Our Appetite for Revenge

“For England, James?”

“No.  For me.”

I remember watching Goldeneye a long time ago, and for quite a while it was my favorite James Bond movie.  It had all the right notes to it: a calculating villain, a suave hero, action, and explosions of course.  The lines above are spoken at the climax of the film, when Trevelyan (the villain) has been defeated and is hanging off a ledge.  What I didn’t really think about back then was what the line really meant.  What’s interesting to me now is what that line says about the nature of revenge.  Most characters who undertake revenge quests usually do it with the pretense of avenging the loss of someone dear to them.  But is it really so selfless?  Or is revenge a much more selfish quest than we assume?

Most revenge stories typically go like this: hero is wronged by villain and loses something valuable to them (usually a person).  Hero becomes angry and pursues villain to exact revenge, usually by making his way up the ladder and killing the bad guys who stand in their way.  The story ends when the hero corners the villain and exacts sweet, sweet revenge.  The familiar story is something that we eat up.  We love the typical story arcs, the good guy taking out the bad guy.  We find comfort in its familiarity.

But lately there’s been a twist in the story.  Many revenge stories have posited the question of “what does the quest for revenge do to the one who journeys for it?”  It’s an interesting question, one that deserves to be asked.  How far is too far?  Is there a line somewhere that divides righteousness and selfishness?  Does the revenge quest inherently corrupt?

I watched an episode of the show Lie to Me earlier this week that dealt with a character whose main motive appeared to be revenge.  He was supposed to be killed by the CIA, but his family ended up in the crossfire and died instead.  So, he goes to the main character of the show (who was involved in the incident) and demands that he help figure out who the killer is.  And, at the end of the episode, he finds his man and points a gun at his head.  But, when he pulls the trigger, the gun clicks empty.  When asked why he didn’t kill him, he say something along the lines of “love for revenge killed my family” then walks off.

The video game series Max Payne is another great example of this self-conscious examination of revenge.  In the games, the titular character loses his family after a bunch of drug addicts break into his house and shoot them.  Years later, he learns that their deaths are somehow tied up with some massive government cover-up.  This sends him on a quest of revenge in the first game.  He succeeds, but the next two games show a man broken and scarred.  Even though he succeeds in his quest, he doesn’t feel better about it.  Even in the third game, which is about ten years later and set on another continent, we still see him as a destroyed man who seems content to try drinking and drugging himself to death.

Revenge has become something a bit more complicated in pop culture these days.  It is no longer a glorified righteous journey, but something that puts a person on the brink, something that can forever change them and leave them taking down paths forever dark.

We still love it because we’ve grown to demand so much more of our storytelling mediums.  We no longer want one-note stories and characters.  We want complexity.  We want characters who evolve over time, who maybe go from being a bad guy to a good guy, or vice versa.  We want something that examines deeper issues, that shows us parts of ourselves that we maybe didn’t realize were there.  Cultural tastes and preferences are complicated things, always shifting and changing.

So will there still be a place for the old school revenge fantasies in the future?  I can’t really say for sure, but I know that revenge stories will always be around as long as there are humans to tell them.  And after all, they make really good popcorn movies.


Well that’s all I have for this week.  Thanks for reading.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.



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