This paper will explore how stories of (mostly) white male vengeance attempt to provide a fillip to traditional masculinity that perceives itself to be under siege. In films such as Taken and its sequels, Death Wish, Seeking Justice, Stolen, Vengeance, I Am Wrath and Code of Honor, the white male vigilante begins obsolete, often unemployed or retired. Inspired by the desire to avenge or protect loved ones, the vigilante’s violence is thus an attempt to reassert his position as a breadwinner and patriarch. Indeed, the use of fading stars of the 1980s and 1990s (Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, Steven Seagal) appears to be an attempt to shore up a sense of traditional masculinity at the precise moment when such a construct seems to be in inevitable, permanent decline.
This paper will explore the politics of this particular cycle in the genre, arguing that its resurgence is concomitant with discourses of ‘white male economic anxiety’ that have accompanied the aftermath of the Great Recession, and were given particular and prominent expression by Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign (and subsequent victory). Despite changing times, the vigilante film clings steadfastly to its misogyny and racism, and its uncomplicated embrace of violence as a solution. Whereas figures like Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry) and Paul Kersey (Death Wish) inspired controversial anti-hero worship, today’s white male vigilantes seem out of place, and out of time. This paper will consider the politics of this generational shift and displacement.