Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Batman, Bickle, Trump and Bundy – Why we need to say goodbye to the Lone Avenger narrative

Netflix's Daredevil

After abandoning it the first time round, I finally managed to catch another episode of Daredevil last night. Late to the party, I know.

It’s made me think, though, about the concept of heroism. Every story needs a hero. It’s the one thing you can’t do without, be it a novel, TV show or movie. Stories sink or swim on the weight of their protagonists. Does Daredevil succeed in this regard? Well, granted I’m only four episodes in, but I can’t say it provides any compelling reason for me to continue to follow Matt Murdock’s one-man crusade against crime.

The fact is, Matt’s a pretty boring protagonist, straight from crusading lone-wolf central casting, and giving a second chance to Daredevil has pretty much confirmed for me something I’ve been feeling for a long time – I’m done with superheroes. Especially lone, angry, white guys on a one-man crusade against injustice.

As a storyteller, I can’t help but despise tropes when they’re employed without irony, and we seem to have reached a point where we’ve reach peak Lone Avenger. It’s just not realistic, and to top it off, it’s dangerous.

In the episode I watched, Matt has accidentally endangered nurse Claire, who helped patch Matt up when he was injured in the last episode. The Russian mob are looking for her, and naturally - because it’s well documented that Daredevil has absolutely no skill at protecting the women in his life – they find her, and they beat the living shit out of her before Daredevil rescues her. Now, at this point I thought the show and I were on the same page – This is exactly the sort of thing that happens when you try to take on the Russian mob solo. But when Matt apologises to Claire later, she tells him that he has to keep going, and he’s helping people. Where did that come from? She has been telling him he’s going to end up dead and he should quit from the moment she was introduced, so why suddenly does she do a complete U-turn? And that after being beaten mercilessly by gangsters, she’d forgive the man whose foolhardy quest and general incompetence led her to endure what – given that she’s just a regular civilian – is probably the most traumatising experience of her life, and in fact say it was HER OWN FAULT for helping him in the first place. Well, because the story needed her to react this way, as unrealistic as it was.

"Yes, Matt, please tell me again why New York's crime rate is your responsibility."
“Bullshit,” I intoned when I saw this. What Claire needed to do was yell “This is your fault you sanctimonious jerk! What do think was going to happen when you tried to take on an organised crime syndicate single-handedly? That’s what the police are for! And by the way, why didn’t you call the cops when you knew where I was being tortured? I’m pretty sure you could have saved me, like, 10 minutes of being tortured if you’d just gone through the proper channels for once. OK, Matt, you can’t see this but I’m flipping you the bird right now. I’m giving you the one-finger salute. Screw you, Matt.”

Daredevil sets up the idea that Matt is recklessly endangering those around him, and then wusses out when it comes to the punch by insisting that this is a necessary evil, that we should accept a little collateral damage when ad hoc street justice is being done. I think that this is a missed opportunity for the show, and I hope it’s something they successfully manage to land later. 

Here’s the thing: you know the old joke about how if Batman just put the money he’d otherwise spend on bat-shaped armaments and crime-predicting computers into a decent urban renewal program and some basic infrastructure improvements, he’d have an easier time cutting crime in Gotham? The same goes for blind dudes leaping around Hell’s Kitchen dressed like Satan. If he spent his time lawyering rather than vigilante-ing, he’d really be doing his community a favour.

Batman, punching some kind of deviant
We’re attracted to the myth of the lone wolf vigilante, I think, because it seems like something we could do ourselves. Every one of us has seen some jerk harassing someone on the subway and thought “Boy, if I knew kung-fu, I could really give him what he deserves!” The problem is, it’s not just Batman and Daredevil, or the Lone Ranger we’re talking about here. It’s Death Wish. It’s Taxi Driver. The idea of the lone wolf vigilante is built on hatred. Hatred for criminals and a hatred for the underclass that is often indistinguishable in these works. It has been 30 years since Alan Moore popularised the notion that there’s something inherently fascistic about the idea of superheroes, and his ideas have never been more relevant. It’s easy to blame people like Frank Miller for this, a genuinely horrible man with horrible ideas, who turned Batman into kind of a beefcake brutal version of Donald Trump, and succeeded in fusing extreme violence, misogyny and gritty nihilism together in the collective consciousness as the default setting of the more “realistic” comics of the 80s and 90s. He used the medium of superhero comics to justify his own twisted worldview, and did it irreparable damage in the process. Miller also wrote a lot of Daredevil stories, so you can see how this approach is seeping into the TV show. 

Think of every school shooting you’ve ever seen on the news, every terrorist bombing, and count how often the words “angry loner” are used to describe the attacker. This is the problem right here. When we’re trained from birth to look up to angry men taking the law into their own hands, how do you think we’re going to react when we’re wronged? Exactly, go Charles Bronson on everybody and get gunned down in a glorious hail of bullets, but only after giving our enemies the ignominious deaths of cowards. Lone vigilante stories are the narrative glue behind every bullshit argument against gun control that the NRA have ever put out there. In the Lone Avenger story, the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun really is a good guy with a gun. Or a sword. Or a bomb vest. Or whatever.

These stories are inherently libertarian. Built into them is a healthy distrust of the authorities. The police can’t do their jobs, or else they are corrupt. How else would all this evil be happening? The government is ineffectual, or else they are the enemy. You can bet your arse that every member of that ragtag gang of imbeciles squatting in Malheur Wildlife Refuge is the Batman of their own personal internal narrative – fighting for the little people against the evil and corrupt government. George Zimmerman, protecting his community from the menace of an unarmed black teenager – in his own mind, he’s the Punisher.

 Donald Trump is definitely a symptom of the same disease – a bilious awful windbag with a black and white
Frank Miller's Donald Trump
view of society, obvious prejudices towards anybody who isn’t the same class and colour as him, absolutely chock-full of entitled anger – but in his own narrative he’s the hero, a plucky outsider taking out corrupt elites by beating them at their own game.

The same as the GamerGater, posting rape threats online to keep encroaching feminists out of videogame journalism. The same as Vox Day and the Sad Puppies, conspiring to try and keep women and people of colour and “Social Justice Warriors” off the Hugo ballots. Every one of them is their own Batman, and their own Travis Bickle. I can see them muttering in their dank basements. “One day a real rain’s gonna come, and it’s going to wash the scum of the streets.”

Let there be no doubt that these power fantasies – the stories we are told, and the ones people tell themselves – are fascistic. Trump, Day, Bickle, Batman, Daredevil – they all seek to impose their will on their communities, no matter whether or not these lesser people consent to this or even share their ideas of what is good and what is bad. Who’s to say if Bruce Wayne didn’t make a sizeable donation to Gotham City mental health services and got the Joker out of Arkham Asylum, he couldn’t be an upstanding member of society? But no. Instead they rail and scream and persecute. Sometimes they kill.
What a vigilante actually looks like

There was a certain individual in my school growing up, who was subjected daily to taunts and abuse from their peers, which they usually took in stony silence, for a while, at least. Then they just snapped. Fists, feet, flailing all over the place in a tornado of impotent rage. Punching, kicking, pummeling anyone that came close enough, whether they were involved in the bullying or not. Then they were hauled off the rector, subsequently released, and the process would begin again. That there, my friends, is our Batman. So sickened by the world, rightly or wrongly, that they can’t stop themselves from harming others. Less a lone avenger punishing the wicked, more Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

This is why, as storytellers, we have power. I’m not saying that, for instance, if we stop writing angry loner characters, we can stop people from becoming angry loners. Nor if we stopped writing about violence would we stop violence. That would be ridiculous. But if we can try and stop proliferating these toxic reflections of masculinity (because it’s always a man) and power, and – hell, I don’t know – try to write some decent, well-rounded characters whose motivations and actions are thoroughly and carefully examined and not shown to be admirable for the sake of the story, then maybe we can save a few people from sinking into a poisonous mindset and becoming violent shitbags. In my opinion, we should be doing it anyway, because it’s just better writing. If we keep glorifying this sort of unsanctioned violence in our art, failing to do our duty and create nuanced and thoughtful reflections of the sorts of people who commit these acts in real life, then the world we get is going to look a lot like one written by Frank Miller. But if we fix the narrative, change the idea of what it means to be a hero, then maybe we’ll have done some good.