The Exalted Torturer is usually someone who considers using the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique, Perp Sweating to the degree of outright Police Brutality, war crimes and similar atrocities, and/or other actions like most people consider using periods. But they are not portrayed as evil or in a negative way.
They are the hero.
In a nutshell, the Exalted Torturer is:
- Viewed as heroic and admirable when their actions are things villains in other (or even the same) media would do. Which at extremes can be extreme Designated Hero territory in line with acting For the Evulz, where the character will do things that would make "villains" or "antagonists" flinch.
- Someone who uses Cold-Blooded Torture, the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique, the Maximum Fun Chamber, Police Brutality, extreme Perp Sweating, rape and/or some combination thereof to achieve their goals. Usually frequently.
- As such, the combination of Designated Hero with elements of the Torture Technician, wrapped up in an Ideal Hero Knight in Shining Armor package, and stuck on the "whiter" side of the local morality chain at least from the point of view of their side.
The reasons for this and how it comes about this vary wildly, but Exalted Torturers share those base traits but fall into one of two main categories.
- The Unscrupulous Hero or Well-Intentioned Extremist who resorts to these methods because they feel that they're "necessary" for a noble cause. Given the worlds they tend to live in the narrative tends to agree with them (possibly with or without the audience). Examples can include Batman, James Bond, Jack Bauer, Tanya Adams, and Maya. They generally:
- Try and be fairly good people. They at least try to have decent morals, try to do the right thing, and acknowledge on some level that some of what they do is unpleasant but are doing it only for the sake of a good higher purpose.
- Generally try to avoid employing the methods that earned them a spot on this page, though their efforts to avoid resorting to it might not be the most dedicated. Unless they believe the situation has crossed a Godzilla Threshold that requires it, they will try "softer" and less ugly methods.
- Refrain from doing more harm than necessary (or that they think is necessary), do not engage in prolonged torture, and generally outright don't use methods like rape altogether.
- Normally limit their uses of it to villains or "bad people". Cases where they do this to an innocent or good person are nigh on nonexistent, and most of those tend to have some sort of justification (which can still fall flat if handled wrong).
They generally exist as good guys of The Federation or The Good Kingdom in fiction where the "Black" in the local Black-and-White or Black and Grey morality is Very Black even in comparison to any greys, and you can see the Godzilla Threshold just looking over your shoulder. Though in some cases they can show signs of enjoying it toooo much, they usually don't let it override their moral compass.
- The Sociopathic Hero and/or Sadist who decides to say "screw that" and does it at any opportunity and with any possible justification, or even none at all. Beyond simply brutal, these characters tend to openly enjoy causing suffering and pain, often to the detriment of what the torture was supposed to accomplish in the first place. Examples include Rapeman, Rico Rodriguez, and Bolo Santosi, and most of the main characters in Death Note. In general these characters:
- Have moral compasses severely off-kilter at best; at worst they never really had them to begin with.
- Frequently resort to gratuitous and unnecessary torture.
- Tend to do it primarily because they enjoy it above all other reasons.
- Are far less discriminating with who they do and do not torture or attack.
- Tend to rely far more heavily on Designated Hero and Protagonist-Centered Morality in order to make them sympathetic.
This group tends to inhabit the "revenge fantasy" and goresploitation genres, tending towards being either amoral vigilantes or ruthless cops and soldiers. Alternatively, they can be simply people who are taking brutal action against groups the Author thinks they should be allowed to do.
When Exalted Torturer status is invoked (where they are exalted in-universe by some but definitely not by the narrative) for this category, they tend to be the Torture Technician of The Empire, nightmarish revolutions, ambiguously labeled anti-government forces, some other bloody-minded but "respectable" group.
While these two categories seem as Black and White as the fiction this character often appears in, there are gray areas between the two. Sometimes the sympathetic Extremist might enjoy it a biiit too much while the Sociopathic Hero thinks they are doing their heinous actions on behalf of some (supposedly) noble cause like Rapeman or Hanzo the Razor, the issue being that the former is usually still capable of sympathy because their restraint and morality outweigh any sadistic tendencies; the latter's behavior is sympathetic only by coincidence and generally repulsive no matter how much they believe in the cause.
There are also a few characters that defy easy categorization between those two, with one character falling more into the first for some while another group might view them as the latter. Even beyond that, there are characters like The Punisher who can flip between categories Depending on the Writer. So at best, this is a highly simplified look.
But in general most Exalted Torturers lean towards one category or the other, being "someone you're glad isn't on the side of evil" to "someone you can't believe isn't evil regardless of side."
How and why this character comes about can vary almost as frequently as their portrayal. They could be anything from The Hero of a dark and serious work to examine Good is Not Nice and if it can afford to be any other way, the Designated Hero either by the author, or even someone author doesn't originally intend to somehow make heroic only for Misaimed Fandom to play up his torture and abuse as "good" or heroic.
- Rapeman. While the manga and anime are arguably satire featuring Black Comedy Rape, that doesn't stop some people from blaming the rape victims for their rapes, believing rape is an okay punishment, and somehow seeing Rapeman as a righteous hero rather than Crossing the Line Twice Black Humor in an Evil Versus Evil world.
- Ibiki Morino from Naruto, who is actually one of the good guys. Despite his reputation though, his methods are largely psychological.
- Saito Hajime of Rurouni Kenshin does believe in justice, but it's hard to deny that he really likes brutally killing people. While he doesn't torture on-screen, at one point, he dissuades a boy from taking revenge on his parents' murderer by telling the boy that the murderer will undoubtedly have information tortured out of him before being gruesomely executed, and thus letting him be arrested would be the better revenge.
- Death Note has Hero Antagonist L, who would be better described as an Anti-Hero, and whose methods of heroic behavior strictly reinforce the series' Black-and-Grey Morality. The trope is played with; L views himself this way but is actually similar to his opponent.
- Shaman King features Iron Maiden Jeanne, who inevitably becomes this by using the Babylonian God of Justice Shamash as the spirit for her Over Soul.
- Sin City's Marv not only does this to criminals, but he loves it. There is an entire monologue in his first story about how much he enjoys what he's doing.
- The Spectre is known for torturing villains before killing them in ironic ways. However, it's frequently brought up in-universe that most other superheroes disagree with his methods and he's normally presented in a morally ambiguous light.
- A Reformed, but Not Tamed Loki serves as this in Child of the Storm, serving as both the head of Asgard's Secret Service, and as Thor's shadow, doing the things that Thor can't, or won't. This equally applies to the Avengers, with him, Natasha, and to a lesser extent, Clint, doing things that the others can't, or won't. This includes torture, as graphically demonstrated on Sabretooth (who isn't particularly fazed by the physical torture... then Loki says something to him that cracks him like an egg. Word of God is vague on what exactly it was, but suggests that a couple of illusions were involved). However, the other more heroic characters are visibly disturbed by his actions, and it is made clear that it's a case of Dirty Business.
- Dirty Harry, possibly the Trope Maker for film depictions in the US, and something of an Unbuilt Trope, at that. He gets an admission of guilt out of the Scorpio Killer by stomping on his injured leg, but Harry is informed by his superiors that the confession can't be used in court because he obtained it through illegal interrogation means (the superiors even use the term "police torture" to describe Harry's actions), and Scorpio has to be set free.
- The protagonist of the Hanzo the Razor films. The same as the Rapeman example, except not played as satire and Black Comedy. Instead, he's played straight as a "good cop" who investigates his cases by raping his suspects into submission.
- The Dark Knight Trilogy sets the following baseline for Batman: If you are a Smug Snake of a dirty cop, he won't hesitate to traumatize you and scare you half to death as a form of interrogation. If you're a crime lord holding out information on a madman going on a destructive rampage through his city, he will go even farther. If you are said madman and the clock is ticking on people's lives, he will start at bodily harm and beat you within an inch of your life if that's what it takes. The Joker sees all this and, with mixed awe and annoyance, declares him "incorruptible" (because he has only one rule, "no killing", and he won't break it).
- An in-movie example in the 1939 The Hunchback of Notre Dame: the official flogger who publicly whips Quasimodo is cheered like a sports hero.
- Prisoners has a father resort to this, over the whole film, by torturing the main suspect to reveal where his missing daughter is being held. The Big Bad is hoping he'll do this, as part of her sick, twisted scheme to take revenge on God.
- Dan from Zero Dark Thirty was one for the first part of the movie, though he eventually had enough and left to work at Langley.
- BOPE from The Elite Squad frequently torture criminals for information.
- In the Hellraiser film series, Pinhead and the cenobites are leather-clad torturers who are usually portrayed as more sympathetic compared to the human antagonists they gruesomely tear to pieces.
- Jack Bauer of 24 and trope namer of the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique.
- Law & Order: Special Victims Unit:
- Elliot Stabler. While he faces some in-show consequences, said consequences do nothing to stop him, his conduct crosses the line into Police Brutality, and a disturbingly large portion of fans of the show in Real Life assume that Real Life police are justified in engaging in such conduct with suspects because when the accusation is vile enough, there's no such thing as innocent until proven guilty.
- While Stabler is the usual offender, when Rollins gets wounded and the son of Finn's former supervisor gets killed by an unknown assassin, it's treated as perfectly justified when Finn and Amaro go to a prison and torture the drug kingpin they suspect of ordering the hit, to the point of Finn being about to gouge his eyes out...and the only thing that stops them is when the warden shows up to inform them that the drug dealer's wife was just killed by the same assassin. They then move on as if nothing had happened. In other words, it's perfectly fine to torture somebody over a crime he didn't even commit because he actually did commit a whole bunch of other crimes before that.
- Angel has a couple of examples:
- Wesley Wyndham-Pryce probably falls into this trope when he tortures Justine in "Deep Down", having kept her as a slave in his closet for a few months after season 3. He also does this later in the season to get information about Angelus.
- In "Power Play", Drogyn The Battlebrand, an immortal warrior on the side of good who acts as jailer to The Old Ones, casually admits he tortured a demon who attacked him late in season 5. This was to find out who sent it, and the demon was from a race of assassins, so it's not considered an immoral act on Drogyn's part.Invoked Trope as the employer was Angel, who was pretending to be evil, knew Drogyn would both defeat and torture the demon for the information, and wanted the information passed to his friends.
- Sayid from Lost, who used to be a professional torturer. He, like a number of other characters, spends time on both the Black and White sides of morality and pretty much everywhere in between, but he spends most of his time on the lighter side of grey.
- Jarod from The Pretender does some pretty dark things to the people who hurt the blameless victim of the week. These often involve making them believe they will die painfully.
- Battlestar Galactica has Starbuck in her interrogation of Leoben.
- Guerrero from Human Target, whose torture of enemies is occasionally even Played for Laughs.
- Wonder Woman of the Wonder Woman (2011 pilot) is one of the few women who could qualify. And she doesn't have entire cities at risk, she just deals with drug dealers who sell drugs with dangerous side effects.
- Xena: Warrior Princess used to torture random low-level enemies by paralyzing them and threatening their life (by metaphorically slitting their veins and withholding help until they talk.) this was never presented as ethically problematic in any way.
Xena: I've just stopped the blood flow to your brain. You have 10 seconds to tell me...
- Killjoys started out relatively 'normal', with Dutch (the main heroine) tying up and starving/dehydrating a most likely innocent random guy for days, and roughing him up as well, just to find out why her mentor had sent her to assassinate him. This was probably meant to show that her mentor almost succeeded in making her a sociopath by training her to kill from an early age, and she does hate that part of herself in general, even if she doesn't angst about this incident in particular. And in an episode where it turns out that an interplanetary military force, which Dav'in once proudly served, routinely (and horrifically) tortures prisoners, the team of heroes seems appalled by this, though not surprised. And Dutch seems to disapprove when she finds out that the local police force has beaten one of her friends (who the police thinks is a terrorist) to get information on his resistance organisation. But then the "good guys" bring in some villain mooks (who've been turned psychopathic and inhuman, but most likely not voluntarily) to one of their allies to be tortured for information as well. Said ally is presented as a bit of a jerk, but honest and morally more decent than most people in their Crapsack World. And Pree (gay man; best friend of the heroes) stabs a bully through his hand in order to intimidate him enough that he'll stop trying to take over Pree's bar. This is presented as perfectly okay and not Disproportionate Retribution (one of the heroes had also broken the guy's leg earlier), and the bully becomes a much more well-adjusted human being as a result, as well as falling in love with Pree. And then there was the scene in which Dav'in and said ex-bully torture a fellow killjoy (who was doing a perfectly legitimate job - which involved arresting Dav'in's brother Johnny - and who is later characterized as a pretty decent guy) by repeatedly dropping him on his head, in order to find out where the killjoy was supposed to deliver Johnny. This last is presented like it's funny...
- The titular heroine in Wynonna Earp has zero scruples torturing revenants (read: undead criminals who are slowly turning into demons; some of them are truly awful, but others are people who just got in with the wrong crowd and don't want to go back to Hell where Wyatt Earp's curse sent them to) - in fact, she's downright cheerful about it. And yet, we're not supposed to see her as a Sociopathic Hero. In a subversion, it's her friend/superior with the actual military/law enforcement training who makes it clear to her that torture does not result in "actionable intelligence". However, when Wynonna tries to beat information out of someone, she generally succeeds.
- The heroes in Ripper Street often engage in Police Brutality against suspects, due to Deliberate Values Dissonance. For the most part, this is not supposed to be seen as okay by the audience, and at least Drake develops scruples about this over the course of the first couple of seasons. After that, they mostly rely on threats of violence or torture Asshole Victims. (For example, Reid - who is normally presented as very civil and unusually "modern" for his time - half-drowns a young teenage boy who'd been pimping and raping underage girls, including Reid's daughter.) But still, even near the end of the show, Reid cruelly withholds morphine from a long-term adversary of his who's suffering from terminal brain cancer and is in extreme pain. It's not so much sadism as vengefulness and rage issues that make up kind of a persistent character flaw for this normally very mild-mannered and empathetic police officer.
- Garak of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is mentioned to have been this before he was exiled. Given that it's Cardassia, it's a safe bet he was far from the only one, but it is said at one point that he was one of the best.
- Dean of Supernatural reluctantly becomes this once it's realized there's no other option, being asked to use the torture techniques he learned in Hell after he was broken by torture himself. He's terrified of the thought as, to roughly quote what he says, if he does it the "him" that comes out of that room won't be the same "him" who went in.
- In the Ksin saga, the royal torturer is that. He is a true master in causing pain and does his worst when he works — but he also exemplifies Honor Before Reason. Even though he knows that some things he does are unreasonable, he considers it a must in his position — a torturer must be a paragon of honor, or else he will be worse than a beast.
- Subverted in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Severian at first believes this, but then comes to later realize that torture is bad. As Autarch, Severian tries to outlaw the Torturers' Guild, saying "It is intolerable that good men should spend their lives dispensing pain." The Grandmaster responds that "It MUST be done by good men," implying that, like the Ksin example above, torture can either be done by good men or by those who would take pleasure in it.
- Depending on who you ask, God or Satan (or both) in The Bible. The Book of Job is an example, where an innocent victim is tortured solely to prove his faithfulness.
- In the Left Behind series, it's God who's propped up as the Exalted Torturer. Not that God or Jesus Christ enjoy it, as Jesus sadly watches the Antichrist, the False Prophet, and all those who rejected Him throughout the ages go to their appointed doom - though given that it was God/Jesus who appointed that doom in the first place and wrote the rules that send people to Hell... To quote Jesus speaking to Ashtaroth, Baal, and Cankerworm in the Dramatic Audio:
"Like My Father, with whom I am One, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but justice must be served, and death is your sentence."
- While no details are given as to what exactly Butcher Brakespeare of the Flora Segunda books did during the war, her reputation as her country's greatest war criminal makes it clear that it was not very nice. But apparently she thought very hard about it and while it was difficult for her to do, it was the only way. So that's all right then. (Meanwhile, the other side's equally-vague war crimes are treated as completely unjustified and horrible.)
- In the Lensman universe, Worsel of Velantia and Nadreck of Palain VII both unleash the torture instruments of the Delgonian Overlords upon their former masters in the search for vital information. In Worsel's case, the other Lensmen let him do it because his own species was for countless centuries subject to the Overlords' depredations (basically a combination of Mind Rape, torture, and a kind of telepathic sadism, and concluding with snuff and the consumption of the dying victim's life energies), while Nadreck is a member of a species which literally cannot comprehend such concepts as suffering without years of study, and even then can't feel it.
- Pulp detective character Mike Hammer did a fair amount of beating and killing perps. Notably, while this was depicted as praiseworthy in the novels, one of the notable films based on the series, Kiss Me Deadly is something of a Stealth Parody making him a Villain Protagonist.
- Andrei Koscuisko of the Jurisdiction series by Susan R. Matthews is both a Torture Technician and an Exalted Torturer. His job is necessary and he's good at it. And, much to his unending horror, he enjoys it.
- Terry Thorncove of the novel Inner Dark by Zhenmei Li is a complicated case. He started out as a Torture Technician, became The Atoner, found the side he switched to was willing to use him for 'special' interrogations, is viewed by the higher-ups as a great hero but by his friends as the Token Evil Teammate, is portrayed as a noble man resisting a dark urge in the narrative, continually invokes Drowning My Sorrows over his actions and by the end is more or less dead inside.
- Victoria has a somewhat downplayed example with protagonist John Rumford, who doesn't torture anyone himself, but approves and even attends the torture of the Delta Force operators who murdered Governor Adams. This is treated very much as Dirty Business but still portrayed as right.
- In Tom Kratman's Carrera's Legions, the good guys sometimes take prisoners to a ship that is dedicated to getting information. We never actually see any torture, but an entire chapter is devoted to talking a new prisoner through all of the different techniques available: dental surgery without anesthetic, electrical torture, etc. The one which breaks the prisoner (who is Muslim) is the sex change theater so that the prisoner will suffer all of the tortures of the other rooms and then die as a woman.
- Judge Dee: The judge is legally allowed to use torture, but refrains from it, both because he finds it distasteful (and would prefer finding an intellectual solution to problems) and because he knows it can give false results (like one witch who resisted a torture session which nearly cost him his career). Oftentimes the mere display of the horrible tools used by the contables is enough to get a suspect to crack. Beatings are more common, although given to characters who tend to deserve it like a trio of false monks.
- Often, Satan is described this way, getting his jollies off by tormenting people (and lesser demons) in Hell. Sometimes, he is even described as playing a pivotal role in the actual judgment process, as more of a Villain Protagonist. In fact, the name derives from an old Hebrew word, ha-satan, which translates as "The Prosecutor."
- In Dungeons & Dragons:
- The Gray Guard Prestige Class/Paragon Path was supposed to allow paladins the ability to go all Dirty Harry on potential perpetrators without losing their alignment.
- The Book of Exalted Deeds has features that edge disturbingly close to this. Torturing an evildoer would be wrong, of course; but tearing out their soul, trapping it in a Crystal Prison, and magically twisting it until its Character Alignment matches yours in a bizarre inversion of Being Tortured Makes You Evil? Capital-G Good.
- The Inquisition of Warhammer 40,000 passes off as this trope (amongst other things... a LOT of other things) simply because the universe in question utilizes Black-and-Grey Morality rather than Black-and-White Morality.
- Played with in KGB founder Dzerzhinsky as depicted in Robert Bolt's State of Revolution. When he objects to a career as the ideological garbageman, Lenin asks "Should it be done by someone with an appetite for garbage?" Later when he is grilling Lunacharsky, he retorts "It was you more than anyone else who persuaded me to take the position."
- A Renegade Commander Shepard in Mass Effect. Hell, sometimes even Paragon Shepard.
- Dragon Age II: During the quest "Inside Job", Hawke can torture a miner and have him killed. In his/her own home.
- Jake Conway of Ride to Hell: Retribution is never framed by the story as anything but a cool badass biker man getting vengeance on the leader of the gang that killed his brother. Of course, his tactics for finding out information frequently involved holding a bucket of water away from a man on fire, tying a man to a tree-sized lumber saw, mounting a man on a pile of explosives... and he usually just kills them anyway when he gets what he needs.
- World of Warcraft is a special case. While most of the torturers in-game (Torturer Lecraft and such) are NOT this trope because they are antagonists to both factions, there are characters that do meet this trope because at least one faction considers them non-antagonist (Sergeant Kanren in Falconwing Square is a Horde example, Interrogator Khan in Telaar an Alliance one), and there's a class (Death Knight, at least in the beginning) and quests for both Horde and Alliance that can make your character become an Exalted Torturer.]
- Joel from The Last of Us won't hesitate to brutally torture Mooks for information after Ellie gets imprisoned by David's gang. It's heavily implied he's quite experienced in the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique. To quote his longtime partner:
Tess: "Guess what, we're shitty people, Joel."
- A very, very downplayed version of this trope comes into play in Sly 2: Band of Thieves, when Bentley forces a Mook into giving up some security codes... with a feather. It's Played for Laughs, but the same game also used "illegal spices" as a kid-friendly stand-in for cocaine, and the sequel made Bentley "more devious" and outright murderous in many of his plans, which cast the scene in a darker light.
- Release That Witch: Iron Axe is the protagonist's commanding general, but most of his interactions with nobles in captivity include torture, terrorism, or outright setting them on fire. Of course, this all takes place in a (former) medieval fantasy setting where the worst of the nobles use their servants as cannon fodder, so...