“The Avengers” and Friedrich Nietzsche

“The Avengers” and Friedrich Nietzsche May 5, 2015


By Very Rev. Robert Barron

C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their colleagues in the Inklings wanted to write fiction that would effectively “evangelize the imagination,” accustoming the minds, especially of young people, to the hearing of the Christian Gospel. Accordingly, Tolkien’s Gandalf is a figure of Jesus the prophet and Lewis’s Aslan a representation of Christ as both sacrificial victim and victorious king. Happily, the film versions of both The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia have proven to be wildly popular all over the world.

Not so happily, Joss Whedon’s “Avenger” films, the second of which has just appeared, work as a sort of antidote to Tolkien and Lewis, shaping the imaginations of young people so as to receive a distinctly different message. It is certainly relevant to my purpose here to note that Whedon, the auteur behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and many other well-received films and television programs, is a self-avowed atheist and has, on many occasions, signaled his particular dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church.

I won’t rehearse in too much detail the plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Suffice it to say that the world is threatened by an artificial intelligence, by the name of Ultron, who has run amok and incarnated himself in a particularly nasty robotic body. Ultron wants to destroy the human race and has produced an army of robots as his posse. Enter the Avengers –Tony Stark (Iron Man), the Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Thor — to do battle with the dark forces. There is an awful lot of CGI bumping and banging and blowing things up, but when the rubble settles, we see that the real struggle is over a perfect body — a synthesis of machine and flesh — that Ultron, with the help of brainwashed scientists, is designing for himself.

After pursuing the bad guys on a wild ride through the streets of Seoul, the Avengers recover the body, and Thor, using one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe or lightning or something, brings it to life.

Exuding light, intelligence, and calmness of spirit, this newly created robot/human/god floats above the ground and announces that his name is “I am.” Just before his climactic battle with Ultron, “I am” declares that order and chaos are two sides of the same coin and that wickedness is never eliminated but keeps coming around in an endless cycle.

Image Public Domain via WikimediaCommons
Image Public Domain via WikimediaCommons
Although some have seen Biblical themes at work in all of this, I see pretty much the opposite, namely, an affirmation of a Nietzschean view of life. Whedon, who was a philosophy student at university, delights in dropping references to the great thinkers in his work, and one of the most cited in “Ultron” is none other than the man I take to be the most influential of the 19th century philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche.

At a key moment in the film, Ultron in fact utters Nietzsche’s most famous one-liner: “what does not kill me makes me stronger,” and the observation made by the newly-created “I am” is a neat expression of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return of the same. At the heart of the German philosopher’s work is the declaration of the death of God, which signals that all values are relative, that we live in a space “beyond good and evil.” Into that space, Nietzsche contends, the Ubermensch, the superman, should confidently stride. This is a human being who has thrown off the shackles of religion and conventional morality and is able to exercise fully his Wille zur Macht (Will to Power). Asserting this will, the superman defines himself completely on his own terms, effectively becoming a god. Here we see the significant influence of Nietzsche on Sartre and the other existentialists of the twentieth century.

The Avengers is chock-a-block with Ubermenschen, powerful, willful people who assert themselves through technology and the hyper-violence that that technology makes possible. And the most remarkable instance of this technologically informed self-assertion is the creation of the savior figure, who self-identifies with the very words of Yahweh in the book of Exodus. But he is not the Word become flesh; instead, he is the coming together of flesh and robotics, produced by the flexing of the all too human will to power.

I find it fascinating that this pseudo-savior was brought about by players on both sides of the divide, by both Iron Man and Ultron. Like Nietzsche’s superman, he is indeed beyond good and evil — which is precisely why he cannot definitively solve the problems that bedevil the human race, and can only glumly predict the eternal return of trouble.

If you have any doubts about the Nietzschean intention of Joss Whedon, take a good look at the image that plays as The Avengers comes to a close. It is a neo-classical sculpture of all of the major figures in the film locked in struggle, straining against one another. It is in complete conformity with the aesthetic favored by Albert Speer, Leni Riefenstahl, and the other artists of the Nazi period.

What the Christian evangelist can seize upon in this film is the frank assertion that the will to power — even backed up by stunningly sophisticated technology –never finally solves our difficulties, that it, in point of fact, makes things worse. See the Tower of Babel narrative for the details.

And this admission teases the mind to consider the possibility that the human predicament can be addressed finally only through the invasion of grace. Once that door is opened, the Gospel can be proclaimed.

Barron 108Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, “Catholicism” and “Catholicism:The New Evangelization.” Learn more at www.WordonFire.org

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12 responses to ““The Avengers” and Friedrich Nietzsche”

  1. I haven’t seen the film. Is the “I AM” character to which Father Barron refers “The Vision – a reddish android with a diamond in his forehead?

  2. Not the central tenant of Nietzsche’s work at all. Only of one book.

  3. It’s what everyone cites and knows him for so it is de facto and for practical purposes the central tenant of Nietzsche.

  4. I guess it’s no surprise then that I adored the film because I fancy myself an Ubermensch. So yeah, consider me one of those ‘fanbrats’ who project themselves into people who rise above the mooks, bulldoze through them, and actually be something. And no, I am done feeling bad and feeling sorry about that.

    It’s funny how Fr. Barron is all about criticizing the Vision’s Nietzschean influence but doesn’t make a mention of Hawkeye’s little speech with Scarlet Witch in the final battle. The whole scene is basically a guy telling a little girl that it’s okay to be a little girl, running scared because that’s her choice. However, if her choice was to get out of her little corner, she has to grow up. Once she’s out there, she’s an Avenger.

    Following the logical lines of Fr. Barron’s critique, I guess it would’ve been better if Scarlet Witch stayed hiding in the corner. That’s really what all this ‘anti-Nietzschean’ sentiment is about. Citing the narrative of Babel is just another layer to the scaremongering. Thanks for proving that my reservations against my own religion are still legitimate. It just goes to show that the Church really did have a share of influence during a period of my life that centered on self-deprecation, self-defeat, and a masochistic call to love his own suffering. Today, I look upon that and I only feel disgust while being ever so grateful for my decision to end it all. I’ve accomplished far more in my career than I would’ve been as that self-loathing sorry excuse.

    With all due respect people but I am long done throwing myself at God’s feet, begging only for more punishment because of what I am. No longer am I throwing my life away to the whim of a deity, whose only ‘purpose’ for it seems to be that of an emotional rag doll for hellhounds. People in my life have had more respect for a man who’s firm in his decisions than a man who is constantly doubtful for fear of defying ‘God’s will.’


    For the record, I didn’t see characters straining against one another as the film was ending. A more accurate description would be all these mighty heroes, standing together against an insidious artificial brain with a god-complex which fancies itself as the ‘true savior’ of humanity. It really says something when religious people are uncomfortable with the parallels between that and the people who’ve chosen to seize power against supernatural forces that claim to know what’s ‘better’ for their lives.

  5. or its just a shallow and incorrect reading of Nietzsche. Take your pick plus his sister edited some of his works after his death so that they sympathised with Nazi doctrine. A shallow understanding of Nietzsche is no understanding at all.
    But whatever makes people feel smart…..

  6. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their colleagues in the Inklings wanted to write fiction that would effectively “evangelize the imagination,” accustoming the minds, especially of young people, to the hearing of the Christian Gospel. Accordingly, Tolkien’s Gandalf is a figure of Jesus the prophet

    Barron’s lumping of Tolkien’s style of fiction in with Lewis’ style of writing stories which were direct biblical allegories is absurd. Explicitly wrong.

    I don’t know that much about the writings of the other Inklings, but given how badly Reverend B. mangles Tolkien, I can’t imagine they’ve been given a fair representation in the father’s words.

  7. Can anyone here seriously and honestly respond to Lykex? He brings up very serious questions. VERY serious questions indeed. What does Catholicism look like in the real world? Does Catholicism truly lift up human beings as Father Barron often asserts? There are millions more like Lykex. Can Mother Church truly show Christ’s love to them?

  8. Shallow or not, my point is that Mark Hamill has done other things than Star Wars, but he is only Luke Skywalker in most people’s minds. The same is with Nietzsche. Appear entry, his other stuff did not have the impact or the staying power that his Superman thesis did….though I can appreciate your position greatly. It’s like when people shout at you, “Didn’t Jesus say to love everybody!?!”

  9. What total nonsense. As if the ascription of Nietzschean themes TO THE VILLAIN amounted to an endorsement!

  10. As for treating superheroes – people who deliberately dedicate their power to the common good, risking their lives for it, and doing so without being asked – as NIetschean Uebermenschen, well, I think NIetzsche would be very surprised indeed. He would see every one of them as conscience-ridden weaklings. Sorry, all Fr. Barron has really said is that he hates superheroes as a genre. That is a common enough fact. But I would remind him of a very sensible remark by CS Lewis: when you have a genre for which you have an instinctive aversion, DO NOT WRITE REVIEWS OF IT.

  11. “Conscience-ridden weaklings.” That is a really good point. Thanks for making it. We should remember that just because a word is used that does not mean it has the meaning we use it for. “Superman” could mean many things.

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