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Righteous Violence

February 19, 2019

 

In Polar, a retired hit man, Duncan Vizla, aka the Black Kaiser (Mads Mikkelsen), mumbles his way through life, enduring the numerous indignities that the world does to him:
women who talk too much
overly flamboyant queers
people with variously nonnormative bodies
All these people exist!  Shamelessly!  But, because Duncan is such a decent man, he doesn't murder any of them — until they give him a good reason (by trying to steal his pension, of all things), whereupon this avatar of white masculinity puts all these people (and especially women) back in their place by brutally killing all of them.

In
Alita: Battle Angel, cyborg supersoldier Alita (Rosa Salazar) literally pulls her heart out of her chest and offers it to her boyfriend, because she loves him *that much.*  And despite the greatest temptation, he can't bring himself to do it!  She is too good, and he can't betray her.  Later, he confesses that she saved him from his life of crime, then plummets to his death in the clouds.  In the final scene, she sheds a single tear for her lost love and then cuts it in half with her technomagic sword.  She is, in a word, extra.  She also kills a lot of bad people along the way, mostly in order to protect her friends and family.  She's a badass like that!

These sound like rather different stories.  But they share a common thread: both Alita and the Black Kaiser kill a *lot* of people, and their violence is invariably framed as righteous violence: they kill the right people in the right way.  Nevertheless the source of that righteousness is rather different. 
Polar centers the perspective of an aggrieved white male, seethingly angry that the world no longer bends to his whim without him asking.  Alita centers the perspective of a teenage girl, who gives her heart wholeheartedly into everything — love, war, chocolate, everything.  These are two different models of righteousness.  The Black Kaiser's righteousness is derived from the simple fact that he's the best at what he does; the world owes (and fails to deliver) the respect he's deserved due to his ability and identity.  Alita's righteousness is derived from her heart — her unwillingness to stand by in the face of injustice.

But.  Let's dig in to
Alita a little deeper.  In particular, let's talk about the sublimation of prejudice against nonnormative bodies in Alita.  In her world, many people have robotic bodies; Alita herself has an entirely prosthetic body.  But unlike Alita, her opponents invariably grotesquely diverge from the human form, with human faces stitched onto multi-armed machine bodies composed of revving engines and spinning blades.  In other words, it's okay to be a robot as long as your robotics approximate humanity.  But it's a sign of your depravity to stray too far, legitimizing Alita's own brutal killings.  It's an unnerving echo of Polar's treatment of its more fleshy antagonists.

And this isn't an accident.  Just like
Polar, Alita is selling the fantasy of righteous violence: that if you're good enough at violence — superlatively good, beyond-human-limits good — violence can be clean, precise, and more than anything else *effective.*  The moral and the strategic come together for the righteous hero: they only kill bad people, and this only produces good outcomes.  The Black Kaiser gets his pension.  Alita will (in the sequel, it seems) bring down the evil scientist responsible for the poverty and oppression of Iron City.

And it's a potent fantasy.  I loved
Alita!  It was great!  But also I can't stop wondering if that fantasy was at work in a younger Samantha who thought the war in Iraq was a good idea — for humanitarian reasons, of course.  Saddam was a bad man who did bad things, and "the most awesome fighting force the world has ever seen" could surely get the job done.  What could go wrong?

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