May 272013

I didn’t like this movie for all the reasons that I don’t like Arrow.

Summarily executing people has become “the right thing to do” in film and television, and it speaks badly for our understanding of justice. It also signals the limits of our constrained imagination: we can identify with and admire the powerful shooter who moves beyond the law when the law can’t get the job done, but we can’t seem to imagine being the grotesquely ugly guy getting shot. Don’t we realize that to a sociopath, we are all grotesque? That outside the law, we are all brutes?

And yes, I do think all of this is a symptom of the moral deadening caused by a decade of illegitimate war and an on-going campaign of assassination through robotic drone strikes. Twelve years on, we’ve convinced ourselves that a sociopath who gets things done is a comforting presence.

But isn’t killing bad guys outside the law is a staple of action cinema and television? After all I’ve praised Justified. How’s Reacher any different?

Well, most basically, Justified fantasizes about The Bad Guy getting what’s coming to him. Often this means jail. When it doesn’t and he’s killed, it happens at the limits of but still within the law. Satisfaction with The Bad Guy’s death remains merely poetic and is tempered by a preoccupation with the shortcomings of Givens’s actions. When Givens shoots someone in Justified he’s investigated. It also affects his personal life. People around him question their opinions of his character. All of this insists that the law still bounds our actions.

Reacher and Arrow fantasize about a world where law is inadequate, lacks authority and is explicitly rejected. Might makes right. Executions look like justice. Violent uncaring machine-people stand as heroes. This is an ugly, dangerous view of the world, and I don’t like it.

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