Sunday night we went to see Ghost Rider, the comic book movie starring Oscar-Award-Winning actor Nicholas “I-Named-My-Kid-After-Superman” Cage. This isn’t going to be a review, though I did enjoy the movie, and thought they did pretty well considering how cheesy superhero movies can get. Combining that with a “deal with the devil” movie, and the awfulness potential was quite high on this one. Rather, I’m going to discuss one of the pivotal concepts behind the plot: personal responsibility and the making of bargains.
The character, if you’re not familiar, is a guy by the name of Johnny Blaze who sells his soul to the devil, and as a result becomes a “Spirit of Vengeance”. In the movie, his father has cancer, and the devil offers to cure that cancer in exchange for Johnny’s soul. Here’s where I have an issue, and I see this frequently in Faustian-bargain plots: Johnny never actually agrees to the deal. He’s fixing his motorcycle when some stranger walks in claiming he can cure the father’s cancer in exchange for Johnny’s soul. Johnny doesn’t really seem to believe the guy (would you?), but the guy hands him a scroll of paper and says. “All you have to do is sign”. Johnny unrolls the scroll, and as he does, unwittingly jabs his finger on some part of the spindle. Before he even has a chance to look at the thing, a drop of his blood falls on the bottom of the sheet and the devil takes it out of his hand saying, “That will do it.” Young Johnny then spends the next couple decades turning into Nick Cage and mourning his “mistake”.
The Faust stories were always to me about people making the choice — that something they wanted was worth selling their soul for. Even if they thought worse of it later, (and with the possible exception of Bart Simpson, they always did), they were willing at the time the make the deal. The thing is… Johnny never actually makes the deal.
I’ve seen this flaw in less obvious forms in other stories and movies, but I would take it a bit further than that even. Often in these stories the character basically says “Sure, whatever” to the deal, but thinks it’s all a joke, and that counts. I don’t see how this could be legitimate under (presumably) the eyes of God. A contract is a willful act, not an accident of circumstance.
Let me give a real-world example: For years I went to Gen Con, an annual gaming and science fiction convention. It’s a lot of fun, and the thing is huge, filling a massive convention hall with games, exhibits, vendors and displays, artwork, and 30,000 or more attendees. Just about every year I’ve gone, they’ve had this charity thing called the “Jail & Bail”. The Jail & Bail is a booth usually set up somewhere in the main hallway outside the exhibit hall, and manned by people dressed up as Klingons from Star Trek. There’s a big wooden cage next to the booth, and for about five dollars they will go and “arrest” a person you specified and bring them back to the cage, where he can either buy his freedom by paying “bail money” (a second donation, probably another fiver) or do some sort of silly game or task to earn his freedom and entertain passersby by making a general fool of himself (role playing gamers are generally cool with this concept…). At no time do the “Klingons” break character (at least that I’ve seen, though I’ve never been “arrested”). They scowl and growl, and generally sort of ham it up as bad-ass alien warriors, but the terminology of the transaction is as described — “arrests” and “bail” and the like. This of course works just fine because… Duh… Klingons aren’t real and it’s all a joke.
Now imagine that you walk up to the booth and pay your five bucks, and sick them on your buddy who’s in the exhibit hall. You chuckle as you follow them into the hall, and go up to your friend. Then your jaw hits the floor as two of the Klingons beat him over the back of the head, take him by the arms and teleport out right in front of your eyes, and the remaining one informs you that the prisoner has been transported to a prison ship in orbit.
Stupid, right? Never gonna happen, so it’s a pointless example, right? Well, yeah, any reasonable person would think so right up until the point when three people vanish right in front of them in a dazzle of static. So, given the fact that you obviously wouldn’t believe in a million years that it was real… would you really be responsible for making a decision you didn’t make?
The Ghost Rider bargain is worse than some others, but I’ve seen similar thing a lot in movies and stories. I’ve never thought the deal was legitimate unless the the person first genuinely believes that this guy is The Devil. In fact, the only example I can think of where the deal-ee truly knows what’s he’s doing is the excellent short story “The Bottle Imp” by Robert Louis Stevenson. I can see why — coming up with a believable circumstance in which a person would knowingly sell his everlasting soul is difficult; because even granted the world in exchange, it would be a damned fool thing to do.