Justice is one concept that is extremely tricky to talk about for a slew of reasons. The main reason is that justice looks different to each person.

The ethical conversation about justice is constantly evolving, changing as people are experiencing different forms of hate and a lack of fairness in economic, political, and social opportunities. When justice is unattainable in stories, the vigilante is born to return what should have been given to the people experiencing unfairness. 

But is justice enough to power a hero's story? After all, vigilantes are just people with a mask trying to do the right thing. So what drives a vigilante's story if the ethical concept can't even be upheld in our current world?

Like Stories of Old breaks down why justice isn't meaningful when delivered by a vigilante, and suggests what makes a vigilante's story meaningful. Check out the full video below: 

What Is Retributive Justice?

Retributive justice is a powerful ideology that believes someone who has done wrong must be punished accordingly. This ideology has been around since the dawn of human culture and has been observed in the animal world, primarily with monkeys who punish those who have personally wronged them. 

There is an evolutionary explanation for the existence of retribution, and it’s the extremely emotionally satisfying feeling of vengeance. 

Vengeance is often connected to characters who have suffered a great loss or injustice. The audience can sympathize with their loss, and root for that character as they take revenge. No matter how crazy or bloody the character’s journey becomes, the audience can understand their mayhem, justifying their actions to a fault. 

In John Wick, John (Keanu Reeves) begins his journey of vengeance after the dog given to him by his late wife is killed during a home invasion. Filled with grief, John copes the only way he knows how: through retribution. But how long can vengeance be justified? After the first film, you could say the John Wick franchise becomes absent of motivation. The action and violence are all the same, but the emotional force is gone. 

This happens because revenge is a self-centered act that drives those to be utterly self-absorbed, emotionally erratic, and entitled. These characters who are driven by revenge believe that they are suffering more than anyone could understand, and exact a punishment that outweighs the crime. The cycle of violence then becomes inevitable. 

Human societies realized this issue early on in culture and created systems that govern retribution with an impersonal, unemotional third party that is less likely to punish disproportionately. 

John_wick_and_his_revenge_motivation'John Wick'Credit: Lionsgate

The Shortcomings of the Vigilante

When the system that was created to delegate retributive justice fails due to corruption or wrongful convictions, a vigilante rises from the shadows to take justice into their own hands. 

We are all familiar with the vigilante—someone who is in the pursuit of justice after the system created failed them. Batman, Sister Night, and pretty much anyone who wears a mask are all characters who have suffered an unresolved injustice which then motivates them to do it themselves. Not only do vigilantes hold themselves above the law, but they also aim to place themselves above their trauma, making their mission about something higher than themselves. 

The mask hides their face, allowing them to transcend their individuality and flaws to become a personification of impartial judgment that is, unfortunately, biased due to human nature. 

The mask allows vigilantes to become transcendental symbols of justice they imagine themselves to be, but the mask can also make them dangerous. Vigilantism is, essentially, a claim to absolute power—the power to be free from all societal constraints. Justice becomes whatever the vigilante believes it to be. 

Snyder’s Watchmen demonstrates this by juxtaposing its vigilantes with Dr. Manhattan, the only being who possesses absolute power. He is almost God-like, creating and recreating what he wants, seeing all of time at once, and giving shape to what he sees as justice. Dr. Manhattan represents the kind of power that makes vigilantes so troubling even when they believe they can keep themselves in check. 

Vigilantes like the Punisher or Snyder’s interpretation of Rorschach and Batman (Ben Affleck) are justice-seekers who cross the line, acting with more violence that is obviously misplaced and excessive. It's appealing because it articulates a feeling we all have, even if it is just for a brief moment, but they are unwilling to compromise. Instead of striving to help uplift a society that is limited by rules and regulations, these vigilantes believe that society is the root of the infection. 

The Boys thoroughly examines what could happen when few people are given absolute power. The series highlights the struggle for justice through the perspective of ordinary citizens who fear the extreme dangers of those with absolute power and freedom to seek what they view as justice outside of a legislative system. It's a dark warning, asking people to examine who they are giving power to when they deem someone worthy of both the judge and executioner title. 

The_boys_and_absolute_power'The Boys'Credit: Amazon Studios

What Does Meaningful Justice Look Like? 

Justice looks different to each person, and that’s okay.

When you are writing a character’s motivation for justice, you must examine the driving force behind the idea. Is their retribution a result of a trauma, anger toward the shortcomings of a system, or out of a desire for righteousness? 

What separates right from wrong? These little details will make a fully realized vigilante who is seeking to undo a wrong that was done to them or their community. Once that justice has been found, what does your vigilante do next, or is that feeling of anger and grief always present? 

The air of anonymity of a masked vigilante can allow you to create a complex character that focuses on specific issues that our culture is trying to answer but can’t. The character doesn’t have to be right in the pursuit of justice, but they should be able to justify their actions. Accountability is the foundation of justice. No one should be free from consequences because nobody is that important. 

Rorschach_in_snyders_watchman_'Watchmen'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

At the end of the day, we all want some form of justice. We can’t force the world to make sense or make ourselves feel whole in a broken world. Vigilantes are human in the sense that they are looking for an escapist fantasy that allows them to live without consequence, but their journeys are often unfulfilling and self-destructive because there is a need for a deeper connection that creates a lasting foundation that isn’t built on negative emotions. 

Vigilante stories should be ones about the human condition and the frustrations we all feel toward society. Don’t be afraid to showcase a minute failing of society that has been bothering you for some time or a large issue that you want to focus on from a specific point of view. The vigilante gives you the freedom to explore the world from a unique vantage point that regular characters could never experience. 

Who is your favorite vigilante from cinema or TV? Let us know in the comments! 

Source: Like Stories of Old