I noticed a pattern in The Walking Dead. It goes like this: some terrible, awful, villain comes along and does terrible, awful things. We watch in horror as protagonists are slain and tortured. We seethe against the monster. We share with the survivors: we are angry and we want justice.
By season’s end we have it. We cheer inside as the villain gets what he deserved: a violent death. Terminus, the Governor, and ultimately Negan will be ended with a vengeance. I sometimes wonder if some of the show’s popularity stems from the high-stakes, injustice-infused tension that is finally resolved with a satisfying amount of violence.
The resolution is often short-lived as a new threat rises and a new injustice faces the survivors. Even those of us living in Western privilege can relate. In some form or another, everyone has been wronged or has seen someone else be wronged. We want to see it set right. There is something deep and universal about righteous anger and its calls for justice.
It is this sense of justice that makes some comic book heroes difficult to understand. Consider Batman’s radical commitment to not killing. The result is a revolving-door system of violence and mayhem, temporary incarceration, and resumed terror. One wonders how many people Batman could have saved it he just put the Joker out of his misery.
While righteous anger is sometimes frowned upon and relegated to religious fundamentalists or the more “edgy” heroes, it comes from a deep sense of right and wrong that we have.
There is just something wrong about what Negan did to the survivors. We want to watch Rick spill Negan’s blood with that hatchet. When we saw what the Joker did to Barbara and Jim Gordon in The Killing Joke, we secretly hoped that Batman broke his pasty neck in the ambiguous ending.
Even the Christian Bible, a book with forgiveness as one of its core messages, does not shy away from speaking of God’s anger against injustice. While stories of divine wrath against God’s enemies can be hard to swallow, for many these stories serve as a reminder that the oppressor gets what’s coming to him or her in the end.
Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongues are mischief and iniquity. They sit in ambush in the villages; in hiding places they murder the innocent. Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless; they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert; they lurk that they may seize the poor; they seize the poor and drag them off in their net. They stoop, they crouch, and the helpless fall by their might. They think in their heart, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.” Rise up, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed. Why do the wicked renounce God, and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account”? But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands; the helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan. Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers; seek out their wickedness until you find none. The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations shall perish from his land. — Psalm 10:7–16, New Rrevised Standard Version
The reality is that forgiveness and mercy are easier when the wrongs against us are minor. Our innate sense of justice, whether it is right or wrong, cries out for someone to do something.
What do you think? Does Batman have a point? Where do we draw the line between justice and vengeance?