From James Bond to Batman, recent movie heroes have been saving the world not out of cheerful duty but rather righteous anger. Can these figures be seen as psalmists in lament – crying out against the injustice of a fallen world – or is rage simply all the rage right now?
As the movie critic for a group of Chicago-area newspapers, I took in just about every Hollywood offering of 2008 and noticed one startling trend. The action films of this year were defined by “inconsolable rage,” to borrow a phrase used to describe Bond in “Quantum of Solace.”
The year began with no less of a vengeful movie icon than “Rambo.” This summer featured that overgrown poster child for anger issues, “The Incredible Hulk.” The year’s other superheroes were Robert Downey Jr.’s guilt-ridden “Iron Man” and Will Smith’s grouchy, self-hating “Hancock.” They may be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but these action heroes do so carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Amongst this tortured lot, Bond and Batman are the most burdened.
Can these figures be seen as psalmists in lament – crying out against the injustice of a fallen world – or is rage simply all the rage right now?
In “The Dark Knight,” Batman (Christian Bale) presides over a crime-ridden city on the brink of chaos. Then the Joker (Heath Ledger) shows up, more than happy to push it over the edge. Our hero’s hatred for this villain almost consumes him, to the point that the two nearly become mirror images of each other.
Compared to the frothier James Bond movies of the past, pure vengeance propels Bond (Daniel Craig) in “Quantum of Solace.” The movie picks up where the previous Bond film, “Casino Royale,” ended, with the British spy in pursuit of the criminals who murdered the only woman he had ever loved.
Fueled by outrage, you can imagine Bond or Batman uttering the words of David from Psalm 39: “My heart grew hot within me, and as I meditated, the fire burned.”
Anger has a righteous place in Scripture – I think immediately of Jesus driving out the money changers at the temple – but I’m not sure we can use such Biblical citations as a blanket justification for all Hollywood revenge movies.
“Quantum of Solace,” for instance, celebrates blind rage rather than righteous anger. Bond is little more than a killing machine here – a better-dressed Terminator – as he mows down anyone who stands in his way, leaving nary a suspect for the startled M (Judi Dench).
It’s the sort of dangerous, consuming emotion Paul warned us about in Ephesians 4:31: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”
This being a Bond movie, such anger isn’t condemned but rather elegantly stylized, even sexualized. If nothing else, Craig has returned a macho virility to the franchise that hasn’t been around since the days of Sean Connery. Yet this time there is a sadomasochistic undercurrent to the character’s sex appeal.
By comparison, “The Dark Knight” exhibits a more controlled anger, a recognition by its hero that pursuing vengeance at all cost will only lead to Joker-like madness.
For all its mesmerizing chase sequences and Imax-sized explosions, the picture’s defining moment is a small one. On the edge of a skyscraper, Batman and his nemesis are face to face, with the Joker dangling over the side, his life in the hero’s hands.
The fire no doubt burning in his heart, Batman nonetheless finds within himself a measure of compassion and grace - as well as the realization that dropping the Joker would not lead to true justice, but rather put him on that maniac’s level.
Or on the level of James Bond.