The Dark Knight has risen, but he doesn’t look like Christian Bale.
Authorities in the English city of Bradford were surprised when a short and “portly” man wearing an Adam West-era Batman costume brought a wanted burglar to the local police station last week.
The man stuck around long enough to make sure the suspect was charged and booked, then disappeared into the night. Strange as it may seem, this is far from the first time real people have tried emulating the actions (and fashions) of their favorite comic book heroes. It’s a tradition as strange and fascinating as Tony Stark’s facial hair.
The odds point to the Bradford police knowing exactly who this masked man is. Despite everything the Death Wish series taught you, vigilantism is generally frowned upon, and if he was thought to be placing himself or others in danger he’d be apprehended and dealt with accordingly. For most would-be crime fighters, this presents a deterrent. But for some brave souls, there’s no stopping the civilian fight for justice.
My most direct contact with this phenomenon is through the movies. In narrative film, after the successes of Iron Man and The Dark Knight came the little-known Defendor, a dark comedy starring Woody Harrelson as a mentally challenged guy who dons a costume and fights crime in Pittsburgh. Like all good costumed combatants, Defendor refuses to use guns. Unlike most, he uses homemade explosives that unleash angry bees on his foes. He also gets beaten up a lot.
The film seemed to tell us that this guy’s noble and gutsy, but also a bit disturbed and incompetent. A cautionary tale if I’ve ever seen one. Kick Ass, on the other hand, provided the flip side with its ragtag, foul-mouthed cast of Nic Cage-led lunatics who fight crime and do so more or less successfully. This outlandish comedy gained a cult following that’s since warranted the release of a sequel. And with that, the age of the “alternative superhero” was born.
However, few are aware that in 2011, HBO released a documentary, entitled Superheroes, that followed a group of real life costumed crime fighters. From New York to San Diego, these masked men and women with names like “Life,” “Master Legend,” and “Mr. Extreme,” bring their own unique style and personal philosophies to this storied tradition.
In general, it’s hard to feel ambivalent about their actions. You either support them and see them as providing services police cannot, or view them as a hindrance and dismiss them as “misguided” or “crazy.” Indeed, the film can be difficult to watch: one scene shows unarmed masked civilians standing up to drug dealers in a park at night. It’s hard to admire their boldness without fearing for their lives, and wondering whether their approach is as good an idea as Spidey makes it look.
But before you laugh too hard at the masked man in Bradford, know that he’s not alone. In cities across the globe, masked civilians are patrolling the streets, trying to make the world a little safer (and stranger) for all of us. Like it or not, they’re probably here to stay.