The term ‘destructuring’ has been borrowed and applied to fiction. The original meaning is to take something apart, even if the word deserves a hyphen. This was supplanted in fiction to strip a structure or trope back to see what it would really mean if it happened in the real world rather than just accepting that was the way things are. It moves heroes from being perfect to flawed beings and even villains doing the right thing from time to time.
With comicbooks, the first to make an impact that way (just in case there are other examples, although these were mostly in satire) was ‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons showing what the real reality would be like having vigilantes not all being nice people. DC Comics apprehension of using the Charlton characters in these roles was more to do with not being able to use them again. They had bought each character from Charlton for $5000 and they wanted to used them again, far more than how the plot was used.
Would ‘Watchmen’ have been successful had they gone the original character route is open to discussion although I would suspect some of their original fans might have objected seeing them turned upside down. However, the ‘Watchemen’ success was seen as a means to dirty down comicbook universes to show the real impact on their realities. It wasn’t as though it had been done already as there were already some successful anti-heroes who did the right thing but rather extreme in their methods.
There was a wry comment regarding Marvel’s ‘Punisher’ character that his real super-power was never to shoot an innocent. Wolverine, too, would kill when needed with no regrets. In contrast, DC Comics Lobo was less discriminate in his actions. Having villains turn hero or even anti-heroes isn’t exactly new but it changed the mechanics of heroes never killing the villains, let alone other heroes. Considering the age of American comicbook readers had popped up a decade and a more adult market, the super-hero ethics of never to kill could be stretched some providing provision of remorse or retribution was given out.
Certainly, Wonder Woman’s record for murdering eight super-heroes couldn’t have been done 50 years ago but with the way DC Comics has fragmented its realities into, currently, 52, they can always move on to another one with a clean slate so extremes can be taken. More so, as they wind up one reality and move to another one.
Although the Watchmen might not have been a deconstruction of super-heroes, it did put them in the light of super-heroes having their own foibles that were certainly at least criminal in their own right. It also didn’t pull back from showing violence as it should be. It wasn’t the ‘old-fashioned’ super-heroics where the bad guys could live to fight another day, but were killed. One only had to watch Silk Spectre II and Nite-Owl II in civies wipe out a group of muggers to realise things had changed. The only super-human, Dr. Manhattan, scattering the remains of criminals on the ceiling of a theatre. Rorschach killing the child murderer wouldn’t be any different to what some of us might do in similar circumstances if given the chance and evident proof given the chance.
Its for this reason why people who have committed some atrocious murders are kept from the public until the heightened emotions go down as much as putting them away for their crimes. Writer Alan Moore wanted to show realism here but didn’t anticipate that it would be carried over to the mainstream comicbooks simply based on the sales it generated. The companies thought comicbook fans would want more violence not recognising that it was only the means to an end for one story.
I wrote an article in print at the time called ‘No More Mr. Nice-Vigilante’. The world had changed. Vigilantes were seen in a different light, often in the same light as the villains…sometimes. With great power, came mass destruction. Not just in Hulk-proportions for insurance companies. Being on the side of law and order has become ever more grey over the years.
Super-heroes were not accountable for their actions, yet each will assault very violently other disguised people and no comeback for any violence inflicted. No wonder they hide their own identities. Now there was for other reasons than protecting relatives and from being harassed in their civilian identities, as was explored with Daredevil.
Officially sanctioned groups like the Avengers and Justice League of wherever have, as far as I can see been taken to court over their actions and behaviour in terms of accountability.
In modern day, the main reason that the Suicide Squad has gained fan popularity is not because the team is full of ‘popular’ villains but more to do with their carnage isn’t fettered by not killing that the likes of the Justice League teams mostly run by and even that edge has been broken from time to time as witnessed by the example of Wonder Woman of all people. It should be pointed out that Wonder Woman also stepped down from her role for a year as atonement for her murders although you would have to ponder on her determination had she seen a dangerous act and done nothing.
Across any fiction, it doesn’t depend on what side of the fence that makes ‘good’ characters but our fascination with them. You only have to witness ‘The Godfather’ or the Hannibal Lector franchise for that where we are essentially siding with the bad guys. It’s hardly surprising in the DC and Marvel Universes, that some villains are as popular the heroes. Would we have tolerated Harley Quinn pre-Watchmen or would she have been watered down? Without her perchance for the occasional murder, bad guys all, that would still be a question mark.
In many respects, this provides an element of realism. After all, super-heroes never to kill anyone does seem unrealistic. It does look insane that all Batman does with his villain gallery is to return them to Arkham Asylum simply because they are insane when you consider how many of them have killed people and escaped to do so again, you do have to wonder at how rattled the Batman’s conscience is. The policy that he is better than them by not doing so doesn’t say much for retribution let alone ensuring they stay imprisoned.
Then again, what put me off the Marvel Universe films is the Avengers in ‘Endgame’ killing a poor farmer. All right, he might have been Thanos but he certainly didn’t put up a fight or being ready for a confrontation and there was no trial establishing his guilt or reasoning. No one thinks of due process or its legalities on different worlds. The Avengers certainly weren’t enforced to take such an action by any other authorities. It’s just comes over as a super-powerful set of bullies hitting an unsuspecting person or even considering they might have the wrong person. Would we take the same stance if we saw a non-super-powered group mugging someone in the street?
The two ‘Kick-Ass’ movies really point out that there isn’t a place for costumed vigilantes in the real world because villains will kill heroes just because they are there. Although I haven’t read the comicbook source material of ‘The Boys’, the TV series appears to be a close match where super-heroes are seen as a product to exploit irrespective of what they really feel or do with everything based off popularity points.
With no one to stop them, anyone zapped are torn to shreds, there is a lack of accountability. Its hardly surprising that the CIA had a team to go after the rogue super-humans, even if it meant some members of the team took a more limited form of the drug that created them to be able to fight them. Literally no holds bared. In real world circumstances, if super-heroes existed here, we would either have to accept their way of doing ‘good’ or find ways to apprehend or take out permanently or put them on the payroll with certain limitations.
Deconstruction in writing is more to do with showing how things would really work than idealising reality when certain things are permitted. In some respects, the start of the original Spider-Man’s career as a performer than a vigilante might have been the way Peter Parker would have gone had his uncle not been killed. Even then, he might have held down both types of career, just with a different mask, although you would expect people might put two and two together. J. Jonah Jameson’s claims that Spider-Man is a menace might actually have some bearing, especially today, until his actions to create the Scorpion showing his own lack of morals. It should be pointed out his own connection to the Scorpion has never been discovered as far as I can tell.
We’ve gotten so used to super-heroes that we forget they are essentially unauthorised vigilantes. Marvel’s Civil War attempted to bring them under law with an involuntarily unmasking for some and turning those who don’t into villains or at least looking that way for those who didn’t. We knew that would not last forever because it would go against something that has been successful for decades and the undoing of which made it more of a what if and just a blip in the Marvel Universe. There is more latitude with the general public not knowing vigilantes real identities than knowing them, providing they are seen to being effective where non-powered police aren’t. Even so, it would make sense for the police to have a super-hero branch providing they adhered to the law.
One thing that quickly becomes apparent is the translation of widely known comicbook heroes and villains to TV or film shows their flaws far more than ones we are less familiar with clearly illustrating the level of expectation. One only has to compare Superman to ‘The Boys’ Homelander to show how the Man of Steel acts with constant restraint, even if that isn’t portrayed like that in comicbooks, films or TV series. If Superman or any of his relatives didn’t, you would have to wonder how long he would be popular.
The awareness today about what it really means to have super-powered beings around and the consequence to any reality has changed forever. We are less naïve to just accept what they do which is no mean thing. At least in our world, we are mostly safe from vigilantism. Well, until it really happens for real.
© GF Willmetts 2023
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