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Why “The Avengers” is the anti-“Dark Knight” (and that’s a good thing)

A scene from Marvel's The Avengers

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With both “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” hitting theaters just months apart, this year is shaping up to be a huge one for comic book movies. Not only do we have the culmination of Marvel’s four-year cinematic experiment in super-team development, but we also have Christopher Nolan’s third and final chapter in his Batman saga, and the follow-up to one of the highest-grossing films of all time, “The Dark Knight.”

Given the presence of both of these high-profile superhero movies in the 2012 schedule, it’s hard not to compare them, but here’s the thing: when you really get down to brass tacks, “The Avengers” is everything Nolan’s trilogy isn’t – and that’s a very good thing.

Ever since Nolan brought Gotham’s favorite superhero to the screen in “Batman Begins,” Hollywood has had a love affair with “dark” superhero movies. The popularity of grim-and-gritty adaptations hit a fever pitch with the box-office triumph of “The Dark Knight” in 2008, and over the last few years, any potential adaptation that didn’t offer a darker spin on its source material faced an uphill battle with studios and audiences alike.

To their credit, Marvel bucked that trend, and gave audiences the bright, clever, and fast-paced action of “Iron Man” in 2008 — just a few months before “The Dark Knight” broke box-office records. Even though Tony Stark’s debut didn’t achieve the same success of Nolan’s moody Batman sequel, Marvel showed little inclination to shift things toward the dark(er) side, and pushed forward with the similarly lighter-toned “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man 2,” “Thor,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” over the next four years.

Now, with the premiere of “The Avengers” this weekend, we get a film that’s not only the culmination of Marvel’s grand, four-year plan, but also the best example of Marvel’s desire to show that “The Dark Knight” formula isn’t the only path to superhero-movie success.

In my review of “The Avengers,” I wrote that the film “chooses bright, witty, and unabashedly heroic over dark, grim, and conflicted” – but that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways Marvel has offered a photo-negative alternative to Warner Bros’ “Dark Knight” franchise. Along with the obvious 180-degree differences in visual and tonal environments, the qualities of the characters embraced and accentuated by each of the films also stand in stark contrast.

In Nolan’s series of Batman films, the character’s status as one of the DC universe’s greatest detectives is scrapped in favor of making him, well… what’s essentially a bully in a bat-suit. Favoring intimidation and brute force over the keen observation and technical expertise his comics counterpart is known for, even the character we see when Bruce Wayne is out of costume is only slightly friendlier than Batman himself.

In director Joss Whedon’s vision for “The Avengers,” we get a team of heroes who haven’t spun very far off center, despite their more unique attributes. Collectively, the team’s members are generally depicted as funny, polite, and “warm” when they’re not in mid-brawl, and even Whedon’s version of Bruce Banner seems well-adjusted and emotionally stable when compared to Nolan’s take on Bruce Wayne.

Of course, the simple fact that “The Avengers” made it to the screen is a powerful statement on the difference between the two franchises and their centerpiece films.

It’s almost impossible to imagine Nolan’s version of Batman co-existing in a world with other superheroes from DC’s stable – let alone teaming up with them. The Dark Knight as seen through the modern franchise is a martyr figure, with self-sacrifice generally the first and only option he considers when faced with overwhelming odds. When he finally does ask for a helping hand in the first two films of the franchise, it’s to request assistance in keeping everyone but him out of harm’s way and to frame himself as the villain.

In contrast, the heroes of “The Avengers,” while prone to initial misunderstandings that prompt the obligatory hero-on-hero fights, seem to not only realize the benefit of teamwork, but to welcome assistance from their teammates. When there’s help to be had, egos are quickly set aside and there’s minimal resistance to receiving a helping hand (or magical hammer or energy blast) to thwart whatever’s threatening the populace.

Given the two franchises, if a hijacker locks himself inside a plane with hostages and a bomb in “The Avengers” universe, one almost expects Iron Man to divert the plane to an uninhabited area, Captain America to knock out the hijacker, and Black Widow to disarm the bomb in no time at all. On top of that, there’s likely to be a one-liner about “flying the unfriendly skies.”

In Nolan’s Bat-verse, however, the same scenario would likely play out with Batman sky-diving sans parachute from his Bat-plane onto the hull of the hijacked airplane, leaving his high-tech plane to crash with a fiery explosion. After dispatching the hijacker, Batman straps the bomb to his own body, gives a grim look back at the passengers, and leaps out of the airplane, seemingly sacrificing himself for the greater good. (Naturally, he’d disarm or otherwise rid himself of the bomb at the last possible second, coming this close to death once again.)

What’s more, the vast differences between “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight” are clear from a practical perspective, too.

Like “Iron Man,” “The Avengers” feels like a very loose film, with a story that’s strong enough to bring its characters from the starting line to the finish, but light enough to let the actors play around with the script, filling it out and breathing life into their characters wherever possible. There’s a sense that everyone involved with the film is having fun with it, and that playfulness carries over to the audience.

In contrast, “Batman Begins” and – to an even greater degree – “The Dark Knight” both stick close to Nolan’s tried-and-true style of filmmaking that produces heavy, intense movies that feel carefully planned and expertly executed with little room for divergence. The actors who thrive in Nolan’s films are similarly intense, and there’s a feeling that his Bat-verse is as much of a high-pressure environment on the set as it is on the screen, with the demands of an ambitious plot leaving little time to stray from the script. The effect is to create a feeling of tension in the audience while we watch Batman deal with the scum of Gotham.

Perhaps what’s most important, though, is that while “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight” function as polar-opposite approaches to the genre in nearly every way, they both succeed as some of the best examples of superhero movies.

The achievements of “The Dark Knight” have been well documented at this point, but the triumph of “The Avengers” is particularly noteworthy for how far it strayed from the norm of recent superhero movies. Where the standard has shifted toward brooding, psychological adventures, “The Avengers” is a light-hearted, action-fueled film that proves that dark isn’t always better, and “fun” superheroes can indeed make for a good movie.

And whether your personal tastes lie more in line with the darker fare that’s been the norm lately or lighter films like “The Avengers,” we can all agree that shaking Hollywood out of a creative rut – no matter how many good films that rut produces – is always a good thing. And in that, as well as being a damn fine big-screen adventure, “The Avengers” succeeds heroically.

“The Avengers” hits theaters today, May 4.

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Thank Azaria

Best. Characters. Ever.

Our favorite Hank Azaria characters.

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GIFs via Giphy

Hank Azaria may well be the most prolific voice and character actor of our time. The work he’s done for The Simpsons alone has earned him a permanent place in the pop culture zeitgeist. And now he’s bringing another character to the mainstream: a washed-up sports announcer named Jim Brockmire, in the aptly titled new series Brockmire.

We’re looking forward to it. So much so that we want to look backward, too, with a short-but-sweet retrospective of some of Azaria’s important characters. Shall we begin?

Half The Recurring Simpsons Characters

He’s Comic Book Guy. He’s Chief Wiggum. He’s Apu. He’s Cletus. He’s Snake. He’s Superintendent Chalmers. He’s the Sea Captain. He’s Kurt “Can I Borrow A Feeling” Van Houten. He’s Professor Frink. He’s Carl. And he’s many more. But most importantly he’s Moe Szyslak, the staple character Azaria has voiced since his very first audition for The Simpsons.

Oh, and He’s Frank Grimes

For all the regular Simpsons characters Azaria has played over the years, his most brilliant performance may have been a one-off: Frank Grimes, the scrappy bootstrapper who worked tirelessly all his life for honest, incremental, and easily-undermined success. Azaria’s portrayal of this character was nuanced, emotional, and simply magical.

Patches O’Houlihan

Dodgeball is a “sport of violence, exclusion and degradation.” as Hank Azaria generously points out in his brief but crucial cameo in Dodgeball. That’s sage wisdom. Try applying his “five D’s” to your life on and off the court and enjoy the results.

Harold Zoid

Of Futurama fame. The crazy uncle of Dr. Zoidberg, Harold Zoid was once a lion (or lobster) of the silver screen until Smell-o-vision forced him into retirement.

Agador

The Birdcage was significant for many reasons, and the comic genius of Hank Azaria’s character “Agador” sits somewhere towards the top of that list. If you haven’t seen this movie, shame on you.

Gargamel

Nobody else could make a live-action Gargamel possible.

Ed Cochran

From Ray Donovan. Great character, great last name [editorial note: the author of this article may be bias].

Kahmunra, The Thinker, Abe Lincoln

All in the Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian, a file that let Azaria flex his voice acting and live-action muscles in one fell swoop.

The Blue Raja

Mystery Men has everything, including a fatal case of Smash Mouth. Azaria’s iconic superhero makes the shortlist of redeemable qualities, though.

Dr. Huff

Huff put Azaria in a leading role, and it was good. So good that there is no good gif of it. Internet? More like Inter-not.

Learn more about Hank Azaria’s newest claim to fame right here, and don’t miss the premiere of Brockmire April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Flame Out

Brockmire and Other Public Implosions

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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There’s less than a month until the Brockmire premiere, and to say we’re excited would be an insulting understatement. It’s not just that it stars Hank Azaria, who can do no wrong (and yes, that’s including Mystery Men, which is only cringeworthy because of Smash Mouth). It’s that the whole backstory of the titular character, Jim Brockmire, is the stuff of legends. A one-time iconic sportscaster who won the hearts of fans and players alike, he fell from grace after an unfortunate personal event triggered a seriously public meltdown. See for yourself in the NSFW Funny or Die digital short that spawned the IFC series:

See? NSFW and spectacularly catastrophic in a way that could almost be real. Which got us thinking: What are some real-life sports fails that have nothing to do with botched athletics and everything to do with going tragically off script? The internet is a dark and dirty place, friends, but these three examples are pretty special and mostly safe for work…

Disgruntled Sports Reporter

His co-anchor went offsides and he called it like he saw it.

Jim Rome vs Jim “Not Chris” Everett

You just don’t heckle a professional athlete when you’re within striking distance. Common sense.

Carl Lewis’s National Anthem

He killed it! As in murdered. It’s dead.

To see more moments just like these, we recommend spending a day in your pajamas combing through the muckiness of the internet. But to see something that’s Brockmire-level funny without having to clear your browser history, check out the sneak peeks and extras here.

Don’t miss the premiere of Brockmire April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Mirror, Mirror

Portlandia Season 7 In Hindsight

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available Online and on the IFC App.

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Another season of Portlandia is behind us, and oh what a season it was. We laughed. We cried. And we chuckled uncomfortably while glancing nervously around the room. Like every season before it, the latest Portlandia has held a mirror up to ridiculousness of modern American life, but more than ever that same mirror has reflected our social reality in ways that are at once hysterical and sneakily thought-provoking. Here are just a few of the issues they tackled:

Nationalism

So long, America, Portland is out! And yes, the idea of Portland seceding is still less ludicrous than building a wall.

Men’s Rights

We all saw this coming. Exit gracefully, dudes.

Protests

Whatever you stand for, stand for it together. Or with at least one other person.

Free Love

No matter who we are or how we love, deep down we all have the ability to get stalky.

Social Status

Modern self-esteem basically hinges on likes, so this isn’t really a stretch at all.

These moments are just the tip of the iceberg, and much more can be found in the full seventh season of #Portlandia, available right now #online and on the #IFC app.

via GIPHY

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