Hannibal Lecter has become a part of the culture. He has become like a hero in a bizarre way. You could compare him to the Batmans and the Supermans and other one-word heroes.--Larry Gleason of MGM

In the climactic scene of "Hannibal," the title character removes the top of Ray Liotta's skull, cuts out part of his brain, sautés it, and eats it, with Liotta both alive and conscious. Before that, three men are eaten alive by pigs. Before that, a man is gutted and then hung out a fourth story window; his intestines fall to the ground with an audible slurp. Before that a man cuts off his own face with a shard of glass and then feeds the scraps of skin to his dog. All of which take place on camera. On a scale of gruesomeness from one to 10, "Hannibal" is, as the boys from "Spinal Tap" would say, an 11.

Yet the brains-and-guts gore isn't the most worrisome feature of "Hannibal." Shocking visual images come and go. There was a time when "Chinatown"'s infamous nose-job scene was terrifying; today Jake Gittes' misfortune is completely unremarkable. The same will be true of "Hannibal" some day. The film's true menace lies in its tacit philosophical subtext. Whatever else Ridley Scott's mega-grossing movie may be, it is foremost a baby step on pop culture's road to a soft and comfortable nihilism: Dr. Lecter, meet Mr. Nietzsche.

During the past 20 years, Hannibal Lecter has become a cultural archetype. He first appeared in Thomas Harris' 1981 thriller "Red Dragon," which went on to become the 1986 Michael Mann-directed movie "Manhunter." Played with subdued malevolence by Brian Cox, Lecter was mostly an afterthought in "Manhunter." He spent much of the movie off-screen and in jail, while the role of the glamorous villain went to a serial killer called the Tooth Fairy. Two years later, Harris moved Lecter toward the front in his follow-up novel, "The Silence of the Lambs." When "Silence of the Lambs" was brought to life in 1991 by Jonathan Demme, Anthony Hopkins took over Lecter duties, and while the doctor spent most of the movie in the wings, his presence was felt in every frame.

In "Hannibal," Harris finally made Lecter the lead. The movie begins 10 years after "The Silence of the Lambs" ends, with Clarice Starling (now played by Julianne Moore) as a hardened FBI agent and Lecter living a life of academic luxury in Florence. Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), the only man to survive an attack by Lecter, is a wealthy, psychotic cripple who is bent on catching Hannibal in order to exact revenge. He wants to feed Hannibal to a pack of voracious swine, one body part at a time.

The evolution of Hannibal Lecter is interesting to note. He first appeared as a caged monster, then softened into an evil genius, and now he stands before us as a nondenominational leading man. The Hannibal in "Hannibal" is no longer a villain -- indeed, Verger clearly wears the black hat (this distinction is made even more adamantly in the literary version of "Hannibal"). Where Lecter was once an evil genius, he is now simply a genius -- he has moved beyond good and evil.

Credit Boston College philosophy professor Thomas Hibbs for seeing Lecter's transformation coming. In his excellent book about cultural nihilism, "Shows About Nothing," Hibbs noted that Lecter was something of a titan in his debut role in "Silence of the Lambs": "Surrounded by subhumans, he is super-human: nearly omniscient, he is able to read the secrets of souls on the basis of the slightest hints; virtually omnipotent, he is endowed not so much with physical strength as with supreme cunning and adroitness." In "Hannibal," Lecter adds the missing element, super-strength, to his arsenal, overpowering several younger, more physically fit men, carrying Clarice around in his arms, despite being injured.

All of this omniscience and physical prowess means that Lecter isn't a man, nor is he exactly a comic book character -- he is Superman, but he is Nietzsche's superman. Morality no longer applies to him.

The disconcerting thing about the movie "Hannibal" isn't that Lecter is the hero instead of the villain, it's that the terms "hero" and "villain" clearly no longer apply, at least not to him.

What's more, Hannibal's progress closely parallels the evolution of the wider phylum of cinematic serial killers. American fascination with serial killings began in the 1970s with David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy. The serial killer in pop culture vaguely shadowed these types with "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," in which the villain was a social misfit, an overweight geek. Our modern screen serial killer didn't truly arrive in American culture until the 1980s, with "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." A cinema a clef about Henry Lee Lucas, who killed at least 10 people in Texas, "Henry" was a study in Hannah Arendt's banality of evil. Henry (Michael Rooker's debut performance) was a psychotic simpleton, a figure inspiring fear, hatred, and disgust in the audience.

But as Hollywood began to crank out more and more serial-killer movies over the ensuing two decades, the monster began to morph. The serial killer got smarter and more physically powerful. He became a mastermind who toyed with lesser mortals. In 1991, Lecter became the new gold standard for serial killers, and by 1995, when the charismatic Russell Crowe starred as the computer-generated super-killer SID 6.7 in "Virtuosity," serial killers were regularly the audience favorite.

A legion of movie serial killers ceased to be human and became near-omnipotent demi-gods. They migrated from our world into the realm of myth where it is impossible to pass judgment on them. Dr. Lecter is now no more evil than Lex Luthor.

So while you're shielding your eyes from "Hannibal"'s graphic mutilations, know that its glorification of violence isn't what makes the movie ugly. It isn't even that we are pulled to a place where good and evil are hard to distinguish. What is truly pernicious about "Hannibal" is that it puts us in a universe where the very notions good and evil are laughable. It sends us one yard closer to the abyss, to the end of history. To watch "Hannibal" is to become -- for two hours, at least -- the Last Man. Over the weekend, $58 million worth of moviegoers stared at "Hannibal," and blinked.

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