I recently finished watching both seasons of Dexter. The series has a fascinating premise: the titular hero, Dexter Morgan, is a forensic analyst (he’s a “blood spatter expert”) for the Miami police by day, but a serial killer by night. He operates by a “code,” only murdering other murderers (usually ones who’ve beaten the system). The most interesting thing about Dexter’s code is the implication that he does not follow the code out of some sort of dedication to morality or justice. He knows what he does is evil, but he follows his code because it’s the most constructive way to channel his aggression. Of course, the code is not perfect, and a big part of the series is how the code shapes him and how he, in turn, shapes it. To be honest, watching the series is a little odd and disturbing when you realize that you’re essentially rooting for a serial killer (an affable and charming one, to be sure, but that’s part of why it’s disturbing). I started to think about this a bit, and several other examples of similar characters came to mind. There’s a lot more to the series, but I don’t want to ruin it with a spoiler-laden discussion here. Instead, I want to talk about vigilantes.
Despite the lack of concern for justice (or perhaps because of that), Dexter is essentially a vigilante… someone who takes the law into his own hands. There is, of course, a long history of vigilantism, in both real life and art. Indeed, many classic instances happened long before the word vigilante was coined – for example, Robin Hood. He stole from the rich to give to the poor, and was immortalized as a folk hero whose tales are still told to this day. I think there is a certain cultural fascination with vigilantes, especially vigilantes in art.
Take superheroes, most of whom are technically vigilantes. Sure, many stand for all that is good in the world and often cite truth and justice as motivation, but the evolution of comic books shows something interesting. I haven’t read a whole lot of comic books (especially of the superhero kind), but the impression I get is that when the craze started in the 1930s, it was all about heroics and people serving the common good. There was also a darker edge to some of them, and that edge has grown as time progressed. Batman is probably the most relevant to this discussion, as he shares a complicated relationship with the police and a certain above-the-law attitude towards solving crimes. Interestingly, the Batman of the 1930s was probably a darker, more violent superhero than he was in the 1940s, when one editor issued a decree that the character could no longer kill or use a gun. As such, the postwar Batman became more of an upstanding citizen, and the stories took on a lighter tone (definitely an understandable direction, considering what the world had been through). I’m sure I’m butchering the Batman chronology here, but the next sigificant touchstone for Batman came in 1986, with the publication of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Written and drawn by Frank Miller, the series reintroduced Batman as a dark, brooding character with complex psychological issues. A huge success, this series ushered in a new era of “grim and gritty” superheros that still holds today.
In general, our superheroes have become much more conflicted. Many (like Batman) tackle the vigilante aspect head on, and if you look at something like Watchmen (or The Incredibles, if you want a lighter version), you can see a shift in the way such stories are told. I’m sure there are literally hundreds of other examples in the comic book world, but I want to shift gears for a moment and examine another cultural icon that Dexter reminded me of: Dirty Harry.
Inspector Harry Callahan is an incredibly popular character, but apparently not with critics:
Critics have rarely cracked the whip harder than on the Dirty Harry film series, which follows the exploits of a trigger-happy San Francisco cop named Harry Callahan and his junior partners, usually not long for this world. On its release in 1971, Dirty Harry was trounced as ‘fascist medievalism’ by the potentate of the haut monde critic set, Pauline Kael, as well as aspiring Kaels like young Roger Ebert. Especially irksome to the criterati was a key moment in the film when Inspector Callahan, on the trail of an elusive serial sniper, is reprimanded by his superiors for not taking into account the suspect’s Miranda rights. Callahan replies, through clenched teeth, “Well, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.” Take that, Miranda.
I should say that critics often give the film (at least, the first one) generally good overall marks, praising its “suspense craftsmanship” or calling it “a very good example of the cops-and-killers genre.” But I’m fascinated by all the talk of fascism. Despite working within the system, Dirty Harry indeed does take the law into his own hands, and in doing so he ignores many of our treasured Constitutional freedoms. And yet we all cheer him on, just as we cheer Batman and Dexter.
Why are these characters so popular? Why do we cheer such characters on even when we know what they’re doing is ultimately wrong? I think it comes down to desire. We all desire justice. We want to see wrongs being made right, yet every day we can turn on the TV and watch non-stop failures of our system, whether it be rampant crime or a criminal going free or any other number of indignities. Now, I’m not an expert, but I don’t think our society today is much worse off than it was, say, a hundred years ago (In fact, I think we’re significantly better off, but that’s another discussion). The big difference is that information is disseminated more widely and quickly, and dramatic failures of the system are attention grabbing, so that’s what we get. What’s more, these stories tend to focus on the most dramatic, most obscene examples. It’s natural for people to feel helpless in the face of such news, and I think that’s why everyone tends to embrace vigilante stories (note that people don’t generally embrace actual real-life vigilantes – that’s important, and we’ll get to that later). Such stories serve many purposes. They allow us to cope with life’s tragedies, internalize them and in some way comfort us, but as a deeper message, they also emphasize that the world is not perfect, and that we’ll probably never solve the problem of crime. In some ways, they act as a critique of our system, pointing out it’s imperfections and thereby making sure we don’t become complacent in the ever-changing fight against crime.
Of course, there is a danger to this way of thinking, which is why critics like Pauline Kael get all huffy when they watch something like Dirty Harry. We don’t want to live in a police state, and to be honest, a real cop who acted like Dirty Harry would probably be an awful cop. Films like that deal in extremes because they’re trying to make a point, and it’s easy to misinterpret such films. I doubt people would really accept a cop like Dirty Harry. Sure, some folks might applaud his handling of the Scorpio case that the film documents (audiences certainly did!), but police officers don’t handle a single case in the course of their career, and most cases aren’t that black and white either. Dirty Harry would probably be fired out here in the real world. Ultimately, while we revel in such entertainment, we don’t actually want real life to imitate art in this case. However, that doesn’t mean we enjoy hearing about a vicious drug dealer going free because the rules of evidence were not followed to the letter. I think deep down, people understand that concepts like the rules of evidence are important, but they can also be extremely frustrating. This is why we have conflicting emotions when we watch the last scene in Dirty Harry, in which he takes off his police badge and throws it into the river.
I think this is a large part of why vigilante stories have evolved. Comic book heroes like Batman have become more conflicted, and newer comic books often deal with the repercussions of vigilatism. The Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, was apparently made as a direct answer to the critics of Dirty Harry who thought that film was openly advocating law-sanctioned vigilantism. In Magnum Force, the villains are vigilante cops. Then you have modern day vigilantes like Dexter, which pumps audiences full of conflicting emotions. I like this guy, but he’s a serial killer. He’s stopping other killers, but he’s doing so in such a disturbing way.
Are vigilante stories fascist fantasies? Perhaps, but fantasies aren’t real. They’re used to illustrate something, and in the case of vigilante fantasies, they illustrate a desire for justice. The existence of a show like Dexter will repulse some people and that’s certainly an understandable reaction. In fact, I think that’s exactly what the show’s creators want to do. They’re walking the line between satisfying the desire for justice while continually noting that Dexter is not a good person. Ironically, what would repulse me more would be the complete absence of stories like Dexter, because the only way such a thing could happen would be if everyone thought our society was perfect. Perhaps someday concepts like justice and crime will be irrelevant, but that day ain’t coming soon, and until it does, we’ll need such stories, if only to remind us that we don’t live in a perfect world.