Of the countless stories we tell ourselves, the American myth of the solitary enforcer of justice may be the most tenacious, beloved and — as the story of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin has so grievously demonstrated — distorting.
From Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry” to Charles Bronson in “Death Wish,” from Robert De Niro practicing his sneer in “Taxi Driver” to comic-book superheroes sheathed in various hues of spandex, whether he is walking tall or falling down, the lone avenger speaks to something deep and abiding within the American psyche, engaging our most cherished ideas about a country founded by brash rebels and sustained by rough-hewn individualism, flinty self-reliance and a congenital suspicion of powerful institutions.
This summer, audiences will get their usual seasonal dose of those values, from Batman and Spider-Man swooping in to vanquish the bad guys in “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” to “Neighborhood Watch,” a regrettably timed comedy starring Ben Stiller about suburban self-policing (albeit against invading aliens).
In fact, Stiller will be spoofing an idea that has been around as long as American cinema itself: D.W. Griffith virtually invented the form with his 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” which depicts the white-robed enforcers of the Ku Klux Klan so heroically that the organization used the movie as a recruiting tool.
Over the ensuing century, the trope of the vigilante — with its attendant thrills of lawlessness, violence and retributive justice — has proved usefully elastic, depending on the social demands of the era. In 1956, John Wayne’s portrayal of a Civil War veteran on an obsessive mission fueled by racism and vengeance showed the vigilante through a rare critical lens in John Ford’s “The Searchers.”
By 1971, Eastwood’s .44 Magnum-toting rogue cop offered cathartic wish-fulfillment to filmgoers who were fed up with what they saw as the civic erosions of the 1960s. De Niro’s mohawked, gun-strapped Travis Bickle might have patrolled Manhattan’s grimy streets through a fever-dream haze of self-deception. But even he triumphed in the end, succeeding in his one-man crusade where politicians and the criminal justice system — stalled by corruption and moral rot in post-Watergate America — could only fail.
In more recent years, the vigilante has been a vehicle for baby boomer nostalgia in comic-book movies such as “Batman” and “The Green Hornet”; feminist revisionism in the feisty “Kick-Ass” and the fiercely avenging “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”; and misguided comedy in the coarsely unfunny “Observe and Report,” in which Seth Rogen played a wildly overreaching mall security guard.
As if by popular demand, Eastwood even reprised his Dirty Harry persona with “Gran Torino,” in which he cleverly allowed his poisonously prejudiced character to have his cake and eat it, too: He might have been an epithet-spewing racist, but he ultimately used his swagger for good on behalf of the very immigrants he routinely dismissed with ethnic put-downs.