Of the countless stories we tell ourselves, the American myth of the solitary enforcer of justice may be the most tenacious, beloved and — as the story of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin has so grievously demonstrated — distorting.

From Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry” to Charles Bronson in “Death Wish,” from Robert De Niro practicing his sneer in “Taxi Driver” to comic-book superheroes sheathed in various hues of spandex, whether he is walking tall or falling down, the lone avenger speaks to something deep and abiding within the American psyche, engaging our most cherished ideas about a country founded by brash rebels and sustained by rough-hewn individualism, flinty self-reliance and a congenital suspicion of powerful institutions.

This summer, audiences will get their usual seasonal dose of those values, from Batman and Spider-Man swooping in to vanquish the bad guys in “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” to “Neighborhood Watch,” a regrettably timed comedy starring Ben Stiller about suburban self-policing (albeit against invading aliens).

In fact, Stiller will be spoofing an idea that has been around as long as American cinema itself: D.W. Griffith virtually invented the form with his 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” which depicts the white-robed enforcers of the Ku Klux Klan so heroically that the organization used the movie as a recruiting tool.

Over the ensuing century, the trope of the vigilante — with its attendant thrills of lawlessness, violence and retributive justice — has proved usefully elastic, depending on the social demands of the era. In 1956, John Wayne’s portrayal of a Civil War veteran on an obsessive mission fueled by racism and vengeance showed the vigilante through a rare critical lens in John Ford’s “The Searchers.”

By 1971, Eastwood’s .44 Magnum-toting rogue cop offered cathartic wish-fulfillment to filmgoers who were fed up with what they saw as the civic erosions of the 1960s. De Niro’s mohawked, gun-strapped Travis Bickle might have patrolled Manhattan’s grimy streets through a fever-dream haze of self-deception. But even he triumphed in the end, succeeding in his one-man crusade where politicians and the criminal justice system — stalled by corruption and moral rot in post-Watergate America — could only fail.

In more recent years, the vigilante has been a vehicle for baby boomer nostalgia in comic-book movies such as “Batman” and “The Green Hornet”; feminist revisionism in the feisty “Kick-Ass” and the fiercely avenging “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”; and misguided comedy in the coarsely unfunny “Observe and Report,” in which Seth Rogen played a wildly overreaching mall security guard.

As if by popular demand, Eastwood even reprised his Dirty Harry persona with “Gran Torino,” in which he cleverly allowed his poisonously prejudiced character to have his cake and eat it, too: He might have been an epithet-spewing racist, but he ultimately used his swagger for good on behalf of the very immigrants he routinely dismissed with ethnic put-downs.

It’s impossible to know whether Zimmerman saw himself in any of these movies as he followed Martin through a gated community in Florida in February. An aspiring police officer who had made nearly 50calls about suspicious events in his neighborhood over the past eight years, he surely saw himself, like all vigilantes, on the side of right in the battle against crime, decay and disorder.

From Zimmerman’s statements on the taped 911 calls that night, it seems clear that his perception of Martin —an unarmed, 17-year-old African American boy in a hooded sweatshirt — tapped into another piece of symbolism that permeates pop culture. In fact, seen through that lens, their fatal encounter played out like an all-too-real clash of iconographies: Zimmerman’s idea of the property-defending hero Standing His Ground vs. the hoodie-wearing youth who has symbolized menace and urban violence in everything from “The Wire” to last year’s comic teen-thugs-battle-aliens satire “Attack the Block.”

Regardless of whether Zimmerman was motivated by racial animus, that clash and its aftermath have punctured another cherished American story line. Whether through the gauzy melodramatic flourishes of last year’s hit movie “The Help” or the collective self-satisfaction of electing the country’s first black president, many Americans badly want to believe that the nation has gotten past race. When we celebrate the vigilante on our screens, we tell ourselves it’s because of our healthy mistrust of corrupt structures, or because we’re genuinely vulnerable — not because of our more shameful tendency to sterotype others based on fear or hatred.

These tensions played out in another case of real-life vigilantism that galvanized the nation nearly 30 years ago. In 1984, Bernhard Goetz used an unlicensed gun to shoot four black teenagers he said were trying to mug him on a New York City subway train. As a dramatic embodiment of the anxieties swirling around race, crime and an ineffectual city government at the time, Goetz was vilified in some corners as a racist. But just as many saw him as a folk hero. The National Rifle Association contributed heavily to Goetz’s defense and used his example to lobby for more liberal concealed carry laws.

The result is that Zimmerman might have indirectly had Goetz to thank for his own license to carry the Kel-Tec PF-9 pistol with which he shot and killed Martin. (For his part, Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder and convicted only of illegal possession of a firearm.)

Back in 1984, some New York newspapers dubbed Goetz “The ‘Death Wish’ Gunman,” after Bronson’s architect-turned-urban-hero. This time around, though, we don’t have a ready-made cinematic vernacular for the vexing reality that has pierced the self-valorizing myth of vigilantism and facile assumptions about race and identity.

It’s easy to understand the enduring appeal of the vigilante archetype, whose hard-charging moral certainty jibes perfectly with this country’s sense of exceptionalism, not to mention the narrative constraints of a 90-minute action movie. It’s far more difficult to reconcile complicated reality with the simplistic, comforting fictions we crave.

After all, contradictions don’t have easy character arcs. Mutual comprehension doesn’t lend itself to ballistic showdowns. Self-examination and second thoughts are notoriously un-telegenic. But as audiences look forward to another summer of vigilante derring-do, whether by way of Bruce Wayne or Ben Stiller, they may want to take a moment to remember George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and ask whether some of the stories we keep telling ourselves can ever really have a happy ending.


Ann Hornaday is The Washington Post’s chief film critic.

Read more from Outlook, including:

“In Trayvon Martin’s death, echoes of my brother’s shooting”

“Having Obama in the White House has made it harder to talk about race in America”

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