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Behind the Mask: Why Vigilante Stories Endure

Superhero stories have erupted over the past few years. An argument can be made that the original Batman film directed by Tim Burton was the catalyst for all others to come. Now, these heroes have invaded TV, movies, and novels. But long before the uprising of superheroes there were stories of vigilantes righting wrongs under hidden identities.

Zorro and The Count of Monte Cristo are two early vigilante-style novels. Thought their stories are vastly different, each still depicts a man disguising his true self to carry out a particular mission. In the case of Zorro, he wears a simple black mask and protects the commoners against corrupt, tyrannical officials. Zorro is metering out justice in the name of the people. The Count of Monte Cristo tells a different tale. The Count starts out as a young man wrongfully imprisoned. He comes back under the guise of a wealthy aristocrat and sets about exacting revenge on those responsible for his imprisonment.

The Count of Monte Cristo is carrying out his agenda for personal reasons, where Zorro is fighting for the people against tyranny. But they are both considered vigilantes

These classic stories have been re-imagined many times since they were first published. Both in literature and the screen. One of the most recent versions of The Count of Monte Cristo was a TV series titled Revenge. A young blonde woman re-imagines herself as a wealthy aristocrat to get back at the people who imprisoned her father and ruined her childhood. The story is roughly the same as The Count, just updated for a modern audience. But it proves that you don't necessarily need a mask to be a vigilante, just an alternate identity.

Why do superheroes wear masks?

There are many good reasons why superheroes and vigilantes alike will don a mask. The most obvious reason being that vigilantism is illegal most of the time. Depending on the story being told, the police or even the government most probably would step in knowing a person was running around town trying to toll out justice. To them, this person is in the way of their investigation and at times causing more trouble.

The hero wears a mask to keep their identity a secret

If the true identity of the hero remains unknown to the public, it makes them that much harder to catch. The same is true of retaliation. Most vigilantes have people in their lives they are trying to protect. If their true identity is known, people looking to hurt them might go after their loved ones instead.

Wearing a mask keeps them separated from their personal life

The mask also separates them in other ways. For example, in the movie Unbreakable it is revealed that Bruce Willis' character David Dunn has powers. When his young son starts to suspect his father is a superhero, he almost shoots Dunn point blank. Would Dunn survive? Maybe, maybe not. But Dunn chooses to keep his powers a secret to not drawn unwanted attention on himself, until the very end.

Most heroes want to distance themselves from their alter ego to keep others out of harms way. However, there are some who don a mask because they only truly feel like themselves when they are in hero guise. It is in playing normal that doesn't quite fit right.

Batman is a good representation of this. He feels more comfortable in the cowl than he does as a millionaire. In this instance, Bruce Wayne is the mask.

The driving force for each masked vigilante is as different as they are

The vigilante's story for why they are going out in the night seeking justice is what makes us enjoy them so much. It's not unusual to see the vigilante suffer some tragic past. The Punisher lost his wife and kids to a gang shooting. The Crow was murdered only to return from the grave to find the ones who killed him. Dexter watched his mother get butchered and as he states "was born in blood" with a need to kill, so he chooses those who skirt the law.

Every vigilante story is different but they all share the same obsession with getting the job done

For whatever reason, they've taken on the mantle of revenger and they absolutely will not stop regardless of good reasons to abandon their mission. Once they are caught up in the life, it becomes like an addiction that must be fed. Regardless of how many times the superheroe states that they want a normal life, they can't let go of their calling.

Masked vigilantes feel they have a job to do that no one else can complete. Giving that life up is next to impossible. If it weren't there would be no more story.

What is your favorite vigilante story? Leave a comment below


"Original Cyn" Cynthia Vespia writes fantasy novels for deviant minds including urban fantasy vigilantes and heroic adventure fantasy. Cyn is also a freelance content writer and uses the art of storytelling to help brands engage their target audience through Original Cyn Content.




"Original Cyn" Cynthia Vespia writes fantasy novels with edge. This blog is dedicated to all things fantasy and my author journey.


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