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.