Avenging dead wives: what films like Mad Max and Mandy get right

'Fridging' female characters to lend emotional depth to male leads is a gross trope, but sometimes revenge is sweet.

The comedy-action superhero comic adaptation Deadpool 2 (2018) opens on a disappointingly familiar scene. Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) and his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) celebrate Wade’s birthday, but they are interrupted by a home invasion during which Vanessa is killed. Many viewers recognised this as a ‘fridging’, a term that describes the frequency with which female characters are killed as motivation for male protagonists.

The trope is named ‘fridging’ after the fate of Alexandra DeWitt, a character from the Green Lantern comics whose body was found in a refrigerator, a plot beat that inspired comics writer (then critic) Gail Simone to catalogue this trope on the website Women In Refrigerators.

The trope was especially frustrating in Deadpool 2 because the film feature’s Marvel’s most self-aware character, who frequently addresses the audience to comment on the comic book nonsense he is enduring.

The writers of Deadpool 2 have said in interviews that they didn’t realise that fridging was such a common trope, which if anything is more concerning. Even the writers of a film that’s supposed to comment on comic book tropes fell into an especially common and troublesome one.

Deadpool 2. Who left the fridge open? Image: 20th Century Fox.

The problem with fridging is that it’s a shortcut used to add emotional depth to a character at the expense of another character. ‘Dead wife’ is just something that gets added to a protagonist like a scar or a middle name. A particularly outlandish example is Law Abiding Citizen (2009), in which Clyde (Gerard Butler) violently avenges his wife and daughter, whose names we never even learn.

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These people were important enough to be avenged, but they are listed in the credits as Clyde’s Wife and Clyde’s Daughter. Who they were as people is not important to the film – they only exist to make the first scene as shocking and violent as possible, in turn justifying the violence of the rest of the movie.

Okay, I’ve made my case: fridging is bad, and movies suck when male protagonists avenge their wives, right? You fool! You’ve fallen right into my trap, and now I get to talk about Mandy!


The truth is that I like revenge movies, including a bunch where male protagonists avenge their wives. Take Mandy for example, in which Red (Nicolas Cage), upon witnessing the murder of his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), gruesomely and spectacularly kills every member of the cult and the biker gang responsible.

The first half of Mandy is a beautiful love story about two people comforting and protecting each other. Not much is made explicit about their pasts, but there are hints that Red had substance abuse issues, and that Mandy’s childhood was filled with violence. What is clear is what their life is like now, the peace they’ve found together in their remote mountain cabin.

That peace is exploded by cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), who attempts to kidnap Mandy, but chooses to kill her instead when she mocks his terrible self-published folk record (a reasonable and justified reaction). This leaves Red to come to terms with the unbearable unfairness of a world where Mandy is dead but the Cheddar Goblin is allowed to live.

What gives Mandy such power as a revenge movie is the first half. Spending so much time with Red and Mandy together allows the audience to understand who she is as a person (something Jeremiah was never interested in doing), and to understand the void her absence leaves in Red’s life.

The incredible violence that Jeremiah inflicted on a woman who rejected him is felt for what it is: a pathetic and selfish act by a pathetic and selfish man. This is why it is so satisfying to watch Red destroy everything Jeremiah has built.

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In this way Mandy is similar to the first Mad Max (1979). Wherever the plot of Mad Max is summarised, revenge is front and centre. iMDb and Wikipedia describe Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) as ‘vengeful’ or a ‘vigilante’ within the first sentences. And yet revenge makes up less than 25% of the film, mathematically speaking. The film is 90 minutes long, and Max’s wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and their baby are killed at the 70-minute mark.

Max and Jessie Rockantansky. Image: Roadshow Entertainment.

Max’s revenge rampage, while gruesome, only lasts 20 minutes. Most of the film is spent establishing the violent and cruel world that the Rockatansky family live in, and on the slow, unrelenting advance of Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his gang. Mad Max is another movie that sends its main man on a revenge mission but first lets the audience get to know the woman he’s avenging.

John Wick

So is the secret to a good avenging-the-wife plot as simple as keeping the wife alive for as long as possible? Not quite. While John Wick (Keanu Reeves) of 2014’s John Wick isn’t technically avenging his wife, her death does motivate him.

Helen (Bridget Moynahan) only appears in flashbacks, but her presence makes itself known through Daisy, the puppy she arranges to have sent to John so that he does not have to grieve her death alone. John’s past as a hitman didn’t exactly leave him with constructive ways to process his feelings, which is unfortunate for Iosef (Alfie Allen), the son of John’s former boss, who steals John’s car and kills that puppy, bringing the full extent of John’s wrath upon the whole criminal enterprise.

John Wick and Helen in better times. Image: Lionsgate.

The puppy is so explicitly a metaphor that there may as well be a glowing neon sign on the screen that says METAPHOR whenever she shows up. As the last gift Helen gave John, Daisy represented everything John left his life of crime for. She was a reminder that John is capable of loving and being loved.

The puppy was John’s opportunity to process his emotions without falling back into the violence of his past, so when Iosef kills the puppy, John has nothing left but violence. You can’t punch a terminal illness, but you can kill the prick who killed your dog, and that’s close enough.

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Each of these examples have one thing in common: they all make the audience fall in love with the wife that the protagonist avenges. Mandy, Jessie, and Helen are people in a way that Clyde’s Wife is not. I want these protagonists to avenge their wives because I miss them too.

Writing a trope into a narrative doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it’s just that it often is. There is a right way and a wrong way to avenge a wife, and the right way means putting just as much effort into understanding her as understanding the man who avenges her.

Mandy, Mad Max, and John Wick are all available on Stan Australia.

PhD candidate in cinema and screen studies based in Naarm. My current research area is revenge and justice in teen film, and I like to write about genre films, feminism and queer theory. I co-host a podcast called Pill Pop, an audio roadtrip for the chronically ill.