“The Avengers” vs. “The Revengers”

Why aren't they called "The Revengers"?

With the upcoming release of the super-superhero movie The Avengers, I’ve started to subject the title of the movies/comics to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve.

I found “Avengers” to be an odd title for a group of heroes. “Avenge” has a bit of a menacing quality to it, mostly due to its similarity with “vengeance” and “revenge” (more on “revenge” later). These are supposed to be the good guys, right?

First, let’s ground ourselves with a dictionary definition of the verb “avenge”:

  1. Inflict harm in return for (an injury or wrong done to oneself or another)
  2. Inflict such harm on behalf of (oneself or someone else previously wronged or harmed)

Inflicting harm on someone is an inescapable part of avenging, and very much what The Avengers will likely do in this movie. After all, it’s not called “The Mediators” or “The Kill-Them-With-Kindness-ers.”

This led me to think about the appearance of “avengers” and “avenging” in other movies, and whether or not they are portrayed in a positive light. To be systematic about it, I did an IMDB Quote Search on the word “avenge,” which returned quotes from movies (and TV shows as well, but we’re putting those aside for now) that include the word revenge. I took the top 20 results and classified them (to the best of my knowledge) as Positive, Negative, or Neutral based on how we, the audience, are meant to relate to the “avenging” being spoken of in the quote.

The results surprised me:

# Title Year Positive/Neutral/Negative
1 The Avengers 2012 Positive
2 Iron Man 2008 Positive
3 Star Trek 2009 Negative
4 Twilight 2008 Negative
5 Watchmen 2009 Negative
6 Return of the King 2003 Positive
7 How to Train Your Dragon 2010 Negative
8 12 Angry Men 1957 Negative
9 The Princess Bride 1987 Positive
10 True Grit 2010 Neutral
11 Magnificent Seven 1960 Positive
12 Body of Lies 2008 Negative
13 Underworld: Evolution 2006 Positive
14 Monty Python and the Holy Grail 1975 Neutral
15 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 2007 Positive
16 Spider-Man 2 2004 Negative
17 Red Dawn 1984 Positive
18 The Thin Red Line 1998 Neutral
19 Batman Forever 1995 Positive
20 The Crow 1994 Positive

(Note: I haven’t seen all of these movies, so if my P/N/N classifications are inaccurate, let me know in the comments.)

Of the top 20 quote search results, half of them treated “avenging” in a positive manner. 7 of 20, or 35%, portrayed “avenging” as something negative, and the remaining 15% had a neutral stance on “avenging.”

Based on my gut reaction to the word “avenge,” I was not expecting the proportion of movies that took a positive stance on “avenging” to be so high. So maybe our plucky team of do-gooding superheroes is aptly named, after all.

But remember how I mentioned the word “revenge” earlier? It sounds an awful lot like “avenge,” which is part of the reason why thought “avenge” would have some negative connotation.  Its dictionary definitions are also very similar to those of “avenge”:

  1. Inflict hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong done to (someone else)
  2. Inflict hurt or harm on someone for (an injury or wrong done to oneself or another)
  3. Inflict hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong done to oneself

Despite these similarities, though, my gut reaction to “revenge” is more negative than how I feel towards “avenge.” So I applied the same statistical methodology to movies and their treatment of “revenge” to test this theory out:

# Title Year Positive/Neutral/Negative
1 Iron Man 2 2010 Negative
2 Fight Club 1999 Positive
3 Batman Begins 2005 Negative
4 Memento 2000 Negative
5 City of God 2003 Negative
6 Green Lantern 2011 Negative
7 Goodfellas 1990 Negative
8 V for Vendetta 2005 Negative
9 Mean Girls 2004 Negative
10 Leon: The Professional 1994 Neutral
11 Sin City 2005 Neutral
12 Kill Bill Vol 1 2003 Neutral
13 Love Actually 2003 Negative
14 Oldboy 2003 Negative
15 The Princess Bride 1987 Positive
16 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 1999 Negative
17 X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2009 Neutral
18 Casablanca 1942 Positive
19 Coriolanus 2011 Negative
20 The Pianist 2002 Neutral

(Same caveat with regards to my P/N/N classifications apply. Let me know of any corrections in the comments.)

This did meet my expectations: “revenge” is much more consistently portrayed as a negative thing compared to “avenge.” Granted, the sample size is small, but given the prominence of these movies and the IMDB Quote Search algorithm that purports to return “popular” quotes first, I think we can at least use this as a starting point for the conversation:

  1. Is there actually a substantive difference in definitions for “avenge” and “revenge”?
  2. Why is it that “revenge” is portrayed more negatively in movies compared to “avenge”?
  3. If there were a movie called “The Revengers,” what would it be about?
  4. In a way, aren’t the communist fighting Wolverines from Red Dawn also “The Avengers”?

Share your answers to these questions, or anything else related to the word “avenge,” in the comments!