The Vigilante in American Mythology (Brief Thoughts) #monthofjoy

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While reading my Hugo Awards voting packet, I came across this post by Gilbert Colon on Person of Interest and Nolan’s Batman movies (somehow I missed this last year).  After taking in the first couple of paragraphs, I had to stop and start writing a post in response to the following:

To begin with, Person of Interest was created by Jonathan Nolan, who wrote The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises with his brother Christopher (the Trilogy’s director) and veteran comic-book adapter David S. Goyer. The parallels between Person of Interest and the Trilogy run deeper than the surface fact that the heroes in both are vigilantes. “A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. But … if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.” 

Some of Person of Interest’s similarities may be due to the archetypal characters it seeks to depict. The series’ crimestoppers are altruistic protectors derived from the Old West, the private-eye genre, and modern television reinterpretations (The Equalizer, Stingray, and Hack come to mind) of which Batman, “the Dark Knight Detective,” is one. Nolan confessed that he’s “always liked characters who … operate on the edge of the law” and said he “was interested in writing something … dangerous. I’ve always been drawn to that aspect of Batman … maybe we are tapping into some of that.” One cast member (Michael Emerson) hypothesizes  “that American audiences have a hunger for avengers … — the vigilante, the lone operators that will cut through the red tape and set things right … That’s such a strong theme in the States, and it’s part of what we are delivering. It goes back to cowboy movies and everything like that.”

Why do Americans like these vigilante types so much?  Why Batman and Superman and the X-Men and so on and so forth?  What about these individuals who take matters into their own hands is so compelling to American audiences?

I’ll admit that if there is a field of academic study on vigilantes, my knowledge about it amounts to nil.  I, too, fell in love with vigilante types, from Tim Burton’s Batman movies to Nolan’s masterpieces.  And as a reader of comics in my youth, these figures have been central to my life in a way I never noticed before.  In fact, if you look at the sea of science fiction narratives that have dominated the screen in the last fifty years, it’s rife with examples of people going against the grain of society in some crucial way.  Even Star Wars, commonly heralded as “that thing with which many of us grew up,” is a relative of the vigilante narrative, albeit with a far more revolutionary feel — vigilantes, in my mind, are far more isolated than the Rebels in Star Wars.  Vigilantes are Batman, Riddick, half of Marvel’s superheroes (even Magneto), and on and on and on.

In thinking about all of these characters and their narrative purposes, it dawned on me that American audiences are drawn to these figures because of some deep desire for a fantasy of action.  So many of us live our lives trapped in a space we feel we cannot change, and most of us don’t have the willpower or ability to fulfill the role of the vigilante ourselves.  And in the real world, the vigilante almost never wins:  he or she almost always dies and the media campaign against the vigilante almost always succeeds.

When you look at the political landscape of the United States, you can see the walls of the trap and how they function.  Whatever you might think about America’s political parties, one can’t deny the fact that Congress appears incapable of any serious action.  They say the system is gridlocked — trapped between two parties with drastically different political interests.  The trap of American life extends from the directly political to the indirectly political.  Young people have been faced with the stark reality that many of their futures have been forfeited, or at least put on indefinite hold.  They can’t get jobs, or the careers they set out for have withered away or stopped growing.  My mother faced this reality first hand:  when she got her paralegal certification, the economy had tanked, flooding the paralegal jobs with applications from law school grads.  There wasn’t anything she could do but find a job in another field.  For a lot of Americans, there is a very real sense that nothing we do as individuals will matter in the long run.  We feel stuck or lost.  Some of us have lost hope (something with which I’ve battled over the years — largely from a political perspective), and day by day, we hear about criminals getting away with horrible crimes, the police failing to do their jobs, governments cutting funding to programs that actually save lives (firefighters, for example), and on and on and on.

In my mind, the vigilante becomes a cathartic release, a way of living out the inner “us” that longs for change.*  All the things that are wrong with our world — albeit, within a particular perspective of “wrong” — seem beyond our control.  It feels good to watch Batman take matters into his own hands.**  When you look in American film, the list of “true American” vigilante-type heroes is a mile long.  In that list, I would include people like John McClane, Rambo, Erica Bain (from The Brave One), Hit Girl / Big Daddy / Kick-Ass, Batman, Punisher, Jack Burton, Dirty Harry, Foxy Brown, and so on and so forth.  None of these figures are political neutral, of course.  They are vigilantes in the sense that they get done whatever they believe needs to get done, and the degrees to which they care about the people that happen to be in their way varies considerably.

But the vigilante is a myth too.  In so many vigilante narratives, the distinctions between good and bad are largely already settled, but only within the world of the narrative.  We might recognize that the vigilante him or herself isn’t necessarily good either, but the people he or she punishes are frequently “evil.”  The Punisher is a great example.  In the film adaptation, the Punisher (played by Thomas Jane) takes revenge against the criminal elements in the city.  At no point do we believe that Howard Saint (played by John Travolta) is a good guy, even in a sort of “the world is shades of grey” sense.  He’s evil, and he deserves some kind of punishment.  Even I felt a certain kind of sick pleasure in watching the Punisher kill off Saint’s goons; much like the character of Frank Castle (the Punisher), I too felt a release when Saint finally got his share of the punishment, though for entirely different reasons (Castle because Saint killed his family; me because Saint was undeniably evil).

In retrospect, however, the Punisher is not really a good guy.  Even Batman isn’t a terribly good guy either.  Neither of them follow the rules, and both do so knowing they have violated most of a civil society’s basic codes of conduct.  But the vigilante is always a response to civil society’s perceived failures.  The police in Gotham City can’t end crime on their own because they are tied by the law; Commissioner Gordon knows this as well as Batman/Bruce Wayne does.***  Civil society can’t seem to get its hooks into the crime that tears at that society’s innards, because the rule of law is everything but perfection.  The rule of law can be manipulated or abused by the very people it is supposed to control, leaving those who enforce the law with a limited ability to act.  The vigilante doesn’t have that problem, and often shits on the law in the process of taking it into their own hands.  In The Dark Knight, for example, Batman uses a surveillance system that until recently would have seemed like a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution; his reasons may make some sense — he has to stop the Joker — but in achieving that goal, he must consume a piece of the criminal within himself by violating everyone’s rights.  Whether he feels particularly bad about doing so is never stated in the film.  Destroying the machine in the end seems more like a gesture of faith towards Fox than an actual acknowledgement of the Bat’s moral or ethical limitations.

But we root for Batman anyway.  He can do what none of us can, either because we don’t have the guts or because we’re too rooted in our own vision of a just society.  Watching Batman take matters into his own hands — i.e., beating the shit out of the bad guys — allows us to get a taste of the freedom to act.  Those actions may fall into the shades of grey, or they may turn out to be evil in their own right, but it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t feel good to think about doing things for the betterment of oneself or others despite the law.  In the American consciousness, that descends from a pessimistic view of the world rooted in helplessness.  We might live in a democracy, but that doesn’t mean we all believe we can change it “for the better.”  For some of Americans, that dream of “changing things” got stamped out by reality a long time ago.

Of course, I might be talking out of my ass here, so you should feel free to rip into me in the comments.  What do you think about vigilantes?


*The type of change we long for is individual, of course.  What you may want to happen is likely to differ somewhat from my own desires.

**Part of me wonders if this extends back to the Revolution, if not as some kind of mirror, then certainly as a bastardized version of a revolutionary consciousness.

***I’m talking about the film adaptations here, as the comics are a far more complicated universe.

Note:  I don’t want to imply that only Americans feel this way about vigilante characters.  However, since I do not live in another country, nor have I ever done so, I do not feel comfortable inferring about another place or people, however similar they may seem to my own national people.  If you are from one of the 200+ other countries and have an opinion on vigilantes in relation to local interest, please leave a comment below or write up your own post and send me a link.  I would love to hear your take!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

2 thoughts on “The Vigilante in American Mythology (Brief Thoughts) #monthofjoy

  1. I noticed the vigilante obsession quite a while back, and I find it disturbing. It's one thing for the myth to exist. It's quite another for it to be the mainstay of storytelling. What's the saying? Once, a philosopher. Three million times, a sociopath?[1] It's one of the many reasons why I wrote what I did how I did. It's the main reason why Liam will never again resort to violence for problem solving. I wanted to tell a story that *wasn't* about the vigilante option being the optimal one. I wanted to show in bold print where all that leads.

    I think this obsession has reached unhealthy levels. Fantasy is helpful. I won't deny that ever. However, overindulgence is never a good thing, and I feel we've overdone it on the vengeance fantasy front. The fact that almost anyone I speak to now firmly believes that democracy in general is a failure and that their vote doesn't count and that nothing can be done is extremely worrying. Speaking as someone who has endured and learned a great deal from manipulative, unbalanced relationships — the very first thing an abuser will do is convince you that you are powerless. In this way, they make you give them your power. Combine this with the ludicrous idea that all problems should be solved in thirty seconds or less… and well, you end up with the mess we are in.

    Humanity's real problems require long term solutions — not instant fixes, and just because we can't resolve things in quick order doesn't mean we should give up trying.

    Or in this case, shrug our shoulders and shot the 'problem' in the face.
    [1] Although, I feel the term sociopath is overused to the point of meaninglessness these days — not unlike the word terrorist.

    • I certainly agree that on some level, the vigilante narrative can be a problem from a sociocultural perspective. If it becomes too ubiquitous, it can offer people a focal point for their own desire to act, thus allowing action never to take place. I could be very wrong about that, though, but it does seem plausible to me.

      It seems remarkably human to me, though.

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