If you were a superhero, what would you be called?
If you could choose any powers, what would they be?
Do you ever imagine yourself taking to the streets in the dead of night, fighting villains and making a difference?
I have written a novella on why superhero films are littering the box office. I spent an entire year completing my honours thesis, “Blockbuster Giants: Accounting for the Success of the Contemporary Superhero Film Cycle,” and got to learn a lot about this cinematic phenomenon. Including myself, about three people have read my work in its entirety, but I still keep it on my bookshelf as a token of my extremely niche area of expertise. At the end of 2016, I thought I was done with the topic—apart from the occasional reviews I write for this site. However, despite having 15,000 words printed and bound neatly for university consideration, I never truly felt like I got to the bottom of the topic. Really, I don’t think I ever will.
It is no secret that media is often scrutinised for its effect on people’s psyche. News outlets are always asking questions of morality in relation to the entertainment we consume: Do video games make people violent? Can musicians influence disengaged youths to act out in horrific ways? Is a series that makes you sympathise with a serial killer enough to inspire a person to murder their family?
These are all complex topics in their own right, but it got me thinking—with so many superhero films being released every year, with no sign of relenting, why have I never seen an exposé on a real-life vigilante on the news? Do people actually don tights, and stalk the streets in hope of bringing justice to our society? I am in no way implying that the human mind can ever be completely influenced by media—most people are able to enjoy a film or television show and keep it in the land of fiction. But with so many of us escaping into worlds where men can fly and bad guys are brought to justice, has any of this seeped through into the real world? Well… yes, it has.
In fact, Brisbane has had its very own superhero crusading for justice on our streets—Captain Australia. Donning a green and gold suit, and an ‘@’ symbol embroidered on his chest, Captain Australia first took to the streets of Fortitude Valley in 2009 to protect those unable to defend themselves. Armed with a torch, a phone, and a video camera, Captain Australia took it upon himself to clean up the streets of Brisbane. Police expressed that they did not want our caped crusader intervening in incidents, but he did not relent. He even put out a ‘casting call’ for a sidekick. In 2014, after a long hiatus, many were worried for his safety. He later issued a statement, expressing that he was safe and well, but had to give up the cape in order to help his son after an ‘unforeseen life event’. On his website, he shared his four, personal goals:
To prevent crimes through acting as a deterrent by actively patrolling and thus intimidating the criminal element.
To intervene when I see criminal activity, or to solve crimes that I become aware of.
To inspire normal people to be better, by demonstrating a level of moral excellence that I hope will serve as an example to the people I meet.
If all else fails, I can accept simply amusing or shocking people – having ordinary citizens lighten their hearts by amusement or surprise.
Most media attention surrounding Captain Australia seems to present him as a kind, mostly harmless citizen, just doing his part to make the world a better place. In my brief Google searches, I didn’t find any think pieces on the danger this man was putting himself into, any concern about a masked vigilante on our streets. To be honest, a lot of the articles treated him as a joke—a cute, kind oddball who was a bit of a laugh. Captain Australia did have his very own set of skills—he was a self-proclaimed master of martial arts, and was known to be knowledgeable in criminal psychology, hostage negotiation, and counter-insurgency. In short, people loved this guy.
Captain Australia is just one of many real-life superheroes. The Rain City Superhero Movement was a crime-fighting brigade made up of costumed activists in Seattle. Its roster included people who went by the monikers: Thorn, Buster Doe, Green Reaper, The Mantis, Prodigy, Gemini, No Name, Catastrophe, Thunder 88, Penelope, and, most famously, Phoenix Jones. These heroes would stalk the streets of Seattle carrying batons, pepper spray, and their phones. Jones was as close as you could get to a real-life superhero. His origin story? After his car was broken into, and his son had his leg sliced open by the broken glass of his car window, Jones asked a man across the street to call for help. The man refused, stating that it would “ruin his video” of the incident. Jones was determined not to let this happen again, chasing down ‘villains’ and making a lot of calls to 911. Jones chased down car thieves, prevented muggers from escaping, and pepper-sprayed protesters after they, allegedly, threatened to place a bomb in a public park. Jones’ wife, Purple Reign, was no less impressive. She too patrolled the streets in costume, and was a leader in an outreach movement against domestic violence. She lay down the mask after splitting up with her husband in 2014, but is still an advocate for domestic violence victims.
Just like the comics, not all vigilantes were costumed. When San Francisco-based priest and gay rights activist Reverend Ray Broshears was beaten senseless in 1973 by a group of “young toughs”, he stepped into action. Speaking to the press, flanked by drag queens with guns, Rev. Ray announced that the ‘Lavender Panthers’ will be patrolling the streets of San Francisco, beating on those who dared to threaten their LGBTI kin. This vigilante group was made of 21 gay men and two lesbians, and was almost the perfect foil to the local homophobe; anyone too ‘macho’ to accept gay men would be loath to admit being beaten up by them. Despite a stipulation from the police banning them from brandishing guns, they were pretty much allowed to continue enacting their brand of justice until they disbanded in 1974. Backlash surrounding the Lavender Panthers came more from their brethren than it did the authorities; people in the LGBTI community did not look fondly on the violent image these vigilantes were portraying. On a similar note, the ‘Perv Busters’, an all-female group who keep the New York subway system safe for other females, are still active to this day. After the NYPD backed out of a plan to deploy eight subway cops tasked with stopping these kinds of offences, the ladies took it upon themselves to train up and protect the females underground.
These instances are just scratching the surface of the presence of real-life vigilantes. A Wikipedia page, listing all real-life superheroes by their country of origin, is surprisingly lengthy given the circumstances. To be honest, before researching them for this article, I never knew these people existed. While the vigilantes in this article all, in some way, were fighting crime, there are some masked Samaritans who instead opt to fight homelessness or cancer instead. Most interestingly, all articles that I had found on the topic were not negatively geared towards these people; instead, I kept seeing them portrayed as “awesome”, “outrageous”, and “warriors”. I didn’t find any ethical discussions of the constraints of vigilantism or the dangers of citizens risking their safety to protect their cities. In most cases, the police worked alongside these heroes, seeing them as assets rather than criminals.
This brings us back to the saturation of superhero media we are currently going through. Superheroes are, essentially, if the hero of the Western was bolstered to near omnipotence. They are gods living in the fictional world of men. When looking at these real-world vigilantes, it’s hard not to become enamoured by the heart of it all. These people felt like the system wasn’t doing enough to protect the vulnerable, and took it upon themselves to make a difference. Superhero content has given the world a set of iconography that has ingrained itself into the public consciousness; as a society, and as human beings, we value justice, valour, and honour. While real superhero costumes are, admittedly, low budget (I suppose not everyone can have Batman’s wardrobe money), their masks work as symbols for their fight. While I do feel like there are ethical discussions to be had surrounding this topic, it’s hard not to admire the people brave enough to actually do it. These people are the encapsulation of why we find superhero films in every cinema; we see these gods, working outside of a system that in real-life can be disappointing, and think that one day, perhaps, we will find the simple, black-and-white form of justice that can be found in their worlds. Maybe we all want to be superheroes in some way, mask or not.