The Avengers and scientist heroes

May 14, 2012

One of the movies I despise (I have a list of them — movies that make my blood burn just thinking of them) is the War of the Worlds remake starring Tom Cruise that came out several years ago.  The reasons for my dislike are many:  the thing made no sense (jet crashed in driveway, house still standing, huh?), too much cloying moppet, and its dedication to showing how terrible people can be to each other.  Mostly, I despaired because of what the movie demonstrated about where our culture is going.  The original George Pal War of the Worlds is great — it’s still scary, it still generally holds up, and the best part is the main characters are scientists trying to figure things out and solve problems.  The main character of the remake?  A guy who spends the whole movie running around in terror and losing his kids.

For a stretch of time, from about the early nineties on, SF movies haven’t generally featured scientist heroes.  No, scientists are the villains who create monsters in labs, who deal with powers they don’t understand, who unleash horrors upon the world with their hubris.  I’m thinking of Brent Spiner’s character in Independence Day, the inept alien keeper who ends up smashed on the glass.  James Franco’s completely inept character in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Any number of scientist characters in late night SyFy monster movies.  You know the character I’m talking about.  I propose that these characters do not speak well of how the culture generally perceives scientists:  they are people who create problems, rather than solving them.

Which brings me to The Avengers, and one of the things I really like about it, which is Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, in their lab, geeking out over science and solving problems with science.  (Their terminology may not be one hundred percent accurate, but at least they tried.)  Scientist heroes.  Heroes being unabashed fans of science.  And other characters listening to them.  Between this and Big Bang Theory and Contagion and a couple of other examples running around, maybe we’re leaving behind the age of scientist as villain, and we’ll be seeing more scientist heroes.  Speaking of which, isn’t it time for a Buckaroo Banzai remake?

I also decided that Val Kilmer’s character in Real Genius may very well be young Tony Stark, incognito.  What do you think?

11 Responses to “The Avengers and scientist heroes”


  1. Well, to be fair, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds didn’t really focus on scientists either, but rather on a group of ordinary (albeit somewhat middle-to-upper-class) people running around and generally trying to hide from the invading Martians.

  2. saxon75 Says:

    Given how old and thoroughly codified the trope of the scientist villain is in SF cinema (e.g. Frankenstein) I sort of doubt we’re seeing the end of that era.

  3. Andrew Says:

    It would be really interesting for someone to do some kind of study of the role of scientists in pop culture as compared to the social and political attitudes toward science.

  4. Doruk Says:

    I hope we don’t lose scientist-as-villain archetype. I don’t want to have practiced my evil laugh for nothing😉

  5. Jakk Says:

    Real Genius is one of my all time favorite comedies, but Tony Stark feels more irresponsible than Chris Knight ever was. Similar but not the same.

  6. Julie Says:

    Since Shane Black is doing Iron Man 3, I would love to see Val Kilmer make a cameo appearance in it…

  7. DebbieW Says:

    We **definitely** need more Buckaroo Banzai, as long as it’s not like the recent comic released. Even though it was written by creator Earl Mac Rauch, who wrote the original book, the comic was full of obscenities and not at all like the spirit of Buckaroo!

    If only we could have seen “Buckaroo Banzai vs. The World Crime League” as promised. The studio that made the film went bankrupt and no sequel was possible because of all the legal garbage.


  8. Didnt’ the original (did I imagine a remake?) Andromeda Strain have scientists as the heroes?

    And Star Trek in general had a mixed bag, but generally science and technology was, if not revered, then respected.

    If you stretch the definition of scientist to engineer (Sheldon would disagree, and Howard would be aggrieved), then Apollo 13 was a good recruiting film for geeks. Though, I suppose it hardly counts as sci-fi, even if the movie itself stretched the truth a bit.

  9. Shrike58 Says:

    Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark comes real close to being Buckaroo Banzai.

  10. Markysan Says:

    I think scientist as a villain is a step up from how they’re regarded in society today. If there’s any REAL science and research going on they need to advertise it more. These days it seems as though scientists are for sale, producing results on demand for politicians and corporations alike. I have a hard time seeing any scientist like that as a hero.

  11. David Bowles Says:

    Markysan, that could not be further from the truth. The vast majority of scientists work on in labs doing good science. The scientific review process as to what gets published does not involve politicians, nor do politicians directly decide what gets funded. They just allocate money, and then other people decide what gets funded.

    Corps, for the most part, have ran for the doors when it comes to research. Research is slow, expensive, and *risky*. They sure do like to swoop in and buy up rights to a good idea from a university lab, though.

    The real problem is that the scientific low-hanging fruits are all gone. Progress today is slow, expensive, and generally not easily understood by the public at large. It’s hard to advertise “boring.”


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