Spoiler warning for everything I mention.
“So Drive was essentially an allegory of a superhero in the making. He became a superhero at the end of the movie and that’s why it’s a happy ending.”
– Nicolas Winding Refn
I had the absolute privilege of watching Drive last weekend and it hasn’t disappeared from my mind ever since. There are few times when I am compelled to watch a movie again just after watching it. Drive now joins the ranks of 2001 and Blade Runner in my own little book. Except, Drive is not a science-fiction escapade nor a neo-noir investigation into immortal philosophical quandaries. I do believe it does address many humanistic issues, but its metaphysical ideas never truly become the delivering punch of the movie. My belief, behind Drive, is that it is simultaneously a feature about becoming a real human being through evolution into superherodom. In short, it’s a film that’s about Charles Darwin.
Not literally, of course, that would be silly. What I do mean to say however is that Drive‘s approach to the ‘superhero’ genre is one that is so scarily innovative that it has me wondering if the ‘comic book’ archetype superhero can really last. For Drive, the next step in human evolution is the superhero. To get closer to our humanity, we must save it. What do I mean by all of this?
I think Drive is, at times, an overtly pretentious art film with eighties synth soundtrack blurring and blending into this confusing mess of absolute joyous romanticism, violence and anarchistic mythologising of the ‘superhero’. It shows the relationship between Gosling and Mulligan’s characters through silences and the eyes, truly hitting straight into real life. Drive then, eventually, shows a man getting his head blown to a bloody pulp by the hero’s boot. Hero. The hammer of anarchism is struck straight into the core of the ‘superhero’ and no longer is there any government, rules or laws or restrictions or order to satisfy the Driver. What I’m talking about is an entire deconstruction of superhero mythology and, then, an entirely new evolutionary exploration emerging throughout Drive.
Identity and Causality
The typical ‘secret identity’ that comic book superheroes have paraded for a near century is completely destroyed in Drive. Clark Kent is in the glasses, Batman in the mask, Spider-Man in the spandex suit and so on and so forth. Identity is used as a barrier between the human and the superhuman (unless you’re Superman in which case you’re 100% supers), so that both the man can transform into the superhero but also the superhero has a cushion to come back to. In this cushion there can be relationships with human beings, a day job, grocery shopping, education… working at a garage and almost becoming a race car driver. Hint. Hint.
As Peter Parker himself says “If my enemies found out about you… if you got hurt,I could never forgive myself.” the cushion is both a curse and a blessing. While no enemies can hunt down the ‘hero’, they can hunt down the man behind the mask (eventually) and this will destroy everything around the hero. In Drive, as soon as the Driver is found to be interlinked there is a strike against the only thing he holds dear: Irene. Once this happens, the Driver does whatever he can to protect her. Following this is a series of violent incidents, murders and chases across the city and a final confrontation with Bernie Rose. ‘Bernie Rose’ is probably the most comforting name for an anatagonist ever. I cannot help but think of Weekend at Bernies when I hear that name.
Identity then is the line between hero and human, a barrier if you will. To break that barrier there is the mask, and masks are absolutely crucial to understanding Drive. Irene’s child wears one, the stuntman mask that Driver wears pops in throughout (we’ll discuss that in a minute) and perhaps not just ‘masks’ but clothing in general. Clothing transforms the character of the Driver, it gives him a feeling. The toothpick and the gloves and the jacket, notice how he doesn’t even wear gloves during mechanical work or when he’s driving Irene during the first ‘Real Hero’ scene.
I call it the ‘Travolta’ mask. I just can’t help it.
The ‘Travolta’ mask confused me at this. I didn’t really understand why the Driver needed this mask, but then I recalled my knowledge of the superhero. This mask is the barrier between the human and the superhero, but better than that, it is another identity. Another identity that the responsibility for all the actions, all the hatred and all the violence. If you can then catch the BBC Miniseries Luther, especially the first two episodes of Series Two, it’s a show utterly about identity and how it’s reflected in the environment. In one such episode, a killer cannot bring himself to actually kill without a mask and that’s what I think happens in Drive.
The gloves, the mask and the jacket all hide the Driver from himself. The causality between his actions and identity are absolutely paramount; the identity is the cause, the violence is the effect. The Driver, upon assuming the new identity, can then do as he pleases. Important to note the elevator scene in which the Driver kisses Irene, his human relationship (the ‘cushion’) and then turns his back on her to become enraged. He knows he cannot protect her as a human, so he becomes a real hero. Do you understand what I mean? In order to save his ‘cushion’, he has to turn his back on it. He has to become a real hero and, by the end of it all, he completes this. The track Real Hero by College (feat Electric Youth) comes at both the point of Driver’s emotional peak in his falling for Irene, but also at the end of the film when he finally completes himself. When he succeeds in protecting her, going off into the night to be hunted… I wonder what that reminds me of…
Identity itself is the causality of everything that the Driver commits in Drive. Note how he puts on his gloves before interrogating Blanche in the hotel room. Just like in every superhero movie, he needs to cover up his human form so he can commit such acts. Interesting further to note the name of ‘Driver’, that we never find out his true name. Probably a throwback to the Clint Eastwood trilogy ‘Man With No Name’, a chaotic hero himself (we might discuss that trilogy soon), but without this true ‘identity’, without a name… Driver is free of his humanity.
But humanity is both a curse and a blessing, as we’ve said, and this is why I believe Drive to puncture the surface of the superhero genre. Because the Driver becomes a real hero… perhaps forever.
A key ideological myth of the superhero comic is
that the normal and everyday enshrines positive
values that must be defended through heroic action
–and defended over and over again almost without
respite against an endless battery of menaces
determined to remake the world for the benefit of
aliens, mutants, criminals, or sub-aqua beings from
– Richard Reynolds, Superheroes: A Modern Mythology
‘Positive values’. In the instance of Drive, it is love that is a positive values. Nice how Reynolds mentions the ‘criminals’, nicely fitting in to Drive as a superhero movie. His entire book is a great read up on the superhero mythology, unfortunately he fails to address how exactly it has changed over time. What’s interesting to note are two bits ‘heroic action’ and ‘determined to remake the world’.
‘Heroic action’ in Drive is violent beatings… the same with The Dark Knight too but without the death really. Except ‘heroic’ as a word doesn’t really mean anything. What is the line between heroic and human? I would hazard to say it’s the blurring of the lines, the identity, and thus the causality. Instead, however, I think ‘heroic’ in Drive means righteous in oneself. The act of Driver beating up, murdering and covering it up with identity is all done heroically. It is a bad to defend the ‘positive values’, the love which seems almost alien to him at first. This is true for Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and the vast majority of the Superman series. They are defending their love of their partners.
Except Spidey and Supes are not just out to save their love from total destruction, but also their dwellings. For Spidey it’s the entire city, where he countless times defends the city… but for what cause? Supes defends the entire Earth… but for what cause? Spidey tries to fulfil Uncle Ben’s last words, I guess, but Superman doesn’t even have a home. Is he trying to do it some justice? The superhero mythology gets a little bit weird in that the ‘positive values that must be defended’ can both be the love of the Driver and Irene but also the day-to-day life of millions of citizens. That society itself should be defended.
But Drive is 100% personal. It’s about the Driver defending his own turf, his love and himself. He wants to get out, he’s just an average everyday guy… this is what separates Drive from other superhero flicks. This is what it evolves from. The Driver is 100% human. He does not have powers or gadgets or any attribute that would classify him as a true ‘superhero’. He uses identity as a means to both save himself and Irene, but he’s more human than human. He defends, in the end, his humanity and accepts that this is his true purpose. That he can chase his humanity for so long, but it will always evade him. He cannot touch it any longer, because it will harm it, and so he goes off into the distance to be hunted possibly forever.
As a Psychology-studying seventeen year old, it’s somewhat fun to insert a bit of psychological reading of mythology. It’s been covered by a lot of commenters on the film but I’d like to truly apply it. I am talking about how the title of ‘Drive‘ feeds into the psychology of the character and from my own knowledge there is such a thing as Drive theory.
“Drive theory is based on the principle that organisms are born with certain psychological needs and that a negative state of tension is created when these needs are not satisfied.”
The mythology of the superhero, then, is not entirely built around this ‘nature’ approach to our brains. Superheroes, mostly, aren’t born with a desire or need to be a ‘hero’, a need to defend everything. It is built out of a personal desire or fear. Batman with Bats, Spider-Man with his Uncle. Stuff like that. But the Driver? We’re all born with a need for love… when that love it taken away, we revert to that ‘negative state of tension’. It’s like when you get straight out of a great relationship and mope around for a bit, because it takes a while for your brain to dilute those ‘psychological needs’ away from the need of a particular somebody.
In short, the superhero mythology isn’t particularly built out of Drive theory… a theory which (I’m being reductionist here) addresses the very issue of our humanity. That when we don’t have it, we can’t even act human.
“Superheroes may be a prelude to an actual leap in our evolution.”
– Deepak Chopra
Biologically, human beings aren’t going to evolve for millions of years. Only then do we become superpowered beings. Except, then, would we lose our humanity? We’d lose our contemporary humanity, certainly, but would we lose love, foolishness, lust and all those stupid, stupid things that makes us human? If we’re all superheroes then… will there be a world to save? “When everyone’s super… well… no-one will be!” 
Drive takes the superhero mythology and the idea of identity and evolves it into the human sense. That final drive away into the distance, wounded and bloodied, with the soundtrack ebbing the background. It’s all built around evolving the driver into a real hero… and a real human being. Becoming a superhero flick is not enough for the film, it has to change it. The film is a perfect reflection of our own day-to-day battle with our humanity against the brutal onslaught of time. To become a hero, we must accept the ruthlessness of time. We must agree that whatever has happened… happened. Only then can we move on with our lives. Move on from our past. A soundtrack trapped in the eighties, a subtle nod at action flicks and a direct punch to the gut of modern society in the form of the gangsterism (I had no idea that was a word) that has an iron grip on the city and on the humanity itself.
It reminds me of Blade Runner in the sense of the ending. Where Deckard turns his back on the system that he has been a part of for so long, and instead flees with his humanity intact. The only difference between Drive and Blade Runner being that Deckard physically gets the girl in the end, whereas Driver has to be contempt in knowing that he saved her life but (to be ‘a real human being, and a real heroooo’) he has to accept the pursuit. Accept his humanity and what he’s done. In short, he must abandon his civilian life and become the Driver forever. Ever evading the pursuers behind him.
And that is Drive. A puncture wound on the superhero mythology, an almost post-modernist kick to the groin and whatever else imagery you can think of. It’s a truly evolutionary thought captured in a feature that is both violent, romantic and both modern and regressive. It’s all about the line between human and hero, and in the end, hero and real hero. Batman, Spider-Man and so on and so forth have all been blessed with decades worth of lore and mythological explorations, but it’s time to turn it down a bit. For Drive, that isn’t enough. It might even be in the entirely wrong direction, that superhero pathology is indeed completely wrong by modern standards. No longer are we trapped in our fantasies but in the brutal, crushing and scientific realist vision of a cruel, cruel world. What Drive suggests and investigates is truly transcendent.
To be a real hero, you have to be a real human being.
References, further reading:
- Digital Spy Interview
- Spider-Man 2
- The Dark Knight
- Link to Online book here
- Overview from Wikipedia.
- One of the tracks in Drive…
- IGN Article on Comic Con
- The Incredibles