Superhero vs Vigilante: The Ongoing Debate

One of the underlying issues of the “Superhero” is the clash between saving the day and abiding the law because, believe it or not, the very act of being a superhero is against the law. Someone taking justice into their own hands is called a vigilante which is illegal in most places. Why? The reasoning behind it is simple. If we allow one individual to exact their own form of justice then others will too but the issue with this is that everyone would have a different version of what they thought was right. With these competing notions of right and wrong, people will get hurt because what one person sees as wrong will be seen by someone else as right. This is why we have the law. It’s a way of determining a “universal” right and wrong so that justice can be served consistently and people will get treated equally.

I use the term “universal” loosely because I’m speaking in the context of a democracy where the people in government who make the laws are the ones who were voted in by the majority. So a list of right and wrong according to the majority of the population. With this definition of a vigilante, you’d think the J. Jonah Jameson was right to call Spider-Man a menace.

So the law says vigilantism is illegal and since the laws in place are the ones that the majority of us help create (or at least said okay to) then superheroes are automatically hooligans and criminals. Well…that’s when things get a bit tricky. The best way I can explain this is with my friend, Batman. Before Batman, Gotham was filled with crime. I’m talking a pot stewing in criminogenic juices where the people who were supposed to protect us (cops, judges, prosecutors, politicians) were all taking bribes from not so awesome people. This version of Gotham help create the Batman. The only reason why Bruce Wayne would vow to make sure no one else lost someone they cared about (or become a dude in a Bat costume) was because he lost his parents to  a mugger.

I’m not saying that if some was suddenly orphaned or wronged in some way that they should go around exacting justice. I am saying that Bruce Wayne had every right to become Batman because the system was broken. I mean completely shattered and even nonexistent.

There was no law and order.

There wasn’t a legitimate way to call people out on their shady dealings.

The police, the politicians, the judges, the prosecutors and even the journalists were either bribed or “dealt with” if they so much as tried to stop the bad guys from continuing what they were doing.

In a situation like this, traditional views on vigilantism change because it becomes a necessity. It’s what’s born when such a huge injustice is going on and will still be there until society is back to a place where the scales of justice are once again doing their job.

With that said, what happens when your superhero is someone as powerful as Superman, Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel? (Marvel’s Captain Marvel). This is why (and I know this is controversial to some) I can respect people like Amanda Waller and Detective Lance from the show Arrow. Yes, they piss you off because they’re in opposition to your hero but they’re only thinking logically. For Waller, she’s thinking that these powerful individuals may want to help us now but what happens when they turn against us? What happens when a supervillain pushes them to the edge? (Comics and televisions shows have given her plenty of reasons to think this. All I have to do is mention Hal Jordon and Maxwell Lord to prove my point). For Detective Lance, I think he’s the only sane person in the show. The way the “Hood” is going around killing people, it makes you wonder what really separates him from the people he claims failed the city? Is it okay because he has a legitimate reason? Why is his reason okay and other people’s isn’t? As an officer of the law, Detective Lance is doing his job as someone who believes in the values associated with the justice system.

Our justice system isn’t exactly fantastic and, as a criminology student, one of the big focuses of my studies is to point out the flaws and suggest better alternatives. I respect and adore superheroes but I’m also aware that it’s a slippery slope they climb. These days we have cyber vigilantes known as Anonymous who many believe to be cyber terrorists. Whatever people think they are, they have done a few great things such as naming Amanda Todd’s tormentor (for more info click here) and they’re role in the Rehtaeh Parsons case (this is a bit more complicated but for more info click here).

Basically what I’m saying is that superheroes and vigilantes slip into the roles of one another all the time and they even occupy the same space. It’s up to us to make sure that when they do slip, they don’t fall onto other people just as we would make sure we don’t vilify those trying to help us.

(a still from the Iron Man 3 movie. Out May 3rd, 2013)

A. A. Omer

P. S.

You can do your part in fighting for what’s right like Batman by joining an advocacy group who’s cause you believe in. There are so many ways to save the world, your country, your city or your street without having to wear a Bat costume. Unless you want to wear the costume which you totally can but pummeling criminals is not the way to go!

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