Warning: contains spoilers for a lot of movies, mostly notably American Assassin and Captain America: Civil War.
Imagine this. A man has had some hard times, maybe a parent (or both) died when he was young, maybe he grew up in a bad situation, but he has managed to grow up and find love. Then something unfortunate, something violent, happens to the love of his life. Maybe the violent event harmed or killed their child as well. So he vows to get his revenge on what, or who, caused the untimely death(s).
What movie am I describing?
If you answered:
Braveheart, Captain America: Civil War**, Collateral Damage, Confessions*, Death Wish, Django Unchained, Drive Angry, Equilibrium, Faust: Love of the Damned, Gladiator, Godzilla (2014), Hamlet, I Saw the Devil, Inception, John Wick, Kill Bill*, Law Abiding Citizen, Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon 2, Looper, Mad Max, Memento, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rolling Vengeance, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan**, Straw Dogs, Taken 3, The Bourne Supremacy, The Brave One*, The Bride Wore Black*, The Crow, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, The Fugitive, The Punisher, Unforgiven, X-Men: Apocalypse, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, or, most recently, American Assassin, you would be correct.
It’s usually a wife or girlfriend, but sometimes it’s a sibling (Get Carter, Dead Man’s Shoes), sometimes it’s a parent (Gangs of New York, True Grit), sometimes it’s a whole family (Léon: The Professional), sometimes it’s an entire tribe (Conan the Barbarian), sometimes it’s even revenge against the wife (Payback).
There are a lot of names for this trope: Disposable Woman, Lost Lenore, Roaring Rampage of Revenge, The Christopher Nolan.
I like to call it the Male Revenge Fantasy, though occasionally a male writer will be edgy and flip the script so that the female bombshell gets to take her revenge*, often over a dead child. Sometimes it’s the relatable bad guy seeking revenge**.
Captain America: Civil War actually has four intertwined revenge fantasies, Zemo (wife and family), Black Panther (father), Tony (parents, which requires you to believe that tech genius Tony Stark never investigated his parents’ accident of which there was super clear video footage), and Steve (best friend and maybe his own missed chance with Peggy).
The trouble is that this plot arc isn’t usually how violent anger usually plays out in human beings. We might have the fantasy, but this isn’t how we seek revenge unless we’re psychotic.
In our troubling reality, most men seek violence after an experience of humiliation or rejection from a love interest (domestic violence) or because they feel like others view them as inferior or they are alienated and isolated in some way (a common motivator among terrorists–check out Age of Anger for a history). It’s not from having a human connection taken away violently by a third party; it’s from having the human connection take themselves away or from never having a solid feeling of respect and belonging in the first place.
Some violence that we might call revenge is akin to self-defense. Usually in these movies, the perpetrators certainly deserve some kind of comeuppance, and that’s probably why we champion it. We like things divided into “good guys” and “bad guys,” even though in reality even bad guys often have legitimate social circumstances that make them act “bad.” Zemo had a point in Civil War, but it would have made more sense to take his revenge out on America due to its continued imperialism and on not Captain America. (Zemo building a small terrorist army of frozen Soviet super soldiers instead of having a weirdly personal vendetta and an obsession with Steve Rogers’ eye color is the movie I wanted.)
But after the revenge-triggering moment has passed, then you aren’t in a situation anymore where you can reasonably expect harm to come to you. At this point, revenge becomes well-plotted, you become a vigilante, and your rampage probably won’t hold up in a court of law. A lot of heroes in these movies are former military. The military doesn’t like rogues because it operates on chain of command. This is why courts-martial and military tribunals exist. Not to mention, the US court system sometimes practices due process. (They’re sadly selective about it, but most courts care when a white woman gets killed, which is the plot-driver in 95% of these movies.)
I don’t know if violent movies cause violent behavior. Honestly, I doubt it. My inclination is that the movies mentioned above simply let men (and maybe women) live out their fantasies of swooping in and being the hero, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I’m just tired of seeing it over and over and over.
It doesn’t teach me anything. It doesn’t inspire me. It doesn’t make love seem very appealing. In fact, it makes love seem obsessive and possessive. It fosters a distrust of legal justice, but not for the reasons our legal system is actually unjust in practice.
The only interesting part in all of American Assassin was when the antagonist tells Michael Keaton that his vendetta was really Keaton’s fault, because Keaton (and the CIA) made him a monster. That seemed to be why he was seeking revenge on the CIA and the Navy. This type of revenge is idealistic, and it pointed out the fact that the “good guys” (actual language used in the movie) aren’t entirely good. I don’t know if that was meant to be a jab at American imperialism or not, because the other antagonists in the movie are Islamic terrorists.
I don’t have an agenda here. I just stopped being entertained by this trope about 50 movies ago.
And frankly, I’m pretty sure someone just made American Assassin for the visual effect of detonating a nuke in the ocean.