Aristotle and the Redemption of Rocky V
Understanding Why Rocky V Reverses Standard Narratives of the Rocky Series via an Aristotelian Poetic Framework.
Looking at a film screen playing the Rocky series can at times be reminiscent of going to a rodeo. While there is a lot of action to look forward to, there is still however a lot of bull. This is not to report to the quality of films (although, one could make that case) as a whole, but to point to the fantastical nature that the series contains and progresses. The series hero, Rocky Balboa, is an amateur boxer when we are first introduced to him. On his journey to the fifth movie, he has accomplished the following achievements;
- Becomes world the heavyweight champion
- Loses and regains heavyweight championship
- Becomes a multimillionaire
- Has wife and kids
- Beats steroid enhanced Russian Olympian gold medal holder (who killed his mentor).
While it is noted that the point of the series is to see an underdog conquer all the odds, these odds are far more extravagant than they need to be. Given the narrative presented to the audience in the rest of the series, Rocky V is the sobering reality that halts the epic fanaticisms of Rocky I-IV and interjects a tragic reality that critically challenges the neoliberal capitalist narrative the audience draws so heavily on.
Before describing the influence Rocky V had on the rest of the series, it is necessary to discuss the place it has within Aristotelian poetic paradigm. The movie centers itself on Rocky Balboa and the privation of two of his crucial gains that had been given to him through the series, which are his skills and perseverance (they represent his spirit). He also loses his ability to legally box (thus, the championship), and the money he accumulated through his endeavors, but these are secondary element. For Aristotle, what tragedy revolves around is not the narrative itself, but the actors imitating serious, thorough and proportional acts that are appropriate to the circumstances so that the audience can obtain a cathartic purging of emotion (Butcher, part VI, para 2). Since Balboa’s money and fame were epiphenomenal to his skill and perseverance in accomplishing great tasks, it is those elements that are not primary. Balboa’s spirit represent his character’s action, whereas his money and fame are merely instrumental to the narrative.
The reason Rocky V is such a compelling tragedy is the fact that the audience is capable of seeing Balboa not as a rookie with infinite potential, but as a fallen star, trying to make peace with his fateful circumstance. When putting Rocky V and Rocky in juxtaposition, it is evident that the fifth film in the series is merely a tragic reimagining of the first film. The Rocky Balboa in Rocky is someone who is at war with his environment, looking to a championship victory as a way of escaping. He gains that victory in Rocky II and leaves his neighborhood. The Rocky Balboa of Rocky V is another character at war with his environment, but rather than escaping, he has to learn to make peace with what’s left of himself.
Balboa makes the best of his circumstance by opening a gym, moving back into his old neighborhood and mentoring an aspiring boxer, while his son works through his own problems at school. The aspiring boxer, Tommy Gunn, later gets a promoter and wins the heavy weight championship. He turns on his mentor, as he is tired of living in his shadow and pushes him to start a fight so he can gain some respect. Balboa ends up fighting Gunn and beating him, so Balboa then makes his peace with his circumstance. He finds the spirit that he lost and channels it back into raising his wife and son, after recognizing the harm of his absence.
Giving the nature of the character and the plot, Aristotle’s poetic framework would place Balboa in the category of tragic hero. According to Aristotle, the central figure of a tragedy is primarily a man that is “highly renowned and prosperous” who encounters, through no fault of his own, a loss of fortune (Butcher, Part XIII, Para 2). Balboa is a character of this nature, as he was the renowned boxing heavy weight champion and a multimillionaire celebrity. He loses all of this due to the ineptitude of his brother-in-law, Paulie, making poor investment decisions. One thing that is noted as going against the proscription of Aristotle — he had proscribed that the hero should never lose his fortune, as it only induces shock and does not move anyone to pity or fear for the character (Butcher, part XIII, para 2) — is that Rocky loses his fortune.
However, this movie avoids Aristotle’s objection as Balboa’s fortune could have been an escape for the character as he might be able to avoid the fact he could not box by escaping into the use of his wealth. So, while it is shocking that Balboa’s fortune is gone, especially considering that the rags to riches background was germane to the identity of his character development, it is pertinent to the character exploring the outcome of not being able to box. Also, it stands that in order for the audience to feel either pity or fear for the character, they must be shocked by the possibility of Balboa having nothing to show for his hard work. If he had his wealth, it would be hard to pity him through lack of common division, or fear for him because he has something to cling onto that reminds him of his previous hard work.
Instead he returns back to the old neighborhood. The neighborhood stays the same and it is Balboa who changes, it would be contentious to say that the plot of the movie was to develop the narrative of the series (as the movie only regressed things). Instead, it is more appropriate to say the focus is on the existential struggle of the character. That is why he has to be reimagined into his old neighborhood. What’s interesting is if one were to forget about the previous instalments and just release Rocky V with some exposition here and there, it could pass as it would be about one character trying to cope with losing it all.
The connection between both the first and fifth movie can also be captured but the mutual use of John G. Avilsden, as opposed to Sylvester Stallone, in the director’s seat. While Stallone is the writer of the scripts for all the movies, the fact he opted out of the director’s chair for these movies and was seeking out Avilsden is because Balboa was to return to his neighborhood, broke as he was in the first (Powell and Garret, chap. 20, para 18). It is because of the mutual use of the old neighborhood that the Fifth movie have any connection to the rest of the series.
The movies in the rest of the series would require the first one, as they are all a mimic of the first movie. Rocky II was just the first, except it was seeking to have Balboa overcome the insurmountable odds and not just tie with his opponent. Rocky III attempts to replicate that victory after Balboa loses the title to a much better fighter. Rocky IV does the same, except for the fact that the main villain Ivan Drago is a boxer whose punch can land 2200 psi and takes performance enhancing drugs. Rocky V does not have Balboa conquering the odds, instead it is about coping with the self.
The rest of the series can be better described in the Aristotelian framework as being within the nature of an epic. While a tragedy should be confined to a solar rotation — as a note, even though Rocky V is much longer than a day, it is because the film is to fit a longer episodic series — an epic can be dragged out to the heart’s content of the author (Butcher, part V, para 3). In the case of the Rocky series, the events go by over many years, having for themselves through the employment of their narrative (as opposed to action) an ability to captivate audience to the point of creating grandeur (Butcher, part XXIV, para 3).
It is for this reason above that the neoliberal capitalist narrative of the everyman, who rises above insurmountable adversity, is better equipped for epic over tragedy. It is because in all the excitement for the narrative, we forget the unlikelihood of any of those events coming to pass being realistic. It is also how the criticism of the film as “espousing conservative values, a film version of the Horatio Alger theme in which a young man from a poor neighborhood becomes somebody important by working hard toward a goal” (Powell and Garret, chap. 8, para 5).
Although Rocky V was not as greatly received as the original, it never suffered the same critique. In fact, this movie is the antithesis of the first, as this one has the main character excepting his circumstance and moving on with his life. It is through the dichotomy that Aristotle places on epic and tragedy that one can see the differences in of Rocky V and the rest of the series. As a movie, Rocky V is a tragedy that helps audiences see what should really matter to Balboa as a boxer. It is not about the money, the championship or his fame, it is the fact he made it to the distance and can still give influence to his friends and family. That is why it does not fit in the series, as it is alien to the style and theme. If audiences were to see it outside the context of the Rocky series, it might have done better. But the fact it confronts the culturally accepted notions of the previous series makes it more open to hostility.
Butcher, S. H. Aristotle Poetics. Web. 17 Feb. 2014. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.mb.txt
Powell, Larry; Gerrett, Tom (2013–12–05). The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, the Karate Kid and Other Underdogs, McFarland. Kindle Edition.