Behind the Mask: Superheroes, Vigilantes, and Revolutionaries

What is the difference between a superhero, a vigilante, and a revolutionary? Naturally, we would like to associate them all with heroism and justice, but upon closer examination, this isn’t the case. It is also important to note that heroism and justice are abstract concepts and people’s perceptions will vary according to their own interpretation of right and wrong, framed in part by their personal beliefs, experiences, and worldview.

One of my favorite musicals is Wicked, especially in how it explores the power of labels and the themes of good and evil and whether or not people are born wicked. There is a really interesting quote from the show about social perceptions that I think serves as a good preface to the content that will be discussed:

“A man’s called a traitor or liberator
A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist
Is one a crusader or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist”

Superheroes have dominated the market for years and anyone who doesn’t known the name Marvel has to be living under a rock. Big-budget action and special effects. Superhumans saving the world time and time again. Personally, it feels redundant after awhile but Marvel is still making money and has a loyal fanbase so there’s appeal to continue the franchise. (To my friends who are Marvel fans, please don’t take offense and hear me out. I will also mention some Marvel movies I do like. )

According to dictionary.com, the definition of a vigilante is “any person who takes the law into his or her own hands, as by avenging a crime.” Given this definition, all superheroes are vigilantes. However, not all vigilantes are superheroes. To be a superhero, the individual has to possess super-human abilities. (Batman is not a superhero. His power comes from money, intelligence, and physical strength. Arguably, Iron Man is not a superhero either because his power is not innate, i.e. he does not have superhuman abilities without his suit.) And finally, a revolutionary is one who engages in revolution, defined in its simplest terms as “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” There can be overlap between the three in terms of motivation (righting a wrong, taking revenge, building a better world, etc) but they will often have different goals and methods. Note that the definition for a revolution includes a “new system.” It challenges the rules of power and those under its control.

Given this definition, I would argue that superheroes are not revolutionaries. Rather, they defend the world and protect the systems already in existence. Take for example the Avengers. Four movies. But before and after? Nothing much has changed. They rescue the world from invaders, but don’t improve anything. They merely fight to preserve the status quo – ie, they avenge. All that is left after their battles is destruction and collateral damage.

A memorable moment for me in Captain America: Winter Soldier is when Natasha Romanoff is testifying against Congress for the damage the Avengers cause in their fight to destroy S.H.I.E.L.D. She says, “You are not going to put any of us in a prison…because you need us. Yes, the world is a vulnerable place, and yes, we helped make it that way, but we are also the ones best qualified to defend it.”

WHIH Newsfront on Twitter: "In light of the recent cleanup progress in DC,  #Newsfront revisits #NatashaRomanoff's congressional testimony.… "

This is a total cop-out! Not to bash Natasha (I’m actually excited for the Black Widow movie) but she’s basically saying, “You can’t keep us accountable because we are your only hope of survival.”

In contrast, one of my favorite Marvel movies is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse because among other reasons (animation, music, storytelling), it explores the relationship between Miles, a superhero, and his father, a police cop.

In 'Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse' (2018) Miles Morales' father's last  name is Davis. In the comics, it is revealed that Miles was named for the  American jazz musician Miles Davis : MovieDetails

There is the famous Spider-Man line that says, “with great power comes great responsibility” but Miles’ father says, “with great power comes great accountability.” His officers are performing public service without masks, held accountable for the consequences of their actions. Without accountability, power can easily be abused. Anonymity is powerful but also dangerous because it distances a person from their actions.

While superheroes often lack in providing long-term goals or change, Marvel has written some excellent, compelling, and complex villains. Two of my personal favorites are Killmonger and Thanos. (Spoilers ahead for the plots of Black Panther and Avengers: Endgame.)

Why Thanos Doesn't Woo Death in 'Avengers: Infinity War'
Killmonger Mini-series Coming to Marvel In December

Rather than seeking power or revenge they both had clear goals and ambitions that the audience can sympathize with with and understand. Killmonger wanted to share Wakanda’s technology with other African nations to end their oppression. A noble goal and one that T’Challa eventually comes to agree with on different terms – for vibranium to not to be used as a tool of war but as a tool for unity. Thanos, on the other hand, justified destroying half of the world’s population in order to provide more resources for the remaining half. Thanos is eventually killed and clearly mass murder is not the best solution for dwindling resources, but the larger problem he brings to light is a genuine one that is left unaddressed. It asks questions but provides no answers.

Enter the anti-hero. The morally ambiguous. The shift from black and white to shades of grey. Makes for much more interesting and human characters with pain, fear, flaws, and mistakes. The protagonist will often make bad decisions and act in their own self-interest but we are able to empathize and question what we would do given the same situation. It makes us think rather than be a passive viewer. However, to be truly effective, I think there needs to be the contrast of a character with a moral compass who can help guide the anti-hero and show them alternatives to indulging in their darkness and anger and how they can be better and do better and find healthy ways of coping and support. If not, I think an anti-hero runs the danger of justifying immoral behavior and violence as a reasonable response to suffering.

Joaquin Phoenix Believes His 'Joker' Is the Real Joker | IndieWire

One example of this is the movie Joker, which I found to be an unsettling character study and social commentary on class, trauma, and mental illness. The Joker justifies his murders because of the way society hurt him. He inspires further violence and riots. It is alarming to watch his character slowly spiral into insanity because the movie provides no alternative to his actions, as if given his circumstances, his only option was resorting to violence. The message we should be sending instead is that its okay to ask for help, and there are people who care, and things can be better despite how dark the world seems.

A hero in my mind, super or no super, is someone who see a need and responds without question or ulterior motive. An altruist in the truest sense. Call me cheesy or an idealist but I truly think that we can build a culture of everyday heroism by looking out for each other and recognizing the humanity in other people. We should all strive to be “friendly neighborhood spider-men.”

Additional Links:

NowThis: What is Vigilante Justice? (3:12)

TED Talk: The Psychology of Evil (23:11)

The Take: The Age of the TV Antihero 2.0 (26:28)

Medium: ‘Joker’ is an important lesson in the perils of turning a supervillain into an anti-hero

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