Why do we love seeing revenge played out on screen? Some of cinema’s most iconic moments are from revenge movies. But revenge narratives are some of the oldest in our culture, like Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And within the simple framework, there are nuances in how revenge is depicted, how it changes depending on who is doing the revenge, and what the end result is when all the dust has settled. While on an instinctive level we all understand revenge – and how it can seem alluringly satisfying – but do revenge narratives that celebrate the vindictive anti-hero enact an unhealthy fantasy that we should be trying to get away from?
We know an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, so why do we love seeing revenge played out on screen?
Some of cinema’s most iconic moments are from revenge movies. And there seems to be a constant stream of new popular films featuring main characters seeking vengeance or lifelong attempts at retaliation. But revenge narratives are some of the oldest in our culture. And within that simple framework, there are nuances in how revenge is depicted, how it changes depending on who is doing the revenge, and what the end result is when all the dust has settled.
Underpinning everything is a character who’s been hurt, and so processes their anger outwards. On an instinctive level we all understand revenge – and how it can seem alluringly satisfying – but do revenge narratives that celebrate the vindictive anti-hero enact an unhealthy fantasy that we should be trying to get away from?
Batman: Justice is about more than revenge. -Batman Begins
Here’s our take on revenge, why it’s so seductive, and how it may ultimately fall short of what we really want out of it.
Revenge is a blunt instrument, and it’s particularly blunt when put into the hands of a man. In these narratives, men are transformed by their rage into a different version of themselves: someone who is single-minded, aggressive, and consumed by an almost primal desire. This transformation becomes even more explicit when we’re shown an ordinary family man who becomes a vigilante when his life is altered – like Gerard Butler’s character in Law Abiding Citizen. When we first meet him, he’s making bracelets with his daughter and about to have dinner with his wife, but his life changes when he’s violently burgled and his family is killed in front of him. What’s crucial here is that the change feels final. We never get the sense that men like this can turn back, or that they even want to. It’s almost as if the person that their trauma has molded them into is actually the person they were all along.
Tangentially, we often see the “trained professional who’s put this life behind him, only to be pulled back in by a traumatic event” – like in The Equalizer, Taken, John Wick, the list goes on. John Wick’s path for revenge is set when criminals kidnap and kill his dog, given to him by his late wife. In that pet is the last evidence of the peaceful, perfect life he once had. It’s almost as if in taking that away, he loses any connection to that person, and becomes the violent anti-hero that was always inside of him.
Viggo Tarasov: What happened John? We were professionals. Civilized.
John Wick: Do I look civilized to you?! -John Wick
The fact that these narratives are so linked with protecting family feels designed to get us to feel like these actions are, in some way, justified. Who could blame Taken’s Bryan Mills for wanting revenge on those who kidnapped his daughter? An interesting example comes in Bob Odenkirk’s Nobody, where he initially extends some empathy to those who burgle his house, but when he realizes that they stole his daughter’s bracelet, then he undergoes his revenge-driven transformation. These are modern day adaptations of stories that might feel more appropriate in earlier civilizations – at times when violent retribution may have been more accepted, or even common.
When we watch Maximus’ quest for revenge in Gladiator, or Amleth’s in The Northman, it feels like they have no other option and their brute strength, violent actions, and relentlessness is celebrated by us as an audience. But there’s an irony in this framing. We’re told this kind of brutal, aggressive masculinity is toxic now. And yet, when we see these ordinary people wreaking havoc, we’re rooting for them. Rather than being invited to criticize their behavior, we’re instead guided towards blaming the society that’s created them and the justice systems that have failed them.
Revenge films take on a very different tone when they work to empower a community that has been disempowered by society. In these cases, the story being enacted offers a kind of catharsis for the audience that isn’t able to level the scores the same way, but feel comforted by seeing it happen in a safe space – on-screen. This also feels like a very clear societal critique. The so-called rape-revenge genre does this by empowering women to target their attackers. Films like I Spit On Your Grave or Jennifer’s Body give their protagonists similar transformations to the “ordinary family man avenging his loved ones’’ – the only difference being that they themselves are the ones who have been victims of these violent acts. For Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, this is her origin story. By exacting her revenge on her abuser, she liberates herself from him, and becomes this vigilante.
A subtle difference comes in Promising Young Woman – though Cassie’s desire for revenge is similarly singular. Her best friend took her own life after being sexually assaulted, so she targets men who take advantage of women – eventually narrowing in on her friend’s abuser. In a post-Me-Too context, we see how these male characters stand in for a certain type of guy who’s been getting away with this behavior for far too long. The first time we see Cassie do this, she literally breaks the fourth wall and looks at the camera, building that trust between her and the audience, almost bringing them in on her subterfuge. But Cassie’s eventual demise was divisive and not everyone found Promising Young Woman so cathartic.
Al Monroe: It’s every guy’s worst nightmare getting accused like that.
Cassie Thomas: Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is? -Promising Young Woman
Critiques of these films can be applied to the revenge genre as a whole. Lena Wilson argues that they “offer female characters a facile kind of agency. A woman, once made powerless by an attacker, can take justice into her own hands — but she must pay for that power with her personhood.” These stories speak to how we view male and female protagonists through different lenses – and how the reality of their lived experiences are reflected in what kind of revenge they get to enact. Like another critique of Promising Young Woman stated, “[the film] left us dwelling on the conflicting and sobering notion that while women have to plan for every eventuality, men get to kill without a second thought.”
And sometimes it’s worth asking: are the communities supposedly being served by these films actually benefiting from them? Django Unchained feels like a revenge fantasy made for the black community, with Django as a slave-owner-killing anti-hero – but given that it’s made by a white man, can it ever satisfyingly be that? Noah Smith argues that the film is as much about Christoph Waltz’ white character – maybe uncoincidentally named Dr. King – getting revenge on the lowlife slave owners of the south. He writes: “I see Django as a white revenge fantasy – whites, whose ancestors (like Tarantino’s) had no part in the institution of slavery, saying “No. The South does not get to represent my racial group.” Todd Phillips’ Joker origin story also took on the form of a “cathartic revenge narrative”, but it was one that felt directed toward a kind of white, male audience – men who really haven’t been disempowered, but feel like they are. For these revenge narratives to work, there needs to be a political message. But in Joker’s case, that message at times felt muddy and confusing. Critic Ani Bundel states, “the film does ask the audience to vaguely sympathize with him as an “incel” like white male, even if it provides very little context for why we should (or why we should not).”
Catharsis can be powerful, and it feels important to have that played out on some level, but in many of these cases, its execution tends to feel hollow.
The problem with revenge is that it doesn’t leave any room, or any opportunity, for acceptance or forgiveness, which means there’s always one character in the story not afforded any empathy – whether or not they actually deserve it.
One of culture’s most interesting explorations of revenge in recent years has come in the Black Panther series. It’s Kilmonger’s desire for revenge that is first used to endear us to him, when he robs the stolen artifacts from the British museum. And his arguments toward the Wakandans are similarly persuasive. He, as the outsider character to this fictional world, ironically acts as both antagonist and a kind of audience stand-in. But we see how this desire for revenge consumes him, blinds him to the bigger picture, and eventually becomes his demise. This theme is returned to in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – this time it’s Shuri filled with rage after the deaths of both her brother and her mother. When she becomes the Black Panther herself, she is not visited by the elders, but by Kilmonger, who almost goads her into enacting his revenge philosophy. But unlike Kilmonger, she does take a step back and see how this cycle of revenge just leads to more bloodshed.
In Moonlight, Chiron is wronged by two people: Terrell and Kevin. They both haze him outside the high school, but Chiron is able to understand the differences between them. He gets his revenge on Terrell – but when he reconnects with Kevin again, Kevin asks for forgiveness, and it’s accepted. It still feels painful and raw, but there’s an empathy extended there that feels really powerful. But the forgiveness that Chiron is able to afford his abuser is maybe something he’s only able to do because the initial anger of the moment is in the past.
Kevin: I’m sorry about all that shit that went down, real shit Chiron, I am. -Moonlight
The reason revenge appears so seductive is because it offers an instant gratification. We were physically or emotionally struck by something – so it should (and often does) feel good to strike back. But this usually doesn’t last. Psychologist Vanessa Van Edwards writes: “Even though the first few moments feel rewarding in the brain, psychological scientists have found that instead of quenching hostility, revenge prolongs the unpleasantness of the original offense.” In Do Revenge, it’s only when both Drea and Eleanor are at their lowest that they realize their desire for revenge isn’t healthy.
Drea Torres: Does any of this make you feel better because I’m f*cking miserable.
Eleanor Cutler: No, of course I don’t feel better, I feel like shit. -Do Revenge
It can feel easier, less painful, more rewarding, and is perhaps the more natural impulse to seek revenge. But once we take a step back, we often realize that there are other options on the table: ones, at the very least, worth exploring.
Stories about revenge are stories about justice – and right now, justice is complicated. We are constantly debating about what punishments should fit what crimes; the existence of cancel culture; and the societal value of the police and our judicial systems — the very people we once put our trust in to serve justice. Given how messy the cultural landscape currently is, it makes sense that we’re leaning into revenge narratives. But we need to push through this to understand that if we’re hurt, the best way to process that is by having that hurt understood, not by projecting it outwards — perpetuating an endless cycle of violence. Films like Do Revenge; and Wakanda Forever model that, by showing us that working through a problem and getting to a place where you can offer empathy and forgiveness – or at the very least acceptance – is the most gratifying outcome.
Drea Torres: I don’t wanna hurt you anymore. And I don’t think you wanna hurt me either. -Do Revenge