July 27, 2010

The revenge tragedy in movies

One reason that people today can appreciate cultural works from long ago is that art reflects larger societal changes that either consciously or not the artist picked up on. When a society goes through a similar big change, artists and audiences will be in a similar mindset as their earlier counterparts. Perhaps the strongest societal influence on high or popular culture is the violence rate, with people during periods of rising violence pursuing cosmic themes and during periods of falling violence being bored by anything other than the trivial.

So, petty satire and mockery prevail during safe times: think of the mock-epic of the 18th C. England or all those Will Ferrell movies where some doofus is presented as a hero -- not sincerely, but only to make fun of whatever group that he is a grotesque caricature of (there's lots of exaggerated kabuki facial expressions just in case you didn't get it). On the other hand, during dangerous times we are forced to deal with heavier themes. A key example here is the revenge tragedy that fascinated the Elizabethan world, which was in the throes of a rising wave of violence.

Much of the Western world went through a similar crime wave from the late 1950s through the early 1990s, so we might expect to see a newfound appreciation for this genre. Below are some brief sightings of the genre's re-birth in popular movies during the recent crime wave. They are not conscious imitations of the Elizabethan form, as they do not follow every last convention set hundreds of years ago. Still, the motifs in these revenge-themed movies are strikingly similar to the earlier ones, suggesting that whenever a society goes through such a wave of violence, artists and audiences will naturally turn their minds to such motifs.

The examples are drawn from the 1980s and the single year of 1990 (pre-grunge, pre-Rodney King) because I know these movies better than ones from the '60s and '70s, and also because they get so maligned as dramatically lacking, when they're some of the most exciting movies ever made.

In particular, these movies rarely have the revenger come gradually closer to the murderer, and kill him in one fell swoop upon meeting him. Rather, like the Elizabethan models, there is a protracted series of encounters and scheming between the two, both sides often maintaining a facade of innocence and agreeableness when they're face to face. This heightens the dramatic tension as we wonder whether the murderer will foil the revenger before his would-be triumph, and if not, just when and how he'll ultimately get revenge. Most people overlook these subtle aspects of the movie and merely whine about the big explosions and gratuitous body count that punctuates the longer periods of scheming and counter-scheming. Also, the heroes are mostly stoic figures, just as they were in Elizabethan drama, rather than the whiny and often self-pitying emo dorks of recent action flicks.

Ghost. This one comes closest to meeting all of the conventions. A well-behaved banker, Sam, uncovers what turns out to be a money laundering job by a power-hungry and corrupt banker, Carl. Carl hires a criminal to find out how much Sam knows, although the criminal ends up killing him. Sam returns as a ghost who makes his presence known to both Carl and Sam's grieving girlfriend, Molly (in her case, through spiritual possession of a fortune teller). After a period of plotting on both sides, including an episode where Carl tries to seduce the girlfriend of the man he more or less had killed, Sam eventually kills the man responsible for his death; he himself goes off to the afterlife. The twist in this movie is that the ghost of the slain victim and the revenger are the same person, instead of a ghost motivating someone else to get revenge. Unlike all the other ones covered here, this one actually ends with the hero dead, very atypical of Hollywood movies.

RoboCop. A good cop, Murphy, is brutally murdered by a gang whose leader is working for a corrupt corporate executive named Dick. Enough of Murphy's body and brain are kept alive for him to form the basis of a cyborg police officer, RoboCop. Here the role of the ghost is played by Murphy's repressed memories that reach RoboCop's awareness and spur him to seek out whoever was responsible for Murphy's death. After a period of scheming back and forth, as well as what we could only call madness in a robot, RoboCop ultimately kills the gang, their leader, and Dick. (Earlier in the movie, an executive is killed during what the others present took to be a mock demonstration of a deadly crime-fighting robot, the ED-209, an instance of the "death during masque / dumb show" motif of Elizabethan revenge plays, although not involving the ultimate revenge.)

The Star Wars trilogy. Luke's surrogate father Obi-Wan is killed by Darth Vader and later appears to guide him in ghost form. Contrary to convention, though, the ghost does not urge him to exact bloody revenge. The two battle each other physically in the meantime, and the murderer even tries to undo the hero psychologically by telling him that the murderer is his father. The hero descends into madness and joins the dark side, then all but kills the murderer, who had just suggested that his next target would be the hero's sister (preemptive revenge?).

Batman. Bruce Wayne's parents are killed by a psychopathic criminal, Jack Napier, who Wayne plots against and is plotted against by, whether in the everyday personas or as Batman and the Joker. An extra layer of intrigue has the two competing over the same woman. The ghost role is played by undying memories of his parents. Batman never quite goes crazy, though he comes close to losing it, yet succeeds in killing the Joker.

You get the idea. Without going into detail, here are a few more that come pretty close:

Conan the Barbarian. No ghost of the hero's slain mother, but there is a ghost of his slain lover and companion. The scheming between the revenger and the murderer is not very elaborate.

Beverly Hills Cop. Again no ghost or madness. But the drawn-out intrigue between the revenger and the two villains is superb.

Rambo II. The hero only gets revenge on lower-ranking villains, not the corrupt powerful one, whom he only threatens with a knife. Lacks a ghost.

Total Recall. No kinsman or close friend of the hero is killed. The ghost is a video recording of the hero himself, before he had his memory messed with, although it turns out the ghost was lying about the misdeeds that the villain had supposedly done to him -- the ghost was in on it.

Sudden Impact. The villains rape but do not kill the revenger and her sister. There's a ghost in the form of persistent memories, but there's little intrigue between the revenger and the villains. She merely surprises them and shoots, sometimes without their even recognizing who she is.


  1. Batman seems to be the odd movie out, as it was based on characters and stories dating back to the 1930's.


  2. I watched Conan the other day. You might say the ghost is his murdered parents. It is only by finding the sword in the tomb with Crom's mark on the wall (when he was running from the dogs).

    This is his first encounter with a ghost because here he gets his sword and remembers the past for the first time.

    Here is where he begins to seek revenge for his parents. But he then thinks Doom is dead until he sees the talisman in the pit with the giant snake.

    He was seeking revenge before his woman died.


    The first Rambo is interesting. I wouldn't say it is revenge per se, but there is definitely the ghostly aspect in the form of his memories of torture.
    In a way though it may be revenge against the sheriff and a more general revenge against an uncaring America.

    For an interesting revenge flick watch the Sting with Redford and Newman.

    - Breeze


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."