Wolverine, out on DVD recently, is a great example of one of the silliest clichés in escapist entertainment: someone reclaims his/her true humanity and unique individuality — by killing everyone in sight. What the hell is this about?
Speculative fiction is full of stories about people who've lost their identity – AMC just gave us a dreamlike remake of The Prisoner in which Number Six forgets who he really is, and Dollhouse returns Friday with more mind-erasing fun. But it's weird to see the trope of "fighting for selfhood" merged with that action-movie staple, the entertaining killing spree.
Recently, I was re-watching chunks of X-Men: Origins: Wolverine and thinking about that movie's insane body-count — both before and after Logan starts trying to regain his elusive humanity. In Wolverine, the mutant known as Logan is caught between his bestial nature and his dignity as an individual. For a hundred-odd years, he is a slaughter machine for the military, and then he joins a super-secret mutant taskforce. But in mid-atrocity, he suddenly starts questioning orders, and then he goes… rogue. (No, he doesn't bleach part of his hair and start talking in a Southern-girl voice. He just wanders off the reservation.)
The point is, Wolverine is just as much of a killing machine after he starts asserting that he's not just part of the machine, or not just an animal. He never makes the connection between the sacredness of his own personhood, and the sacredness of human life in general. I get that you have to fight for your freedom sometimes, but the movie makes a big point of showing Wolverine killing when he could just as easily disable his opponents — one of the movie's few great fuck-yeah moments involves cold-blooded murder. (Sure, he's killing scumbags. But he was just as much of a scumbag twenty minutes earlier.)
Likewise, Terminator Salvation (newly on DVD) gives us Sam Worthington's tormented cyborg Marcus, who discovers that he's basically a reanimated corpse with metal parts — and he makes the choice to be human, slaughtering several of John Connor's men in the process. (During his heroic escape from the resistance compound.) But it's okay, because Marcus' emergent selfhood is more important than any sense of self all of those dead people might have possessed. (Actually, I might need to — shudder — rewatch this sequence. I know a bunch of the rebels die, but some of them die due to hydrobots that attack afterwards. Does Marcus actually kill anybody directly, or just cause their deaths by tearing apart their security?)
And then, of course, there's District 9, in which Wikus also fights to regain his humanity — by putting on a battlesuit and shredding people with alien weapons. This film at least subverts this trope a bit, by having Wikus use alien weaponry that he's only able to use because he's losing his humanity — and the film doesn't exactly reward Wikus for his mass murder.
This odd combination — the hero who devalues human life in the process of exalting his own — has been around for ages, but seems to be on the rise. RoboCop and the Universal Soldier movies give us cyborg heroes who struggle to re-humanize while killing lots of other humans. Michael Bay (surprise!) gave us The Island, in which a clone grown as an organ donor kills his "original" self, along with a number of other people, on the way to becoming a full-fledged person.
For almost as long as there have been action movies, there's been the high body count: watching a Rambo movie in the 1980s, you don't stop and think that everyone of these bodies flopping to the ground is another person who won't come home to his/her family. It's one of the conventions of action movies that we accept that this carnage isn't really happening – even as the movie expects us to suspend our disbelief about a guy falling out of a helicopter on fire and surviving, it asks us to maintain full disbelief that mass murder is taking place in front of us.
On some level, too, we stop thinking that those people dying in front of us are really people – especially in a movie with tons of bad CG (like Wolverine). We can watch the corpses piling up because we know they're not human.
But the action-movie body count and the "search for identity" plot are great separately — I love a good John Woo bloodbath — but they sit uneasily together. The more people we see your cyborg or mutant kill — and the more casually they're killed — the less we can identify with our hero's quest for selfhood. The whole thing starts to feel more like a first-person shooter, and the main character more like a video-game avatar, rather than an individual who Deserves Human Rights and all that stuff.
If life is so cheap, then who really cares about Logan's quest for self? Not to pick on Wolverine, but these questions keep coming back as you watch the movie, as if they have a mutant healing factor.
How do you square the contrast, between the hero's inalienable uniqueness and everyone else's disposability? Maybe it's because Our Hero is a Nietzschean ubermensh, whose will to power makes his individuality more precious than everyone else's? What do you think?