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— by Jennifer Vineyard

At one especially tense moment in the new film "V for Vendetta" the masked title character — having dispatched most of a gang of government thugs — starts toward the one remaining goon. The soon-to-be victim asks, incredulously, "Why won't you die?"

Natalie Portman joins MTV News' Gideon Yago and a half-dozen young filmgoers for a candid discussion of the movie's themes, imagery and its potentially mixed messages.

V's response? "Beneath this mask there is an idea — and ideas are bulletproof."

Superheroes rarely have a political agenda. Sure, they fight for justice, but that usually means battling bad guys, and their foes are either super-villains or larger-than-life crime lords. Evil is rarely embodied by a politician, dictator or an entire totalitarian regime. Captain America punched out Hitler, but how often do we see Superman and Spider-Man talking politics? Comic-book heroes occasionally destroy property in their pursuit of justice, while fighting the good fight, but how often do we witness them destroying buildings symbolically, as a message to the powers that be and at the risk of being seen as terrorists?

The V character in "Vendetta" is a very different sort of superhero, one defined not by his super powers — in fact, he has none — but by his politics.

"He's an unusual superhero," acknowledges the film's producer, Joel Silver, who has brought films as varied as "The Matrix," "Romeo Must Die" and last year's "House of Wax" to the big screen. "He's an aberrant superhero, but he is a superhero. He has great skill at deception. He has great fighting ability, he can handle knives very well and when shot at he can kind of take the bullets."

Add a cape, an underground lair and a powerful motive for revenge and V begins to resemble an anarchic, even darker Batman.

 "V for Vendetta" Photos

 Alan Moore's Comic
"V for Vendetta"

 "V for Vendetta"
Production Art

 In Focus: Natalie Portman

 "V for Vendetta" Premiere

Originally conceived as a "masked vigilante" by legendary comics writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd, the character V was, for his creators, an embodiment of (and a plea for) anarchy in the U.K. Working amid the social and economic upheaval that rocked Britain in the early 1980s — an era defined by the arch-conservatism of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — Moore and Lloyd placed their protagonist in a fear-drenched world of conservatism run amok. V's plans for rebellion and resistance involve taking out (read: assassinating) the key leaders of a brutal dictatorship — as well as a few key, highly symbolic buildings — so that the English people can take back their country.

Updated by the Wachowski brothers, the duo who gave us "The Matrix" films, the tale's fascist future is still set in England. But the regime V rebels against is now an Orwellian superpower emboldened by America's loss in a nuclear war and run by a megalomaniacal chancellor named Sutler (ingeniously played by John Hurt).

"This government is Stalin's Russia, or Hitler's Germany, or Franco's Spain," Silver says. Filmgoers, however, might be forgiven for asking — in light of the script's ominous talk of "rendition" and a protracted war on terror — whether the filmmakers also take aim at America under George W. Bush?

"I would say so," says Hugo Weaving ("The Matrix," "The Lord of the Rings"), who brings V's emotions to life in the film, despite acting the entire time behind a coldly grinning mask.

Chancellor Sutler, who communicates with his minions via a giant video monitor, has censored music, books and art that have been deemed "objectionable materials." His thugs "detain" political activists and "relocate" what have been determined to be "degenerates": Muslims, Jews, communists, immigrants, homosexuals.

Visit Think Reel's "V for Vendetta" site and learn how you can take action, fight intolerance, hold elected officials accountable and more — in your own community and beyond.

As one of the government's political flacks reminds the populace, "We did what we had to do. They had to go!"

"There are strict curfews," Weaving says of the political and social environment in which V operates. "There are media all around, but they are under government control. People seem to have their TVs on all the time, but they go about their work and, in many ways, the world looks and feels the same as it is now. But it is not. It is a world of fear."

It is in hopes of breaking through that numbing sense of fear that V hijacks the government-controlled TV network, breaking into the emergency-broadcast system to speak to all of London — and to wake them up. All of the war, terror, disease and food and water shortages they've known, he announces, have merely been opportunities for Sutler and his thuggish cronies to rise to and retain absolute power.

"He promised you order," V says. "He promised you peace. And all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent." What they also got, of course, was tyranny and oppression. V asks the people of London to stand up for their freedom — and to stand up with him as he blows up London's Parliament building. The government's response to this is swift and predictable: it brands V a terrorist.

"The term 'terrorist' is the kind of label we stick on people when we don't want to understand why they're doing things," Weaving says.

"One man's terrorist," adds Silver, "is another man's freedom fighter."

According to director James McTeigue, "It depends on the regime you're fighting against. It depends on whether you consider the founding fathers of America terrorists. Or Nelson Mandela. Or Che Guevara."

"If somebody had assassinated Hitler, that government would have called him a terrorist," says Natalie Portman, who plays Evey, V's young confidante and, perhaps more importantly, his protégé. "It's so contextual."

In the context of the Wachowskis' film, at least, V's actions are inspired not by a need or desire to instill terror, but by a spirit of resistance to a rogue, authoritarian regime. His main targets are key party members, and his politics are, at heart, closer to the classically Liberal (with a capital "L") ideals of liberty and pluralism than to fanaticism or demagoguery.

Still, while V stops short of the sort of ultimately dehumanizing actions that define most terrorists — indiscriminate slaughter, wiping out "soft" targets, etc. — what are we to make of the very idea of blowing up governmental buildings? Especially in a still-jittery, post-9/11 world? True, the White House was demolished in the 1996 movie "Independence Day" and Parliament was blown up that same year in "Mars Attacks." But those terrorists — if such a term can be applied to celluloid, sci-fi villains — were aliens from outer space, not earthbound activists.

NEXT: Natalie and Hugo bring V and Evey to sharp, passionate life
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

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