Columns > Published on June 29th, 2012

What The Dark Knight Can Learn From The Avengers

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.

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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