Heroism and Institutionalism - wednesday 2009-01-28 0104 last modified 2009-02-02 1408
Categories: Film
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The first time a storied hero gains insight into the nature of an antagonistic institution - that a surface, seemingly natural reality masks a more programmatic, impersonal, sometimes sinister agenda - their first and only instinct is to rebel and restore a natural balance, perhaps by removing a figurehead from the picture, decapitating the institutional movement. We see the story told constantly in action hero films. To wit, the first of The Matrix trilogy, where Neo learns all of humanity is deceived and enslaved by their waking reality, a construct of their artificial masters. Neo actively pursues rebellion, and at the end of the first film, we expect he might be able to destroy the computers, maybe through blowing up a central cortex. The institution, felled by disrupting its bits ad bytes.

I recently caught up on a couple of 2008 films I'd missed that take the same tack: a lone hero fights against a markedly evil institution and destroys it - but I'm left thinking that nothing has truly changed at the end of the film. In what seems an odd philosophical direction along these lines for the Wachowski brothers, who also made The Matrix, Speed Racer portrays the eponymous race car driver ultimately winning the Grand Prix to expose corporate criminal rigging of all major races, sending the head of his main institutional antagonist to prison. But several other major companies still exist in the end, and as Speed's father direly warns him in the film's long middle, "you can't change the world by driving a car." The point still stands at the end: Speed may have won a big race, but his skill doesn't prevent corporate greed from dominating other sectors of society, nor does it really keep them out of his; there are other ways to make a buck out of the entertainment industry. This is a total reversal from The Matrix, where Neo's seeming victories are constantly exposed as the expected results of larger and larger machinations. Here, Speed Racer is The One, but he actually appears to beat the system from within. But not really.

In Death Race, a remake that completely missed the most endearing part of its original namesake, i.e., the game of getting points for running over people, here again the protagonist uses his unique skills to circumvent an institution, winning freedom and the chance for his cohort to murder the institutional heads. But what really changes? The post-apocalyptic brokenness of society that created it in the first place is still there. The hero hasn't really done anything at all. One assumes an equally or more devious mind is ready to take up the mantle of raking in obscene Death Race broadcasting profits.

It's odd that we build up these kinds of heroes at all. Perhaps it's an American cultural phenomenon to pit the super individual (or even the "normal" one with superior resolve) against mostly faceless institutions with identifiable figureheads. It says a lot about our cultural worldview, that we identify an ongoing struggle between (personal, individual, identifiable) good and (oftentimes faceless and institutional) evil. Yet outside these narratives we tell ourselves, we find reality is starkly different down to its core: we have few (if any) such blatantly evil institutions to combat, and would-be heroes must be faced with Speed's reality: one person can't just act well and change the world. Likewise, removing a certain "evil" member of society never seems to produce widespread, lasting change. I have a high regard for The Matrix trilogy precisely because the protagonist there does not simply destroy his given enemy. Instead, he gives his life to broker a change of mindset in both sides of his conflict - he can save them all on the condition they end their war and learn how to share their world. There's no guarantee of success, to be sure, but his approach is wholly different: it truly upsets the initial conditions of the world as he found it. As an aside, V for Vendetta, another in the Wachowski collection, would make for an interesting study in this vein, but I've only watched it once and recall it dimly (there must be some deep seated reason the Wachowskis keep telling this story over and over again).

Perhaps I'm reading too much into the solution by means of institutional eradication or change, and maybe it's just a cultural symbol for evil. But it's easy to take away the lesson that if someone, and usually just one person, can knock one institution off its feet, the problems are well on their way to be solved. It really isn't the one institution that needs to be eliminated though, it's the overriding social philosophy that allowed it to exist in the first place. There's no individual embodiment of that to call out and condemn. If we've decided, for instance, that it's acceptable for global conglomerates pursuing maximal profit to exist, then we're going to have to face the consequences of global economic inequality and forced slavery. They are inseparable, and there's no one corporation we can remove from the picture to change it all; another one will simply step in. Despite our cultural fantasies, it's never as simple as laying our responsibilities on the shoulders of lone superheroes - we all carry the burden to see differences made. Lois Lane once wrote "the world doesn't need Superman." It needs men and women to shine lights in the darkest corners of our collective hearts. That's where good can triumph over evil.

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