Hey, I’m one of the good guys (Judgment Day)

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Mea culpa AGAIN: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates AGAIN, which means I owe y’all THREE NA09 chapters and AT LEAST three videos. I’m trying to queue them all up now:  NA09 posts Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s October 31, 1998. Monica still tops the charts, with Barenaked Ladies and Dru Hill feat. Redman just below. The top movie is John Carpenter’s Vampires. In the news, Hurricane Mitch makes landfall in Central America, killing 11,000.

In Gotham, we have “Judgment Day,” which (as is lately so often the case) largely retreads ground already covered by past episodes, most notably “Lock-Up” and… well, really, just about any episode with Two-Face in it, so let’s go with “Two-Face.”

As I discussed with “Lock-Up” and it’s titular villain, there are two ways of looking at punishment in the context of justice. The first is as a kind of moral causality: people do bad things, so they deserve to have bad things happen to them, and the state acts to do just that. This corresponds broadly to the retributive theory of criminal justice, and as the name implies, is basically the state taking on the function of vengeance in place of individual citizens doing so. The second approach is that the role of punishment is to reduce crime: we don’t want people to do bad things, so when they do, the state punishes them both so that they won’t want to do it again, and so that others will think twice about doing bad things.

Setting aside any issues with the determination of “bad things,” whether a state is a legitimate entity with a right to punish citizens, and decisions of when, how, and whom to punish, each of these theories has a fundamental problem at its core. In the case of retribution, the problem is fairly obvious: all it does it is multiply suffering without doing anything to make things better. In the case of reducing crime, the problem is less immediately obvious but just as straightforward: it doesn’t work.

In psychological terms, the goal of reducing crime is an attempt at behavior modification, which sounds Orwellian but is actually just psychologist for “teaching.” And the educational applications of punishment are, to say the least, quite limited–which is why we generally minimize its use in schools! What a century of research into the topic shows is that punishment only works as an effective means of behavior modification under a strict set of criteria, namely: the goal is to stop an undesired behavior, not replace it with a desired behavior; the punishment is clearly associated with the undesired behavior by occurring extremely close to it in time, ideally as a direct, immediate, and automatic consequence; and the punishment is ceased immediately upon cessation of the undesired behavior.

The kind of behavior modification we’re talking about when it comes to criminal justice meets none of these criteria. Quite simply, punishing criminals serves no purpose except cruelty for the sake of cruelty. It is vengeance, nothing more, rooted in hatred and dehumanization. This is why, for example, prisoners are frequently denied access to educational opportunities, which are shown to reduce recidivism–criminals, as I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, are one of our most hated Others, and our society revels in brutalizing and enslaving them. (It is also not an accident that the prison population is disproportionately made up of the descendants of the last Other we brutalized and enslaved.)

All of this is why, in the “Lock-Up” essay, I identified the titular villain’s brutal retributive “justice” with the Bat, Batman’s drive for vengeance rooted in his fear and pain at the loss of his parents. Two-Face, meanwhile, is ostentatiously a figure all about duality, and part of that is the degree, as discussed in my essay on “Two-Face,” to which he is a mirror of Batman. It makes a kind of sense, then, for him to produce his own equivalent to the Bat, his own figure to externalize his rage at the crime and criminality which have hurt him so. Rather shrewdly, he takes the form of a figure one might expect to strike fear into criminals–a harsh, faceless judge who will stop at nothing to punish them, the vengeance of the system designed to brutalize and dehumanize those it has marked as Other.

Note, too, whom the Judge attacks: Penguin, Killer Croc, and Two-Face, all villains whose character designs use the grotesque to mark their Otherness. As always, our culture is less interested in right or wrong than in identifying and punishing deviance from arbitrary norms. Two-Face’s embrace of randomness is in part a recognition of that fact–he is openly arbitrary in mockery of a “justice” that is anything but fair.

But there is a major difference: Bruce Wayne was a victim of a crime that left him traumatized and his parents dead, and created the Bat to protect himself. The show has fairly consistently, however, portrayed Harvey Dent as the primary victim of Two-Face, which is to say he is his own first and greatest victim. As such, the Judge exists not to protect him, but to punish him; it is not a protector fantasy, nor even a power fantasy, but a revenge fantasy. On some level, he is sick of the suffering he has caused himself, angry at himself for that suffering, and wants to avenge himself against himself.

This is why the Judge is so much more lethal than Batman. The whole point of a protector fantasy is that we are dreaming of someone who will protect us no matter what–ultimately, superheroes must protect their villains because they must protect everyone. A vengeance fantasy has no such limitation; its job is to destroy the Other. In this it has far more in common with the more traditional figure of the Hero than superheroes do: a hero is someone you point at your enemies and hope they die tragically before they get home, because heroes make terrible neighbors, while a superhero is someone you hope sticks around in case you get mugged or fall out of a twentieth-story window.

This, in turn, is why the Judge is so popular: people love heroes, which is why almost every culture has at least one. At least, we love heroes when they’re pointed at our enemies; we’re not so fond of them once they start targeting us. And given enough time, sooner or later, they always do.

To get back to the core concern of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, after a very long digression into the grotesque and the figure of the Other (which is far from over): we cannot look to the Hero as a model to strip the authoritarianism from the Superhero. Heroes are, if anything, worse.


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