Monday, September 17, 2012
The Avengers vs. The Batman
The title, of course, is a tease, because in any actual showdown between anybody and Batman, Batman wins. Unless he's fighting Joel Schumacher, in which case he, along with everyone else, loses.
No, I'm talking about the two movies released in the summer of 2012; The Avengers at the beginning of the blockbuster season and The Dark Knight Rises towards its end. I've seen quite a bit of ink, digital and actual, devoted to each movie: Investigating their complexities, digging for meanings, discussing the themes, and so on. And since I'm a sucker for peer pressure...
HOW WE GOT HERE, PART 1
The Avengers can be traced straight back to a little post-credits sequence in 2008's Iron Man. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., pops in on Robert Downey's Tony Stark and name-drops something called "the Avenger Initiative." Over the course of the second Iron Man movie, Thor and Captain America, the backstory of the leads as well as some of the details of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s creation unfold. Finally, under the leadership of Joss Whedon, The Avengers hit the theaters in May.
Although a blockbuster of extraordinary magnitude and well-received by most critics, a lot of what I've read about The Avengers suggests it's just a big, shiny toy. A common theme seemed to be that the writer didn't think much about the movie or what it said once they left the theater. Whedon had made a great slam-bang piece of entertainment but it had no depth. Serious "film" watchers, the theme ran, were waiting for the more thoughtful Mr. Nolan to wind up his trilogy of Batman movies with The Dark Knight Rises.
HOW WE GOT HERE, PART 2
In 1989, Tim Burton was given the unenviable task of rescuing the image of the Caped Crusader from Adam West's goofy legacy. His at-the-time weird casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne as the Batman was not seen as a good sign, even though he had the world's most natural fit for a role by making Jack Nicholson the Joker. Burton's Batman was a critical and commercial success, with a look that influenced not only the movie, but also nearly 15 years of animated adventures of Batman and other DC superheroes. Burton held it together for half of Batman Returns but hared off on his own dizzy vision for the second half of that movie.
Then the aforementioned Mr. Schumacher took over with Batman Forever and made a clumsy lurch back towards the camp of the late 1960s TV series, helped by Jim Carrey's insane scenery-chewing as the Riddler and a criminally under-utilized Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. He followed that with one of the worst super-hero movies ever in 1997's Batman and Robin, a dud so dud-ly that it more or less killed any ideas Warner Bros. had for continuing live-action Batman movies. In 2005, Christopher Nolan rebooted the franchise with Batman Begins and continued it with the 2008 The Dark Knight. Buoyed by a story that wasn't afraid to tackle big ideas and motivations, as well as the lauded performance of the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, The Dark Knight was a major critical and commercial success in a way not seen since Burton's first movie. Nolan wasn't certain about continuing it after that point, but eventually decided to conclude it with The Dark Knight Rises.
TDKR seems to have been a letdown for many of the people who had such high praise for TDK. People willing to overlook TDK's evidence of just how undisciplined a plotter Nolan can be (Hong Kong sequence, anyone?) found themselves shoaling and sinking fast when that same evidence was even more evident in TDKR.
WHAT MY BIG MOUTH SAYS
I really don't know how fair it is to compare the two movies. The Avengers was far more finished, while TDKR suffers from a host of editing and plotting problems that make me think a few more months working out the script or a few more months deciding on footage could only have helped. The confrontation between Alfred and Bruce oozes artificiality, and since it's also designed to set up the first confrontation with Bane it leaves that conflict staggering out of the starting gate as well. The scenes with officer John Blake are meant to tell us that the story of the Batman continues, but they're no smoother and feel no more natural. Jim Gordon is apparently the only cast member who has to be told Bruce Wayne is Batman, so you might wonder why he leads Gotham City's police.
The Avengers does really need you to rely on knowledge of the earlier individual movies to get the full story, but it can stand by itself and Whedon has a much better sense that his story is supposed to go from "once upon a time" to "the end" without wandering around so much. All of the story elements work to carry the tale forward in addition to whatever other role they may have.
For example, if you watch his short-lived show Firefly and the sequel movie, Serenity, you can tell Whedon believes the major struggle in the world is between people who want to tell others what they have to do and people who insist they have the right to determine their own destiny. For him, that is the root of all conflict and his villain, Loki, is just a part of that. He could, of course, give one of his characters a speech that says so, but instead he sets up the initial confrontation between Loki and two of the people who will be the Avengers in Germany, where Loki outlines his scheme of dominance and how it is natural for people to kneel to a greater power. An old man stands -- an old man in Germany, so we know what he has heard and what he may have seen with his own eyes when he was younger -- and says, "Not to men like you." Loki counters: "There are no men like me." The old man, sad and with memories of unholy history showing in his eyes, replies, "There are always men like you." (And kudos to Kenneth Tigar, whose two lines should earn him a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination because the way he delivers them sets the movie's moral core on firm concrete).
Contrast that to the message Alfred tries to give Bruce about why he should not confront Bane. It comes in a back-and-forth conversation in which the older man, who raised Bruce since his parents died, wants to convince his surrogate son that he is simply not ready as Batman to deal with the power and purpose Bane represents. As Bruce Wayne, his weapons can be the boardroom and the power of the purse, but as Batman he can only counter Bane physicially -- which Alfred says he can't do. At least, I think that's what Nolan wants to get through, but there are so many leaps that have to be taken from point to point I have no way to be sure.
In fact, I have to confess I don't really know what Nolan's intended message is. He may want to say something about how existence in an essentially lawless society can drain life of its meaning, but his story posits such a ridiculously short time needed for the poor and middle class of Gotham to turn into Robespierran mobs there isn't any soil in which that message can root.
But The Avengers throws out a baker's dozen of interesting themes with which one may grapple. Although super-powered or otherwise augmented, each of the Avengers is a flawed being -- flaws which will be overcome, but not until they exact a high cost. Once acknowledged, the flaws actually help the team gel and fight Loki's army. What can we do together if we acknowledge our flaws and rely on those strong where we are weak? I've already mentioned the ongoing struggle between those who would control and those who resist it, and there are others. I personally believe anyone who claims this movie gave them nothing to think about simply wasn't trying very hard.
TDKR, it seems to me, operates its mythos at one remove from the audience. By that I mean that, in order to explore the symbolism Nolan infuses in Bruce Wayne and the Batman, we need to see it in the context of the movie's world, especially Gotham City. Nolan's caricatured sketch of Gotham in TDKR, wherein its citizens overnight transform into the Paris Mob, hunting down its rich and bringing them to a mock trial before Jonathan Crane, is one of the movie's flaws. Gotham's nature was essential in the first two movies, but it's just a foil here and really doesn't offer anything that gives Batman's decision to seemingly sacrifice himself on its behalf any weight.
In The Avengers, though, the super-rich man who puts on a costume also has to risk himself to save a city -- midtown Manhattan -- from a bomb. Whedon's story doesn't fuss with the worthiness of those being saved. Tony Stark's decision to get rid of the bomb has to do more with what kind of person he wants to be. He's the guy who can get rid of the bomb, so he will. You don't have to be a super-hero to resonate with or draw inspiration from that story; almost everyone has faced situations where they did what they had to do, nor do you have to be a city's savior, like Batman is for Gotham.
You could probably say that Batman has a similar motivation, but Nolan leaves it harder to find and not nearly as clearly drawn.
In the end, my vote goes to The Avengers. I'll probably watch The Dark Knight Rises again if I see it on TV, but I'll be laying out some of my actual cheapskate cash to pick up a DVD of The Avengers. Nolan's ambitions may have been higher, but in the end he has an ambitious miss instead of a hit. I think Whedon's ambitions were high as well, and he did a much better job of hitting the target.