More and more is happening behind the mask.
Justice is a concept that is extremely difficult to talk about for many reasons. The main reason is that justice is different for each person.
The ethical conversation about justice is constantly evolving, changing as people experience different forms of hatred and a lack of equity in economic, political, and social opportunity. When justice is unattainable in stories, the vigilante is born to return what should have been given to those who suffered injustice.
But is justice enough to fuel a hero’s story? After all, vigilantes are just masked people trying to do the right thing. So what drives a vigilante story if the ethical concept cannot even be upheld in our current world?
Like Stories of Old explains why justice is meaningless when served by a vigilante and suggests what makes a vigilante’s story meaningful. Watch the full video below:
What is punitive justice?
Retributive justice is a powerful ideology that believes that someone who has done wrong should be punished accordingly. This ideology has existed since the dawn of human culture and has been observed in the animal world, primarily with monkeys punishing those who have personally wronged them.
There is an evolutionary explanation for the existence of retribution, and it is the extremely emotionally satisfying feeling of revenge.
Revenge is often tied to characters who have suffered great loss or injustice. Audiences can sympathize with their loss and root for this character as he exacts revenge. No matter how crazy or bloody the character’s journey gets, audiences can relate to their chaos, justifying their actions as fault.
In John Wick, John (Keanu Reeves) begins his journey of revenge after the dog given to him by his late wife is killed during a home invasion. Filled with grief, John gets out of it the only way he knows how: revenge. But how long can revenge be justified? After the first movie, you could say the John Wick franchise lacks motivation. The action and the violence are all the same, but the emotional force is gone.
This happens because revenge is a self-centered act that causes these to be completely self-centered, emotionally erratic, and entitled. These revenge-driven characters believe they are suffering more than anyone could comprehend and demand punishment that outweighs the crime. The cycle of violence then becomes inevitable.
Human societies realized this problem early in the culture and created systems that govern retribution with an impersonal, emotionless third party who is less likely to punish disproportionately.
When the system that was created to delegate retributive justice fails due to corruption or wrongful convictions, a vigilante comes out of the shadows to take justice into his own hands.
We all know the vigilante – someone who is in pursuit of justice after the created system has failed them. Batman, Sister Night, and just about everyone who wears a mask are all characters who have suffered an unresolved injustice that then motivates them to do it themselves. Not only do vigilantes stand above the law, but they also aim to place themselves above their trauma, making their mission something higher than themselves.
The mask hides their face, allowing them to transcend their individuality and flaws to become an embodiment of unbiased judgment that is, unfortunately, skewed due to human nature.
The mask allows vigilantes to become the transcendental symbols of justice they imagine themselves to be, but the mask can also make them dangerous. Vigilantism is, essentially, a claim to absolute power – the power to be free from all societal constraints. Justice becomes what the vigilante believes it to be.
at Snyder watchmen demonstrates this by juxtaposing his vigilantes with Dr. Manhattan, the only being who possesses absolute power. He is almost like God, creating and recreating what he wants, seeing all the time at once and shaping what he sees as justice. Dr. Manhattan represents the kind of power that makes vigilantes so unsettling even when they believe they can control themselves.
Vigilantes like the Punisher or Snyder’s interpretation of Rorschach and Batman (Ben Affleck) are vigilantes who cross the line, acting with more obviously misplaced and excessive violence. It’s appealing because it expresses a feeling that we all have, even if just for a brief moment, but they don’t want to compromise. Instead of striving to help uplift a society that is bound by rules and regulations, these vigilantes believe that society is the root of the infection.
The boys takes an in-depth look at what might happen when a few gain absolute power. The series highlights the struggle for justice through the perspective of ordinary citizens who fear the extreme dangers of those with absolute power and the freedom to seek what they see as justice outside of a legislative system. It is a grim warning, asking people to consider who they are giving power to when they deem someone worthy of both the title of judge and executioner.
What does meaningful justice look like?
Justice is different for each person, and that’s normal.
When writing a character’s motivation for justice, you need to examine the driving force behind the idea. Is their punishment the result of trauma, anger at the shortcomings of a system, or a desire for justice?
What separates good from evil? These little details will make for a fully realized vigilante who seeks to right a wrong done to him or his community. Once justice has been served, what does your vigilante do next, or is that feeling of anger and grief still there?
The air of anonymity of a masked vigilante can allow you to create a complex character that focuses on specific issues that our culture tries to address but fails to do. The character does not need to be right in the pursuit of justice, but they must be able to justify their actions. Accountability is the foundation of justice. No one should be safe from the consequences because no one is this important.
At the end of the day, we all want some form of justice. We cannot force the world to make sense or feel whole in a broken world. Vigilantes are human in the sense that they seek an escape fantasy that allows them to live without consequence, but their journeys are often unfulfilling and self-destructive because there is a need for a deeper connection that creates a lasting foundation that is not based on negative emotions.
Self-defense stories should be about the human condition and the frustrations we all feel towards society. Don’t be afraid to point out a small flaw in society that has been bothering you for some time or an important issue that you want to focus on from a specific point of view. The Vigilante gives you the freedom to explore the world from a unique perspective that ordinary characters could never experience.
Who is your favorite movie or TV vigilante? Let us know in the comments!