory arrival: “You’re always either too small or too tall for me” nicely encapsulates the difficult adjustments of a first serious love affair. Once they are the same size, however, I was quickly reminded of Alan Kirby‘s tenants of digimodernist aesthetics in terms of modern ‘epic’ films, the “foregrounding of children’s experiences” and specifically “an elision of the question of reproduction; sexualized love may be permitted, but in sublimated form”. (Digimodernism, 2009, p 127; I’d really hoped to find something more on this in his blog to link to specifically, as I’d love it if he’d expand on this idea more…particularly if he had any ideas where the re-sexualisation of these works in online fandom would fit in to this aesthetic, or as resistance against the aesthetic, or what have you…but there ya go.)

Once Alice and the Hatter are the same size, their connection fizzes into flat lemonade, becoming generic, sexless Wuv. Any remotely realistic complexity is immediately jettisoned, despite it being exactly the messy aspect of adulthood a 19-year-old first defined as a marriage-ready almost-woman should thematically be facing and beginning to control. The somewhat positive adult-becoming of beginning a career instead becomes a retreat from Underland’s potential for adult sexuality (and the mixed blessing of a devoted and creative paramour with the face of Johnny Depp but mercury-warped sanity and gametes) to the safe protection of a substitute father-figure standing between her and the big dangerous world – even after she’s slain a skyscraper-sized monster!

The Road: Quest for Sugar Bombs

The world of 2009’s The Road is by definition one without meaning: an unspecified cataclysm has radically altered the earth, leaving is sunless and all but lifeless.  Plants and the lifeforms directly dependent on them are long dead; the more adaptable end of the food chain has dwindled to a few brutal survivors consuming the last scraps of nourishment, (primarily, each other).

Humanity, as individuals and a species, is over.  The father and son that move furtively through this world – hoping for a semblance of normality to be found on the coast – often encounter the bodies of those who, like the boy’s mother, have chosen suicide over a brief existence snuffed out by starvation or roving gangs of cannibal rapists.

And yet this very bleakness creates lives of portentous significance, as if meaning had not been removed but distilled and grown omnipresent.  It’s a world that will leave obsessive players of Fallout 3 with a constant sense of déjà vu and, perhaps, a more profound depression.  By way of a inspiration-source grandfather paradox, the film feels like a serious business version of the game because Fallout 3’s distinctive aesthetic is extensively cribbed from the Cormac McCarthy novel the film is based on.

Many of the father’s choices, particularly when to press on exploring in the face of clear warnings, are agonising after months of leisure time spent in the Capitol Wasteland.  Skulls on poles? Inbred cannibals!  Well preserved antebellum house? Andale cannibals! Ruined church? Giant green mutant cannibals! And put out that fire before the raiders and feral ghouls are fighting to keep your slaughtered corpse as a nutritious trophy!

But – obviously – there’s no handy stashes of ammo and instant Salisbury Steaks, no safe havens, no stimpacks.  The Capitol Wasteland is a veritable land of milk and honey, compared to the road these two are on.  The two settings do, however, seem to have a very similar karma engine, the weight of moral choices composited by an all-seeing, objective force.

Much like the same year’s A Serious Man, the characters – and audience – have two contextualising options.  1) God exists and is testing them to extremes even Job could not imagine, and they will be quickly punished for succumbing to sin or despair.  Or, 2) There is no god, no punishment, and thus no meaning to their suffering, only empty chance – a more terrifying prospect than being subject to a vengeful god.

This continues a theme from another Cormac McCarthy-based film, No Country For Old Men, in which the callousness of fate is embodied in the single-minded contract killer Anton Chigurh.  It’s an identity he consciously embodies, chancing the lives of most he comes in contact with on a coin toss, which his victim must call.  This is an iron-clad principle, to him, that he is less a person than an instrument of morality – after all, the accumulation of many small choices made good or evil actions their habit, and evil (spanning a very broad spectrum of profound and petty impulses) is what brought them into contact with him.  The only explanation he offers is to one victim, a cocky hired gun who fails to carry off a hit on Chigurh: “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

The father is a survivalist – one who had stockpiled several years’ worth of non-perishables and whose first impulse, noting a fiery riot in the small hours, was to begin filling every sink and tub with tap water – who follows the rules that will allow him to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Keep moving.  Search every cranny for nutrition.  Avoid all other humans.

He does, however, allow a space for a larger meaning, for and because of the son born soon after the cataclysm.  Of the boy, he says, “the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”  He tells the boy stories from the old world of courage and justice, when he isn’t walking his son through the proper way to commit suicide with one of their two remaining bullets, when the time comes.  Later, when the father has hardened past what little morality he once possessed, he calls the boy not the word but his god – a totem rather than person.

Through this fraught childhood, the son begins to grow into something part Messiah, part masthead of the first – and perhaps only – generation of this new world, and just a smidgen of an ordinary pre-adolescent, needing to detach from the suffocating love of his parent in order to become his own person.  Never knowing plenty, his impulse is to share their limited supplies with the few not immediately murderous individuals they meet, potentially turning them to allies and the human company he desperately craves.  He is quickly more in tune with the new order than his father, picking up subtle signals – like the categorised pile of worn clothes in the Andale house of cannibals – that his father misses entirely in his dreaming of the old society.  For instance, in a nearly wordless scene, his father finds possibly the last can of Coca-Cola in existence and tells his son to have it as a treat.  The son tries to hide his revulsion at the strange liquid and insists the father have it.  No, children love soda, drink it and let me enjoy watching you enjoy it, his father’s fragile joy insists back.  It’s uncomfortably obvious they are living in the same world less and less.

The narrative of their course through the new wilderness may be an indictment of human nature and the lawless chaos underlying existence.  Or it may be a world in which its God, with a peculiar deity’s-eye view, has shown the mercy of removing all distractions so that humanity may clearly perceive its will and be judged on their responses.  Efficiently, immoral choices bring sinners into contact with each other (a sort of Anton Chigurh à deux) to mutually enact punishments.  Father and son are twice cornered among cannibals, and twice escape through coincidences bordering on divine intervention.  They nearly die of starvation, but stumble onto a huge cache of food in a hidden fallout shelter.  Suddenly, they are the richest people in the wasteland.

Here is where the father and son’s paths begin to metaphysically diverge.  The son wants to give thanks, to express his gratitude somehow to the people who left the food behind.  He also wants his father to stay out of what little privacy he has, after the father roots through his pockets and lays out his treasures – one of which is an arrowhead, something that catches the father’s attention.  Perhaps he is sadly mulling over happier apocalyptic scenarios he’d prepared for, once in which western humans could have re-learned the old skills.  But there are no more animals to hunt, no more living wood to make into bows…

They hear searching noises above their hideaway, and the boy wants to meet them, to see if they really could have something so mystical as a dog with them.  The father (sensibly) refuses, and decides they need to move in immediately.  Unfortunately, he decides to move on with as much of the supplies inside the shelter as they can stuff onto a cart, making them a slow-moving, indefensible target.  He has been abandoning the markers of good memories – a picture, his wedding ring – and trying to fully move into the new world, but without that old identity he is little better than the cannibals they flee.

The only possible strategy, both logistically and morally, is the eat their fill and leave, taking only what they can carry.  Both of their previous escapes hinged on speed, abandoning baggage of supplies and memories.  It’s like a tougher version of the Israelites’ manna from heaven during their 40 years in another wasteland, raising a generation of fighters untainted by the mental servitude of slavery and unquestioningly following the will of a very involved god.  Instead of maggots infesting their hoarded sustenance, the two are set upon by thieves and killers.  Two dying men are put in their path, offering opportunities to divest themselves of their dangerous hoard while acting in defiance of the immoral bleakness surrounding.  The father refuses, while the son is agonised with a need to do that right thing.

The first, an old man, offers something like a lesson.  When the father speaks of what it would be like to be the last man on earth, the old man responds only, “How would he know?”  A man’s awareness of the world is limited to his own skull at the best of times, and often not even that.  The worst atrocities and tragedies in this film come from characters who feel they have grasped the scope of the universe – everything is dying and no behaviour will be punished or stopped by some authority – and so they commit suicide or cannibalise their neighbours.

This is the only sort of world in which moral decisions truly matter,  one in which a person must continually chose between foolhardy generosity or faith solely for the benefit of a theoretical immortal soul (and seemingly being rewarded for such with a few more days’ existence) and one’s life.  No one will come after them who might offer the shoeless old man a spare pair of boots like the pair hanging off the back of their wagon, for instance.  Unlike the beggar on a busy city street who might inspire a guilty twinge, the father and son are his only chance.  The stakes are unimaginably high, but at least the moral choices are clear.

The father passes his personal moral horizon when he punishes a thief who stripped them of all their worldly goods (making the exact mistake the father did, allowing them to catch up), but left the boy unharmed.  He steals more unneeded wealth, every stitch of clothes, and leaves him to die of exposure.  The son passes this test, eventually convincing his father (too late) to return the clothes, and even leaves some food as well.  Soon after, they find a live beetle – a sign that, as the old man said, they didn’t truly know life would never return to earth – and the father is fatally wounded by an arrow.  Suddenly, the arrowhead his son carried hadn’t been a cruel reminder but a fair warning of the end of the path he’d set foot on.

His murderer is punished as well for taking potshots at those unfortunate enough to pass underneath, killed by a wild flare the father shot into his window.  This narrative’s god is very efficient.  Even the cannibals, for all they are currently well fed, aren’t really so well off.  They will also die horribly, sooner rather than later, either at the hands of their hungry compatriots or of some postapocalyptic Creuzfelt-Jakob disease.

After his father’s slow death, the son encounters an armed veteran on the shore and, following his father’s rules, initially holds him back at gunpoint.  The veteran and his family are both somewhat creepy and too good to be true, but the son chooses to trust that they want him to join their group.  If there is a god, the boy is being rewarded for his faith with temporary safety and the “good people” he and his father came to the coast hoping to find.  If this world is only meaningless chaos, the boy was raped and/or eaten soon after the fade to black.

It all depends on the road you want to follow.

Running Man, minus the dignity

Gamer is a terrible movie.

It’s also a strangely written movie, one that goes out of its way to insult its assumed target audience, portraying gaming enthusiasts in lazy shorthand: either spoiled ADHD-addled teenagers or grotesquely obese shut-in perverts.  Who would immediately get the reference to a game changing mod (as opposed to a cheat), or the sight gag of soldiers purchasing upgrades from blank-faced merchants mid-battlefield, but those who spend much of their leisure time gaming?

Also, the aesthetic is an odd choice – in the ersatz Sim world, the clothing, leisure and clubbing set-ups are straight out of Spice World, far more a late-90s hedonistic look than the current scenester gestalt:

Sims 1 didn’t even come out until 2000, and the franchise-defining Sims 2 in 2004 even had an H&M expansion pack, completing the neo-80s modern look of the game. The plotless carnage of the avatar-assisted gameplay is also far more 90s-influenced than the current generation of games, which now more often than not include complex storylines and karmic morality choices.  The hysterical Fake-Violence-Makes-Real-Psychopaths controversy that fuels this ‘sploitation movie belongs to another time, a quaint past that includes Marilyn Manson and a careful hedonism peeking out under the childhood boogieman of AIDS.  Video games want to be your Jiminy Cricket now, putting players through the negative consequences of fun, fun wholesale slaughter.

And yet, it often catches the youthful Web 2.0 drift eerily well, particularly in the cheapness of thrills, the naïve perception that flashing some of your amateur skin is something both expected and hugely valuable.  In fact, the 90s aesthetic would have been a pleasantly nostalgic redeeming feature of this shallow and mean-spirited movie if the Millennial generation’s pre-fab jadedness hadn’t been grafted onto it.

Well, there was a bizarre Michael C Hall dance number.  It’s got that going for it.

All in all: it’s always much more fun to play video games than watch someone else play them.  If nothing else, this movie has left me half-tempted to reinstall Sims 2 (and track down Autonomous Causal Romance mod, of course), but I’m halfway through Bioshock…Mr Bubbles, are you there?

Supes and Bats in Bowling Shirts: Dexter’s Dark Avenger

the Dark Defender

the Dark Defender

Dexter, Season 2

Dexter’s season one self-image begins with the smug self-loathing of a monster, aware that only his conditioning allows him any place in society outside a jail cell. Confronted with two like-minded sociopaths he was unable to force into his mold, he began to see himself as a different and better breed of monster, one who may someday be able to genuinely connect with others as he is. He sees the crowd of curious onlookers as cheering fans, with Deb at his side, smiling and sharing in his applause:

Everyone else would probably thank me if they knew I was the one who drained [the ice truck killer] of his life. Deep down, I’m pretty sure they’d appreciate a lot of my work. This is what it must feel like to walk in full sunlight, my shadow self embraced.

While this is a mixed sign in terms of real progress – retreating into fantasy rather than approaching the issues that the second season will stagger through – the immediate effect is to question the modern heroic archetype: the vigilante superhero.

The show does suffer the requisite sophomore slump, abandoning some of the best first-season elements while deepening the concept’s reach and mythology. While the first season mined and transcended a pulpy beach novel, the second too often lived down to the potboiler source material. One plot thread is painfully predictable: OMG Crazy Hot Girl Is The Only One Who Understands Me And Thus We Must Fuck, which segues into OMG Crazy Hot Chick Is Crazy And Hot, In The Sense That She’s Really Into Emotionally Strategic Arson!

Urgh. Even Dexter’s long delayed leap into sexual puberty can’t justify the stretching of this from its one-episode premise through three-quarters of the short season.

A larger issue was the too-convenient resolution of Dexter’s various cliffhangers. Too often, he is a cipher serving only to bring together the awkward thesis and antithesis that independently resolve his crisis. The long-awaited confrontation with Rita about the real reason her abusive ex-husband was found with a heroin needle sticking from his arm (leading to his re-incarceration and fatal shanking) is derailed after Dexter has been forced to confess – when Rita conveniently jumps to the conclusion he must be an addict himself, apparently forgiving him. This leads Dexter to Narcotics Anon, where he is presented with the season arcs of aforementioned batshit insane hot chick and the addiction filter through which to explore his compulsions. The investigation into the Bay Harbor Butcher (ie Dexter) and the personal persecution of Sgt Doakes crash together, leaving Doakes the top suspect with Dexter’s blood sample trophies in his trunk. Doakes again, stashed in a remote cabin that’s about to be found by the FBI’s great white hunter – not to mention made a connection with Dex and nearly convinced him to turn himself in – is found and spontaneously killed by Batshit Crazy Hot Chick. Who then ties off her own loose end by very publicly demonstrating her insanity and fleeing the country, to be killed by Dexter at his leisure.

Dexter’s contribution to his crises and moral quandaries is little more than ethically facile mopping up. Following the insane woman’s version of the NA programme, he spends months attempting to quit his addiction – allowing Rita, Doakes, and Batshit Crazy Woman to believe he is struggling with heroin – and delve into his shadowed past, particularly the grimier aspects of his formerly sainted foster father. He reaches a breaking point when Doakes witnesses him murdering, and Doakes’ sickened reaction forces him to put together two memories he’d previously managed to keep separate: his father’s horror at witnessing Dexter happily dismember a victim picked according to “Harry’s code” and his father’s suicide soon after.

Dexter’s guilt and misery evaporate soon after when he realises God must approve of his actions, having rescued him from capture via a complicated spiderweb of contrivances; sadly, Dexter lacks to self-awareness to consider the possibility of showrunners sparing his viewers from having to make a real judgement on his actions and their own complicity in his actions, their attention literally continuing his existence.

The hints at superhero traits offered in the first season are laid out without subtlety. One local graphic artist has literally made a comic hero of the Bay Harbor Butcher: the Dark Avenger. (Dexter is fascinated by the image but only notes that dark leather would be completely impractical for Miami.) He enters the season thinking that ordinary people would cheer him on and indeed they do, as an abstract concept. When a face – Sgt Doakes’ – is put to the killer, the acclaim disappears.

As Dexter-the-killer, he exposes the childish morality of superheroes who get the bad guys without killing them. Batman and Superman are condoned by the police in their world, delivering criminals to Headquarter’s front door – although you have to wonder how their cases ever went to trial. Much like Dexter, their verdict of ‘guilty’ is the only law. The criminals who have to die for plotty goodness or the satisfaction of a network’s moral code generally cause their own doom, usually by refusing to grab the hand of the person who’s been whaling the life – nearly – out of them for the past several minutes and plunging to their comic-book death.

The show itself resolves the irresolvable in a similar slight of hand, having Lila (a self-deluding murderer-by-arson who seeks out vulnerable new victims) do the dirty work of killing Doakes (a self-confessed monster who admits to isolating himself for others’ safety). Dexter’s ‘code’ remains intact through others’ actions; while Doakes got a raw deal at the end, his obsessive bullying directly led there.

Dexter’s backstory riffs on two of the oldest comic book heroes, recognisable in any part of the world with any access to visual media. He is a superman hiding in plain sight – like Clark Kent, he is physically and intellectually stronger than most; like Bruce Wayne, he builds his ‘true’ persona with technological preparation and stringent training. His motivations…they are something of a different story, but not from a distant shelf. The motivations of the hero and the serial murderer may only be chapters of the same book.

The foundling is raised by a foster father who knows his beloved son is not like other children, who instils a rigid code and the need to hide his difference above all else. Ostensibly on the side of the angels – he wants his strange son to have something of a normal life, unmolested by authority, while using his abilities to make the world a better, safer place – the impotent father conditions him into a black-and-white worldview to further his own agenda. Isolated from other influences – to keep the dangerous secret of his difference secret, of course – the son sees his father as the ultimate, unquestioned authority and is kept from developing an independent personality and the ability to truly take responsibility for his own actions. When the father has died and the son begins a long-delayed maturation process, he’s initially faced with an either/or: continue following the father’s law to the letter, or reject all morality in favour of showy self destruction.

Or: the boy is orphaned by a gruesome murder that will haunt his psyche through adulthood. As a nemesis could later observe,  he had a bad day, and everything changed – he became a vicious freak, avenging that long-ago trauma on present individuals who are innocent of that crime, if not others. Only a personally enforced code keeps him morally separate from those he hunts.

Unlike Clark or Bruce, Dexter actively reminds himself that he is a monster – usually forcing himself into an emotionless archetype he doesn’t actually fit – despite his code. Those other American heroes cling to their codes as the thing that makes them the opposite of the criminals they use violence and intimidation to apprehend. Dexter knows he would still kill without the veneer of justice. The abilities and the need to use them precede any thirst for justice.

Would Bats and Supes do the same in a more realistic world? Where society – or at least its legal system – demanded that only the police force, with its flawed systems of oversight and restraint, use physical force to “protect” society and remove its worst elements?

portents and blowflies

And the Ass Saw the Angel
Nick Cave
1989

In his only novel, Australian Nick Cave out-Southern Gothics William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor with his ur-swamp tale of total corruption, the degradation of all life and complexity into unthinking muck. The primal swamp lies in Ukulore Valley, which travellers and the march of history avoid even before the apocalyptic three-year rain. Despite spanning the 1930s through the 50s (arguably beginning even earlier, when Euchrist’s father is born in 1890), the valley is untouched by wars and social progression.

This rift in the land nurtures both sugar cane and the most repellent consanguineous tribes of people on earth. One is the Ukulites, the minority ruling class population in the valley who follow the 1861 bible written by an excommunicated Baptist. The other is the Morton clan, sometimes cannibalistic inbred hillfolk who prey on travellers, and are nearly wiped out by lawmen in the novel’s early chapters. One, Ezra Eucrow, whose tangled genes are revelled only in his shuddering light blue eyes, escapes before the slaughter and settles with the town’s outcast moonshiner, Crow Jane. Jane gives birth in the burnt corpse of a Chevy to twin boys, badly damaged by their tangled genetic code, fetal alcohol syndrome, and congenital disease. The firstborn, luckier twin dies soon after; the second, Eucrid, grows into a twisted and desperate young man who lacks the power of speech.

Despite its religious focus, Cave insists And the Ass Saw the Angel is not an allegory. Nevertheless, it is packed with possible thematic markers and symbols that blend to ultimately form little more than a message of abject wretchedness. Breaks in this despair are rare and exist sole as lights to be snuffed out by the next horror and leave the darkness that much deeper.

Euchrid’s insane parents avenge his terrible beating by throwing his persecutors into a patch of nasty thorns, where he later hides from his pursuers. Before her own mob assault, the town’s heroin-addicted whore treats Eucrid kindly, establishing an internal heaven in his mind made up of her perfumes and soft breasts. From this safe mental haven come his worst heavenly commands to build himself a fort of horrors and plan the murder of the town’s young Virgin Mary. The town’s disgraced minister adopts and sincerely loves this foundling girl, but allows the parishioners to “prime Beth for sainthood” in return for their care and cooking.

In Ukulore Valley, individual yearnings toward the spark of divinity lead only to mass abuse and profanity. God’s plans figure heavily in every character’s thoughts, albeit in twisted and self-serving fanaticisms. For Euchrid in particular it shapes his formless need for acceptance into a targeted and devastating vengeance on his small world. The Ukulites scramble to keep hold of their faith in the face of a hard rain that for three years destroys their cane crops and keeps them inside. They briefly fall under the sway of wayward preacher Abie Poe, who moves them to symbolically destroy the corruption in the community by brutally beating the whore Cosey Mo and to clense themselves in the fetid swamp. They reject him after the aborted mass baptism—crippling an innocent is fine, but humiliating the parishioners is right out.

Euchrist and the townspeople descend separately into mad religiosity after the discovery of Cosey’s abandoned infant coincides with the return of the sun. Euchrist lurks on the fringes, abused by all who spy him there, escaping into dreams of his angel that cover and entwine with masturbation (he notes the “ectoplasm” left on his hand from the angel as proof of her presence). He thinks of himself as “a Voyeur to the Lord.” Meanwhile the townspeople venerate Beth as the womb of Christ’s return, medically verifying her virginity and impatiently waiting for her to conceive. Beth retreats into the same staring fits that marked Ezra’s mountain lineage and pathetic religious visions similar to Euchrist’s, implying Ezra had a progenitive relationship with Cosey, whose body he secretly buried with tenderness.

These two insanities come together as Beth misapprehends the mute and wild Euchrist as the Holy Spirit come to enact the Big Plan the townswomen have groomed her for. Euchrist, in a very concrete Freudian slip, comes to kill the teenaged Beth (as a false prophet and devil) and instead has sex with her, an act lost in the delusional muck of his perceptions. As the Ukulites hunt him down and destroy his hideaway of horrors on the suspicion he’s assaulted Beth, he succeeds in plunging his scythe into her in the town square (this time, not metaphorically). As the townspeople kill Euchrist in revenge, the rain once again begins to fall.

The final image is of the core fundamentalist women gathering around their newborn Christ. The labor has killed Beth, who narrowly survived Euchrist’s attack. With Ezra’s “shivering, pale blue eyes,” Beth’s son is the consanguineous grandchild of the despised town rejects brought to the very heart of the community. Euchrist has proved not a cancer to be removed from the town’s body (in which his mother’s moonshine is shown repeatedly to be the blood) but a testicle, the literal distillation of their shared nature producing the next generational evolution.

The fanatic Ukulites and the twisted, dying clans will descend into fruitless entropy together.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter: blood and ethical sociopathy

Dexter Season One

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Jeff Lindsay
2004

Dexter, Season One
2006

Dear Dexter is a single white male in his thirties who lives alone and works peripherally in law enforcement, and is generally considered to be a quietly well mannered and quirky guy.  He is, of course, an insane serial killer preying on the residents of Miami.

However: that “prey” is only those who he can prove to his own high threshold of satisfaction are like him: serial predators who have escaped the law’s prosecution who will continue to kill innocents.  The undisturbed lives of those innocents, unfortunately, are an incidental by-product of scratching his itch to main and kill.

The novel upon which Dexter’s first season is based calls this urge the “Dark Passenger”.  It’s worth experiencing this introduction in all its purple glory:

Moon.  Glorious moon. Full, fat, reddish moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land and bringing joy, joy, joy. Bringing too the full-throated call of the tropical night, the soft and wild voice of the wind roaring through the hairs on your arm, the hollow wail of starlight, the teeth-grinding bellow of the moonlight off the water.

All calling to the Need. Oh, the symphonic shriek of the thousand hiding voices, the cry of the Need inside, the entity, the silent watcher, the cold quiet thing, the one that laughs, the Moondancer. The me that was not-me, the thing that mocked and laughed and came calling with its hunger. With the Need. And the Need was very strong now, very careful cold coiled creeping crackly cocked and ready, very strong, very much ready now—and still it waited and watched, and it made me wait and watch.

Urgh.  Take a moment—that was a thick chunk of corrugated prose to force down an unsuspecting reader’s throat.  The series, fortunately, lacks the Dark Passenger.  The Dexter who partially garrottes a secret paedophile, forcing him to confront the bodies of the boys he’s murdered, before antiseptically dismembering him, is the same Dexter that greets his girlfriend’s children warmly and patiently guides the career of his impatient sister.

With his deserving victims, Dexter is a more honest version of himself, ironically closer to connecting, but he stalks and kills on his own impulse rather than obeying a voice in his head.  Unlike the common perception of a sociopath, Dexter does want to connect, and with some logic seeks an understanding from monsters like himself as much as he tries to force upon them an understanding of their own crimes.

Blood

“Blood. Sometimes it sets my teeth on edge. Other times it helps me control the chaos.”

Dexter works as a blood splatter technician with the Miami police department.  Early on, he tells the viewers (or the inside of his own echoing head) that he chose this position and city to monitor his own criminal activity, and feels Miami, with its law enforcement’s 20% solved murder rate, is the best setting for a journeyman killer.

Blood is the one indulgent memento he keeps from victims, single beads dried onto slides and tucked away in his ac unit.  He enjoys flicking through his collection and remembering his work, fingering the dry red ovals.

He reveals in later episodes a great antipathy toward blood, despite making it his life’s work.  His plastic sealing of his killing scenes turns out to be not only a practical method for hiding DNA but a way of containing the splash and gush of sticky blood.  His job, as well, while it requires he confront and contemplate his personal bugaboo, allows him to explain and contain it as well, like his kills, tidying away his corner of the world.

Dexter begins to realise why he has such an intense connection to such an abstract bit of life, eventually unearthing a long-repressed memory of not only witnessing his mother’s brutal murder at the age of three but also spending over two days in a drying pool of the victims’ blood.  He was discovered and rescued by Harry Morgan, then an ordinary policeman, who fostered and then adopted the young boy, but his fixation with blood and murder was already set.

Sociopath

Harry recognises in dear dark Dexter (to follow the book’s alliterative nomenclature) the signs of a budding sociopath, specifically the torture of animals and lack of normal emotional responses.  When he pushes young Dexter into admitting his need to hurt and kill, the boy clings to his foster father for comfort.

Harry, by now a detective and growing jaded with the justice system, becomes a more sophisticated Pa Kent.  He teaches Dexter how to fake normal with the rest of the world, encouraging a dual identity.  One side he makes into the perfect son, helpful, happy and obedient, and shows him how to feed the other side with socially acceptable murderous acts, like hunting.  This doesn’t totally satisfy Dexter, and perhaps doesn’t totally satisfy his mentor, either.  Dexter’s high intelligence and physical strength, combined with his need to ritualistically murder, are wasted on deer when there is a city full of dangerous men outside the hunting range.

Dexter voiceovers that he can’t connect with people, and to the degree that someone without remorse can be bothered, he is bothered by that.  Here is where the book and series diverge most sharply; book-Dexter ends up breaking from the Code of Harry, killing LaGuerta and planning to kill Doakes to remain undetected.  Deb has learned the truth about him but he’s sure she’ll come around to approving what he does, like their father.

Series-Dexter comes to care for Rita, becomes frantic that Deb will be tortured and killed, and mourns after killing his truly sociopathic brother.  He is helped by talk therapy (even if he does later murder the therapist).  He leaves a session that has begun to bring up memories of his Traumatic Event to finally have sex with a girlfriend without creeping her out.  He also seeks out a connection with a young serial murderer, intending to be the mentor to the teenager that Harry had been to him.  In the end he imagines himself surrounded by normal Miami residents who would cheer him on, even love him, if they knew what he did, and smiles.  The saving of innocents is no longer purely a byproduct.

His way of life is only possible because of his bond with Harry, whose approval and comfort he needed as much as understanding and protection.  Young Dexter really really really wants to kill people, especially a bullying jerk at school, but he doesn’t because of Harry—not because he doesn’t want to be punished or imprisoned, but because Harry would be disappointed and hurt.  The 1 sociopath in 25 individuals one encounters any day wouldn’t have that connection to prevent his or her destructive actions.

Brian deliberately brings Dexter to the realisation of his past, in the hopes he’ll be free to join him in the ritualistic killing they share.  They’re both the children of criminals, and may possess the faulty mental wiring in their shared DNA.  Harry thought that Dexter might be young enough to remain unaffected by his gruesome experience, leaving Brian to mental institutions, but when proved wrong labelled the boy a sociopath and trained him like an attack dog.  But, while he’s a deeply disturbed man with a compulsion to kill, Dexter’s emotional growth suggests he’s something less than that.  More pathetically, he may have spent over thirty years with the emotional acuity of a three-year-old.

Ethics

To come: Bats and Supes In Tropical Bowling Shirts