Episode 26 – Vigilante Fiction


You’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?

Mike and Casey sit down with Pól Rua and Greg Hatcher of Comic Book Resources’ Comics Should Be Good blog, for a comprehensive and thoughtful discussion of urban crime and its many complicated causes.

And we talk about how pulp novels and grindhouse cinema recommends fixing these problems. Namely, angry middle-aged men with oversized handguns.

This month, we’re talking about urban vigilante fiction. Hyper-violent anti-heroes pumping thousands of rounds of ammunition into scumbags and drug dealers. From Dirty Harry to Death Wish; from the Punisher to Mack Bolan, we’re digging into the vigilante genre, and asking ourselves: why do bleeding heart liberals like us enjoy this stuff?

“Getting Into Shape / Listen You Screw Heads / Gun Play” from Taxi Driver by Bernard Herrmann

Previously titled: “A Noir Carnival of Fright and Insanity”

15 thoughts on “Episode 26 – Vigilante Fiction

  1. In thinking about your discussion on this episode, I realized that I have BATMAN V. SUPERMAN all the more for the way it depicts Batman, and for how Zack Snyder casually defends the fact that Batman kills people in the movie.

    I also realized that I don’t, in fact, like the vigilante/revenge genre in film, or perhaps more specifically, I have no interest in it. I’ve never seen any of the DEATH WISH movies. I’ve never seen any of the TAKEN movies or JOHN WICK. I’ve only seen one DIRTY HARRY movie, and I don’t think it was the first one. I never cared about Marvel’s Punisher as a solo act, only as a foil to characters like Spider-Man and Daredevil.

    You raised the question why do liberals get such joy out of these films. I consider myself a liberal, but having admittedly not seen many of these movies, I can only speculate on this matter, but it seems to me the genre functions as an escapist fantasy for people who believe in moral absolutes. We reject the idea that the system can’t work fairly for everyone. We reject the idea that no one is beyond repentance and redemption. But the conceit of the revenge/vigilante movie is those ideals simply do not exist. If we accept the premise that the system is broken and some people can’t be forgiven in the movie’s universe, we can enjoy the ride with the schadenfreude to which Mike alluded.

    Maybe I can’t accept that on the film’s terms and that’s why I don’t care for the movies…? I’m really not sure.

    (Sidebar: Why can’t Neil deGrasse Tyson accept that STAR WARS is a fantasy and not beholden to actual scientific principles?)

    Anyway, the (latest) reason why I hate BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: Zack Snyder treats Batman as a vigilante in the revenge movie sense of the word. The world is broken and the law is helpless, so he’ll bring justice–or more frequently, *vengeance*–upon the wicked. I realize the word “vigilante” is technically appropriate when describing Batman, but I think any story that treats him more like a punishing avenger rather than an “unorthodox crimefighter” runs the risk of missing the whole point of the character. Like, y’know, the movie does several times.

    There are two conceits of the vigilante figure you guys talked about. One is that he kills, and that both vigilante and audience arrive at an emotional catharsis when he brings symbolic retribution on the enemy. The other idea is that the vigilante’s quest is a protracted crime of passion. He (or she) is acting emotionally in response to a great wrong.

    Neither of those ideas *should* apply to Batman. I’ll tackle the latter first.

    Batman is far too cerebral and clinical to be acting emotional. That is not to say he gets over the murder of his parents. Joel Schumacher argued that Bruce Wayne would eventually come to terms with their deaths, and that’s how you get the Batman in BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN AND ROBIN. But Batman doesn’t prowl the streets of Gotham looking for their killer. He prowls the streets to prevent anyone else from suffering the way he did. The line “I am vengeance” sounds great coming out of Kevin Conroy’s mouth, but it’s inaccurate. Batman is not out for revenge; he’s a protector.

    As for the killing, Batman should never do it. Not because killing is wrong, but because it breaks the illusion of the character. If Batman were a killer, it would make no sense for him to be Batman. Why does Batman wear the cape and cowl and employ the whole shadowy creature of the night motif? It’s not functional; it’s tactical. Specifically, it’s a scare tactic. Batman wants to terrify the underworld into changing its wicked ways. That presupposes that he’s allowing the criminals to live so they can repent and change. If Batman didn’t care about that–if he judged them undeserving of life, he wouldn’t dress up as Batman. Again, he’s too clinical; he would wear an armored ninja suit and shoot bad guys with a sniper rifle. He would dress like the Punisher.

    The Punisher doesn’t wear a mask because he doesn’t care if the criminals see his face or not. The reason for that is he doesn’t plan on letting any of them live. That’s how Batman would operate if he were a killer, but he’s not. He’s Batman. You can suspend your disbelief long enough to believe that a man would dress up like demon bat because the shock of it gives him the edge in his war on enemies who almost always have him outnumbered and outgunned. That costume *is* his superpower. It’s what makes the fight even.

    But if Batman’s willing to kill, he’s too smart and too well-trained to put himself in greater danger. He’d kill from a distance, from a place of security. Then that edge doesn’t matter, then the costume doesn’t matter, and then you’re no longer talking about Batman.

    So, is he a vigilante? Yes, he takes the law into his own hands. But he does so as an agent of Law Enforcement. He’s not Judge, Jury, and Executioner. He’s a defender, a protector. He’s a super-cop. A goddamn superhero.

  2. I love superheroes to death, but they are a strange and fragile genre. And to write them well as serial characters, you really have to just avoid asking certain questions or injecting them with too much reality, or they break.

    Sometimes, like with Watchmen or Irredeemable, breaking them is the point. But when you start injecting them with too much of the ugly gritty bits of reality, it becomes more and more obvious how a lot about them doesn’t work.

    We really can’t think too hard about why Batman doesn’t kill the Joker, because Batman doesn’t really have a good answer. And having writers constantly trying to top the last Joker story and making his crimes more and more horrific… that doesn’t help that question any more.

    If you really did have a psychopathic remorseless thrill killer who had murdered (at least) a thousand people, his mental state made him ineligible for execution and no jail could contain him for very long…

    …well, then Batman looks like a selfish jerk for refusing to kill him, and he would clearly be putting his own morals over the lives of the people that Joker will inevitably kill when he next escapes.

    It’s very hard to not side with Frank Castle, when characters like the Joker and Bullseye exist.

    Sure, you have people like Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway, John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer in real life, but they weren’t displaying their crimes for all the world to see and once they were caught, they stayed caught and not even the most successful of them has killed as many people as some of the scariest supervillains.

    My chief worry is that when Daredevil is arguing with the Punisher about how it’s wrong to kill the bad guys, I don’t want to disagree with Daredevil. I want him to be right. I want to condemn Punisher. But our world isn’t nearly as scary as the bad guys in fiction. And if I lived in the Marvel or DC Universes, my attitude about things like the death penalty would be very different.

    So I worry that overplaying the darkness and the horror in a genre where the heroes refuse to kill is pulling at a thread that threatens to break the genre.

    I’m sure the Joker has killed enough cops that as Greg said on the panel, it makes no sense that none of them would shoot him in the back while he *wink wink* “tried to escape”…

    • The more I think about it, it’s the villains. The over-the-top cartoon monster villains who just thrive on chaos and murder, who have no redeemable qualities. Who giggle and dance when they kill and burn and stab. The villains who take glee and joy in doing the worst things to the most helpless people.

      Bullseye, the Joker… these are the guys who when a writers takes them too far, threaten to topple the entire of house of cards.

      When you have an argument between characters like Punisher, and characters like Batman and Daredevil, these are the bad guys that make the Punisher right.

      If the villains are more like the Flash Rogues Gallery (ie, professional criminals who kill if they’re forced, but don’t revel in it), Daredevil and Batman are right.

      Those sorts of criminals can realistically be redeemed, or have redeeming qualities. They’re bad guys, but you can’t see them go all the way into Hannibal Lecter territory.

      Because the cartoonishly evil kill-crazy villains who cannot be restrained or imprisoned by a sane, moderate society are the glue that holds the violent vigilante genre together. They are the element that makes the heroes’ violent excesses seem rational and justified.

      But when you inject that same element into a superhero genre that forbids the heroes to kill in nearly every circumstance, they become the ineffectual cops and lawyers that are always scolding Harry Callahan and Paul Kersey.

      If the Punisher violently kills bad guys like the Flash Rogues with a combat knife and a pile of grenades, it looks like the bloody overreaction of an unhinged man.

      He does the same to the Joker or Bullseye, and it’s about goddamned time, because those guys are SCARY.

      • Funnily enough. Punisher Actually Met The joker once. And the joker basically told him that the two of them Aren’t That different from each other, “You kill because you Hate, But I do it because I love it” and eventually, when the two came face to face, he basically told him that “I’m a sick man, and not responsible for my actions.” But it seems the Punisher did not really “believe” him And the joker commented that “You’re actually going to do it, are you?” But to put in simple terms. Why haven’t Anyone found a “Legal” way to kill the joker. Gotham seems Crazy (pun not intended, but I’ll take it anyway) Enough to find a way to justify it legally. Why do they think that Batman Should be the one to do it? That, (To me at least,) is the real question.

  3. I’m a devout progressive liberal and find that my political outlook was best vocalized by Ollie Queen, on Justice League Unlimited. I believe government exists to do for its citizens what they cannot do on their own. At the same time, I grew up in the 70s, post-Vietnam and Watergate and it seemed liked a dark, cynical time. I grew up in a small town, with nothing more than minor crime. However, I lived near an industrial city that started to fall apart, with plant closings and increases in crime and despair; a city which has never recovered. There was a lot of feeling in the air that government had failed people and that the courts didn’t work. It was a feeling of fear, mostly, which vigilante pulp fiction and entertainment fed well. I read that that stuff, in high school and went to see some of those action movies, where problems were solved with ammunition and explosives. It was the zeitgeist. After the seeming impotence of the Carter Administration, we had a Rambo wanna-be as president, someone who looked at John Wayne as something other than a cowboy actor. So, I understand the attraction of characters like Mack Bolan and Dirty Harry. It’s the same attraction that fed a love of The Shadow and the Spider-bloody justice, when everyone else cowers in fear.

    By the same token, I grew up reading comic books and superheroes, with a deep devotion to Superman, who represented the best in man. Even Batman, in that era, wasn’t a killer. He was scary, but never to those in need. He stopped the psychopaths. I read messages of social justice and equality, of tolerance and standing up for the oppressed. So, I was a bit schizophrenic in the 80s. I believed in social programs as a way to provide opportunities and resources to people who lacked them, yet didn’t trust government and its institutions. I would cheer Reagan speeches about America standing tall and not backing down from evil doers, yet knew enough about Latin American history and politics to know that our involvement had little to do with supporting justice. It took time in the military and the farce of the Gulf War to really make me take a look at what I truly believed.

    For the most part, I grew away from violent vigilante tales. I came to appreciate more how the stories of my youth presented heroes who used their brains to defeat criminals and solve problems, rather than brawn and weaponry. To me, that was what made Batman great. It wasn’t the Batmobile and the utility belt (though they are pretty darn cool); it was the strategy and deductive reasoning, which is why I’ve never been fully satisfied by the movies. I don’t want to see Batman kill, because then he is nothing more than the Punisher, or a Shadow rip-off. He may have begun as one, but he grew beyond it. I don’t want to see a Superman who doesn’t try to preserve life more than he tries to physically confront an opponent and would try every alternative under the sun before killing. I don’t want a Jonathan Kent who would even consider that Clark shouldn’t help people, to keep from being discovered.

    I still enjoy some vigilante figures; but more the ones who, despite the violence, still employ a bit of brains. I am drawn more to Doc Savage and The Avenger than I am the Shadow or Spider. I still love Snake Plisken, even though I thought he would be taller. I can’t watch Rambo, beyond the first film. He goes from scarred soldier to superman too quickly. I could sympathize with the character created by David Morrell; but not the one on screen. I can compartmentalize Dirty Harry as a product of that violent post-Vietnam and Watergate world. I never liked the Death Wish films and preferred Charles Bronson in St Ives, where he is cut from more traditional cloth.

    I refuse to see Zack Snyder handle Batman because he doesn’t understand storytelling, let alone heroes. Comic book heroes were created for children and like many great children’s characters, they represent the child’s uncluttered view of the world and the way things ought to be. It’s part of why I’ve never been a fan of “grim and gritty,” even when I thought the comic was well done (like Daredevil or Killing Joke). I read some violent comics in the Bronze Age and enjoyed them, like Master of Kung Fu and Killraven, or Deathlok and Warlord. I devoured Jon Sable. However, those heroes didn’t revel in their violence and they were affected by it. I never cared for the Punisher because he was nothing but violence. Mack Bolan was more sympathetic. He had an absolute outlook; but, he had limits and showed restraint that the Punisher never did.

  4. Back to the discussion itself, I think Greg articulates my attraction to vigilante entertainment well. It is seeing the bully get theirs. It is the western in an urban setting. It is the guy who stands up and I like those moments. It also helps that the better stories, as you say, set up a world where it’s the only response left.

    Now as far as liberal looks at it, Billy Jack is a pretty major funhouse mirror depiction of that. I would also cite the movies The Last Supper and Heathers as sort of examples of that. The Last Supper has a group of liberals who live together and have a big Sunday dinner together and invite guests. They end up inviting a total creep and racist, played by Bill Paxton and one of them murders him. Some of them feel okay with it and it continues, with Nora Dunn as a sheriff who investigates the disappearances. It culminates in meeting a Rush Limbaugh-like pundit, played by Ron Pearlman, who makes them examine their political viewpoints, vs his, in a more reasoned manner. Heathers is high school revenge fantasy writ large.

    I was a bit surprised, when you asked Pol about American vigilante stories being popular in Australia and the obvious was missed: Mad Max. The original film is a vigilante revenge story. Max was part of the police; but sees the system is corrupt and doesn’t work anymore. It builds and builds until his family is destroyed and Max Rokatansky becomes Mad Max. We tend to forget that first film, in contrast to the wasteland barbarian stories of Road Warrior and beyond.

    • “I was a bit surprised, when you asked Pol about American vigilante stories being popular in Australia and the obvious was missed: Mad Max. The original film is a vigilante revenge story. Max was part of the police; but sees the system is corrupt and doesn’t work anymore. It builds and builds until his family is destroyed and Max Rokatansky becomes Mad Max. We tend to forget that first film, in contrast to the wasteland barbarian stories of Road Warrior and beyond.”

      Weirdly enough, we touched on this really briefly in a between-the-segments cutting room floor chat when we were adjusting microphones and one of us was taking a bathroom break. The sound quality wasn’t good or I would have included it in this month’s Fun Size episode. Sadly it won’t make it into the episode at all, but I think Greg is the one who remembered Mad Max.

      But you are absolutely correct. The original Mad Max is absolutely a vigilante film. In that case, society and law enforcement is literally crumbling and Max’s violent retaliation against the gang is the last thing he can do to get any sort of justice.

      And the Toecutter’s gang acts exactly in the way that the typical vigilante villains act, right down to the sing-song threats and gleeful violence and bullying.

      Good call, Jeff!

  5. Man, what a great episode! And it was like an all-star show, with Pol and Greg on the panel.
    Personally, I’m not as big a fan of the vigilante genre; I watched a number of the movies (e.g. Dirty Harry, one of the Death Wishes, although not the first one, a number of similar movies that were coming out on an assembly line in the 1980s…), but none of them stuck with me as favorites.
    Also made a brief foray into the Mac Bolan books, around my freshman year of high school (when I was a bit of a young Republican), but even then, at probably the perfect age and with the perfect outlook on life to get sucked into those, I didn’t.
    And in comics, the Punisher will always be a bad guy to me. I wasn’t fond of the trend to make him more of a hero, which began in the early ’80s. (In that sense, one of my favorite bits in JLA vs. Avengers is where the reader is informed, via a raving Plastic Man, that Batman spent 20 minutes “beating up some loon in kevlar to save some drug dealers.” That pretty much sums up the way I think Punisher should be dealt with by heroes).
    I won’t re-hash the comments above with similar points, but I’ll echo Jeff in agreeing with Greg’s point about the bullies getting their well-deserved comeuppance – and understanding why – as the most appealing thing about vigilante movies.
    Jeff also beat me to another thing that struck me as well: the lack of consideration of Mad Max, which is a vigilante film par excellence – probably my favorite one, in fact.
    Also, is John Wick really a vigilante movie? Don’t get me wrong, I really liked it, but I think it’s just a straight-up revenge film: Wick goes on a rampage because those f***ers killed his dog, and not because he wants to rid the world of those mobster scumbags (he used to be one of them, remember?). That was just a by-product. In that regard, it’s similar to another revenge film I really like, Payback (and the novel it’s based on, Point Blank): Gibson’s character just wants his damn 70 thousand bucks – annihilating this immensely powerful criminal syndicate is just his way of achieving that aim.

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  8. I just wanted to share something I wrote previously in regards to Luke Skywalker’s death count when he destroyed the Death Star, or alternatively why George Lucas is incredibly bad at math:

    Yeah, the 342,953 crew members is absurdly low, but even if you add in 700,000 other personnel it is still ridiculously low. The Death Star has 220,781 cubic miles of volume (the second one, which is bigger, but I’m too lazy to calculate the volume on the first one) and even if we presume 70% of that volume is either the massive cavern for for the reactor at the center or other non-occupied volumes (weapon systems, fluid storage, etc.) that still leaves 66,234.3 cubic miles of space for potential occupation/work. With 1,042,953 people in total, that gives us a personnel density of 15.75 people per cubic mile; obviously people will not be evenly distributed throughout the Death Star’s volume, instead being concentrated in key areas, which means that there are mindbogglingly vast sections of the Death Star that are completely unmanned to the point that the whole station would quickly descend into system failures; I would be curious as to what the droid population of Death Star.

    The population density of New York City is 27,000 people per square mile. It seems reasonable that a space station the size and complexity of the Death Star would require a similar density, but to produce a conservative number let us presume half of that, which gives us 13,500 people per square mile, which incidentally is a little over the population density of Boston. Since we are dealing with a volume rather than an area it is obvious that that density should be higher, but let’s just presume that 13,500 people per cubic mile is reason to further give us a conservative number. Based on that, the population of the Death Star should be 894,163,050. Just shy of a billion people! Even if we assume that droids account for 90% of that population (something not supported by the material since we never see that kind of ratio between sentients and droids) that means that there should be, at a minimum, 89,416,305 people on the Death Star. The estimation of the number of people killed by Luke on the Death Star is off by almost two orders of magnitude and if you count droids as sentients then it is off by nearly three!

    • There’s killing, and then there’s KILLING.

      Though I imagine that the engines and giant planet destroying laser, Luke Skywalker has easily killed more people than Jason Voorhees, but…


      Luke’s kills are pretty tame things. Aside from that poor sap who spun into a tree after Luke lopped off the front of his speeder bike with a lightsaber, they’re usually instant, bloodless and safe.

      He isn’t going to shoot a stormtrooper in the stomach and then again in the back as he staggers away, the way that Paul Kersey in “Death Wish” would.

      He would never pop up behind a guy and snap his neck with his bare hands the way the Punisher often would. He would never blow off his foot with a shotgun the way that Jonah Hex has. Or shoot him in the dick like Jamie Foxx did to a bad guy in “Django Unchained.”

      There’s a crunch, and a gasp and a cringe that you don’t do with most superhero movies or Star Wars movies. Those are clean kills. Rated PG kills.

      Vigilantes kill you in a Rated R movie, and they might throw a Zippo lighter at you after you’ve been dowsed in gasoline, or set a dog on you, or impale you on a meat hook.

      It’s just what. It’s HOW.

  9. To me, a lot of things like these kinda depend on what you do With the fact of killing. Like for instance, Arrow Season 1:(The worst part of the season in my mind) “Shure I’ll kill all of your minions, But I’ll Leave the Head of these places alive…..For some reason.” If you kill someone, you don’t just shrug it off easy. It should have an Immense effect on the person doing it, (Mostly negative obviously, but that is my opinion) But when people treat it like Nothing, it tells me that people will see that and think it’s not that big a deal. I want to see things like this as a big deal. And that is something that we don’t see that often in these movies. You don’t just shoot someone then walk away. You have to deal with the consequences. But when they aren’t any, it seems very much to me like the creators are Very irresponsible with their own works. But hey, I’m just an Autistic Atheist who sees no point in killing people in the first place, So what Do I know?

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