Five Films/TV Shows That Tackle “The Myth of Redemptive Violence”

The Myth of Redemptive Violence is something I’ve written about before, and even made a short film about, entitled A Tale of Two Potato Heads. However, I realized that while I am normally quick to criticize films that use violence as the only means of good overcoming evil, I am perhaps slower to recommend films and television shows which offer an alternative view. So here are five offerings (among many) which are willing to purport an alternative philosophy:


1. The Wire

Looking back over the five seasons of the show it is clear that the consequences of gang warfare of rarely positive for those sucked into that world. For every rival that is ‘taken care of’, another one quickly springs up apparently even more dangerous than the last. Even entirely reasonable and sensible truces across Balitmore can only last so long. Like City of God and Lord of the Flies, The Wire shows the consequences in making enemies in a place where the rest of the world is mostly ambivalent to your fate.

Gran torino movie 01  1

2. Gran Torino

It’s perhaps ironic that one of Hollywood’s few card-carrying Republicans is willing to challenge the NRA’s philosophy that “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Yet Gran Torino works as a nice juxtaposition to Eastwood’s maverick cop who always gets results in Dirty Harry.

Romeo and juliet still

3. Romeo and Juliet (any version, including West Side Story)

Shakespeare’s play is one of “if only’s”. The ones that stick in the audience’s mind mainly involve dagger and poison. Yet traced back, we can think of the violence committed by and to the Capulet’s and Montague’s and wonder what would have happened if someone chose not to take offense at the “biting of thumbs”. Regardless, the play’s ending serves as a powerful reminder that revenge is a dangerous and volatile thing

Doctor who poster

4. Doctor Who

This show rightly gains praise for its imagination and creativity. However, one aspect that is easily forgotten is that The Doctor is one of the few superheroes who makes a point of never carrying a weapon, despite almost always being surrounded by terrifying, violent villains. Instead, like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes he relies on his intelligence and ability to read other people to get out of situations. As a side note it is perhaps entirely appropriate that Hollywood chose to make Downey’s Sherlock into an ass-kicking detective. One can only shudder at what they might do if they got their hands on The Doctor.

District 9 poster

5. District 9

In many ways this film could only be set in South Africa, serving as very powerful allegory of life under apartheid. Yet one could easily imagine the prawns in Nazi Germany or The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Blomkamp’s sci-fi film serves as a powerful reminder of the consequences of de-humanising another race or ethnicity. The film shows us how easy it is to pin our troubles on those we view as most different to us. However, perhaps we are far more similar to them than we realize.


4 responses to “Five Films/TV Shows That Tackle “The Myth of Redemptive Violence”

  1. In a certain level of defence to Robert Downey Jr Sherlock it should be noted that Sherlock Holmes did use violence on occasion: see the section on weapons. He used a pistol and was an expert bare knuckle fighter and martial artist, which he made use of on several occasions

  2. District 9 actually struck me the other way. While it had very strong references to apartheid and in general to inhumane treatment and its consequences, there was a very strong sense of redemptive violence.

    In one scene, the alien actually calls the main character out for killing a human, saying (paraphrased) “Didn’t you say no killing?” This is never again referenced but body parts are flying around regularly and enemies dissolved in a flash of blue… something.

    • (Potential SPOILERS for District 9 below)

      @Phoenix, I agree that the violence in District 9 is troubling, and that Wikus is certainly not a perfect character. However, whether Wikus feels the violence he carried out was worth it or not, or part of a redemptive narrative is unclear. He himself does not get to carry out retribution on his main adversary (although he does not prevent it); and I get the impression he comes out of the story with a much less favourable view of violence than he began it with.

      I suppose the question of whether the violence is redemptive or not comes down your point of view of whether violence can ever be justified, and if so, when?

      Even if we decide Wikus actions are not justified, the reason I really chose the film is because it takes us on an arc where the prawns are at first seen as horrible creatures to a place where we see they are just as important as us. One of the biggest flaws of modern cinema is to create enemies who are so clearly evil that the violence carried out is entirely justified. The danger in this of course is that if we create a narrative where a certain group of people are seen as ‘clearly evil’ we have no problem with the kind of violence normally reserved for our movie screens being enacted in real life.

      • I can easily agree with most of your comments and can see that I have been nitpicking to quite some degree. I do want to pick up on one concept you mentioned, though. I do not believe that justifiability has a connection to redemptive violence as it is discussed here. Every movie “justifies” their action bits. There may an evil terrorist, aliens may be plotting to take over the world or a murder may be on the loose, setting the stage for any of our old action heroes to kick some ***. District 9 reverses that inasmuch as the invaders are shown as the oppressed. And Wikus gets thrown into a situation where he is treated like he has been treating others. Beautiful.
        Upon further consideration, there is actually an imbalance in the movie (by design?) between the viewer’s perception of the gravity of the situation and the government’s actions in regards to Wikus.
        The violence may have been geared to be over-the-top to even create this level of uneasiness – as a comment on the insanity of the situation.
        Sorry about the off-topic bit. Just a thought that struck me…

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