Saturday, November 27, 2010

kremlin as rorschach

The last volume of Brian K. Vaugn's Ex Machina was finally released last week, so those of us avoiding the single issues and reading the collected volumes could finally see the conclusion.

Overall, an excellent work, though, just as with Vaughn's previous effort, Y: The Last Man, there are two sorts of unevenness. First, digressions from the main plot into side issues which fail to maintain the same level of intensity or interest (significantly less so here, I think, than in Y, though). Second, too quick movement in the conclusion through events which have been foreshadowed for the entire series. Here, again, Ex Machina represents an improvement over Y: although the ending feels rushed, the explanations / reveals, etc. were much more satisfactory than on Vaughn's previous outing.

The basic premise of Ex Machina is that a DIY NYC superhero, Mitchell Hundred, "The Great Machine" (whose super power is the ability to talk to machines), saves the second tower on 9/11, reveals his secret identity, and wins the next mayoral election. The storyline flashes back and forth between his adventures as a superhero and his attempts to right wrongs on a bigger scale as the mayor.

The final issue of Ex Machina contains a very interesting twist, one I think really works and reflects favorably on the series as a whole. Arguably, it conflicts with the character of Hundred as revealed earlier, though it is strongly consistent with the reveal of where his powers come from, and makes for an interesting commentary on the old adage about the corrupting effects of power, especially within the context of superheroics . . .

[Now begin some fairly serious spoilers]

Hundred is assisted in his superhero career by an old family fried, a crotchety old Russian immigrant affectionately referred to as "Kremlin." Kremlin takes his moral code from old school comic books, and is profoundly disappointed when Hundred abandons his career as a superhero in order to go into politics. In the second half of the series, Kremlin's disappointment turns (apparently) radically irrational when he embarks on a plot to ruin Hundred's political career by publicly discrediting him, thereby hoping to force him back into his role as a superhero.

Kremlin's machinations have disastrous and unforeseen consequences in the climax of the series, one would think prompting him to repent. In the final issue, however, he confronts Hundred again several years later, and reiterates his dedication to ruining Hundred's public image in an attempt to force him back into NYC-based superheroics.

Hundred: I'm trying to protect the entire world, you stubborn old asshole!

Kremlin: How, by pushing papers? Politics is no different from games out on that boardwalk. Is just carney's taking money from rubes!

Hundred: That's why I'm trying to give voters another choice!

Kremlin: Ha! That is what Russians were told during perestroika . . . but nothing really changed. Choice is just illusions powerful create to make the weak think they are not. Republican, Democrat, Independent, whatever. These are just Coke and Pepsi, different names for same watered-down shit.

Here's the twist [mega super-duper spoilers]: Kremlin responds to Hundred's continued insistence he'll go one with politics by threatening suicide and Hundred kills him by telling his gun to shoot. Thereby, however, preventing the leak of the information in Kremlin's possession which would have forever ruined Hundred's chance at political office.

Here's the connection with Watchmen: one of the central (of course there are many) ethical dilemmas in Watchmen is a version of the classic utilitarianism v. deontology dilemma: is the right act the one that's best for "the greater good," or the one which follows a higher moral code? Rorschach represents deontology, unwilling to allow Veidt's crime to go unpunished, no matter what the greater good; whereas Veidt represents utilitarianism, sacrificing the entire population of NYC in order to ensure world peace.

One of the most despicable features of the movie version of Watchmen is that it completely shortchanges Rorschach's position on this dilemma. The book builds up support for the deontological position by (a) following a collection of inhabitants of NYC, building them up into sympathetic human characters before their deaths, for the entire saga, and (b) presenting the violent carnage of NYC in shockingly graphic detail. Both these key features of the central moral dilemma of the work were elided in the film.

In the case of the Hundred / Kremlin encounter, the moral dilemma is similar, though the representation quite different. In both stories, a crime goes unpunished. In the case of Hundred, however, unlike Veidt, who facelessly annihilates a city from a distance, he kills his closest, most long standing father-figure face to face and personally.

Kremlin, much like Rorschach, is clearly a nutjob. Rorschach, for most of Watchmen, at least seems to have his heart in the right place, even though his methods are perhaps too extreme. Kremlin, however, is essentially a "bad guy" for the latter half of Ex Machina, his stubbornness at the very end seems irrational, though we've already been primed for the idea that power has begun to corrupt Hundred by earlier events in the final issue.

And it's the very issue of corruption which makes the case of Hundred qualitatively very different from that of Veidt. Veidt operates outside the law with cold detachment. Hundred operates within the system, attempting to bring reason to an unreasonable system by approaching each issue with a pure heart and a level head. His power as mayor is that he isn't tied to a particular platform or agenda, he can approach any given issue with a clearheaded moral sense.

Yet it is these very features of Hundred which make his "decision" (we see him express disbelief at his own action) to kill Kremlin so much more reprehensible than that of Veidt. Cold calculation is cold calculation. But a man guided by his moral compass who lets that compass slip no longer retains the very virtue he supposedly protects with the utilitarian act.

Of course, I've always sympathized with Rorschach. I'm not sure I'd say I sympathize with Kremlin, but his final rant reflects my own views, I'm afraid. If anything, though, the lingering feeling here is emphatically not that Hundred's period as mayor was all a lie, and we have now seen his true character, but rather that it was temporary, as all periods of virtuous power are temporary. Of course, this is an old message, but one elegantly and powerfully portrayed here.

Final thoughts: Is the deontological position tenable?

In the case of Ex Machina, would "the Great Machine" really have done greater good by remaining a local hero than by pursuing a political career? Certainly not, though, he might have been more sure that his actions were in fact good. Interestingly, this is a theme throughout the story—as the Great Machine, Hundred often doubts his own choices, or fails to convince the people he attempts to help that he is in fact helping them. Of course, Hundred is also beset by doubts during his term as mayor, but he experiences periods of profound satisfaction and self-confidence unequaled in his Great Machine days. Nevertheless, remaining the independent hero would have allowed Hundred to retain a moral high ground which he surely has lost by the end of the series.

In the case of Watchmen, as with all great art, it is shocking how closely life imitates art. Though it was written 15 years before 9/11, it is difficult not to reflect on the moral aftermath of that catastrophe when revisiting Watchmen today. At the end of Watchmen, the one hope the deontologist receives that Rorschach's moral vision (and the truth of NYC's demise) has not perished is the delivery of Rorschach's journal to an obscure far right journal. Although the novel stops here, and does not portray the reception of Rorschach's journal, it surely would have been qualitatively similar to that of the 9/11 truth movement: derision, disbelief, and embarrassment. Once a belief enters the public sphere with enough conviction, the truth or falsity of a radical enough dissenting view is irrelevant, it hasn't a hope of being treated seriously.

Does that mean the radical deontological position is untenable? That there is no place in this world for principles in the face of certain failure? I sure hope not. I'd like to think that placed in the position of Rorschach, I'd have the courage to fight for truth to the end. But then, I'd have to find myself in a position where I was certain of the truth . . . an all too rare occurrence.

1 comment:

Runehawk said...

Simply Brilliant.