One of the genres in English literature that has long held a great fascination for me is that of the revenge tragedy. I was introduced to the term in my Major British Authors I course, in our discussion of John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi. Of course, Dr. Mickolaczak would be disappointed to learn that I did not actually read the play when assigned (I still have not, in fact); I was already on the road to faking my way through a degree in English. Two years later, when I took my obligatory Shakespeare course (my third with Dr. M.) we dealt with two more examples of the genre: Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, the latter as vividly (to put it mildly) brought to life in the then just-released film version directed by Julie Tamor.
Another recent film that had struck a chord with me was the 2000 remake of Get Carter, starring Sylvester Stallone in the rôle (originally portrayed by Michael Caine in the 1971 original) of a crime-syndicate enforcer who takes time off to visit his family and make a whole slew of folks pay for his brother’s recent death. Everyone else I saw it with thought it sucked big time, but I rather liked it. (I still do, even after having seen the original.) I will have to see it again someday, but it sits in my mind as a solid example of the genre. Something often overlooked is that Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator is a revenge tragedy. I myself have always thought of it as a warrior film, which of course it is. But when placed in the tradition of other vengeance-driven tragedies, it seems right at home.
I just watched the recent film adaptation of the comic book series The Punisher, starring Tom Jane and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh. My college roommate held a special devotion to this Marvel character; I believe he told me the first issue came out on the day of his birth. It fit right into my mental collection of films in this genre. A horrible wrong is committed, a colourful vengeance is exacted. Some of the performances (a man named Travolta?) are shamelessly over-baked, and most of the supporting cast are one-note comic-book cut-outs (which works in context). But then at the end, and interesting thing happens. The intricate revenge has been enacted, and our protagonist still lives. This itself would seem to disqualify The Punisher from the company of our brief catalogue of revenge tragedies above, where the hero inevitably falls himself in the back and forth of violent retribution. Then the film (and I can only assume the comic book series) switches genres as the hero drives off toward a franchise.
What do you do with a character who has completed a campaign of pitiless vengeance and still lives? One option would be to have the protagonist complete with his own hand the work his enemies were unable to do, as Tom Jane’s character indeed attempts to do in the film, the burden of grief too much to bear now that the passion for vengeance is fully expended. Or the character could lay down the gun and move on with the business of rebuilding his shattered life into one worth living again. But that sort of thing does little to please a movie-going audience, especially the sort of movie-goer who paid money to see The Punisher. So the character, having punished those who wronged him, sets out to violently punish wrong-doers generally. And so the story turns from a revenge tragedy to intriguing genre: the retribution fantasy. In this genre the protagonists, fed up with some particular proliferation of unchecked injustice take up arms to dispense their own brand of (violent) outlaw justice.
Troy Duffy’s 1999 film The Boondock Saints is a perfect example of this: two working-class brothers in Boston hear what is apparently a divine call to hunt down evildoers and personally dispatch them to their eschatological reckoning. The movie is violent, it is funny, but it is also (unintentionally) unsettling. My Christian tradition is pretty clear on this sort of thing, starting with the collection of sacred texts we call the Bible. In Deuteronomy God declares, “Vengeance is mine,” implying that people should just leave things to Him on this front. Much later in the book, Christ exhorts his followers, in His Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, to turn completely from vengeance and embrace a life of forgiveness. Yet there remains something in the human condition that draws even devout believers to put these doctrines aside with varying degrees of alacrity and take up the sword or gun to mete out what they convince themselves is God’s justice. I suppose if you believe you are merely an instrument of God, then it is still God doing the smiting; you just get the small task of pulling the trigger over and over again.
The truly troubling part of all this is that, while the revenge tragedy remains extravagantly distant from our everyday experience, the retribution fantasy is held very close to many hearts. How far is the moral distance, really, between the titular character in Jeff Lindsay’s novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter — a serial killer who only kills those whose horrible crimes have escaped the official system of justice — and the average citizen expressing enthusiastic approval of the death penalty? Is there any meaningful difference between the two? Or, on a different level, is it unreasonable to say that the United States has been living out a national retribution fantasy on a grand scale these past five years, desperate to make “evildoers” pay for their offences against its citizenry? At what stage does the fantasy turn to tragedy?