Redemption in Death: can Revenge be Superversive?

In the light of the latest box office hit, John Wick: Chapter 2, there’s a question one should ask. Namely, can a revenge storyline be Superversive?

That is … a good question.

First, let’s look at the standard revenge storyline. Take someone who has an abundance of combat skills, and then promptly kill off a girlfriend / boyfriend / spouse/ fiancé(e) / best friend / random family member / dog. After that, you have said person go on a murderous rampage. Usually, a person of the opposite sex to replace the person killed off in chapter two. This is a pretty standard plot, filled with the usual clichés.

The execution of John Wick is unique in that it defied many of those tropes. His wife is dead before the movie begins. She leaves behind a dog for him, specifically for him to care for, lest he not even take care of himself. When he is assaulted and his dog is killed, we discover that Mr. Wick used to be a very bad man. He had found redemption and salvation in love, and in his wife. Without his wife to anchor him, he is already adrift. Killing the dog? That gives him something to aim at. The rest of the movie is John Wick displaying that yes, he knows gun-fu.

However, is revenge even considered uplifting? It can be entertaining, but I’m not sure of anything else. Killing people just to make the main character isn’t usually considered a justifiable reason in a court of law. John Wick was fun, but is it Superversive?  If you tilt your head and squint a little, you could see it as an anti-hero who had found the light, and needs to fight back the darkness within by killing off the darkness from his past … but that’s a stretch and a half.

Now, I’m not saying that’s an invalid point, but this is not a Superversive defense of John Wick, but of a genre. Can there be a revenge novel?

I think the answer is yes …. and no. I will give you two books, one is Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, and the other is Codename: Winterborn.

In WFR, Richard Cypher’s father is murdered by the dark forces of the sinister Darken Rahl, a tyrant from the next land over who literally sacrifices children to his dark overlords. Even his name is evil. On the one end, destroying fell overlords and their demonic masters is page 1 in the Superversive handbook: bad guys are bad, good guys are good, and do we even need to have this conversation?

In Codename: Winterborn, intelligence officer Kevin Anderson is sent on a mission to the Islamic Republic of France – yes, France – and his team is betrayed by the politicians on the Senate Intelligence Committee. And just how do you arrest a senator in the United States? There has been more than sufficient evidence to arrest senators on everything from bribery and corruption to manslaughter, to supporting terrorists, but no one leaves in disgrace, and if anything happens, they get a slap on the wrist — and that’s TODAY. So, what’s a lone spy going to do against 14 senators who have betrayed their country, and who have not only killed his friends, but will probably kill others in the future?

Technically, both are variations on for tyrannicide; killing a tyrant who needs killing. You could take the example of suggesting that someone should shoot Saddam Hussein, and thus preventing a war, as well as preventing his routine slaughters. WFR is the classic example, especially in fanasy. The second case could be a new look at tyrannicide in a democracy – enforcing a new definition of term limits upon traitors.

Morally ambiguous? That depends on how fine a line you walk. And how much fun you have pushing the main character.

From one point of view, Goodkind’s book is certainly Superversive because of the ending, which is one of the best examples of a bad guy being defeated by the power of love that I’ve ever seen — and no, it’s not an exaggeration, the solution is love … and a magical super weapon. It’s also a coin toss about whether or not it is even a revenge novel, as Richard happens to possess the key to said magical superweapon, so Richard must also defeat Darken Rahl in order to stay alive.

In the case of Winterborn and the lead, Kevin Anderson, it splits the hair a little finer. Anderson has thought out his actions, and has come to the conclusion that the only way to protect the country is to fulfill his oath to defend against enemies both foreign and domestic – and these folks are very domestic. Rational, reasoned, and his actions fit within his conscience.

Unfortunately, that’s where one gets to a sticking point – when does a righteous cause become entangled with a personal vendetta? All the reason in the world can’t separate a person from his own emotions for very long. What happens when Kevin Anderson starts to enjoy his work? Answer: his conscience gut-punches him and leaves him crying into his New England clam chowder (long story).

At the end of the day, a purely revenge novel can’t be Superversive. There really must be other elements to the story. With Wizard’s First Rule, there is a dark and terrible overlord who is coming to kill the hero who is thrown down through love (it works. Trust me on this). With Codename: Winterborn, there is throwing down a traitorous cabal willing to destroy their own country, and may not be taken down any other way … there are also Catholic missionaries riding to the rescue in act three, but that’s another kettle of strange.

That is not to say a revenge story is outside the bounds of Superversive fiction, but it cannot be Superversive for the revenge alone. It must at least have some element of redemption. It must have some element of justice. At the very least, it must have something bigger than oneself and one person’s goals. It must be more A Desert Called Peace, and less The Count of Monte Cristo (Penguin Classics).

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award and Planetary award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.