Death Wish, Death Note and the Dangerous Myth of the Heroic White Vigilante

There are many things wrong with the current cultural phenomenon of constant reboots, remakes, and reimaginings, with a lot written about almost all of the facets of that wrongness. But with the release of the (abhorrent) new trailer for Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake coinciding with Netflix’s awful Death Note remake, I was inspired to write about how dangerous these movies can be when they’re divorced from any kind of context or understanding of where the original stories come from.

Films that explore death, the nature of dying, or taking another’s life have always existed in every genre, every country, and every language. They’re often wonderful, expansive things that can help us fathom the fact that we’ll someday no longer be here. Sometimes they’re violent, urgent things that comfort us in the strangest ways. Occasionally they’re existential and distant, a study of what it is to know that you’ll someday expire.

The original Death Wish film was at the same time all of and none of these things. A violent exploitation movie based on the book of the same name, it told the story of a man who–after his wife was murdered and daughter raped–took to the streets to get vengeance. A product of Nixon-era racism and the imagined fear of “black crime” encroaching on “white suburbs,” the original entry in the long running series is hard to stomach. Even in the ’70s, the optics of an upper middle class white man running around New York City shooting people of color because of his unexamined grief are unpleasant and inherently problematic. The book’s author hated the movie adaptation as he felt like it lost the anti-vigilante message of his story and turned the protagonist into an anti-hero.

As a series, Death Wish suffered from taking the tried and tested tropes of Blaxploitation–an underdog hero taking down crime and cleaning up the streets–and transplanting them into a prosperous white context with a protagonist who, rather than being an underdog, was privileged in every imaginable way. One of the most unsettling things (except for the centering of heroic whiteness) about this framing is the way that it left behind the raw and “authentic” look of Blaxploitation and shot the films in the style of something closer to prime time network dramas, scoring the scenes in the white neighborhoods with Hallmark moment music, and almost romanticizing the violence the films portray.

The later movies in the series expanded on the idea of Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey cleaning up the streets, but the hyper-violent direction and lo-fi production values ended up making these movies some of the most riveting yet problematic films of the exploitation genre. Detached from his Punisher-esque backstory, Kersey just becomes a violent man who can’t see past his own need to control the places that he inhabits, even if those places aren’t anywhere close to his. A visual representation of the violence of white gentrification, the later sequels in the Death Wish franchise are some of the more interesting and depressing cultural artifacts of the Reagan administration that can never quite escape the fact that every single one is built on the suffering and violation of women and people of color.

Creating cultural heroes out of violent white men is something that modern America is built on, from its violent colonial roots to the canonization of serial killers since the ’60s. It’s unsurprising that often these exploitative yet entertaining movies get lifted up to cult status, creating icons out of the characters who front them. It’s easy to look back on these films as remnants of a forgotten time, stylized celluloid representations of white fear. But what happens when you remake a movie outside of that context? With nothing but reverence for the cult status of the source material coupled with a complete lack of understanding of any nuances or political perspectives that led to their creation?

Netflix’s recently released Death Note adaptation is a perfect example of how an American remake can completely divorce a nuanced and complex story from its context, leaving it as nothing more than a showcase of how much the filmmakers don’t get the themes, tone, and message of the original art. The Death Note manga, anime, and original films are warnings, stories about absolute power corrupting absolutely. They subvert the idea of what a protagonist is and who you’re meant to root for. The main character, Light Yagami, is an unquestionable sociopath, one obsessed with the idea of ending all crime by murdering all criminals. You’re not supposed to want him to win. He’s a fascist who early on betrays his alleged moral code by killing innocent people in his way.

The remake not only whitewashes most of the main cast–save for the wonderful Lakeith Stanfield as L– but also moves the action to Seattle, all the time acting like Asian Americans are a mere afterthought. The film just barely keeps the trappings of the original story–Light is still called Light and the Japanese Death God (Shinigami) Ryuk still plays a minor role–whilst erasing the Japanese culture it was built on. At the same time, the remake creates a completely new storyline in which Light is an empathetic hero, a bullied, misguided young white boy who, with the power of the Death Note, fights back against his oppressors and later becomes the hero by… killing more people? The irresponsibility of furthering this narrative is astounding in a country where, in the last year alone, there were more mass shootings than days and the perpetrators were almost always white men.

Director Adam Wingard has claimed that Death Note is a “reimagining” of the classic series rather than a remake, sloppy language aimed to deflect the wholly justified criticisms of whitewashing  aimed at his movie. But Wingard’s misunderstanding of Death Note goes far deeper than just his whitewashing of the actors. The original Death Note is at its heart a Japanese story, one which is intrinsically connected to the country’s politics, culture, and folklore. The director of the Japanese live action adaptation, Shusuke Kaneko, famously stated that “the idea of spirits living in words is an ancient Japanese concept… in a way, it’s a very Japanese story.”

Though Death Note is a Japanese story, it also explores universal themes that might have worked in an American setting if the remake HAD to be made. In a time of a fascistic American government and an obsession with protest a criminal act, a nuanced study of the ideas of “freedom from crime, but at what cost” or “the good of the many versus the good of the few” could have been interesting, but the movie does nothing to center the original’s complex themes in the new setting. Wingard may have been trying to subvert these tropes with his school-shooter-gone-good narrative, but from his responses to critique and to the finished movie, it’s clear that he actually just wanted to make another “cool” ’80s pastiche movie with absolutely no regard for the source material or good storytelling.

How can Adam Wingard and the Netflix production team feel comfortable creating yet another story which pushes the very same lone wolf myth that’s pulled out any time another disenfranchised white man chooses to murder his peers? What does a creator get from reimagining a seminal work whilst stripping it of any and all message? Eli Roth’s recent trailer for his remake of Death Wish begs the same question.

In a time when white supremacy still reigns supreme and there are literal fascists in the White House, where’s the subversion in putting a gun into the hands of a white man to murder people of color? The two minute preview of Death Wish is in such bad taste that it makes the original look like a nuanced character study. We see Bruce Willis shoot a number of black and brown people to the same flashy AC/DC soundtrack that was brought back into vogue by Iron Man. Superheroes may seem far and away from the ultra-violence of Charles Bronson, but comics have a white male vigilante problem too, one that has saturated pop culture so thoroughly that Roth directs and scores Willis murdering people of color like he’s just gotten his hands on his favorite Marvel property.

Which shouldn’t surprise us when one of the most well known and famous “anti-heroes” in contemporary culture is the Punisher, a white man who murders criminals at will, often armed with heavy artillery. And don’t forget Batman, the millionaire who uses all his resources to beat and maim Gotham’s most vulnerable. With beloved heroes like these, who needs a cultural conscience? Clearly not these faux bad-boy directors and their tired racist tropes.

Rosie Knight

Rosie Knight

writer. fake geek girl. makes comics, occasionally sells some.