the Murky Gray Ethics of Revenge Thrillers

From stylish action-packed features with a simple premise like John Wick and The Equalizer series, to commentary on the impotence of the legal system in films like Law Abiding Citizen and Promising Young Woman exciting revenge thrillers dominate the non-superhero action movie medium, some of them becoming all-time favorites and cult classics. Modern action cinema is clearly taken with the premise of Taken.

Let’s be honest: at some point in our lives, we’ve all wanted to hurt those who have hurt us. Revenge thrillers speak to our soul the same way love stories do – they appeal to some fundamental human desires, be it a need to feel loved, or what to do with anger from injustice and grief. For viewers, revenge thrillers are a safe environment for experiencing catharsis from the affirmation that people who commit bad things will not get away with it and will get punished.


As the pain of loss is understandable to most human beings, we relate to the main character, who lost someone dear to them, and we want to live out the retribution fantasy through their rampage against those who wronged them. Revenge thrillers are simultaneously appealing and appalling, serving not only as grisly wish-fulfillment but sometimes also as a cautionary tale: vengeance gives anger direction and purpose but ultimately does not provide highly-sought peace of mind.

An Eye For an Eye: Moral Code in Revenge Movies

Revenge films are not following a typical, simple narrative structure in the sense that they do not have the usual distinction between the hero and the bad guy. In revenge stories, the protagonist is not necessarily a hero, as setting on the path of vengeance essentially means rejecting their humanity and becoming as bad, if not worse, as the antagonist.

Usually, the protagonist is even warned about this outcome, like in My names. Yoon Ji-woo (played by Han So-hee) is warned by her father’s old friend, a mafia boss, if she decides to go ahead with her revenge, there will be no way back, and she will lose everything, even her name . This is the toll that must be paid, and this is the tragedy of the situation.

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The philosophical concept that this cruel exchange is built upon is described by Francis Bacon as “wild justice” in On Revenge. Revenge thrillers create a scenario where the protagonist’s ache for vengeance feels just. Their suffering is too big, and their enemies are too strong, but the foes commit atrocities so vile that viewers forgive and relate to the desire to destroy them.

These movies, with Taken as an example, position the protagonist alone against the world, where only his set of special skills can balance out the scales of justice; “I do have a very particular set of skills,” Liam Neeson says in Taken, “skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.” As a consequence, viewers sympathetically admit that it would be only moral to intervene, to sacrifice one’s virtues to rid the world of such scum, even if it requires a high body count.

Bacon writes, “The most tolerable sort of revenge is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy.” A classic of revenge thrillers, Death Wish portrays the grim streets of New York City, where crime happens out in the open, right under the aloof gaze of the intimidated public and impotent police force. An ordinary person (played by Charles Bronson), an architect and a family man, reluctantly transforms into a deadly vigilante after his wife and daughter are viciously assaulted.

Law Abiding Citizen showcases the gray ethics of the world of revenge thrillers, even before viewers find out the full extent of Clyde’s (Gerald Butler) retaliation plot. As representative of the law, Nick (Jamie Foxx) switches off the recorder to tell Clyde that although the latter killed two people, nobody will actually miss them; quite the opposite.

Movies like Law Abiding Citizenor Promising Young Woman, shed light on the weakness and confines of the legal system. Courtroom procedure is tricky. Institutional and everyday sexism is subtle and harder to fight against but in no way less deadly. According to The Ringerthe director of Promising Young Woman chose to cast “boy-next-door” types of male actors, those who looked the most harmless, to emphasize that it can be anyone. When Cassie tries to bring those responsible to justice through law, the system fails her. She is forced to take matters into her own hands, in a film which brilliantly unpacks sexual assault. This movie depicts how male entitlement can be far more terrifying than the killers for hire in the world of John Wick.

Revisionist Pleasure in Revenge Movies: Punishing History’s Monsters

Revisionist revenge has become Tarantino’s brand. Tarantino rewrites history to give us the pleasure of watching villains like Adolf Hitler (in Inglorious Basterds), Southern slave-owners (in Django Unchained), and the Manson family (in Once Upon in Hollywood) get beaten up and amusingly killed by exactly those they had tormented. This fantasy grants minorities and victims agency and lets them triumph.

Django Unchained particularly tackles the topic of slavery in America from a distinctly new angle. This is a movie about slavery, but it is not about suffering (although suffering is present and the film does not shy away from it) – it is about freedom and revenge. The relentless Django (played by Jamie Foxx) goes to save his wife Broomhilda, freeing other slaves and killing slavers along the way. The movie shows a complicated relationship between Django and his white companion, along with other slaves, some of whom enjoy their current situation (Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson).

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Wonderful revisionist revenge thrillers do not end with Tarantino too. The Handmaiden is a complicated story about deception, revenge, and queer love. The story follows a young woman who is hired to care for a rich and beautiful heiress. This is a con to steal the heiress’ money – only, the thief falls in love with her target. The relationship between femininity and victimhood is redefined in Park Chan-wook’s movie. This movie is about women taking revenge against men, who try to control their lives.

Batman vs John Wick: A Moral Clash

Revenge thrillers’ gray ethics stand distinctly against the ethics of its competition in the action cinema box office – superhero movies. They both warn against the moral corruption revenge brings, but while revenge thrillers indulge in murderous rampaging, superhero movies nurture virtues and instead attempt to show the path to healing through helping others and forgiveness. In fact, villains often redeem themselves in superhero movies, or are shown as understandable and empathetic. In revenge films, villains stay villains, and heroes resort to villainy.

Emblematic is the scene from Taken 2, where the story centers around Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) and the father of the kidnapper he killed in the first installment. Murad (played by Rade Serbedzija) targets Bryan’s family again as revenge for his son’s murder. An eye for an eye. In the climax of the movie, Bryan challenges the cycle of unending violence. He finds out Murad has two other sons, who will come seeking revenge for the murder of their father. Bryan offers him to walk away and live with the memory of being the parents of the girls his son kidnapped live. However, Murad cannot let go, and Bryan has to kill him. Thus, the cycle continues.

In Kill Bill, Vol. 1, there is a heartbreaking moment where, after killing her former teammate, The Bride (Uma Thurman) is suddenly aware that a girl just witnessed her mother’s murder. Realization sobers her up from the adrenaline rush. She tells the girl: “When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.” By the murky ethical laws of the revenge thrillers, The Bride was in her own right – and the girl will be in her right, too. Indeed, Tarantino has repeatedly expressed his interest in making Kill Bill 3about the grown-up daughter of Vernita Green, seeking vengeance.

Without forgiveness, the cycle continues, and the best revenge films often show the torment and punishment heroes endure in the pursuit of justice. Maybe there is no justice, but only forgiveness. As Aunt May said in Spider-Man 3echoing the Buddha and countless others, “Revenge is like a poison. It can take you over, and before you know it, it can turn you into something ugly.”

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