Vigilante movies have increased and decreased in waves, but they have been consistently around for at least a few decades. They were very big in the 1970s, with classic titles like Death Wish and Dirty Harry, and then again in the 2000s, the latter surge being attributed to Americans' post-9/11 desire for vengeance. In general, they function as empowering fantasies for people who wish they could take the law into their own hands but never actually would. And the new missing-child drama Prisoners should do just that for many viewers, particularly those who are parents.
Not all examples are so dark as this new release, though. In the past decade, for instance, vigilantism has also been prevalent with superhero movies. Batman in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is a popular example, but even Spider-Man is considered a vigilante, albeit less of a ruthless antihero type. Often it's the films aiming for more realistic scenarios and violence, such as James Gunn's Superhero, that are most akin to what we consider as the act of vigilantism. Then again, there's The Crow, which is hardly realistic at all.
There is also a contrast between those movies in which the vigilante is definitely meant to be a "good guy" -- you can just look to the titles of early Steven Seagal movies for that kind (Out for Justice; Above the Law) -- and those where the vigilante is not necessarily a "bad guy" but is someone who ultimately winds up punished for being a morally questionable character. Some favorites in the latter category include Taxi Driver and Falling Down. One type we don't see enough of are female-vigilante movies, although Hard Candy, Coffy and The Brave One are all greats in such a small bunch.
Do you have a favorite vigilante movie? Share your pick below.