Violence, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “the use of physical force to injure, abuse, damage or destroy.” In many stories, it is easy to identify the protagonist (hero) or antagonist (villain) because of how they approach the use of violence or the lengths they take to avoid it. However, life isn’t so cut & dry & it is my goal to illustrate how so by examining some of the characters we love or love to hate, depending on how they handle violence.
The Joker, especially as masterfully portrayed by the late Heath Ledger, is well known as the ultimate “agent of chaos.” While most villainy is driven by greed & desire for power, the Clown Prince of Crime is mostly concerned with watching the world burn & seeing how far he can take social civility before that “one bad day” takes the most principled person beyond normal restraint. This easily identifies Joker as evil for evil’s sake with little to no redeeming qualities & whose sole purpose for existence would be to call an equal but opposite force to stop him.
With a symbiote-powered counter to the DC villain in Marvel’s Carnage, we see a similar dedication to mayhem, but with a different twist on the theatrics of his predecessor. As the death & destruction in much of his stories are filled with scenes to rival the most horrific slasher movies. Oddly enough, both characters & many like them garner their own followings to rival that of the greatest heroes of all-time!
Contrasting the purely evil, we next look at Superman. Respected as one of, if not the most, powerful characters in the DC Comics universe & often touted as the “Blue Boy Scout” because of his unwavering moral compass. More often than not, we see him exercise far more restraint than his lesser powered friends or foes alike
Much of his tales are that of diplomacy & attempts to de-escalate conflict before entertaining the thought of a “hands-on” approach. Even then, there is great internal struggle with how far he would allow himself to go to dispel a given menace. Perhaps his near indestructible defenses warrant him less fear of actual physical threat & allows him a very different opportunity than his well intended allies more famous for less restraint. Let us tread more murky waters as we look at some of the more violent among the “good guys.”
No masked vigilante is more famous for physical force than “The Dark Knight” as we see a young Bruce Wayne, bearing witness to the violent demise of both mother & father. A quiet promise, “never again,” would lead to the manifestation of Batman & a life dedicated to his own brand of justice! In his most popular stories we see him exercise very little restraint when it comes to violence, save the taking of life.
The draw is clear as many can relate to the idea of a victim fighting back & inspiring fear in the very hearts of those who would do harm. But, to his discredit, we have also seen much of his acts lead to far more villainous characters. It is even arguable that many would have never come to fruition if it weren’t for his very existence. All along the way, many of his allies & loved ones fall prey to the very adversaries that he refuses to kill.
Also a victim of extreme violence & losing his family before his very eyes, Frank Castle has no qualms with the loss of life in his campaign for vengeance. Marvel’s The Punisher pits our skull clad vigilante against some of the most impossible odds & even with taking much of the physical damage a normal man would in such scenarios, always finds a way to edge out his enemies in a satisfyingly brutal manner. A perfect shoot ‘em up fantasy with little practicality for real life conflict resolution, Frank Castle remains a staple for readers & viewers alike.
On the flipside, there are just as many villains who use questionable logic to justify their most vial deeds. The “Mad Titan” is notorious in the comics for carving an homage out of the cosmos for nothing more than the amusement of the personage of death, his long-time love interest. But, the Marvel Cinematic Universe paints a more complex picture. The universe is taxed to the breaking point due to over population & never ending war for the scraps. Thanos takes it upon himself to right the balance of life across galaxies with merely the snap of a finger.
There is no animosity behind his intent. He, himself falls victim to the heavy costs of his quest. Yet, his faith in cause & abilities to execute made him the most formidable enemy for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Still, there is the wonder of who gets to choose which life is of greater value & what casualty counts would be deemed too great in the search for lasting peace.
Every one of these stories focus on characters separate from the governing bodies of their times and are taking the law into their own hands. When we feel justified, it is difficult to sway any chosen course of action let alone examine whether or not the acts are indeed just.
But, what happens when that very structure gives way to one such as Judge Dredd? No due process. Just, judge, jury & executioner with the power to act in the name of justice as defined by the very laws he swears to uphold. In the longest running comic strip of the British publication 2000 AD, we witness Dredd's battle to do right by the system he serves & the citizens he swears to protect. Quite often he finds himself in conflict with both, even furthering the need for serious examination of use of force.
In combat sports, we also see a divide in degrees of violence within the confines of competition. March 8, 1971, fans in Madison Square Garden & across the world bore witness to “The Fight Of The Century” as two undefeated titans of boxing faced off for the much anticipated bout. Following a 15 round war, Joe Frazier would claim a unanimous decision victory & hand the great Mohammad Ali his first professional loss.
One criticism would be that, though he may have been the better skilled fighter, Ali would only use what he felt was necessary to win the fight. Frazier, on the other hand, was looking to kill you with every punch he threw. According to the judges that night & many speculators since, that killer instinct may have very well been the deciding factor.
Rory Macdonald is no stranger to violence. His two outings against Robbie Lawler are by far my favorite MMA fights of all-time, truly crowning him “The Red King” as the Gaelic translation of his birth name suggests! No doubt this mixed martial artist will go down in history as one of the greats! Unfortunately for fans of his past savagery in the cage, we have seen a more controlled version of Macdonald as he has been quoted to say that he doesn’t have the same drive to hurt people anymore. Is it because he is in the twilight of his career & wishes to avoid unnecessary damage himself? Or has his maturity as a human being peaked with the understanding that sometimes there is a less violent way to claim victory?
In my life, I have been subjected to great violence and in turn have subjected others to similar use of force. Much of these instances, no doubt, could have been handled in a far more positive fashion. Having come out the other end of it, I now value civil discourse very differently than some who have not known the same experiences I have. Coupled with years of training in hand to hand combat, I am able to see the violence I am capable of as a deterrent for those who wish to do harm. With my confidence in continued studies & training, I am able to distinguish between actual threats & explore less physical avenues of conflict resolution. Even with over a decade as head of security and the many compromising situations that came with it, I have yet to find use of my physical capacity outside of simulated training throughout my entire career.
If I exercise such restraint in my day to day, in the name of peace & order, then why does my taste for entertainment reflect so differently? Does my preparation for conflict actually invite it, virtually contradicting my desire for peace? Perhaps, there will always be that underlying hunger for an easier and primal response to everyday problems. Maybe the guise of entertainment removes a portion of guilt in the same manner that victimization can sometimes justify a thirst beyond justice that is only quenched by outright vengeance. Maybe, just maybe, we all have a dark side needing to be satiated in a physically violent manner. Whatever the case may be, may we never take it lightly.