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Vigilante Archetypes and the Spread of 'Real Life Superheroes'

09/09/2013 15:57 BST | Updated 06/11/2013 10:12 GMT

The exponential rise of superheroes throughout popular culture is seeing a corresponding increase in related news stories: the Burka Avenger's role model status in the battle against Islamic fundamentalism, a portly gentleman dressed as Batman handing over a wanted criminal to the police in Bradford, or the galling details of the Aurora theatre killings are just the tip of the iceberg.

This attention continued in a recent news story when Jim Carrey refused to publicise his role in the superhero film Kick-Ass 2 due to discomfort with the film in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, he tweeted: "I did Kickass a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence." In an interview in The Times his sixteen-year-old co-star Chloe Grace Moretz clarified: "It's fake. It's not real life. I've known the difference since I was a child." But Kick-Ass is itself an exploration of the blurring between the imagined world of superheroes and real life vigilantism. Recent news stories regarding 'real life superheroes' see these distinctions collapse further still.

Through research on Guatemalan lynchings, I became intrigued by the way in which vigilantism spreads. When the provision of justice is seen as severely deficient people take justice into their own hands, doing so in a way that corresponds with existing blueprints for such actions. Role models are generally drawn from the real world, but sometimes they come from fiction. The starkest example of this can be seen in the way in which D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation led directly to William J. Simmons re-founding the Ku Klux Klan - a clear example of fictional vigilantes directly inspiring real vigilantes.

Phoenix Jones, leader of the Rain City Superhero Movement, and the most prominent among the growing number of real life superheroes, recently came to the UK gaining attention across TV, newspapers and online.

During his stay, I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Jones, his wife Purple Reign and Peter Tangen, founder of the Real Life Superhero Project (RLSH), to discuss ideas of vigilantism and justice. It became clear that while Jones and Reign patrol and often use violent force; his brand of policing has become increasingly intertwined with the state, moving him away from vigilantism. His involvement in 250 arrests demonstrates his inherent pro-police stance, although he is never short of criticisms of their flaws.

Jones and his Rain City Superhero Movement refer to themselves as a 'citizen prevention eyewitness group'. Other patrolling real life superheroes such as The New York Initiative conduct themselves in a similar manner. The ability of the police to clamp down hard on over-exuberant 'superheroism' is fundamental to the shape this new movement is taking. A look at Tangen's RLSH Project website shows that you're more likely to find costumed heroes handing out food to the homeless or raising awareness of social issues than patrolling. This new movement appears to be spreading at increasing pace with at least 200 active members.

But this is not best understood as a vigilante movement, despite their actions often being described as vigilantism in the press. This is something more subtle, more charitable and pro-state. The real life superheroes that Kick-Ass and other superhero media outputs have inspired are acting in societies where satisfaction with justice is relatively high and police authority relatively strong. While this remains true, real life superheroes will rarely stray into vigilante territory.

Dr Gavin Weston is in the Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London and will be presenting a paper entitled 'Vigilante archetypes and real life superheroes: the birth of a costumed movement' at the British Science Festival in Newcastle on 8th September.