Watching Daredevil last night was a lot of fun. Of course, it can only remain fun as long as you don’t think about it too closely. Most superhero movies start from a deeply flawed idea about the nature of justice. It goes like this. There is injustice in the world. Most of it goes unpunished. With me so far? The system is not only unable to bring wrongdoers to account, it is designed (by the evildoers or because all systems are corruptible) to fail. We can never trust the police or the courts to do the job we as society have given them.
The nice thing about this theory is that it works equally well whether your politics are on the right or the left. The underpinnings of what is wrong with the system and the identification of who the bad guys are may change but the basic theory works regardless.
The answer of course is to rely on the understanding, perceptions and power of the hero — or heroine in some cases. The vigilante, however flawed, is the answer to injustice.
These feelings — call them instincts if you like — are natural. Who hasn’t indulged in the occasional revenge fantasy? Really, who on Twitter doesn’t indulge in them on a daily basis? Threats of violence and lame fantasies of carrying them out have fuelled rage filled rants among the nicest of us. Go on. Admit it, damn you!
Sadly, some people are incapable from telling the difference between fantasy and reality and they wind up patrolling their neighbourhoods and gunning down innocent teenagers when their fear overcomes their reason.
The fundamental flaw behind this theory is that justice is something that one person can hold in their hand. Maybe it’s a throw back to our authoritarian past — which social Freudians would say is a throwback to our infantile relations with our powerful parents. We want someone to be just – the good king like Aragorn, for example — and when that person is in control all will be right with our world.
We know, of course, in our rational minds, that this is untrue. We’ve learned that lesson so often the hard way. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is not simply a T-shirt slogan; it’s a real thing.
Justice exists only when we wrest it from the hands of authority and give it over to a social process. Is it flawed? Almost certainly. Is it completely incapable of delivering justice at least at some level? Certainly not. It is certainly far more capable of achieving a kind of justice — and here I’m not simply talking about criminal justice but also social justice — than any system based on “I alone have understanding of and access to what is just.”
The Star Chamber — whatever its formulation — and the vigilante — no matter how noble — will always fail. At least it always has.
And that’s ten minutes.