Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Darth Vader vs. the Wolf Man

My favorite movie ever.
Who’s stronger, Superman or the Hulk?  Comic fans once thrived on such questions, and to some extent, they remain popular.  I’m asking one that’s never been asked before…Who’s worse, Darth Vader, or the Wolf Man? 

First, let's be clear. I’m talking about The Wolf Man, not Werewolf by Night or Man-Wolf or the Werewolf of London or Teen Wolf or anybody else.  I’m talking about Lon Chaney, Jr., playing Lawrence Talbot in George Waggner’s 1941 movie (and, to a lesser extent, Benecio del Toro in Joe Dante’s 2010 movie The Wolfman), who despite being pure of heart and saying his prayers by night turns into a pig-nosed hairy fella when the full moon shines bright.  Second, I’m talking about Darth Vader.  Third, I’m not talking about a physical fight here.

That one would be interesting, sure.  What would happen to a monster who can only be killed by silver if Vader slashed his arm off with his light saber?  And would the Wolf Man’s speed and claws be enough to get by Vader’s reflexes and precognition?  Vader could stop laser blasts with his hands, after all. I never get tired of that scene in Empire where Han shoots at him in that Cloud City dining room.
Man, there's a lot of weird Star Wars stuff out there.

I’m more interested in how they lived and died.  They were both good people in many ways, separated from their families until reunited by tragedy and pain.  They both undergo a dark transformation and kill lots of people.  Then they’re defeated in battle by a family member: Larry by his father; Darth by his son. Their stories are about father-son relationships. (The 2010 Wolfman film has the son kill the father.)

Evidently we're uncomfortable with Oedipus reversed.
In Star Wars, the father-son tension and rivalry dominates the whole story. It’s already present in Episode IV in the scenes where Luke talks with his uncle and with Obi-Wan.  At the end of Jedi, Vader sees his son being killed by the Emperor, so he throws the Emperor down the shaft in the middle of the throne room.  The Emperor’s lightning bolts short circuit Vader’s life support and he dies soon after.  Then we see the ghost of Vader as Anakin, standing with Yoda and Obi-Wan, free of the death mask.  He is redeemed. The three prequel films go about showing us just what he was like when he was still a good guy; in other words, what makes him redeemable in the first place—how he was able to summon the will to save Luke.

In The Wolf Man, the father-son tension is all subtext.  Larry comes home to Wales after the death of his brother, presumably to assume the brother’s role in the family.  He and his father Sir John don’t argue much: it’s more like they don’t know how to relate to each other.  Then, Larry wolfs out, kills some people, feels bad about it but can’t stop it, and Sir John beats him to death with a silver cane.  The last shot of the film shows Sir John’s reaction to the revelation that Larry was really a werewolf, a murderer, whom he’s just beaten his son to death.  Claude Raines really nails that mixture of grief, confusion, disbelief, and horror.

Best picture ever? I think so.
The Wolf Man’s story is not done, of course.  Over the course of several other movies, he is resurrected and must go on a quest for assisted suicide, which brings him into conflict with a variety of other monsters, and, incongruously, comedians.  Never once does he consider himself redeemed, nor does the audience.  Here’s a guy who thinks he should die for what he’s done, and we can’t help but root for him.  Talbot’s motivation throughout these movies is rare in American cinema.

Now here’s the conflict.  Two murderers.  One is redeemed in death, one condemned to life.  One makes the choice to kill; the other is driven by urges he can’t control?  It’s not so much about fan arguments as it is about a view of human nature.  Is Vader a good guy, as the three prequels seemed to be trying to convince us?  Should Larry try to kill himself? 

These characters represent opposing ideas about redemption.  The Wolf Man tells us that no matter how good a person you try to be, if you do bad things--even if you don’t mean to do them--you’re damned.  Star Wars tells us that no matter how many kids you murder or no matter how many planets you blow up, if you save your son’s life, you’re salvation is assured. One of these is characteristically Christian in flavor.  As long as you repent, you can get into heaven.  The other is bleak.  There is no redemption. 

Why do these movies have such similar color schemes?
Popular culture is often accused of being vacuous, vapid, virulent, and other, less flattering v-words.  But here we see it as a realm of ideas, where the most vital issues of the day are explored and given consideration.  Do we do the bad things we want to do now and make up for them later?  Or do we act as if the evil we do lives after us, so we’d better do the right thing now?  It’s no coincidence that both stories feature a radical physical transformation: From man to machine and from man to animal (there’s a dichotomy worth exploring: giving in to the machine is redeemable; giving in to the animal isn’t--is one a step forward and one a step backward?).   

DavidBrin, science fiction writer and scientist, has infamously written that the morality at the core of Star Wars, which he sees as hinging on that moment of Vader’s redemption, should not provide a model for us to use in living our lives. He compares Vader’s redemption to the idea that Hitler could be acquitted of any crimes against humanity if only his lawyer made the argument, “But your honor, he saved his son!” The real question is what happens to Vader after his death.  The film asks us to see him as redeemed because in his Jedi afterlife he ends up with Yoda and Obi-Wan.  Star Wars, and The Wolf Man for that matter, is more complex than that.  Brin is really taking issue with a single image:  the redeemed Anakin at the end.   

Too awesome not to include. By obviouswinner.

 In the three Star Wars prequels, George Lucas explained why Vader made the choices that he made.  Good and evil are certainly more complicated than actions; we look to context and motivations for final judgment.  This is why the United States has different penalties for murder if it’s premeditated, a crime of passion, the result of mental insanity, etc.  So Lucas asks us to sympathize with Vader because of what happens to him when he is still called Anakin.  And what happens?  Torn from his mother to study with the Jedi, he learns to suppress his emotions and maintain complete control to avoid becoming evil.  He later has dreams that his mother is going to die. Despite knowing that Jedi can have prophetic visions, the Council nonetheless both forbid him from helping her and fail to send anyone else to help. 

Anakin breaks their rules but arrives too late to save her.  Later, he falls in love and gets married.  After his wife becomes pregnant, he dreams that she will die.  In searching for a way to ensure that his wife will live, he is told by Palpatine, who is both his friend and powerful political leader, that a way can be found using the same spiritual philosophy that the Jedi condemn as evil.  He learns that Palpatine is evil and turns him over to the Jedi. However, decides to save Palpatine so that he can help his wife survive. To save him, Anakin kills one of the Jedi. Seeing no alternative, he swears allegiance to Palpatine, at which point he is now called Darth Vader.  His first act as Vader is to murder the residents of his temple, which include children. For the next twenty years or so, he remains a servant of Palpatine—now the Emperor—and takes part in the murder of countless others. Some parts of Star Wars are really hard to summarize.

Offered without comment.

Like Vader the Wolf Man kills people. His motivations, however, are strikingly different. He derives no pleasure from murder; quite the opposite. Whatever feral joy he gets out of slaughter during a full moon is abated by the subsequent twenty-five days of failed atonement. He didn’t become a werewolf by choice. His one big transgression is attempting to seduce a woman who’s engaged to another man.

Both the Wolf Man and Darth Vader are monsters. Despite Lucas’ attempts otherwise, Vader still isn’t  sympathetic. (My only evidence is anecdotal, but I think the audience still views Vader as a villain.) If he feels bad about things, he doesn’t show it much. The Wolf Man, on the other hand, hates himself for what’s happened. He’s conflicted, and that makes him sympathetic. He may be a monster, but he’s not a villain.

Yet he is condemned to misery while Vader gets to enjoy Jedi Heaven. This can only be the result of the fact that Vader does get to commit one act of valor when he saves his son from death. The Wolf Man, on the other hand, has no moment of valor. 
No redemption, but a very porcine nose.
One great thing about popular culture is that it’s everywhere, and there is a great pressure to keep producing it. In the process, all sorts of ideas get bandied about. And people have the opportunity to examine them, to take them to heart, to explore their meanings. These ideas are often contradictory, but this is a good thing. They present alternative answers to troubling questions, often in playful form so we don’t have to take them too seriously. Regardless, the ideas are there, for us to explore if we want.
Redemption seems to be a very important issue for American. The problem is, it seems we’re not quite sure how to go about achieving it. That’s where stories such as these come in. We can, if we so choose, see in them different ideas about how it’s done. Vader and Wolf Man are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Our cinema is obsessed with characters who do something wrong and expend a lot of effort trying to make up for it. Very rarely do we deny them forgiveness, but how much are we willing to forgive? Killing people pushes us to think about that question. How far is too far? Are there unforgivable and irredeemable crimes? Does motive matter? Regardless of law in the matter, people must deal with each other. Convicted criminals can gain parole. They can evade capture. They can define away their crimes or rationalize them. The law can only get us so far. It doesn’t tell us how we should relate to our loved ones. Luckily, we have movies for that.

1 comment:

  1. Two of my favorite characters. Both suffer from the evils of the past and the condition of being powerful and tragic characters. Vader suffers for the choices he made, is constantly repentant, but without a doubt the damage he has done, can not recover, lost his mother and his wife, was manipulated by the emperor, hunting jedis, massacring rebel armies and reaches redemption in his son Luke Skywalker, Vader kills the emperor and was The Chosen One of the ancient Jedi prophecies. Lawrence Talbot, The Wolf Man on the other hand, also lost his mother (in the 2010 movie), he never chose to be a mass murder beast every full moon, and that's why everyone fears him. In the final film of Universal "Monster Mash" (Abott & Costello meets Frankenstein), the Wolf Man becomes a hero, by helping the protagonists. Count Dracula is always shown as "the man" the leader and all that, but in reality the Wolf Man had more prominence, in addition to becoming the hero who directly defeated Dracula (that is an act of courage even if it were turned into a beast when he kills Dracula, he becomes a hero in most of the movies). In a physical fight between Vader and Wolfman, I would say that Wolfman wins 6/10 mostly because of his inhumane healing, although Vader would be a tough opponent. But as for characters, both are my favorites, and I liked your comparison and relationship between these two characters.