It’s a cool night in downtown San Diego on the weekend before Halloween, and I’m standing outside the Hall of Justice in an astronaut costume, checking and re-checking my phone to see if I’ve misread the meet-up instructions. I’m supposed to rendezvous with a man named “the Grim” here at the stroke of midnight to fight street crime with a group of costumed civilians known as Xtreme Justice League (XJL), but midnight was five minutes ago and I’m beginning to wonder if they’re as made-up as they sound. I’m just about to hightail it home when I notice something moving toward me out of the shadows to my right.
I squint my eyes to see what it is, and my heart skips a beat. From out of the darkness, a ghastly figure in a blue skull mask and matching body armor appears, moving across the marble steps with his hand outstretched in my direction. I’m fully expecting him to growl something like “Vengeance becomes me” through a Vocoder before crushing my windpipe with his mind, but instead, what comes out from behind his mask is the friendliest, most-singsongy greeting I’ve heard all year. “Hi!” he says, shaking my hand. “I’m the Grim!”
The Grim is the Director of Operations and a senior patrol leader for XJL, a troupe of “real-life superheroes” who patrol the streets of San Diego by fighting violent crime, keeping the public safe and doing whatever they can to “serve their community.” By day, its 12 members lead unexceptional lives as security system installers, transit police, teachers and parents, but by night, they transform into a fully operational anti-crime squad, each with their own character and costume they inhabit as they traverse the city conducting homeless outreach, breaking up bar fights, assisting in drug overdoses and making sure the area’s many piss-drunk partiers get home safe and sound. As Hombre Obscuro — the self-described “darkness” of the group — will later tell me, they’re pretty much like Curtis Silwa’s Guardian Angels, only instead of berets, they wear capes (or in his case, fedoras and trench coats).
I first discovered XJL a few months back while working on a story about citizen’s arrests and everyday non-cops who believe it’s their personal duty to enforce the law. Curious to know more about who these people were and whether they were fueled by altruism, hubris or just pure insanity, I started hunting for vigilantes and civilian anti-crime groups in my area who might be able to spell it out for me. XJL came up right away, but I quickly discovered it wasn’t law enforcement they were after — it was indeed altruism. Like the other groups involved in the ever-popular real-life superhero movement, they saw themselves as more than just “kooks in costumes.” They were genuine good guys, selfless defenders of the common man who found joy in the act of giving without getting anything in return.
To be honest, I thought that sounded like a crock of shit. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe people could be altruistic when it came to protecting their communities, it was that I didn’t believe they could do so while wearing superhero costumes. The whole appeal of superheroes is that they have superhuman abilities, perfect morals and an overclocked sense of valor, so weren’t these caped everymen giving themselves a little too much credit for doing things that anyone — in any outfit — could feasibly do?
It sounded like an elaborate performance for a pat on the back to me, but I also wanted to be proven wrong. These are precarious, uncertain times we live in, so to know that there are actually people providing the kind of protection and support law enforcement so often fails at would be, you know, kind of comforting.
So, determined to find out if it was ego or altruism they were after, I asked to join one of XJL’s Saturday-night patrols around the city’s volatile Gaslamp Quarter. When they accepted — on the condition that I dress up, think of an alias and wear sensible shoes — I was excited, but full of questions. In a neighborhood plagued by violent crime, homelessness, mental illness, drugs and drunkenness, how much “good” could a roving pack of thirtysomethings in hockey masks, capes and shin guards actually do? And really, what was the deal with their costumes?
Leaning against a banister on the steps of the Hall of Justice, Grim tells me about himself while we wait for the others to arrive. Pushing 40 but with the bashful demeanor of someone half his age, the native San Diegan tells me he’s been working with the league for almost nine years. He installs security systems in places like Walgreens and CVS for rent money, but having grown up in a police family, his true passion has always been justice. He never wanted to become a cop like his sheriff father, but after reading an old magazine article about XJL’s founder Mr. Xtreme, he realized he did want to become a superhero.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that guy gives a damn,’” he tells me. “Well, I give a damn too. I care about this city. I care about the people. For a long time, I was really disheartened by how much apathy about violence and homelessness there is here, but that article made me realize I could do more than just stand idly by. If I joined the league, I could be a force for good.”
I have just enough time to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of someone that demonic-looking wanting to bring so much Kumbaya to his community before an even more menacing superhero arrives. His name is Nyght, and he’s a late-30s Air Force vet and current kindergarten teacher wearing an 80-pound ballistic vest and a mask he describes as “some sort of cross between Darth Vader and Bane.” He used to go out in all black rocking a “F*CK ISIS” patch on his gear, but he recently upgraded to a somewhat gentler blue-and-red getup to avoid coming across as “mass shooter-y.”
Brick, a medical office manager wearing a very un-gentle red hockey mask and jersey is next to arrive, followed by a younger, neon-yellow ninja named Light Fist and Hombre Obscuro, an ex-transit cop in a fedora and eye mask who recently joined the league after years as a solo, fully armed vigilante patrol. Hawt Flash, a buoyant, 54-year-old “menopause crusader” in a pink cape and yellow glasses, brings some much-needed levity to the crew. She’s not the only woman in the league — there are usually two or three — but she’s the only one out tonight.
Doc is the last to arrive. He doesn’t have a costume, and says he probably never will. The resident strong, silent type of the group, he stalks the streets in a black T-shirt and jeans, his rare but thoughtful utterances bordering on the profound. “I’m just out here trying to keep people from doing stupid shit,” he tells me. “I hate seeing something on the news where someone was taken advantage of and thinking to myself, ‘Shit, if I was there, I could have done something.’” If you want to see a change in your community, he says, you have to be willing to make it happen yourself.
XJL is surprisingly well-prepared to do that. In addition to their regular patrols and outreaches for veterans and the homeless, they hold regular trainings in first aid, self-defense, de-escalation tactics and mental health strategies, and run drills in the same streets they patrol so they’ll be prepared for whatever surprises the night has in store. As we begin our long march through the barren metropolis toward the bustling Gaslamp, Nyght tells me they’re “ready and able” to help wherever — and however — they’re needed.
Not that everyone’s asking them to. While XJL definitely has its fans — three or four people stop us on our patrol to thank us for looking out for them; one with a gleeful, Beatlemania-level scream — it also has its detractors and agents of apathy who don’t totally get what they’re trying to do. The San Diego Police Department is one of them. Though the SDPD and XJL are hunky-dory on paper and past sergeants and spokespeople have expressed appreciation for their work, things aren’t always copacetic between them. For example, among the first things I notice as we enter the Gaslamp’s rowdy, neon-lit nightlife district is a group of bicycle cops standing on the corner who seem to be less than thrilled to see us. Though Nyght and several others wave hello, their response is disproportionately tepid, eyes squinted like popular kids judging the overly enthusiastic theater geeks at a party they weren’t invited to.
When I call Sergeant Matthew Botkin to ask if SDPD has an official opinion on XJL, he answers — very carefully — that while his department welcomes collaboration with community patrols, they can sometimes be concerning because they “never really know” if they’ll be a help or a liability. “The problem is when people overstep their capabilities and get involved in things they might not have the knowledge or experience to deal with,” he says. “Our officers train for months to learn the ins and outs of how things go in certain neighborhoods, and we just don’t want one of the Xtreme Justice League people to put us or themselves in danger if things go south on something like an overdose or an assault.” And while he says SDPD is open to meeting with XJL and collaborating more officially, he notes that yes, the costumes do make it kind of hard to take them seriously.
Others are a bit more direct about their distaste for the costumed crusaders online. In an old r/todayilearned post, someone with a now deleted username writes that XJL are “not heroes” but “nerds in costumes” and that he “hopes one of them gets shot.” In another, on r/sandiego, someone responds to a safety flyer they made with a digital groan. “Ugh,” says redldr1. “Hipsters.”
Many of the people we come across on patrol seem to be confused by our presence as well. In fact, as we roam the streets for the sights and sounds of solvable civil problems, our genuine offers for help actually appear to annoy people. As we push our way through the throngs of sloshed revelers pouring out onto the street after the feeding frenzy of last call, we come across a man in the midst of an Uber-related meltdown. Dressed in a white blazer and a gleaming gold watch, he’s standing in the middle of the street, blocking traffic and making sharp, chopping motions with his arms as he screams at his driver over the phone. “It says you’re in a Lexus!” he bellows with a downward chop. “Lexus! Lexus! Lexus!”
It’s the perfect opportunity for XJL to save the day by getting him out of the street and helping him find his ride, but when Doc and Grim make their approach, he brushes them off like a busy mother might shoo off a needy child. “No one fucks with me,” he says drunkenly to no one, stumbling down the street.
Moments later, another chance at heroism arrives when a pair of young-looking men drag their wasted, barely conscious friend past us and sit him on a nearby chair. He’s pale, sweaty and cross-eyed, about three seconds away from a good projectile vomit. It’s just the sort of situation XJL could shine in — they’re well-versed in first aid and babysitting the drunk — but when Doc and Grim offer to check him for alcohol poisoning or put him in a cab, his friends ignore them. One of them even looks a little peeved. “Uh, yeah, dude, we got it,” one of them tells Doc.
As I watch these scenes unfold, I start to notice a strange disconnect between the grand mythology of real-life superheroes and the rather pedestrian truth of their day-to-day. Here were these well-trained, good-natured community members trying their best to be heroes, but being foiled by the reality that not everyone needs one. Sometimes, it seems, people just need to be left alone.
Not that the superheroes mind. “There are nights when we don’t really make that big of an impact,” says Brick. “That’s okay, though. That just means the streets are safe.”
“It’s nothing like the movies,” agrees Grim, noticing my growing detachment. “It can be very anticlimactic out here. To be totally honest with you, most of what we do is just walking.”
Except, of course, when it’s not.
Nyght and Grim see the guy before I do, peeling out of formation to rush to his side. As I turn to see what’s going on, I see a man’s legs jutting out from behind the trunk of a tree. Sandwiched in the tight space between a bike rack and a row of cars is the limp body of what looks to be a 20-year-old man.
With peeling black-and-white face paint and a feathered, voodoo-themed top hat, he lay on the concrete with his spine twisted into an unnatural angle mere feet away from the entrance to a busy bar. You would have never see him if you weren’t looking down, but even if you were, you might have just left him there. Even on a Halloween night, he looked good as dead.
The crew jumps into action like a well-oiled machine. Brick, Hombre and Light Fist form a human shield around the man, diverting rubberneckers away from the scene with a constant call of “Keep it movin’!” while Grim and Doc get to work. They find a pulse and confirm he’s breathing, but he’s out cold. Just like EMTs are trained to do when they find someone unconscious, they try speaking to him loudly, and then in shouts. “Hey man, you’re on the street!” says Doc. “Wake up!” When that doesn’t work, they shake his shoulders, gently at first and then with considerable force, causing his head to loll from side to side on the pavement. Still nothing.
Undeterred, Grim reaches into the man’s pocket and grabs his phone, using it to call April, the last number on his outgoing list. “Yo, your friend’s passed out on the street,” he announces to her voicemail. “You gotta come pick this kid up. He could get robbed or assaulted out here.”
It’s XJL policy to involve police and EMTs only when absolutely necessary, so there’s some debate about what to do next. But just as they’re dialing 911, his eyes snap open and he springs back to life like a corpse reanimated. Within seconds, he’s back on his feet, wobbly, confused and vaguely embarrassed, still under the effects of whatever he’s on. As he leans against the tree for support, Grim and Doc make him order a Lyft, trying their hands at small talk with him while we wait for it to arrive.
It’s the first genuine act of heroism of the night, but the glory doesn’t last long. The streets are getting more debauched by the minute, and people’s drunken courage is starting to show. As we get back into formation to continue our patrol, a couple passes by dressed respectively as a giant toilet paper roll and Winnie the Pooh. “It’s a poop joke, get it?” says the Pooh when she catches me looking. “It’s a couple’s costume! About poop!”
I wonder aloud if I picked the wrong night to patrol, but Grim shakes his head. “In some ways, it’s actually better on Halloween,” he says. “When everyone’s dressed up, people just think we’re one of them. They take us a little more seriously.”
When I ask him what he means by that, he inhales sharply and shakes his head like he’s about to get real. “Look,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “We scare people sometimes. And I get why. I mean, look at me: I’m a guy in a skull mask. Not everyone is going to understand why I wear it, and that’s fine. But that also means I’ve been ignored, run away from and called ‘creepy’ more times than I can count.” In one particularly fond recollection, another guy he tried to wake up on the street was so terrified by him that he took off running in the opposite direction, leaving his keys, wallet and phone behind. Grim got his address from his I.D. and shipped it to him, but it was neither the first nor last time something like that would happen.
He doesn’t take it personally when people react that way, but as a patrol leader, he does get concerned when he and his team stick out so much that they become the targets of the very violence they’re trying to prevent. “There’s a very sharp downside to looking like this,” explains Nyght, gesturing to his brutal-looking face mask and tactical gear. “Some people think that because you’re in character, you’re not an actual person. You’re something other than human. To them, that means they can say mean, terrible things to you, or that they can hit or assault you while you’re out here.”
In fact, most of the XJL members I patrol with tell me they’ve been threatened verbally or physically while in costume, occasionally even with guns or knives. In one case, a drunk guy ran up to Nyght and Superman-punched him in the chest, shattering his hand on Nyght’s three-inch thick metal and ceramic chest plate on impact. In another, a group of cops pointed their guns at Grim’s head and threatened to blow it off, telling him he “shouldn’t be outside in a mask.”
Grim assures me situations like that are rare, but still, it makes me wonder: If it’s that risky to stick out in a superhero costume, why not try to blend in? Any one of XJL’s members could feasibly “make the world a better place” in a Pantera concert tee and a pair of bootcut jeans, so why bother with the whole “hero” thing at all? Was this whole urban street justice thing more about cosplay than it was about doing good?
Nyght laughs when I pose that question to him — he gets it all the time. “People always wonder if the fact that we’re in costume means we’re just late-life virgins or high-functioning autistics with no social life,” he says. “The thing they have to know is that we wear these specific uniforms for some very good reasons.”
Reason number one is their tactical function. It keeps them safe when they need to get between flying fists, but giving it a superhero spin shows the public they need not be feared. The shock of how they look can also diffuse a dangerous situation. “Sometimes, rolling up to people in the middle of an altercation looking like this shocks them enough so that they stop doing whatever they’re doing,” says Brick, whose Jason-like hockey masks gleams blood-red in the moonlight.
Perusing some of the other XJL members not on patrol that night, I can immediately see his point. Please just imagine with me, for a second, what it would be like if you were arguing with your slam piece on the street and this guy stomped up to you:
Equally important is the fact that superhero get-ups flag attention to their cause, something I’m the night’s poster-child for. Not long ago, I’d taken one look at a photo of Midnight Highway Man and couldn’t stop myself from Googling him so hard I might have thrown a rib out. “See?” says Nyght. “If we tried to do what we do in jeans and a flannel, not one person would care. Plain clothes might even make us seem more threatening.”
He’s not wrong. In both the Gaslamp and beyond, things like ceaseless digital hacks, catfishing, telephone scams, increased political polarization and a never-ending supply of harrowing true crime have made it harder than ever to trust in the goodwill of strangers. People have become sadly accustomed to being taken advantage of by industries, corporations and ill-meaning others, so a no-strings-attached offer of help or support can come off as suspicious, or even scary.
According to Ronald Levant, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Akron and the co-editor of the academic journal Men and Masculinities, that can be especially true if the person offering that help is a man. “Altruism isn’t a traditionally masculine quality,” he says. “So when we see someone who looks masculine trying to be altruistic, we tend not to trust their motives. Instead of taking their offer to help as earnesty, we might see it as egotism or a way for them to leverage what they want.”
Nyght experiences this often. “People take one look at me and think that I’m just a big meathead,” he says. “I look masculine and like I could probably kick your ass, so they make the assumption that I’m unsafe. It’s almost like making myself look a little ridiculous makes me more approachable so I can do this work. It’s definitely harder when I’m out of uniform.”
It would be reductive and untrue to say that real, altruistic men who give without the expectation of getting don’t exist. But it would be equally as false to deny that in 2019, it’s become hard to know which is scarier: the man in a demon mask, or the man in the flannel and jeans.
And so, Nyght puts on a costume, and he becomes something other than who he appears to be. In doing so, he’s able to help. Grim does it, too. “I can absolutely say that people in the streets are less intimidated by someone in a superhero costume,” he says.
Out of everything that happened on patrol that night, that admission — that some people feel they have to cloak who they are in order to be giving — is perhaps the most moving. It’s not something that lives in the forefront of their minds as they keep watch over their city, nor is it something they spend long hours poring over in the quiet hours after the masks come off, but it does speak volumes about how the way we see ourselves can shape what we think we’re capable of.
Around 3 a.m., I say goodbye to Grim and the rest of XJL. The streets are empty again and my feet are killing me, but my head’s so full of the night’s memories that I barely notice. We hadn’t done much in the way of city-saving and not many people had required imminent action from two ninjas, an astronaut and a menopause crusader, but some cold part of me melts and I let myself feel the tiniest pang of happiness knowing that we would have been there for them if they did (er, at least the ones in our immediate line of vision).
Taking off my costume back home, I think about what it means to play the part of hero. Though no one on the league is delusional enough to aggrandize themselves in the way I’d originally assumed they would, taking on that persona in such a public capacity does require them to live up to their name. If they’re going to call themselves superheroes, they have to do something to make the world a better place, and even if that thing is as tiny and humble as helping someone cross the street or giving a homeless person a bottle of water, it’s still greater than nothing. Costumes or not, help is help.
So if you really need it, I know a 200-pound, Krav Maga-trained ninja in a bulletproof vest who can lend a hand.