‘V for Vendetta’: 10 years behind the mask

“V for Vendetta,” the dystopian sci-fi epic, erupted into theaters on March 17, 2006. Since that initial impact, the big-screen adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s 1988 graphic novel has evolved into one of the rare works of art that takes on life and meaning leagues beyond its original context, let alone medium. You know it when you see it, and you see it all the time.

Look at any political gathering of at least the past half-decade and there’s no way to not notice throngs of Guy Fawkes masks. These are direct physical invocations of the film, instantly communicative icons intended to cry freedom. Fascinatingly, protestors representing a vast array of political beliefs — many of them contradictory to one another — have embraced the Fawkes image as their own. When everybody feels like an outsider, it appears, wearing the exact same grinning face with its eyes shut comes off as a sure means of declaring dissent, no matter what it is to which you refuse and resist.

Irony may no longer work as currency in modern culture, and the Guy Fawkes mask as all-things-to-all-pissed-off-people represents that in bold form. So, too, is the fact that the real-life Fawkes, who conspired in 1605 to blow up London’s House of Lords, sought to oust England’s government and install a Catholic theocracy. Still, the fiercer-than-the-facts potency of the mask is more a testament to the power of “V for Vendetta” than a knock on anyone who might be accused of “misunderstanding” its message.

Great science fiction often crosses, bends, and splatters together seemingly disparate philosophies. Case in point: Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) works as both a criticism of Stalinist communism and McCarthyist anti-communism. “V for Vendetta” is just our most recent, most powerful example.

In its original comic-book form, “V for Vendetta” took on Thatcher-era England with an allegorical chronicle of a violent vigilante named V, who, while wearing a Fawkes mask, foments a popular revolution against a future fascist regime. The movie version, made in the wake of 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, amplifies elements first written by Moore to more directly address gay rights, Islam, state surveillance, “false flag” attacks, the eradication of nonconformity, and mind control through mass media. By the end (spoiler alert), thousands of awakened citizens don the Fawkes mask to march against their oppressors.

Although, on paper, “V for Vendetta” is blatantly anti-government, the first groups associated with the Fawkes mask were the hacker collective Anonymous and the corporate-protesting Occupy Wall Street. Each has called, at various times, for extensive state intervention and implementation of the rule of law. Since then, explicitly government-hating libertarians and anarchists have brandished Fawkes as their own. These extremes extend outward to the point that totalitarians of the left, right, and whatever lay in between claim the Fawkes face fits them just as well. And who is to say it doesn’t?

Ten years ago, humanity ached a shorthand symbol to declare, “I protest!,” and “V for Vendetta” provided us with just what we needed. Let’s make this an actively happy 10-year anniversary of the film, then, indeed.

[photo: Warner Bros.]