It's no secret that I love comic books and the superheroes contained within. But the nature of superheroism has a lot of complex facets that most casual fans take for granted. While I have a lot of thoughts on the nature of heroism in general and superheroism specifically, I'm going to try to keep this rant focused on the nature of power, as well as empowerment.
OK, so, that was pretty intense, wasn't it? Anyway, what makes this short film interesting to me is how it plays on our expectations regarding Alleyway Heroism. At the beginning of the video, we expect Frank to intervene and rescue the woman who is about to be assaulted. The woman displays Lois Lane Syndrome, standing up to the asshole and resisting his advances, but she can't stop him alone. So naturally, we expect Frank to step in and save her. He doesn't. He does his laundry. At first, we as an audience assume that this is because he's about to do something bad-ass. That it's a fake-out. He's just waiting until the last minute. No way would he let something like that happen. And yet he does. I don't know about the rest of you, but I REALLY hated him in that moment. I figured that at that point, there was nothing he could do to redeem himself. Then it gets worse. The gang starts mugging a little kid who, again, displays Lois Lane Syndrome and defies the gang. Again, Frank does nothing. While this is going on, he speaks with the clerk played by Ron Perlman, who talks about the desire to intervene. How it probably won't work out and even if they succeed, more villains will take their place. That's when Frank finally intervenes just as the young boy is about to be killed. He kills all of the gang members, leaving only the leader alive, albeit maimed. He then asks about the difference between justice and punishment before covering the villain in alcohol and leaving a lighter by his feet. At that moment, the villain is left at the mercy of the survivor, who chooses to light him on fire. Now before I end the content warning, I just want to say that with regards to the inclusion of rape, I can understand the knee-jerk apprehension that some of you might have. I felt it myself. All too often, rape is used as a factor to motivate the hero into action. If it's a male hero, it's to defend the woman's honor. If it's a female hero, it's meant to "empower" her by having her overcome her "weakness" (i.e. having a vagina). However, in this short film, rape is not used in that manner. The rape does not motivate Frank to action. And though the survivor is empowered at the end, it is not because her rape made her "tougher". All the rape does is make the villain deserving of a righteous death at the hands of the survivor. I do agree that rape is used WAY too often, and this in turn adds to the presence of rape culture in our society and I do believe that if a writer can get the same point across with something other than rape (attempted or otherwise) then using rape is excessive and sensationalist and disrespectful. It's no excuse to say that it's the most common form of assault subjected to women and that it's just "realistic" to include it. Unless you have something really important to say about real life and that rape is an important aspect of what you are trying to say, it's unnecessary. But when I consider the ending of this short where the survivor lights the villain on fire, there's a reason why it's the woman and not the kid who does it. While the kid was hurt and beaten, him killing the villain would have come off as wrathful or excessive. But when the woman does it, it feels right because she wasn't just hurt physically. She was violated and degraded. Those wounds don't heal and no matter what those of us who are lucky enough never to experience it would like to think, it cannot be turned into strength. There are few crimes where the survivor is justified in killing the perpetrator after the fact. There are few crimes that we consider worse than death and therefore deserving of it as punishment. And it's not a matter of vengeance or even justice. It's a matter of self-defense. Killing the bastard so that he can't do it again and so no one else will dare try it. Taking the power back. It's for this reason that I can forgive this short film for incorporating rape. I suppose they could have ended the short film without killing the villain and then the survivor wouldn't need a reason to do it, but then the ending can go one of two ways. Either the survivors decide that the villain has been punished enough and let him live out the rest of his crippled life, in which case they basically did nothing that demonstrates their power, or they DO kill the guy, in which case it comes off as excessive and somewhat reprehensible since all the guy would have done to them was rough them up a bit. In this case, the short film only works if the guy deserves death and if the victim of the crime is able to do it. If you can think of a crime worse than murder that doesn't somehow degrade or incapacitate the victim, then I'd be happy to hear it, but I certainly can't think of one. All I can think of that fits the requirements of this short film's theme are rape and torture, and torture isn't really much of an improvement in terms of unpleasantness. I mean, at least it wouldn't come off as potentially sexist, I suppose, but that doesn't make it any less problematic. I suppose the film could have just not existed at all ("the only way to win is not to play") but I don't think completely avoiding the subject of rape or torture accomplishes anything. The problem isn't acknowledging that these things exist, it's in treating them casually. If we just say that women can never be survivors of rape or attempted rape in fiction, it doesn't change what happens in reality. Rape won't go anywhere if you just stop mentioning it. But we do have to stop acting like survivors of rape are weak and powerless or that their trauma is something they ought to rise above and find strength in. And even having women in fiction successfully defend against rape isn't necessarily helpful either, because then it sends the message that if you can't stop yourself from becoming a victim, you are weak. That's why I think the portrayal in "Dirty Laundry" is forgivable. Because the woman is made a survivor of rape, but she is not shown as weak because she couldn't prevent it and she is not made stronger because it happened. She is powerful because in the end, she stands up to the villain and tells him that he doesn't deserve to live for what he did to her. The onus is put on the villain, not the survivor. The survivor is not a weaker person for not being able to stop it or for not becoming a hard-assed no-nonsense "strong independent woman" as a result of it. There is no way she SHOULD have handled it, and by extension, no way any survivor of any crime SHOULD handle it. The film tells us that she did nothing wrong, which is exactly what needs to be said more often. She did nothing wrong, but the villain did, and he deserves to die for it. END CONTENT WARNING So what makes this scene unique? Well, two things. First of all, Frank Castle (the Punisher), does not save the victims of the ruthless gang from the pain of the crimes being perpetrated upon them. He does not ride in as a champion of justice and stop the tyranny of evil in its tracks. Obviously, he certainly COULD do that, but that's not what his character is about. In a way, trying to make the Punisher more conventional would be even worse and entirely pointless. One of the larger complaints with anti-heroes like the Punisher is that they encourage violent vigilante justice, which is less palatable than non-lethal heroic justice. And this is understandable. If you put the Punisher in the same situations as Spider-Man with the only difference being that he kills the villains rather then leave them to the police, then all it does is send the message that villains are not worthy of compassion and that we have the right to judge them ourselves simply because we have power. This is a reprehensible point of view. But "Dirty Laundry" not only portrays the anti-hero in a more narratively distinctive way, it shows why the anti-hero exists in the first place. The anti-hero exists because people are often left unfulfilled by Alleyway Heroism. There's nothing empowering about waiting for someone to save you when you're about to become a victim. We're meant to identify with the hero, but we know deep down we're more similar to the victims, who we instinctively perceive as weak. So we started inventing heroes that were more about seizing power in a more "realistic" way (i.e. lots of guns). While it's nice to have ideals about justice and second chances, when you're in an alley and someone has pulled a knife on you and you KNOW that Spider-Man isn't going to show up, you suddenly don't care so much about whether or not that person with the knife is a good person deep down. You just want to pull out a gun and show him what happens when you fuck with the social contract. It's about taking back the power. That's what the bulk of these anti-heroes represent. Seizing power from those who would use it to victimize, and often that means threatening and utilizing lethal force. And yes, lots of guns. To put it simply, it sometimes feels more practical to stop waiting for Spider-Man and just shoot the bastard like Frank Castle would do. And even if Spider-Man DID show up, we may resent the fact that Spider-Man just allows the criminal to go through the revolving door of the corrupt justice system and go right back to finding more victims later. Rather than feel like the world is an awful place because bad things happen to innocent people and other innocent people won't lift a finger to stop it, we're told that if life gives you lemons, throw a hand grenade. In a way, that's what this short film is saying. The reason Punisher doesn't rescue the survivors until they have already suffered at the hands of the gang is because if he wasn't there, they wouldn't have been rescued. Like Ron Perlman's character says, even if he stopped them, more would just take their place. Saving the victims today doesn't give them the strength to fight back tomorrow, and it certainly doesn't take away any pain they might have felt from previous attacks that are implied to have happened while Frank wasn't around. Justice is sadly only a sometimes thing. It's handled on a case-by-case basis. But punishment? Punishment is about shifting power. It's about sending a message. Teaching a lesson. Punishment can outlast lifetimes. That's what Frank does at the end. He doesn't want to give those survivors justice. Justice won't make their lives easier once he leaves. If he killed the gang right away, it wouldn't have empowered them even if he gave them the same chance to set the leader on fire. If the crime was never committed, then it isn't true punishment. Killing a guy for what he MIGHT have done comes off as extreme, which is why most heroes don't kill. Killing a guy for what he DID is cosmic balance. And if Frank had stopped the crime before it happened, it wouldn't say anything about the strength of the would-be-victims. They would have just felt lucky that an ex-marine happened to be around at the right moment. In other words, it would have been just a more violent and grotesque version of Alleyway Heroism. But when he gives the victims the chance to punish the one responsible, that changes everything. Suddenly, they have the power. Rather than judge the villain himself, Frank passes that decision onto the survivors. When the woman burns the villain, she is making a statement. The next time someone thinks about screwing with that neighborhood, they'll remember that the last guy that ran that turf got burned alive by the woman he assaulted. SHE did it. Not some other guy. That other guy was doing his laundry at the time. She's the one who burned the guy alive because of what he did to her. He was evil. She was innocent. He got what he deserved. She deserved better. No one will mess with her again. In that respect, "Dirty Laundry" is basically a metaphor for the anti-hero and the concept of empowerment in general. It's not about saving people. It's not even about standing up for other people or even for yourself. It's about punishing the wicked without implying that the innocent survivors and bystanders (like Ron Perlman's character) are weak for "letting it happen". If heroes are meant to inspire you to care about something bigger than yourself, anti-heroes are about inspiring you to stop thinking less of yourself and to start thinking less of the villains instead. I don't know if I entirely agree with the anti-hero philosophy, particularly since it's rarely handled with that degree of sobriety. More often than not, it's just a different flavor of power fantasy, but less about empowering vague concepts like truth and justice and more about advocating extreme measures and the concept of "might is right". But I do feel that there is a necessity for heroes that are aimed at empowering the innocent and punishing the guilty rather than simply saving the victims and stopping the villains.