What The Dark Knight Can Learn From The Avengers

13 comments

It’s been a few months since The Avengers claimed ultimate victory as the biggest superhero movie ever. As it has been dissected by critics, bloggers, fanboys, and studio execs seeking the secrets of its success, there have been numerous comparisons, mostly unfavorable, to that other superhero franchise. Everyone wants to know if Batman can beat the Avengers, but the question I’m more interested in is what can he learn from them. While I realize The Dark Knight Rises is already in the can, and regardless of whether it is defeated at the box office, Gotham’s favorite masked avenger can glean a few tricks from the most successful comic book movie in history to be used in his already-formulating reboot.

Smells Like Team Spirit

Let’s start with the most obvious strength: the team. In simple mathematical terms, The Avengers has more superheroes, meaning more crowd appeal, more awesome, and more dollars in the bank. Even people who didn’t like the original Marvel movies went to see The Avengers and gave it a thumbs up. Why does this equation work? Any comic book aficionado will tell you that a superhero team-up is always way better than an origin story. An ensemble is inherently more intriguing than a loner, especially if it is an ensemble of loners. Think of it like this—a movie with George Clooney playing a bank robber is pretty good. But if he leads a team of good-looking thieves in an elaborate casino heist, it’s a great movie. Such a dynamic promises plenty of subtext and conflict beneath the surface of the plot, revealed through clever dialogue as the characters bounce off each other. Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man all have the same goal: save the world. But they have vastly different motivations and have traveled equally divergent paths to get there. We learn more about these characters through their brief encounters with each other than we did in any of their solo adventures.

The three most celebrated performances in the history of the franchise were all villains, two of them the same one, while the most definitive screen portrayal of the Dark Knight is still a cartoon.

The Batman films boast many incredible turns by brilliant actors, but have never had a working ensemble. There are the villains, always stealing the spotlight. This has had the unfortunate side effect of making Batman the least intriguing character in his own movies. The three most celebrated performances in the history of the franchise were all villains, two of them the same one, while the most definitive screen portrayal of the Dark Knight is still a cartoon. Although we love to watch Batman trade punches and existential banter with his colorful rogues gallery, even his most memorable on screen confrontations ultimately tell us very little about the man behind the mask. A conversation between Batman and the Joker, while suspenseful and riveting, only confirms what we already know: the Joker is a homicidal maniac, and Batman is not. Interacting with other characters that Batman sees as equals allows us to see the subtle ways in which they are similar or different. I’m not talking about Alfred or Commissioner Gordon, because they are essentially treated like valued employees. Despite being the archetypal loner, Batman has more than enough apostles to field a team. Instead of inventing a new love interest for him to unconvincingly open up to, bring in the characters that are close to him, like Nightwing and Robin. They won’t detract from Batman’s story; through their eyes we will see him in a way we never have before. Some ancient philosopher once postulated that at the heart of every great tragedy is a conflict between a father and a son. If that’s true, Bruce Wayne is a neverending font of high drama. All of his pupils and comrades have unique perspectives that will paint a portrait of Bruce Wayne that is about more than the now clichéd pain and vengeance.

All the Super Ladies

Female roles in superhero stories have long been a contentious point of conversation, but The Avengers has managed to provide us with the best portrayal of women in the history of the form. The women of the Avengers are so equal to their male counterparts that their equality is never questioned. These women are not reduced to cliches like the distressed damsel or the badass bitch--not once in the movie does a male character ever have to stop what he's doing in order to "deal" with a difficult woman, which is practically unheard of in summer action blockbusters. Maria Hill gets blown up twice and no one offers her so much as a band-aid, and the Black Widow can take on a room full of armed gangsters while tied to a chair. In fact, the Black Widow/Hawkeye storyline provides an interesting subversion of the classic action movie paradigm, as it is the tough male sharpshooter who is captured and violated by the villain and then has to be not only rescued but comforted by a woman as well. There are no stereotypical gender roles on the SHIELD helicarrier, a fact that has undoubtedly contributed to this movie's ability to play outside its target demographic.

Unfortunately, the Batman films are no better at fully-realized female characters than the James Bond franchise. With the exception of Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, the women in Batman movies exist primarily to be imperiled and rescued. Even Rachel Dawes, the love interest of the last two movies, is utterly helpless without a man. She is also a classic example of the utterly despised comics trope of "women in refrigerators." Google that term for a more detailed explanation, but basically it refers to using the endangerment and abuse of female characters solely as motivation for male heroes. Despite being assistant DA, Rachel Dawes is unable to help Batman put away any criminals until she is finally supervised by a man, Harvey Dent. The only function she serves in the story is to inspire Dent's psychotic breakdown when she is murdered. It's particularly frustrating to see this broken crutch used to prop up what are otherwise excellent iterations of the superhero movie, because it is so unnecessary. There are tons of fascinating females in Gotham City, and not all of them wear black leather. Take Barbara Gordon for example. A smart, funny, talented young woman who started out as Batgirl and eventually became known as Oracle, information broker to the superheroes and Batman's intellectual equal. Or Cassandra Cain, the daughter of the two greatest assassins in the world, raised to be a living weapon, who learns how to be human from Barbara and how to be a hero from Bruce. If studios insist on wedging in a love interest, there are plenty of choices besides Vicky Vale and Catwoman. Why not introduce us to Jezebel Jet, the seductress who almost killed Batman, or to Talia al Ghul, the daughter of one of his greatest foes and mother of his child? Seriously, who wouldn't pay good money to see Son of Batman? Batman is still seen as a movie for men, and that's because women don't have much to do in his films. Which is silly, since Batman has been aided by many capable female characters every bit the equal of the Black Widow. It's time to bring some of them to the screen.

There are tons of fascinating females in Gotham City, and not all of them wear black leather.

Do Stop When You Get Enough

However, just as important as what Batman learns from the competition is what he leaves behind. The Avengers had a light-hearted and jovial atmosphere, and while there is certainly room for humor in a Batman movie, it would only fail if it tried to be as funny. Batman found his original success by being the antithesis of the most popular superhero in the world: Superman. Whereas Clark Kent was a sincere farmboy, Bruce Wayne was the jaded heir to billions. Superman fought aliens, gods and monsters in the daytime while Batman stalked pimps, thugs and psychopaths at night. The darker tone embraced by Christopher Nolan is the perfect counterpoint to the Disney gloss and will continue to serve the franchise well in installations to come if it’s handed over to writers willing to use Batman’s supporting cast. The Avengers is about epic battles to stop world-domming threats, while Batman is more suited to combating more clandestine, down-to-earth perils. Instead of a team of superheroes saving New York from an alien invasion, it’s a crew of urban vigilantes trying to stem the tide of chaos in a city rotted with corruption.

Perhaps the next generation of films will forego splashy CG effects and quippy dialogue in favor of astonishing martial arts sequences and complex character drama. We might see Batman interact with someone he isn’t trying to manipulate or incarcerate. And maybe somewhere in there we’ll finally learn something about Batman we didn’t know.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

zyxxyz's picture
zyxxyz June 29, 2012 - 4:13pm

I just have to disagree with your assessment of Clooney movies.  Clooney teaming up with a bunch of other good looking thieves was one good movie, one awful movie.  Clooney as a solo bank robber was the best film of his career (Out of Sight).

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy June 29, 2012 - 4:19pm

I don't want to see Batman try to do an ensemble. That's how we got Batman and Robin. Let's not do that again. The Dark Knight Rises will be amazing in a totally different way than The Avengers and will probably be a better movie overall, even if it doesn't gross as much money. Christopher Nolan's Batman hasn't missed yet.

Will Bigelow's picture
Will Bigelow from New Jersey is reading The Sun Also Rises June 29, 2012 - 4:21pm

The problem with this article is that artistically, aesthetically, and cinematically, the Christopher Nolan Batman movies are far superior to The Avengers.

Churtward's picture
Churtward from Gainesville, VA is reading Play It As It Lays June 29, 2012 - 5:12pm

I'll take martial arts sequences and character drama over quippy dialogue and CG effects anyday. Especially in a Batman film, because that's what Batman IS. 

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this June 29, 2012 - 5:28pm

BH, I'm on board with you here, you raise some great points... and thanks for noting that the cartoon version of Batman is still the best version.

You're also right about Batman needing people to bounce off of--which is why I'd love to see a JLA movie. 

On a personal level, I feel like my geek-meter got maxed out for The Avengers and I haven't been able to muster any real excitement for Spider-man or Batman, two characters I really like.

Also, I'm a little worried about the new Batman, because The Dark Knight was an OK movie elevated by an amazing performance by Heath Ledger. Hopefully this one corrects the mistakes made in the first and second movie. 

Bret Gammons's picture
Bret Gammons from [I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it.] is reading Whatever he has time for this week. June 29, 2012 - 5:45pm

The problem with this article is that artistically, aesthetically, and cinematically, the Christopher Nolan Batman movies are far superior to The Avengers. 

While I agree with the sentiment, The Dark Knight is a film much inferior to its reputation, and I think the phrasing of your statement implies a greater difference in quality than is actually present. The Avengers is a good film. Nolan's Batman films are good films. Also, the cinematography of the former might exceed The Dark Knight's in quality. At least you could see what was going on, and Whedon-McGarvey tossed in some interesting camera angles.

The Dark Knight's pace is erratic, too slow at two and three quarter hours but too fast to allow adequate character development for Harvey Dent or even Bruce Wayne/Batman. And I hate the scenes where characters stand around and tell me what the movie's about. I'm smart enough to figure it out on my own, thank you. Plus there's Gordon's nonsense speech at the end and Harvey's believing Joker and all other kinds of lapses in judgement.

If such problems existed in The Avengers, I didn't notice because I was having too much fun. I just wish the forty minutes of exposition had been eliminated or at least compacted considering there were five films preceding it.

Aesthetics: Batman Begins>The Avengers>The Dark Knight
Overall [Artistically]: Batman Begins>The Avengers=The Dark Knight

Really, they're all pretty shallow. Nolan's Bat films aren't any more substantive than Burton's—they’re just more “realistic” [read: believable]—and they're vastly inferior aesthetically. Memento and The Prestige top Nolan's filmography for me. I wouldn't rank The Dark Knight, The Avengers, or Batman Begins among my favorite comic book/superhero films.

But the problem with making vague statements about the quality of art is that people can simply disagree.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this June 29, 2012 - 5:56pm

Bret, that is an incredibly spot-on assesment. Cheers. 

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading Ember by Madison Daniel June 29, 2012 - 7:21pm

Two words;

Joss Whedon.

 

Don't take it the wrong way, Nolan is an AMAZING filmmaker, there is no denying that however you look at it. But, Whedon is a comic book guy making comic book movies. He gets what comic book fans like and he emphasizes that. That, in my opinion, is what makes the difference between The Avengers and the Batman movies.

That being said, I can not wait to see the new Batman flick.

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David June 30, 2012 - 1:44am

I don't think it fair to compare Nolan's Batman series with the Avengers.

Nolan is the first director to take Batman seriously as a subject, and this has allowed for a serious tone to be set. Nolan is the guy Batman fans dreamed about for years. He draws water from the Frank Miller Batman well, as have the best graphic novels which have followed The Dark Knight Returns and his Bruce Wayne is well balanced.

The Avengers characters are all fun. Tony Stark is the opposite of Bruce Wayne, he's a smart-ass, and he's a people-person.

Our only hope is to see how the upcoming Superman movie turns out. Nolan has his hand in it so I have hope. I don't think Bale is up for another Batman flick so we lose him, but maybe we can get that buddy movie.

 

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne June 30, 2012 - 8:57pm

Yeah, I don't think the films were trying to do any of the same things at all. I have less than zero interest in the Avengers flick because comic superheros generally don't do it for me. I just don't care. I'm looking forward to the next Batman for all the reasons delineated by others already.

I also question some of the points here. Granted, I haven't seen the Avengers film, but my girlfriend felt that everything was really thin and shallow, and most of the plot just existed as an excuse for a bunch of CG stuff and action sequences. I generally trust her judgment, and some of my friends whose opinions I generally don't trust much (Transformers was the best movie ever!) liked it a great deal, and CG explosions and action sequences that are more CG than actual artistry are basically everything that keeps me out of a theater for a movie. Maybe for a buck at a Redbox a year down the road, but why am I going to go to the trouble of getting the theater experience for something that doesn't really benefit from it? Sure, you've got a giant screen, but who doesn't have a giant screen at home these days? The annoying people and generally gross conditions aren't worth the tradeoff.

Bret Gammons's picture
Bret Gammons from [I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it.] is reading Whatever he has time for this week. July 1, 2012 - 11:22pm

CG explosions and action sequences that are more CG than actual artistry are basically everything that keeps me out of a theater for a movie. 

Hmmm. I don't think CG and artistry are mutually exclusive. Guillermo del Toro does creates some genius visuals blending practical and computer effects, and I don't think his using the latter lessens the impact of the former; rather, it enhances it. Fincher's Curious Case of Benjamin Button was so well done I never even questioned how Brad Pitt transformed into a short old man upon my first viewing. [Of course, it was with computer effects.] And while the second Transformers is one of the worst things I've ever seen, I was very impressed by the first's visuals. The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man 2, Terminator 2, etc. But I guess artistry and CG are not mutually inclusive, either.

you've got a giant screen, but who doesn't have a giant screen at home these days? The annoying people and generally gross conditions aren't worth the tradeoff.

For me, nothing can beat seeing something on the big screen. But my love of cinema is very slightly on the extreme side compared to most people. [I know cinephiles whose intense obsession vaguely disturbs me.] Still, this late in the game, you could probably see The Avengers and be the only one in the theatre. Just don't quote me on that.

I say go to a showing but come in about an hour late. It's true that Avengers is shallow [as I've already written, I think Nolan's Batman films are, too], but the long action sequence that serves as its climax is the single most epic thing I have witnessed in my entire life. It's so thrilling, so technically accomplished and smartly composed, I wish it served a deeper movie so I could enjoy it without reserve. Worth seeing, and on the big screen, but that's my opinion.

Besides, something with a 93% on the Tomatometer can't be all bad, right?

 

P.S.: For the record, I am woefully missing a giant screen at home. Maybe I should dress in my shabbiest clothes and stand on a street corner with a sign that reads "Will work for giant screen."

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne July 2, 2012 - 2:39am

I agree that artistry and CG go together often. I guess I just never got the impression they did with the Avengers flick. I'm curious now just about the epic climax, though, so I'll probably give it a rent at some point.

And don't get me wrong. I do enjoy seeing a movie in the theater if I can, and if there's a good theater around. I go for some stuff, just not so often anymore. I do want to try Prometheus despite some of the less-than-awesome things I've heard, and I'll try the new Batman. But a big part of both of those is that my girlfriend wants to see them.

FauxReal's picture
FauxReal from Currently residing outside Reading, PA is reading Wildwood, by Colin Meloy August 26, 2012 - 4:49pm

So I know I'm jumping on the train here way overcome by events, but even so... I enjoyed both films. The Avengers definitely held more water for me, and there have been a bundle of insights (some prophetic) in this thread. No need to repeat them. However, a crucial point that nobody else has put to the spotlight is that while Nolan is an astonishing director, The Dark Knight Rises is a Nolan film, and not a Batman film. I don't fault directors for running a steady stable of cast options. I don't fault them for interpreting a storyline for themselves; that's what it's all about. But TDKR took the Batman clay and ever-so-slowly built a sculpture that didn't resemble anything that we had come to expect from the first two installations. And you say "Expectations? I'm not listening to you dude!" Don't draw the line there. Nolan shattered all that he had created with BB and TDK so that he could emphasize the broken aspects of Wayne (and by extension, Gotham) and give himself room for a very drawn-out rebuild. And sure enough, the third act of TDKR serves as a montage in slow motion (meaning what could have been an artless 2 minute montage that was given a lifespan of 35 minutes) which did exactly that again - counterbuild to what had been before. There were flashes of brilliance throughout, but nothing so phenomenal that it changed my world. I'm not going to comment on previous Batman flicks, nor the Avengers in any detail. But as both a Batman fan and a Nolan fan, I can't help but feel that the character and the director played tug-of-war throughout the trilogy.