Americans love their vigilantes. Absolutely no getting around that disturbing facts. An incredible number of heroes on the big screen and, especially, within the pages of comic books are vigilantes that have captured something deep inside Americans to reveal their urge for some law and order without all the messiness of their beloved Constitution. Of course, for the most part, we are not that crazy about the police acting this way. Even the far less deranged and violent vigilante heroes on TV prove this fact. Vigilantes need to act outside the constraints of the legal system and be fully prepared to face the consequences of doing so.
Edward Woodward enjoyed an unexpected run of success as an American TV action hero when he starred in the title role of “The Equalizer.” That title is indicative of what Americans seem to desire in their vigilantes. While we are fully prepared to enjoy the positive consequences of their breaking the law in the name of the greater good, we need to be reassured that they are doing it for the greater good. Give a vigilante a name like “Dr. Death” and he will be rejected by most. Let him engage in the same actions under the name “The Equalizer” and that rejection will be far less comprehensive.
Who could say no to the vigilante justice of a serial killer whose victims are all serial killers? Talk about the ultimate in TV vigilantes. It would take one heck of a strict Constitutional scholar to have a problem with how Dexter disposes of the iconic American monster of the 21st century. Or would it? What if Dexter was wrong? That’s the key to all acceptance of vigilantes on TV, in movies and in comic books. They are never wrong. They never get the wrong guy. Dexter’s unique sense of himself as Judy Judy and executioner is a surefire crowd-pleaser, but just imagine if real life vigilantes–even those who target serial killers–just plain made a mistake. You know: like the police so very, very often do.
Wanted: Dead or Alive
Before the new breed of serial killer in the form of “Dexter” and even “The Equalizer” came along, television was glamorizing justice enacted from outside the law. Steve McQueen launched his path to future movie stardom in the role of Josh Randall on “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” Randall wasn’t called a vigilante, of course and, in fact, his actions were legitimized by the legal system to a far greater extent than either Dexter or Woodward’s Equalizer. Josh Randall was a bounty hunter. Then, as now, the bounty hunter is endowed with a sense of legal acceptance of their vigilante methods in a way that most others vigilantes are not. The fact that Randall’s weapon of choice was a 30-40 sawed-off shotgun capable of explosive violence and damage to the human body does seem to remove him somewhat from the real of peace officer, however.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Not all TV vigilantes make a vocation or avocation of the job of dispensing Old West justice. Probably most vigilante attacks in real life are examples closer to what takes place in the episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” titled “Revenge.” When fantasizing about what a great world it would if only there were more Equalizers and Dexters and bounty hunters around, you might want to pause a moment and think about the little story that takes place in “Revenge.” A woman who is recovering from a mental breakdown is home alone when she is attacked. When the husband returns home and sees the full extent of the damage done not only to his house and to his wife’s physical state, but also her fragile mental state, he loses perspective a bit and decides to forego contacting the police. Instead, he sets out with his wife to try tracking down and identifying her attacker. It isn’t too long before the wife reacts to seeing the man who attacked her. She points him out and the husband proceeds to engage in the ultimate act of the vigilante: he kills the scumbag and thus manages to avoid all the costs associated with a trial as well as the potential for the man getting off through either a legal technicality or the idiocy of jurors. Once again, the TV vigilante is justified for his own outlaw actions. Except that on the way home from the site of vigilante justice, the wife points to another man and identifies him as her attacker. Of course, it is easy to dismiss this story of a TV vigilante on the basis of the fact that the wife clearly has gone over the edge as a result of the attack. But isn’t a fevered and excited state of mind exactly what drives a vigilante to seek justice outside the legal system?