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Hannibal Lecter has become the most interesting superhero on television

Hannibal Lecter has become the most interesting superhero on television

Is there a more compelling modern day superhero than Hannibal Lecter? The character has been brought to life in a serious of increasingly pulpy books by Thomas Harris, a number of increasingly campy movies created by multiple creative teams, and now the psychiatrist who enjoys eating the rude has his own television show.

To everyone’s surprise, the first two episodes have been amazing. That's because the character has ceased to be a serial killer, and has since become a superhero.

Batman, without all the fighting

Hannibal Lecter proves the old saying about the bad guys being more interesting than the good guys, and the character has always been seen as something of a “good guy.” The character was inserted into the popular consciousness in the film version of Silence of the Lambs, although that was far from his first appearance in pop culture.

We first met him in that flim as someone who can only act through his words, who manipulates characters and situations by his speech. Only later do we see him take direct action, and by then we’re cheering for him. We want him to get away, to kill and eat Dr. Chilton. Lecter gets the best lines of the movie.

Everyone involved with the character through the years realized very quickly how attractive he was, although future movies and books deal with him as a broken animal; either used as a weapon to find other killers or hopelessly attracted to Clarice Starling. The book version of Hannibal took that relationship to a silly conclusion. The film allowed us the grisly sight of Lecter removing Ray Liotta’s skull and feeding the man his own brains. Liotta’s character was perfectly atrocious through the movie, written that way so the audience would feel satisfaction at watching an act of autophagia.

Lecter can see through people. He is in complete control of his emotions and physical acts. He is intelligent to the point of absurdity. He is Batman without the sense of right and wrong, a superhero who enjoys killing and eating those who get in the way of his love of good art, fine wine, and human flesh. He is an incredibly attractive character, and the television show may be the best look at the man thus far, creating a show that is much less good and evil and much more Professor X versus Magneto.

Loin of pork

In many ways the Hannibal television show is the Star Wars: Episode One of the character’s mythos. We’re used to seeing Lecter locked up, or dealing with a life on the run. He was usually diminished in some way, but the television show allows us to see him before he was a known killer, operating at the height of his powers. At this point in his life he’s merely a psychiatrist, working with an FBI agent named Will Graham to track down killers. We saw the end result of this relationship in the book and film Red Dragon, but now we get to see firsthand why the two men were so attracted to each other.

Graham is another superhero, in his own way. He suffers from, as Lecter puts it, “perfect empathy.” He can see a crime scene, and understand the motivations of the killer. He feels the thrill of the kill. He’s played with a shaky intensity, and we get the sense he’s barely in control of his gifts. He’s not skilled, he’s haunted, and the show provides a beautifully hallucinatory vision for the world in which he works.

He’s not even good with a gun, as it takes 10 shots to kill a man in the first episode, something that is remarked upon in the second episode.

Graham’s relationship with Lecter is already complex. They circle each other, aware of the brilliance of the other. Graham is probably one of the few people Lecter finds interesting, although these interactions are still mostly a game. Lecter can’t resist calling to tip off a killer that the FBI is coming. He has lengthy, intimate conversations with FBI agents over beautifully shot meals. There is always meat on the fork, or on the plate, and the show’s camera looks at food the way the camera on late night cable movies treats the bodies of naked women. The question is always open: What exactly are they eating?

Lecter is played by Mads Mikkelsen, who you may recognize from Casino Royale. He puts his own mark on the character, as one must when the person being portrayed has already become iconic due to the performance of another actor. Anything else would seem like a bland imitation.

It’s a beautiful show. Lecter and Graham share breakfast in a dark room at one point, a single line of light separating them. The direction, and sense of dread and darkness, is due to a skillful mixture of the best parts of the X-Files and Twin Peaks. When Graham looks at Lecter's most recent kill, he despairs of ever finding who was responsible. 

“An intelligent psychopath? Particularly a sadist? Very hard to catch. There will be no traceable motive, there will be no patterns, he may never kill this way again,” Graham says, before saying that Lecter himself should work up a psychological profile.

The show never flinches from the graphic content. Consider the killer who places his victims in a coma, buries them with IVs and breathing tubes to keep them alive, and then allows exotic mushrooms to grow through the bodies. Pay attention to the detail in which Lecter prepares a human set of lungs for his own consumption, and the way the show frames his simple meal of human meat and vegetables. The amount of violence and anatomy the show is allowed on broadcast television is amazing, although it rarely feels like gore.

There is, in fact, a deeply disturbing lack of judgment in the show, as everything is shown dispassionately. These are men who like certain things, and we get to watch them doing what they do, for good or ill.

This is why we love Hannibal Lecter as a character. We rarely judge him for his acts, and we appreciate the way he is able to speak to people and get to the heart of their character. That’s his super power: The ability to effortlessly climb inside the heads of those he meets and use them for his own ends. His appetites are tightly controlled, and offset by his brilliance. We want to meet him, to see what he’d say about us; we’re willing to spend time with a monster if it means getting a detailed map to our own fears and character flaws.

If Will Graham is seen as someone who is punished for his attempts to stay on the side of the angels while trying to understand how and why these killers operate, Lecter is a perfect creature. It always seems as if we’re meant to admire his taste, his sense of decorum and quiet calm, and his ability to live his life by his own moral code. No one wants to be Will Graham, and he would be a hard man to have in your life. Lecter, on the other hand, is a brilliant conversationalist. He’s the sort of man who sends dinner invitations that would be hard to turn down. Maybe, in our less guarded moments in the middle of the night, we’d like to become him.

“Killing must feel good to God, he does it all the time. And are we not created in his image?” Lecter asks Graham during a conversation about whether Graham enjoyed pulling the trigger. Lecter describes a roof falling in a church, killing 34 people. Graham asks if God felt good about that. “He felt powerful,” Lecter responds.

People may call the show a police procedural, but it plays more as a hard science fiction look at superheroes whose powers are more mental than physical. There are no capes, and their use of these powers seems more hyper-real than supernatural. We often see the world through Graham’s eyes, and the results are nightmarish. The “hero” is in many ways repulsive.

Seeing the world through Lecter’s eyes, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing: His reality is ordered, controllable and, above all, delicious.

You can watch the first two episodes of Hannibal on NBC.com