Sometimes I watch a movie or TV show that I want to write about, but it turns out to not have enough substance for a full blog post. At the same time, I don’t want to just throw away what I wrote either. And so, just for the opportunity to post something a little more fun for the holidays, I’ve put together a couple of these leftovers into one Tupperware.
Oliver Queen is a Serial Killer
I’ve recently begun watching Arrow, the WB’s CW’s latest iteration of Pretty White Kids with Problems, this time based on the DC comic character, Oliver Queen (aka the Green Arrow.) Oliver was a spoiled trust fund teenager until his yacht sank, his father sacrificed himself to save him, and he became stranded on a not-quite deserted island for five years. He eventually returns home with a bow, a grab-bag of combat skills, and a list of people to hunt down who have harmed his city in a variety of vague ways.
Superheroes have traditionally refrained from intentionally killing their foes for many reasons—a moral boundary to their questionable vigilanteism, culturally imposed comic codes, the opportunity for recurring villains, and so forth. I’m only about a half-dozen episodes in, but so far it seems that Oliver eschews this convention in favor of his preferred method of dealing with villains: 1) immediately kill all of their bodyguards, 2) give them a choice between atoning for their crimes or death, 3) embroil them in some scheme that usually involves atoning for their crimes and death.
At first, I thought the casual murder was just a lazy way for the writers to make things gritty. But a few episodes in, they seem to become conscious of the moral discrepancy. As it happens, one man on Oliver’s list installed faulty smoke-alarms in low-income housing, and Oliver responds in the only sensible way: kill a dozen of his employees and extort money to donate to fire victims. But before Oliver can murder him, another assassin shows up and beats him to it. This assassin, of course, provides an opportunity for Oliver to look in the mirror and examine the morality of his own mission.
Oliver embraces this opportunity without any angst whatsoever because he immediately realizes that unlike himself, the assassin does his work for money. Oliver, on the other hand, already has all the money he’ll ever need and then some, which he spends primarily on weapons to extort money out of bad guys in order to help the poor. Oliver also observes that unlike himself, the assassin follows no code of honor—after all, just like that other famous DC hero, the Joker, Oliver usually gives his victims a gruesome choice before releasing one last arrow. These two differences are enough to ensure that Oliver never wavers in his conviction that he is totally different from this assassin whom he immediately sets out to kill.
The ethical hilarity continues a few episodes later when he hooks up with another vengeful DC hero, the Huntress. Oliver tries to instruct her on the finer distinctions between justice and vengeance, which, as it turns out, are twofold: murder needs to at least be Plan B and justice uses bows while vengeance uses guns. I wish I were joking about that last one, but apparently bows require more discipline and are therefore less vengeful than firearms. Curiously enough, this is the first episode where Oliver actually tries to take out henchmen using non-lethal force. Maybe he was afraid to look like a self-righteous hypocrite in front of his new girlfriend. For the viewer, unfortunately, it’s already a lost cause.
Indiana Jones and the Nuclear Fridge
I received Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures for Christmas this year. This box set contains all three Indiana Jones movies along with another amateur film involving communists and aliens made by some novice computer animators. They did somehow manage to get Harrison Ford to reprise his role, which is nice, but it might have been a better effort if it had been made by fans of the original movies.
All kidding aside, there’s been no shortage of commentary on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s deficiencies, and so I’ll pass over any further mention of nuclear fridges, terrible CGI, and Shia LaBeouf and proceed to one reason for the movie’s lack of soul that I haven’t seen explored yet: its deep secularization.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana begins with a practical, no-nonsense approach to searching for the Ark of the Covenant. When Marcus expresses his concern about the search because the Ark is unlike anything he has gone after before, Indy laughs it off and responds, “I’m talking about a object of incredible historical significance, and you’re talking about the boogeyman” before packing his gun. By the end of the movie, he’s witnessed the Ark’s unspeakable power and is frustrated because the government bureaucrats he hands it over to don’t understand the significance of what they have. Though it begins as a mere treasure hunt, the movie eventually dabbles in a spiritual dimension as well.
The same transformation occurs in Temple of Doom. After selling off a priceless artifact to a gangster in some shady deal at a nightclub (you know, typical archeologist stuff), Indiana lands in India (through a series of events that were, frankly, more ridiculous than the whole fridge thing). His hosts tell him about an evil cult that stole the sacred Shankara Stone from their village and beseech the aid of Indy and friends who they perceive were sent by Shiva because they fell from the sky. Indy helps for the sake of their kidnapped children, but dismisses the whole Shiva/magic rock stuff as legends about fortune and glory. Nevertheless, by the end of the movie, he’s accusing the villain of betraying Shiva and after all is resolved, ultimately tells the village elder that he now understands the power of the Shankara Stone.
Indiana must regress on more mystical matters fairly regularly because the same thing happens yet again in Last Crusade. After the intro sequence is finished (in which Indy recovers a cross purely for the sake of putting it in a museum,) the movie proceeds to the classroom. Professor Jones lectures his students about how “archeology is the search for fact, not truth… We cannot afford to take mythology at face value, we don’t follow maps to buried treasure, and ‘X’ never ever marks the spot.” He then proceeds to refute his own lecture point-by-point for the remainder of the film. Midway through the movie, Indy’s father reminds him that “the quest for the Grail is not archeology; it’s a race against evil” and by the end when Indy has learned to let the grail go (i.e. realizes that it doesn’t really belong in a museum), Henry Jones Sr. explains that even without possessing the physical grail, he still found “illumination.”
None of these three movies are really religious in any coherent sense, but Indiana’s archeological adventure is nevertheless always caught up in some kind of cosmic struggle between good and evil. Like your average American, they’re spiritual but not religious. This facet is entirely missing from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which followed purely secular themes. Indiana searches for aliens and their artifacts, a discovery that is important because it tells us about our history and could potentially alter the balance of cold war political power, but nothing more. The movie is about an object of incredible historical significance, but not really of any cosmic significance. Just like Lucas reduced the Force to microscopic organisms called midichlorians in the Star Wars prequels, he reduces Indiana Jones’ brand of archeology back to the search for fact, not truth. Sure, Indy discovers that the aliens’ treasure is knowledge, but it comes off as nothing more than a feel-good aphorism.
When souls are irrelevant to the film, it’s no wonder that the film feels like it has no soul.