A lot of what I'm talking about here is going to be contingent on some of Rene Girard's theories, so let me give you a quick summary here of what he articulates in Violence and the Sacred (a book I recommend for anyone interested in this kind of thing). Girard's premise is that there is violence inherent in human society, and that unless that violence is somehow channeled, then all out chaos will break out. Sacrifices are a way of channeling this violence, traditionally using myth as a roadmap, and ritual as a tool. Now, when I say 'sacrifice' I don't necessarily mean someone tied down to an altar getting their heart cut out ala the Aztecs or anything -- there are lots of different kinds of sacrifice. In fact, there's a continuum that starts with renunciation and goes all the way to death. Exile, asceticism, mutilation, maiming...these are all different kinds of sacrifice. There are social forms of sacrifice (think about the violence inherent in school-kid cliques), and political ones as well (think about scapegoating -- racial profiling in particular).
Now, before when I mentioned myth and ritual, when you bring these theories into the modern era and a secular culture such as ours, then you have to look a little harder for the myth involved. What I propose is that the myth we're looking for can be found in pop culture -- like in the Star Wars series (and thank you George Lucas and Joseph Campbell for that one, it's a sterling example because it's based on the traditional 12 steps of the hero's journey) and the mythos of superheroes, like Superman or Batman. (I've chosen them because a) you know, that's where my interest lies *pets pretty Clark and psychotic Batman* and b) they're iconically what people think of when they think 'superhero'.) I'm going to focus more on the latter example than the former, because, well...many more intelligent people than I have gone on and on about Star Wars and how it fills basic societal needs with its mythology.
I think we can all agree that the idea of an actual, physical sacrifice seems weird and strange to us. Society today would pretty much prosecute anyone who tried to *actually* commit a sacrifice (of the human variety, at any rate) -- so our sacrifices tend to be more metaphorical. *OR* enacted *for* us in our entertainment, as a means of alleviating that pressing need for violence. So what about superhero stories makes me feel like they're the best example of this?
1) Superheroes themselves fit all the necessary qualifications set for those who *perform* sacrifices and
2) The people they fight fit similar qualifications for sacrificeability.
Let's start with the superheroes. As Hubert and Mauss observe in their book Sacrifice (catchy, witty title, no?), those who perform sacrifices must be consecrated, and they must act as a vessel for the divine. Now, consecration just means that they must be set aside -- seperate from the people for whom they perform these sacrifices. The most recurring theme in any and *all* superhero stories is that of isolation. Clark Kent is the last son of Krypton, the an alien on a foreign planet, who must keep his identity a secret. And the very fact of his powers, as well, set him aside -- consecrate him. Bruce Wayne, as well, is isolated -- by his wealth, by his parent's death, by his intelligence, by his drive for vengeance.
Now, to fit the model perfectly, then, superheroes must act as a vessel for the divine, and somehow manage to be *of* their congregation (for lack of a better word) even though they are, in fact, consecrated. How does this translate? Their double lives. As Superman and Batman, both of them are *more* than men -- they're god-figures almost. They swoop down out of nowhere, avert evil, and then disappear again into the sky. So that's the divine -- in Superman's case it's sheer physical ability and the strength of his morality, and in Batman's it's preternatural intelligence and ingenuity. But as Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, they're members *of* the congregation, though they do remain separate from it. The separation between the personas is what makes the analogy work so well, I think.
So, what about the criminals Batman and Superman put away? How do they fit *any* kind of qualifications for sacrificeability? I'll start by outlining those qualifications:
1. The sacrifice must be a member of the group that mirrors the group (s/he must be the same in some respects as the group performing the sacrifice).
2. The sacrifice must be a member of the group who is, in some way marginalized (vulnerable).
3. The sacrifice must be a member of the group who is also very *different* from the group (must be able to stand in for the unnamable *other*).
Criminals such as the ones that Superman and Batman deal with on a regular basis fit directly into this role. They *do* mirror the societies from which they come -- tomes of criminology work would back me up on that in a real-life situation, but as a quick illustration of what I mean here, just consider the differences between the criminals of Gotham and the criminals of Metropolis. Lex Luthor, while clearly a morally corrupt megalomaniac in the comics (notice the qualification there? *laughs*), is hardly as frightening, or terrible in my opinion, as The Joker or Two-Face. The inherent darkness of Gotham has definitely colored them. Surely, though, any criminal is a reflection of his society -- just not the parts of society that people are comfortable with.
By definition, criminals are a marginalized class (and I hesitate to use the word class, but it's for want of a better term -- I don't mean to imply anything socio-economic by it). They're definitely vulnerable to any kind of sacrifice, as they have no real rights once they've been proved guilty of a crime and are on the run, or hiding from the police (which is often the case with comic book criminals). Okay, that's not 100 percent true, criminals do have rights, but many, many fewer than law-abiding citizens do. And also, less credibility and influence, and that's what really makes them marginalized, and what makes them vulnerable enough to be a sacrifice, of a sort.
As I said before, I think criminals *are* a reflection of society, but I also think they have that hint of *other*ness that's necessary for complete sacrificeability. Most particularly in comic books they do, often -- think Kryptofreaks on SV and meta-humans in comics canon.
So there's my argument for how they fit into the prescribed roles for sacrifices and sacrificeability -- but okay, so what does that do for us? In comic books they enact behaviours that we *need* to have enacted somewhere, though we don't want to admit it. By reading their stories, or watching their movies/television episodes as the case may be, some of that tension -- the need for violence -- seeps away. It's a kind of sacrifice by proxy that's performed for us through their vigilantism.