One of the standard interpretations of the Superman mythology goes something like this: Clark Kent is a seeming weakling who is despised by the girl he wants. She is mean to him, but he wants her just the same. He doesn’t just want a relationship with her, he also wants her admiration. Clark has a secret self that is wonderful. By the public (and often violent) display of this secret self and its power, Clark reveals his greatness and wins the admiration that he should have had all along. He maintains his Clark Kent persona, but (Like Bill said in the Tarantino movie) lowly Clark Kent is not the truth about his place in the world. Kent is the joke he plays on a woman who both admires and despises him. It is a compelling dynamic for adolescents. It turns out that it can also be adapted for older males.
In Taken, Liam Neeson plays divorced father Bryan Mills. Mills just retired and moved closer to his ex-wife in order to reconnect with his estranged daughter. The movie is painfully adept at showing the frustration, loneliness and disappointment of a certain kind of divorced and single father. There are two Lois Lane’s in his life – his ex-wife and his daughter. There are the clashes with the ex-wife who would be at least as happy if he went and stayed away or failing that, be utterly obedient to whatever “rules” she decides upon at any given moment. He dotes on the Karaoke machine he is going to get his daughter for her seventeenth birthday (there is something especially touching about the short scene in which he wraps the present.) Bryan takes a picture of his daughter with the machine before he is utterly upstaged by her stepfather’s present of a horse. Back home alone, he puts the picture of his daughter into a scrapbook. He is pathetically giddy when his daughter invites him to lunch, only to learn that it was an ambush by daughter and ex-wife to give the girl permission to go to Paris. At one point, a friend of Bryan’s notes that she she will go off to college in a year and he will lose her. Bryan replies that he has a year to find her. But the truth, which is obvious to everyone but Bryan, is that he has permanently lost what he wants so much. He is Clark Kent: divorced middle-aged father. The rest of the movie might be a daydream, an attempt to escape the truth about his life.
Bryan’s friends come over to his apartment for steaks, wine and laughs. They talk over old times. These are the people he really invested his life into. The movie tries to tell us that it was all in the course of duty to country, but we know better. Just as Clark Kent was a stand-in for shy, frustrated adolescent boys who were not space aliens, Bryan Mills is a stand-in for men who lost their marriages and children because they overinvested elsewhere in their lives. And those men are mostly not world saving superspy assassins.
Bryan’s friends invite him to help in their job as security detail for some visiting female pop star. She treats him like nobody of course. But when a knife-wielding maniac attacks her, Bryan’s secret self emerges. He disarms the attacker and saves her life. The pop star doesn’t look at him like anonymous help anymore. She looks at him with undisguised admiration and promises to help out with his daughter’s aspirations of becoming a singer.
Then Bryan’s daughter is kidnapped by a European sex slavery ring. His secret self (which was only awaiting very unlikely danger to his loved ones) emerges again. His humbled ex-wife looks to him with desperate pleading. The man she shunned is now the center of her hopes and her world. She isn’t disappointed. Bryan uses great violence, ingenuity and cruelty to save his daughter from the large and politically well connected slavery ring. He doesn’t merely save his daughter’s life. He reconciles with her. She (and her mom) sees how great he is. He found her in every sense.
Along with being a very enjoyable thriller/action movie, Taken is a window into a certain kind of fantasy. It is a fantasy in which a lifetime of mistaken and self-indulgent choices can be redeemed by a moment (or a spree) of well directed violence. It is a fantasy that the disappointments, estrangements and regrets of the life we have made are not the truth of who we are. It is a fantasy that, by being seen in a moment of heroism, we can win the love, gratitude, and admiration we have not earned over years and decades.
We don’t see much of Bryan’s daughter working through the trauma of her ordeal. Bryan takes her to meet the pop star, and the girl is amazed. Her father’s secret self is even greater than she had imagined. All the women in Bryan’s life respect and admire him now that they have seen his real and secret self. His daughter being kidnapped, drugged and sold into sex slavery was the best thing that ever happened to him. Taken is the best and saddest Superman movie I’ve ever seen.