Moral Complacency in the Age of The Badder, The Better
We’ve been conditioned to root for the bad guy. Throw us any self-serving, amoral yet internally conflicted son of a bitch week after week or month after month and we’ll voraciously consume it. It’s pervasive across most entertainment, this base desire to see our ids laid bare and perhaps live vicariously through their struggles and triumphs. You know who they are; Don Draper, Walter White, Frank Castle, Judge Dredd, Roy and Mac from the recently released The Fix, Frank Underwood, Donald Trump, and hell, even Batman and Superman depending on who’s directing them (come at me, bros!). There’s a million more, with most fitting the trend of white male, so you get the idea. Some are definitive anti-heroes while others are satirical tools, but all wallow into varying depths of the morally murky pool. It’s fun to watch and whether or not the rationale behind our interests is a desire to be validated or a longing for redemption, but is this constant stream of “bad guy is the centerpiece” making us too morally complacent? Can creators trod in the grimiest, ugliest aspects of our actual society in the name of developing their lead character? I’m curious if we’re becoming desensitized to the gratuity simply because there’s often a forced justification that the focus is intentionally “bad.”
The short answer is: I don’t know. Or maybe the answer is an equally unsatisfying, “sometimes.” To be honest, what sparked this line of thinking was this review of The Fix #1 from Austin Lanari. Now, I loved The Fix #1. I drank the Kool-Aid hard, son, as if no other comic could slake my thirst. While I certainly stand by my honest first reaction to that work, reading Lanari’s take on it made me pause and try and reflect on why I hadn’t seen the work as making light, in the name of comedy, of the all too real issue of police brutality and corruption. Now, I don’t really agree that The Fix does do that, nor do I agree with most of the other more technical criticisms, but it didn’t even occur to me. Instead, I took the whole book as farce and considered the publicly expressed views on political and social issues by the creators, and still do, but I admit I am troubled that my brain didn’t really register that legit way to read the work. So, I repeat, am I consciously and/or unconsciously writing off the use of real world awfulness in entertainment because it’s framed as being about the bad guys, something that has become awfully prevalent?
My mind always immediately conjures up the skull-blazoned attire of Frank Castle and the epaulet-heavy uniform of Judge Dredd when thinking about popular antiheroes; mainly because I’m not sure either is truly an anti-hero at all. These two characters are both commentary on the nature of heroism itself – one as a satirical extrapolation of authoritarianism run amok and the other as the natural extreme of vigilantism. They’re devices and, most importantly, very much not intended to be cheered for. And yet, they have their fans that don’t quite get it beyond the surface level of insane violence and extreme interpretations of the law on both sides of the spectrum. Those people scare the ever loving fuck out of me. That is some open-carry activist fandom shit going on and I thank my lucky stars that my brain still registers the problem with missing the point of Punisher comics because no, the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is not a good guy with a gun, you goddamn lunatics.
Take the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 2, where Jon Bernthal portrayed the Punisher pretty much how you’d expect: terrifyingly. One thing that really hit me hard about the first season, was how ruthless the violence was. It was hard to watch and it should be hard to watch! They showed on screen every blow and the toll they took and it was exhausting and off-putting to a great degree to show the real grossness of this type of violence. In Season 2, I think they softened this up in regards to our costumed protagonist and Elektra too much and glorified their role as ninja ass-kicking machines in a more traditional superhero light. Maybe it’s the costumes, maybe it’s the choreography, but it wasn’t quite as honest and brutal as that first season. Now, the way the Punisher is handled? That shit is rough in just the right way. Episode 4’s slaughtershow (you know, when Frank gets a drill through the foot) show was bonkers gross while attempting to make Frank, if not a sympathetic character, at least a character with some depth beyond killing in the name of twisted tragic justice (cue Rage Against the Machine of your choice here).
The Punisher is that ‘not quite as far as you might think’ leap from what Daredevil is. It’s pretty trite at this point, the well-worn “the only thing that stops me from becoming you is I won’t cross that line” superhero spiel, but it still works. The Punisher is a warning, the logical “ends justify the means” end-point for every do-gooder character. He works because in some weird way, we can totally understand the mindset even if we know how wrong it is. But that’s exactly why rooting for him, choosing to be blind to the obvious amorality, has to be a non-starter. The way he’s presented in most media, from comics to screen, falls all over the spectrum of how lightly the creators behind the work choose to present his violence. Some glorify it and some let the core message of the character seep through, but how to interpret this fictional character’s viewpoint is up to the reader to decide how easy an out it is. Don’t let the nastier versions of the character get away with writing off what he does without some sort of toll.
As for Judge Dredd, that’s easy. Dude is 100% satirical. He is the bad guy in a sea of nothing but bad guys (with apologies to Judge Anderson). Dredd is a fascist in a world that turned towards fascism because we fucked things up so badly, that it actually seemed like probably the best solution. Again, he’s a warning; a way to poke holes in the age-old trading civil rights for security and order conversation. Of the myriad of creators who’ve handled Dredd over the years since John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra first brought him to life, virtually all of them have stayed lock-step with Dredd as fascist fighting even worse evils because it’s inherent in the character’s DNA. Overreach of police power that results in dead citizens is hardly a joking matter, let alone one that needs to utilize it in order to hammer home just how bad it is. Dredd can occasionally appear to be making light of all the levels of political corruption in the name of telling a story and getting the reader to raise their fist at some insane levels of violence, but it’s such self-aware satire that the lighter it makes it the familiar awfulness the more it shines a spotlight on them. Or at least, that’s how I’ve always taken it.
That’s the thing about having blinders on, you have no idea they’re there. Have I just easily accepted that because a focus on an immoral character justify the use of familiar real-world horrors? The Punisher and Judge Dredd came to mind, but their primary concerns are largely rooted in gun violence and questions on the malleability of justice. Neither of their comics have, to my knowledge, shown their lead characters involved in sexually assaulting someone or racially discriminating or anything above just shooting a bunch of self-identifying criminals. It’s pretty easy to feel confident that I’m not missing anything there that I really need to turn the brakes on and reassess. Perhaps because I’ve been trained by that type of presentation so many thousands of times, though, is why I looked right past that aspect of The Fix. Judge Dredd handles the issue so deftly, but so simply and directly that my brain is almost predisposed to accept all presentations of morally bankrupt law enforcement so long as it’s winking at the reader when it’s happening. That’s a troubling realization, but one that isn’t necessarily uniform across all examples. It is something worth making an effort to be aware of though, even if we ultimately decide that it was handled well or is doing something intentionally subtle. Before you turn that page and move onto the next set of victims, ask yourself if something was being used gratuitously and then thrown aside as a plot device to bolster our bad guys’ rep. We eat up the anti-heroes, the outright villains, the conflicted leads doing bad things because we believe that they exist in reality more so than any of our fictional heroes do and because, on some base level, it’s fun to roll around in the muck more than it is to sing with the angels. When delve in and attach ourselves to these flawed yet relatable characters, remember to ask yourself if the flawed yet relatable crimes they commit are recognized for what they really are and used justifiably beyond bulking up that bad to the bone cred.