I just watched the Bourne Ultimatum the other night. I feel like I’m not supposed to like the Bourne movies. I’m a graduate student, I’m a feminist, I like obscure cultural stuff (mostly music, really). So a movie, a popular movie, starring a famous male actor who plays a government agent who beats up other men… it’s like the stuff they play on the local pop country radio station. It doesn’t feel like something I should like.

But I do. I like it a lot (the Bourne series I mean, not pop country – though I do like pop country a real lot too, that’s just not what I’m talking about). I don’t have an argument as to why other people should like these, and I don’t have anything smart worked out to say (I feel like I’m supposed to always something smart worked out to say about stuff). I just think they’re awesome.

Here’s what I think I like. Part of it is about gender identity. Mine I mean. I’m a guy. I like tough guy movies where I can identify with the tough guy. It’s a fantasy of being a tough guy (rather than an out of shape irregularly does yoga and regularly loses hair guy). And Jason Bourne is a tough guy. He’s not just tough, he’s like a ninja. He’s got talents but he’s also got skills. I like the martial arts stuff, and all the other combat stuff. He’s smart – he has this sort of McGyver/Jackie Chan fighting thing, using implements on hand. And not just in fighting. He’s also outsmarting his opponents, out-thinking them. Figuring out their plans, making his own plans use theirs against them, while still remaining vulnerable and in need of information as he works out a myster.

There’s another Jackie Chan type quality, in that in a lot of the Chan movies I’ve seen the protagonists are reluctant to fight. Bourne as well. The guy’s not a bully or a thug. He’s an unwilling combatant or at least a reluctant one. That makes the fantasy of being a ninja spy commando bad ass a more acceptable one.

He’s chivalrous too. He doesn’t hit women, say. He tries to protect innocent people. A big part of his motivation is lost love.

It’s a pretty traditional story. Combat guy gets tired of combat, meets woman who changes his life, tries to retire, isn’t allowed to, and is forced back into combat but in a fighting to not have to fight anymore kind of way. Bourne’s moral rightness (more or less) makes it easier to identify with him. He’s sort of wholesome (though maybe that’s just Matt Damon’s face).

Despite that, at the same, the Bourne character also has the Frank Miller (and others) era Marvel comics hero thing going on: he doesn’t want to be what he is, he has done terrible things, he is tortured by his past. The wholesomeness combines with the torturedness, to give a sort of wistfulness – if only … if only poor Matt Damon could unravel this mystery, put his past behind him, then he’d be a commando spy ninja bad ass but one who doesn’t have to use his powers, and that inner wholesome goodness could just come out. He could put down all the fighting and just like, I don’t know, teach reading to kids or work on a farm or something similarly good and right and true. But no. He remains a haunted man and thus in a sense fundamentally isolated (oh, so alone, and such a burden to be borne…). That’s another piece of the sensibility, the individualism.

Bourne is a unique and larger than life hero. More than that, he’s not like Daredevil beating up purse snatchers or maybe taking on a city crime boss. Bourne takes on a global power, the CIA, a power that makes global powers do its bidding. It’s again a fairly standard story – one man (and it’s pretty much always a man, the women are always supporting characters at best) alone against the world, suffering terrible losses but winning. While winning he remains none the less alone.

It’s a Batman sort of sensibility (I haven’t seen the new movie yet but I’ve read the graphic novel it’s based on several times), without the for-show life – but a life none the less – of Bruce Wayne. This is different than say, Spiderman, who has working relationships and a fair bit of emotional stability, and … well, fans, people who cheer for him. While alone, Bourne kicks ass and takes names – only the asses and names of those who really deserve it, of course – and in the process embodies a sensibility of “one person” – as long as that person is a white man (with good looks and guns and ninja spy commando skills and secret passports and all that) – “one person can make a real difference.”

I don’t think it’s sophisticated or earth shaking stuff. It’s really pretty traditional (including the “the government is corrupt and evil, but not *all* the government, there are some good people there too and some of them will act against the problems once they have the right opportunity as provided by an awesome and handsome ninja spy commando hero haunted by a past he wouldn’t choose and may not have chosen – or may have, we may never know). But it’s really fun. There’s even car chases and explosions and leaping off roofs.

In other news, speaking of cultural commodities that are inexplicably appealing, I’ve decided I will buy and read Slavoj Zizek’s newest book, In Defense of Lost Causes. Given my prejudices and after reading this review of it by Terry Eagleton, I expect to hate it. I will try to keep an open mind, though. I didn’t like several of my favorite albums at first.

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