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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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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.