There are no limits placed on the ability of the human mind to imagine new cruelties.
It was purely by chance that I happened to reread Grant Morrison' Final Crisis just a few days before watching Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. I came to the former with the lowered expectations of my first exposure to the book, and I came to the latter braced for the impact of transcendently transgressive work of horror. Both of my expectations were met, although not exactly in the ways in which I had anticipated. The fact that I just happened to experience the two works in close conjunction with one another had the perhaps perverse effect of twinning them in my mind, something that certainly doesn't reflect well on Morrison's work, but which actually goes a long way towards illuminating why Pasolini's film is so unremittingly effective.
To begin with, both the book and the movie are essentially about the same thing: the simultaneous triumph and downfall of fascism. Final Crisis - of which I am certain most readers of this blog are already familiar - is about the methodical conquest and subsequent liberation of Earth from the grips of an otherworldly dictator bent on reshaping the minds of every free man and woman on the planet. Salò, on the other hand, is the ultimate apotheosis of real-world fascism, a loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom transposed to the very final days of World War II and the last gasp of Italy's crumbling fascist state. In 1944, four wealthy Italian libertines kidnap a group of children and spend the subsequent four months performing an increasingly elaborate fantasia of rape and torture before finally, brutally murdering all the children. The viewer hears the rumble of airplanes and the muffled explosions of distant battles, but even though we know that Italy is - throughout the course of the film - only months, weeks, and even days away from liberation and the downfall of Mussolini's regime in spring of 1945, that release never comes. The final images are not of liberation or comeuppance, but of banal indifference.
The secret of Jack Kirby's conception of Anti-Life is about as hard to suss as Iago's motivation in Othello.* For all that subsequent writers and artists have transposed onto Kirby's original design, he actually spells out the definition of Anti-Life very clearly in his original Fourth World stories. Anti-Life is fascism: it's not necessarily cruel or even evil, it's simply the absence of choice. Life is freedom, anti-life is slavery. One of the more surprising facets of Kirby's original Fourth World material, for those not already well-versed in the run, is just how approachable Darkseid is: he hardly talks like the belligerent space tyrant we recognize today. He is ruminative, even funny in moments, berating the Forever People for their lack of respect while at the same time lamenting the wastefulness of Desaad's infinite cruelty. Darkseid himself is never needlessly cruel, he simply wishes to do whatever is necessary to annihilate choice, to exert his control over every living creature. To this effect, arguably the most chilling images from the entire Fourth World corpus come early in the Forever People, wherein Glorious Godfrey leads a neo-fascist revival in the name of Anti-Life, seducing large crowds into giving up the pretense of choice in the name of submission - happiness in slavery.
The reason why the Fourth World remains such a ripe body of work is that, for every criticism that can be leveled against Kirby, it is impossible to fault either the depth of his convictions or the historical accuracy of his conception of human behavior. He fought fascists in the War - not fictional cartoon Hitlers, but real, live Nazis across occupied Europe. Darkseid isn't a tragically flawed Doctor Doom or an abstract force of nature like Galactus: rather, he is a living embodiment of a very human tendency towards obedience and power. He can be polite, even jocular, but he is never anything but totally ruthless, committed to the conquest not so much of human territory but of human hearts and minds. It's all about the will: Darkseid flatters himself with the belief that if he can annihilate the human will, that will can be replaced with never-ending obeisance. Kirby was translating the horrors of fascism into the degraded context of children's adventure stories, and the result - while certainly not a fraction as graphic as Pasolini's film - is nevertheless effective.
Salò doesn't waste a second on exposition or philosophical rumination, and there is nothing at all abstract about the action onscreen. We don't see the mechanisms of the fascist state or the rationale of fascist ideology, we simply see the exercise of fascist power. Whereas Mussolini and Hitler built their reigns on comprehensible and legible philosophical platforms - repulsive as they may have been - we don't see anything resembling that kind of rationale in Pasolini's film. What we see instead are the end results of fascism. It's a system that breeds two kinds of people: strong and weak. The strong are empowered by fascism, a doctrine that rationalizes any transgression if it is committed in the name of authority. The weak are dehumanized and objectified, made into empty vessels with no claim to existence other than to serve as vehicles for the exercise of power. CItizens in a fascist state live at the sufferance of the state. For the children kidnapped and tortured in Salò, the state has not merely turned its back on their brutal and systematic degradation but has given the torturers full license with which to execute their wildest and most grotesque carnal fantasies. The four ringleaders of the torment make a pretense of grand intellect (ineptly misquoting Nietzsche in one of the movie's rare moments of levity), but there is no coherent program to their destruction other than the simple formula that if it is allowed, then it must be committed, and since all is permitted, all must be performed.
It bears repeating: for Kirby, fascism was real. It was a menace that was all the more insidious because it relies on the victims' willing complicity: a fascist state willfully abjures its own ethical well-being, abdicating individual responsibility to the fetish of state authority. Because this authority is absolute, those who function with the state's imprimatur are absolutely free to exercise their will. Fascist regimes invariably produce (or, in another formulation, are produced by) powerful oligarchies, wealthy industrialists and financiers who have helped to construct the apparatus of the state and have been, in turn, rewarded by privileged access to these same apparatuses of state power. The four libertines in Salò are representative of just such an oligarchy. Although it is not explicitly stated, it is heavily implied that they are all war profiteers who are fully aware that the war is in its final days: it would have been difficult for any well-informed Italian in late 1944 not to know that the regime's days were numbered. They retreat to their secluded castle in order to spend their power while they can - but the movie's great masterstroke is never to actually show the end of their power. For all the viewer knows the entire castle is be destroyed by a bomb two seconds after the final scene, but we don't see that. We don't see the Allied forces cutting up through central Italy before finally reaching the last outposts of Mussolini's government - long since a German puppet state. We just see the corruption and destruction of eighteen children, forced to eat their own feces, raped on a pile of broken glass.
As brutal as Salò is, it's far more effective in what it doesn't show. We see a lot, but it's not the graphic violence or even the rampant coprophagy that offends: it's the insidious and methodical manner in which the victims are so completely stripped of their subjectivity on their way towards becoming objects, a method of dehumanization that surpasses even the most comprehensive vision of rape and physical torture imaginable. This is the triumph of fascism: the successful transformation of the human being into an empty body, to be filled only by the exercise of power. This is Darkseid's dream: not cruelty for the sake of cruelty - cruelty is merely a symptom of power. It's the power itself that he craves, the ability to simply nullify the autonomy of any living individual through the exercise of his will. Whatever cruelty may be committed in his name by his underlings is entirely besides the point, for him. But there is a good reason why Kirby named his grand torturer Desaad: a fascist regime is by definition a torture regime simply because it places no prohibition on the exercise of power.
By contrast, Morrison betrays little understanding of what, exactly, fascism actually is, and why the hatred of fascism was a supremely powerful animating principle for Kirby. We see, over the course of the story's early chapters, the creeping awareness of Apokalips' presence on Earth. There are a few early heralds - Libra and the Human Flame, who gladly embrace Darkseid's message as a means of self-empowerment. But ultimately, what is Anti-Life? Anti-life for Morrison comes in the guise of a viral meme that nullifies the free will of the entire Earth. It's a computer virus, it's a metal helmet built off the Mad Hatter's blueprints to sap the wearer's will. Darkseid succeeds in conquering almost the entire planet by means of a self-replicating thought meme, but its a hollow victory, easily countered by the heroes. Darkseid should have known better: the only truly lasting fascism is a willing fascism, and his inability to convince the Earth of the righteousness of his authority bespeaks a kind of desperation. Perhaps the fact that he was, in fact, dying, forced to incarnate in a human body after eons of divine corporeality, contributed to the shoddiness of his master plan - but the fact remains that after the helmets are destroyed and Darkseid is defeated, the Earth is scraped clean of the Anti-life plague and happiness is restored.
Far more unsettling would be a resolution that leaves large swaths of the population ready to willingly die for Darkseid without any compulsion whatsoever, attracted by the allure of power and intoxicated by the promise of ultimate license and the long-sought revenge against deeply cherished grievances. For this reason - if only this reason - the aftermath of Marvel's Siege event betrays a far more frightening understanding of human mob mentality: Norman Osborne is locked away in jail but his followers - addicted to the exercise of power through fear - proliferate in the outside world. Fascism can be destroyed but never really eradicated, because it speaks to something very weak inside every one of us. Salò may confined in time and space to the end of World War II but man's capacity for cruelty - a seeming innate eagerness to accept cruelty as a means of exercising power - never sleeps. That's why Kirby placed the secret of the Anti-life equation in the minds of humanity: because for all our capacity for freedom, we willingly embrace submission to power when given the opportunity. Superman was created as a response to the growing threat of fascism in the late 1930s, but the "final" showdown between Superman and fascism in the pages of Final Crisis falls somewhat short of seventy-odd years worth of expectations.
* In case you really don't know what I'm talking about: Iago says at various points that he hates Othello for being promoted over him, he hates him because he's black, and he hates him because he thinks Othello is having an affair with his wife. All perfectly valid (or, at least, understandable!) reasons for hating anyone.