The Birth of Vigilantes

Danielle Ryan

Everyone has faced injustice at some point and had the system fail them. Whether it was a parent letting a sibling get away with something unfair or it was an actual failing of the judicial system, most people have felt the desire to take justice into their own hands. Vigilante justice has been both romanticized and demonized by the media, with the vigilantes themselves often walking a fine line between being heroes and villains.

The moral divide on vigilantes is brought into question by pop culture on a regular basis, and will enter the spotlight once again next month with Captain America: Civil War. Civil War pits former friends Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Steve Rogers (Captain America) against each other over an intervention by the government to control and regulate the superheroes. Rogers feels that their brand of vigilantism is warranted and needs to be unrestricted, while Stark believes that they cannot operate above the law and still be a force for good. If even two of Marvel’s greatest superheroes can’t agree on the topic, how are mere civilians supposed to take a stance?

Video games are one possible solution. By allowing players to take direct actions and engage in the complexities of vigilante justice through those actions, video games provide players with a depth of understanding that other forms of media may not provide. Players can take up the mantle of justice for themselves in games like Max Payne, the Batman: Arkham games, and the latter installments of the Devil May Cry games.

A quest for justice makes the actions of some video game protagonists feel justified or understandable. It’s not hard to empathize with Max Payne after his family is killed and he is later framed for the murder of a fellow DEA agent. One can easily imagine the kind of retribution they would want to seek in that situation, and the catharsis they can get through the game itself.

Vigilantes have been the subject of controversy and fascination since the very first judicial systems, inspiring characters in all forms of popular culture.

The History of Vigilantes

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood

While there were a number of vigilantes before him, none captured the romanticized notion of self-secured justice as well as Robin Hood, a bandit who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Appearing in British texts going back to the 13th century CE, Robin Hood is an archer who takes the law into his own hands while under the rule of a tyrannical king. In later iterations, the ruler was Prince John, who took over the throne while King Richard was away fighting the Crusades.

Robin Hood has been portrayed by actors like Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, and Cary Elwes. In Disney’s adaptation, the character was a cartoon fox. Despite the dozens of adaptations for film and television, one fact remains the same: Robin Hood is a “good” vigilante, a bandit with a heart of gold who is clearly justified in his actions. He robs from the rich and gives to the poor, fights for the heart of Maid Marion, and is generally personified as charming and righteous.

The archer-hero motif has influenced other vigilantes in pop culture as well, from revolution-starting Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games to Oliver Queen in Arrow

Another early pop-culture vigilante was Zorro, first established in pulp magazines by author Johnston McCulley in 1919. Zorro was the masked alter-ego of Don Diego de la Vega, who for one reason or another always ends up fighting tyrannical forces in his home of Los Angeles during the era of Mexican rule. The character frequently defends indigineous people and the poor, and he has been portrayed in more than forty films and a dozen television shows in his nearly hundred-year history.

Pop Culture Vigilantes

Charles Bronson in Death Wish

While Zorro and Robin Hood continued their existence through the decades, other vigilantes in film and television didn’t see much popularity until the 1970s and the rise of exploitation films. In 1971, Clint Eastwood portrayed the title role in Dirty Harry, about a police officer who uses excessive force to get the job done. The character inspired a slew of others with a surprising amount of diversity. Pam Grier portrayed Coffy, a woman driven to vigilante justice after her sister was nearly killed by bad heroin, in 1973. One year earlier, Meiko Kaji starred as the ass-kicking Scorpion in the first of the Joshuu Sasori films, which would later inspire director Quentin Tarantino to create his two-part revenge film, Kill Bill. Vigilantes could be anyone, regardless of race or gender, as long as they had a tragic backstory and a reason to fight.

In 1974, the ultimate movie vigilante was introduced in the first Death Wish film. Action star Charles Bronson starred as Paul Kersey, a successful New York City architect whose life was destroyed after the murders of his wife and daughter. Kersey goes on a rampage, killing anyone connected with the murder, as well as allowing himself to look like a potential victim for muggers and then killing them. He begins “taking back the streets” as a one-man justice machine, blowing away bad guys and being insanely cool while doing it.

Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese had his own response to vigilantes with Taxi Driver in 1976. In Taxi Driver, Robert DeNiro’s embittered taxi driver Travis Bickle eventually takes the law into his own hands, but the film’s moral compass feels skewed. There is a sense of ambiguity to Bickle’s cause – is he truly seeking justice or is he just a violent maniac looking for an excuse to shed blood?

Vigilante Video Games

Max Payne 3

Much like the protagonist of Death Wish, video game character Max Payne loses his wife and daughter to homicide early in the game. Inspired by films like Death Wish and the John Woo classic Hard Boiledthe Max Payne games let the player take on the role of a former cop-turned-vigilante who is out to clear his own name. In latter games, he continues to unravel the mysteries of the crime syndicates and government organizations that have worked against him.

Despite the abundance of pop-culture vigilantes, there are fewer in video games. Most video game protagonists that come into contact with the law are either fighting with it (Sleeping Dogs, LA Noireor directly against it (Saints Row, Grand Theft Auto). Only a handful of video game developers have walked into the moral minefield of vigilantism outside of Max Payne.

One obvious vigilante video game series is the Batman: Arkham series, in which the player controls the Caped Crusader himself. Like most superheroes, Batman is a vigilante, killing criminals because he feels that the Gotham police force can’t do quite enough. Perhaps the most culturally relevant vigilante since Robin Hood or Zorro, Batman is another character whose moral compass (usually) seems to be righteous because of the villains he faces.

In the Devil May Cry series, the character of Dante eventually takes on the role of a vigilante as the games progress. He begins the series as a Devil Hunter and paranormal investigator, using his skills to gain fortune, but as the story progresses, he begins to fight demons for the sake of what he believes is right. This kind of character progression could give players a larger insight into vigilantes, both as video game characters and in the real world.

Danielle Ryan
A cinephile before she could walk, Danielle comes to Fandom by way of CNN, CHUD.com, and Paste Magazine. She loves controversial cinema (especially horror) and good cinematography; her dislikes include romantic comedies and people's knees.