Aristotle and me on “The Avengers”

We saw The Avengers, the movie that’s setting box office records.  We went whole hog, springing for the version in 3-D AND Imax.

Like other comic book movies, it was mostly what Aristotle in his Poetics called “spectacle.”   Movies today go all out with high-tech special effects.  They can be fun to watch.  (Though frankly I have not yet seen a new generation 3-D flick that made satisfying use of that technology, including this one.  A trailer for the new Spider Man movie was more promising, showing a deeper field of vision than the usual flatness with a few things jumping out at you.  I didn’t think the Imax version of “The Avengers” added that much either.)  Anyway, the overall spectacle of “The Avengers” was fun.  But as Aristotle goes on to say, spectacle is the lowest level of dramatic art.

In addition to spectacle, though, unlike many comic book movies, “The Avengers” also had interesting characters, well-rendered and, in what is often considered optional for the genre, well-acted.  “The Avengers” put serious actors like Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johannsen in silly superhero costumes.  But it paid off!  The computer-enhanced Ruffalo–who was sensitive and angst-ridden as Bruce Banner– made a great Incredible Hulk.  One of my favorite parts of the movie was when Scarlett Johannsen, as the Black Widow, took a call on her cell while she was on the verge of being tortured and complained to the caller, “I’m working!”, going on to thrash the Russian interrogator while she was still tied up in her chair.

There were other good moments.  Captain America, being of the Greatest Generation (waking up in our day after being frozen), dismissing Loki’s claim to be a god by saying that “There’s only one God.  And I don’t think he dresses like you do” [something like that].  And did anyone catch what the Hulk said, in one of his few actual lines, when he was flailing Loki about?  Some comment about his alleged divinity.  (In the Marvel universe, the residents of Asgard like Thor and Loki are not so much deities as they were to the Norse and Germanic pagans; rather, they are denizens of another planet.)

Still, though, there was not enough of what Aristotle considered the most important part of a drama.  Namely, the story.  I prefer plots with twists and turns, a narrative that goes somewhere, with maybe surprises along the way.  There wasn’t a lot of that in this movie, basically just good guys and bad guys fighting each other.  Internal conflict is far more interesting, as in, to cite another comic book movie, The Dark Knight, which is also being reprised this summer.  Aristotle’s heroes are not just “good guys”; rather, they are noble figures who have a tragic flaw–a hamartia, which is the New Testament word for “sin”–that gives them complexity and doom.

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    I think you’ll get a good story, Dr. Veith, if you go to see Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to his 1979 film, Alien. No face-huggers or chest-bursters in this one. It deals instead with our search for the alien race that created those nasty creatures. (Remember the mysterious, crashed spaceship with its giant, mummified pilot in the first film?) And though it was shot with 3D cameras, Scott says he used them to create immersive depth, not gimmicks.

    In theaters June 8th.

  • Tom Hering

    I think you’ll get a good story, Dr. Veith, if you go to see Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to his 1979 film, Alien. No face-huggers or chest-bursters in this one. It deals instead with our search for the alien race that created those nasty creatures. (Remember the mysterious, crashed spaceship with its giant, mummified pilot in the first film?) And though it was shot with 3D cameras, Scott says he used them to create immersive depth, not gimmicks.

    In theaters June 8th.

  • Tom Hering

    A different, hopefully working link for the Prometheus trailer:

    http://www.prometheus-movie.com/prometheus-trailers/

  • Tom Hering

    A different, hopefully working link for the Prometheus trailer:

    http://www.prometheus-movie.com/prometheus-trailers/

  • WebMonk

    The line you’re looking for from the Hulk after Loki dismissed and scolded him as a brute who had no right to be in the room with Loki -

    Loki: “I am a god you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by…”

    Hulk completely trashes Loki.

    Hulk: “Puny god.”

  • WebMonk

    The line you’re looking for from the Hulk after Loki dismissed and scolded him as a brute who had no right to be in the room with Loki -

    Loki: “I am a god you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by…”

    Hulk completely trashes Loki.

    Hulk: “Puny god.”

  • WebMonk

    There were a lot of other parts that I thought were really excellent.

    The old soldier’s line to Loki: “There are always men like you.”

    Captain America saving the old soldier. It was predictable, but still a great moment.

    Captain America’s line “There is only one God, and I don’t think he dresses like that.”

    Hulk’s casual smack-away of Thor.

    Stark’s poking of Banner.

    Agent Colson’s lines to Loki about how Loki will fail: “You’re going to fail.” “Am I?” “It’s in your nature.”

  • WebMonk

    There were a lot of other parts that I thought were really excellent.

    The old soldier’s line to Loki: “There are always men like you.”

    Captain America saving the old soldier. It was predictable, but still a great moment.

    Captain America’s line “There is only one God, and I don’t think he dresses like that.”

    Hulk’s casual smack-away of Thor.

    Stark’s poking of Banner.

    Agent Colson’s lines to Loki about how Loki will fail: “You’re going to fail.” “Am I?” “It’s in your nature.”

  • SKPeterson

    On a related note – the first Hobbit movie will be coming out soon and uses a film rate of 48 frames per second as opposed to the old versions which use 24. Apparently this results in a much crisper and realistic film experience, although audience reception has been mixed (young people love it as it is evocative of what they have been viewing in modern PC/Xbox/PS3 games, while oldsters cannot seem to adjust as easily to the new).

    http://www.npr.org/2012/04/30/151713708/preview-screeners-balk-at-hobbit-frame-rate

    http://www.theverge.com/2012/4/28/2985047/peter-jackson-comments-hobbit-frame-rate

    http://the-hobbit-movie.com/

  • SKPeterson

    On a related note – the first Hobbit movie will be coming out soon and uses a film rate of 48 frames per second as opposed to the old versions which use 24. Apparently this results in a much crisper and realistic film experience, although audience reception has been mixed (young people love it as it is evocative of what they have been viewing in modern PC/Xbox/PS3 games, while oldsters cannot seem to adjust as easily to the new).

    http://www.npr.org/2012/04/30/151713708/preview-screeners-balk-at-hobbit-frame-rate

    http://www.theverge.com/2012/4/28/2985047/peter-jackson-comments-hobbit-frame-rate

    http://the-hobbit-movie.com/

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    WHAT!?!? There are no Aliens in the prequel to Alien!?!? What’s the point of that!? The Xenomorphs were the best part of that movie!

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    WHAT!?!? There are no Aliens in the prequel to Alien!?!? What’s the point of that!? The Xenomorphs were the best part of that movie!

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Oh, the other great line: “Dost thy mother know thou art wearing her drapes?”

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Oh, the other great line: “Dost thy mother know thou art wearing her drapes?”

  • http://www.whenisayrunrun.blogspot.com Andrew

    I am drawn to a story internal conflict, but what I find far more interesting is a redemption story with the needed internal conflict. One day I will get to the movie theater far too many movies to see and not enough time, or baby sitting money :(

  • http://www.whenisayrunrun.blogspot.com Andrew

    I am drawn to a story internal conflict, but what I find far more interesting is a redemption story with the needed internal conflict. One day I will get to the movie theater far too many movies to see and not enough time, or baby sitting money :(

  • WebMonk

    I thought The Avengers was surprisingly deep for its genre. The genre is pure spectacle – adventure, lots of awesome visuals, witty lines, special effects, etc. The Avengers nailed all that in spades, and while it was a long way from being a movie that relies on the “story” – it had better “story” than the typical superhero movie spectacular.

    It had the difficulty of having so many major screen-magnets, but the development of Loki was pretty good, considering. From the old man, to Agent Coleson, to Stark’s dissection of Loki’s end point (there’s-no-way-for-you-to-win-even-if-you-win), I thought the “story” of Loki was pretty good. Better than most/any of the heroes.

  • WebMonk

    I thought The Avengers was surprisingly deep for its genre. The genre is pure spectacle – adventure, lots of awesome visuals, witty lines, special effects, etc. The Avengers nailed all that in spades, and while it was a long way from being a movie that relies on the “story” – it had better “story” than the typical superhero movie spectacular.

    It had the difficulty of having so many major screen-magnets, but the development of Loki was pretty good, considering. From the old man, to Agent Coleson, to Stark’s dissection of Loki’s end point (there’s-no-way-for-you-to-win-even-if-you-win), I thought the “story” of Loki was pretty good. Better than most/any of the heroes.

  • http://gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    “Loki: “I am a god you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by…”

    Hulk completely trashes Loki.

    Hulk: “Puny god.””

    Would have been better with Joseph Smith instead of Loki.

  • http://gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    “Loki: “I am a god you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by…”

    Hulk completely trashes Loki.

    Hulk: “Puny god.””

    Would have been better with Joseph Smith instead of Loki.

  • #4 Kitty

    One of my favorite parts of the movie was when Scarlett Johannsen, as the Black Widow, took a call on her cell while she was on the verge of being tortured and complained to the caller, “I’m working!”

    It’s funny because we’ve all had jobs like that.

  • #4 Kitty

    One of my favorite parts of the movie was when Scarlett Johannsen, as the Black Widow, took a call on her cell while she was on the verge of being tortured and complained to the caller, “I’m working!”

    It’s funny because we’ve all had jobs like that.

  • Med Student

    I just went to see it and really enjoyed it. I especially liked how funny it is. Much as I love Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman, it’s very dark; this, on the other hand, was witty as much of Joss Whedon’s work is. I also appreciated that it was easy enough to follow along even for people like me who haven’t read the comics and only watched the “intro” films for one of the characters (Iron Man).

  • Med Student

    I just went to see it and really enjoyed it. I especially liked how funny it is. Much as I love Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman, it’s very dark; this, on the other hand, was witty as much of Joss Whedon’s work is. I also appreciated that it was easy enough to follow along even for people like me who haven’t read the comics and only watched the “intro” films for one of the characters (Iron Man).

  • http://andrewboll.com Andrew Boll

    Dr. Veith and the other Andrew:
    One of the greatest joys of teaching high school English for seven years has been showing students the universal human condition that is encompassed by all the old stories of heroic valor. The “hubris” of the hero, or whatever other tragic flaw they face, is a valuable part of the “Hero’s Journey” motif. It’s great to see how these heroes undergo a “death and rebirth” or “redemption” (as Andrew put it). But best of all is the way these stories reflect the greatest Hero, Jesus Christ, who redeemed a doomed and lost world by His own sacrifice. These are the stories that really stick with us long after the Hollywood hype and rave reviews have died away, because God has placed this theme within our very hearts.

  • http://andrewboll.com Andrew Boll

    Dr. Veith and the other Andrew:
    One of the greatest joys of teaching high school English for seven years has been showing students the universal human condition that is encompassed by all the old stories of heroic valor. The “hubris” of the hero, or whatever other tragic flaw they face, is a valuable part of the “Hero’s Journey” motif. It’s great to see how these heroes undergo a “death and rebirth” or “redemption” (as Andrew put it). But best of all is the way these stories reflect the greatest Hero, Jesus Christ, who redeemed a doomed and lost world by His own sacrifice. These are the stories that really stick with us long after the Hollywood hype and rave reviews have died away, because God has placed this theme within our very hearts.

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    I agree -on your takes:
    the 3-D version – could have done with out it-
    story line-not much-
    the overall view that warriors (and all Christians must be ‘warriors’-my take) – must stick together- and watch each others’ backs..was a good point in the film-
    Carol-CS

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    I agree -on your takes:
    the 3-D version – could have done with out it-
    story line-not much-
    the overall view that warriors (and all Christians must be ‘warriors’-my take) – must stick together- and watch each others’ backs..was a good point in the film-
    Carol-CS

  • Pingback: Quote for the day: 13-05-2012 | Blowfish12

  • Pingback: Quote for the day: 13-05-2012 | Blowfish12

  • fws

    andrew boll @13

    Tolkein refers to Christ as the meta-myth exactly as you say. he says that the reason all myths are so very similar is that it is the faint recollection of the human race back to the time when they all knew the gospel promise and the story of the fall and promised redemption. I think tolkein was onto something,

    It is interesting that others interpret this data in the opposite direction saying that the Christ Mythic is a copy of all the other myths.

  • fws

    andrew boll @13

    Tolkein refers to Christ as the meta-myth exactly as you say. he says that the reason all myths are so very similar is that it is the faint recollection of the human race back to the time when they all knew the gospel promise and the story of the fall and promised redemption. I think tolkein was onto something,

    It is interesting that others interpret this data in the opposite direction saying that the Christ Mythic is a copy of all the other myths.

  • http://google Marta

    Old guy: Are you an Alien?
    Bruce: What?
    Old man: From out of space, an Alien?
    Bruce: No
    Old guy: Well then son, you got a condition.

  • http://google Marta

    Old guy: Are you an Alien?
    Bruce: What?
    Old man: From out of space, an Alien?
    Bruce: No
    Old guy: Well then son, you got a condition.

  • Bob

    Hello Folks,

    Marvel is getting the better of DC in the movie business. I loved The Avengers and Iron Man (though Iron Man 2 was awful). Captain America was a great flick. Green Lantern was woeful.

    The quote about God by Captain America stuck with me for days. I felt inspired by it. I’ve also become a Chris Evans fan. The other day they ran ‘Cellular’ on tv. It is a witty and fun movie.

    The only negative for me was Black Widow in The Avengers. I tire of what I call ‘Amazon Feminism’. It seems so ‘play-ground’. What little boys can do little girls can do, that kind of thing. According to George Gilder, such images only end up glorifying the male body anyway. The above said, I do admire assertive and confident women. My example of a bold and assertive feminism that I like would be Angie Harmon portraying the assistant DA on “Law and Order”.

    Take care, everyone.

  • Bob

    Hello Folks,

    Marvel is getting the better of DC in the movie business. I loved The Avengers and Iron Man (though Iron Man 2 was awful). Captain America was a great flick. Green Lantern was woeful.

    The quote about God by Captain America stuck with me for days. I felt inspired by it. I’ve also become a Chris Evans fan. The other day they ran ‘Cellular’ on tv. It is a witty and fun movie.

    The only negative for me was Black Widow in The Avengers. I tire of what I call ‘Amazon Feminism’. It seems so ‘play-ground’. What little boys can do little girls can do, that kind of thing. According to George Gilder, such images only end up glorifying the male body anyway. The above said, I do admire assertive and confident women. My example of a bold and assertive feminism that I like would be Angie Harmon portraying the assistant DA on “Law and Order”.

    Take care, everyone.

  • http://conservativenewager.wordpress.com/ Cris

    Did we watch the same movie?

    First, while there where many fun action scenes (which was half the point of the movie and the genre), almost every scene with dialogue was about conflict between the characters and them dealing with their individual flaws…and each character did have flaws (Captain America, overly obedient, Iron Man arrogance, Banner his fear and rage, Thor his inability to accept the reality that his brother is evil, Black Widow her guilt). This movie may not have been about the internal conflict of an individual, but about the internal conflict of a group of flawed individuals, each rising above their own flaws and becoming something better when they work together…so I think that critique is unfair.

    Second, your use of Aristotle is wildly inappropriate for this context. Aristotle’s discussion of hamartia is directly in reference to the very specific form of tragedy…which this movie certainly was not. (Also in the context of Aristotle’s “Poetics”, hamartia is not so much sin as it is the quality that is off from the ideal mean and it dealt not only with the flaw of the character but with the punishment they received being off from justice (which is what makes it a tragedy). If anything, given that Greek Drama had only tragedy and comedy, and “The Avengers” would be a comedy under that description, it is wildly inappropriate to apply Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy to this film (unless you’ve found the missing 2nd half of “Poetics” which has Aristotle’s discussion of comedy…and if you do have this document which has been lost for 2,000 years, please share).

    Further in his ethical works Aristotle makes frequent references to art being there to provide us models of behavior that we should use…so I think Aristotle did like have “just good guys” in some literature and art (just maybe not tragedy) so long as they are also realistic to how humans actually act, which I think Joss Whedon’s writing did very well.

  • http://conservativenewager.wordpress.com/ Cris

    Did we watch the same movie?

    First, while there where many fun action scenes (which was half the point of the movie and the genre), almost every scene with dialogue was about conflict between the characters and them dealing with their individual flaws…and each character did have flaws (Captain America, overly obedient, Iron Man arrogance, Banner his fear and rage, Thor his inability to accept the reality that his brother is evil, Black Widow her guilt). This movie may not have been about the internal conflict of an individual, but about the internal conflict of a group of flawed individuals, each rising above their own flaws and becoming something better when they work together…so I think that critique is unfair.

    Second, your use of Aristotle is wildly inappropriate for this context. Aristotle’s discussion of hamartia is directly in reference to the very specific form of tragedy…which this movie certainly was not. (Also in the context of Aristotle’s “Poetics”, hamartia is not so much sin as it is the quality that is off from the ideal mean and it dealt not only with the flaw of the character but with the punishment they received being off from justice (which is what makes it a tragedy). If anything, given that Greek Drama had only tragedy and comedy, and “The Avengers” would be a comedy under that description, it is wildly inappropriate to apply Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy to this film (unless you’ve found the missing 2nd half of “Poetics” which has Aristotle’s discussion of comedy…and if you do have this document which has been lost for 2,000 years, please share).

    Further in his ethical works Aristotle makes frequent references to art being there to provide us models of behavior that we should use…so I think Aristotle did like have “just good guys” in some literature and art (just maybe not tragedy) so long as they are also realistic to how humans actually act, which I think Joss Whedon’s writing did very well.


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