It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it … don’t they?

Researching my Screen Rant on the Winter Soldier revealed that Bucky Barnes is also (drum roll please) the Man on the Wall!

This concept first popped up in Marvel’s Original Sin miniseries. Over the course of the story, a dying Nick Fury reveals that for decades, he’s been “the man on the wall,” a special black ops guy with the best technology geniuses like Howard Stark have to offer. His mission: go into space and eliminate alien threats by any means necessary: “I’ve killed… More times than I can count. I’ve burned worlds. Destabilized galaxies. Dethroned gods. And I did it without any of them even knowing my name. That’s what it means to be the man on the wall. To be the invisible monster who keeps the other monsters at bay.” The purpose of the miniseries is to pick a new man for the job. The Winter Soldier gets the nod.

This sounds to me like a version of the bad-ass, take-no-prisoners vigilantes I was talking about yesterday. The ones who understand how you can’t protect the world without getting your hands dirty. Fighting fair, not assassinating people? That’s for idealists who have no idea how the world really works.

I presume the “man on the wall” title traces back to the play and movie A Few Good Men. In the movie, Jack Nicholson plays Jessup, a psycho, bullying commander at our Guantanamo Bay base (back before it was known for locking up people without trial) who gets one man under him killed. When the prosecution places him on trial, Nicholson declares that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs — the dead man had to be sacrificed for the greater good. “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns” And America needs him on that wall!

Jessup is the villain, a man blindly convinced that it’s a dirty job, someone’s got to do it, so if he did it, he’s a hero. Asking whether the job actually needs to be done never occurs to him.

But just as The Stepford Wives has become, in popular culture, not about misogyny but about the suburbs, a lot of people seem to think “you need me on that wall” is a serious statement — we do need a bad-ass hero who burns worlds and takes the kill shot, answering to no-one but his own heroic gut instinct. Which isn’t surprising, as that character type long precedes Jessup. Dirty Harry is the same, the guy who ignores all the rules because they need him on that wall, dammit!

I’ve never particularly liked this type of hero (though Dirty Harry‘s certainly a good movie). Usually I can’t suspend my disbelief and ignore the consequences in the real world. The CIA thought they were the men on the wall. They overthrew democratic government, supported dictatorships and made the world worse — without making America safer (check out the book Legacy of Ashes for a history). J. Edgar Hoover was a monster who thought being the man on the wall justified his actions. The second Bush administration insisted they had to lock up people at Guantanamo without trial because they were the “worst of the worst” (the overwhelming majority were innocent). 

Of course I could make the same point about Superman: I wouldn’t want anyone to have that much power in the real world. Power, as they say, corrupts. But Superman’s helping and protecting people; I’m cool with hand-waving the reality. When the hero is a killer, I can’t make that leap.

These characters often come off as an exercise in cynical pretentiousness rather than gritty realism — sure, naive sheeple might imagine Superman or Captain American can save us. Really smart understand that the only way to stop a bad man with a raygun is a bad-ass hero with a raygun. To grapple with monsters you have to become one. In reality, Earth has defeated the Skrulls, the Kree, driven off Galactus and the Celestials, all without the Man on the Wall. Sure Marvel can retcon it otherwise, and obviously they do, but I don’t buy that all Fury galactic dirty work was really necessary. A\

s one translation of Anouih’s Antigone put it: “It’s a dirty job, but someone had to do it.” “Did they? Really?”

Often the answer is no.

#SFWApro. Covers by Kirby, all rights remain with current holder.

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Filed under Comics, Politics, Writing

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