[Opinion] - Avengers vs. The Dark Knight Rises

My reviews can be found here, and here

Back in May, after the Avengers surprised everybody by breaking records and dominating the box office, Joss Whedon was asked what he thought about Dark Knight Rises. His answer was as diplomatic as it was accurate. He said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that neither film existed because of the other, and there was more then enough room for them both to exist. He also assured the interviewer that he'd be buying a DKR ticket even if Avengers had flopped.

These aren't easy movies to compare. In fact, they probably shouldn't be. But it wasn't meant to be like this. Nolan's Batman trilogy was meant to dominate as Dark Knight had, and Marvel's standard two films a year were to each do respectable, if not remarkable, business. But then the world at large realised what many of us have know for a long time: Joss Whedon is brilliant. And then the world realised what the rest of us have feared for a while: Christopher Nolan can over extended himself.

Now here, at the end of August, we can looking back at both, and try to figure out what made the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe a money sponge, and what made Dark Knight Rises fall apart.

Hit the jump for my thoughts.

First, lets get some numbers out of the way. Avengers currently holds a 92% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, 96% from the audience. DKR holds an 87/92% in those respective categories. Avengers, according to Box Office Mojo, has made in total gross, $1.4 billion. That's after 100 days in theatres. DKRafter 4 weeks, has made $800 thousand. That number will go up as it remains in theatres over the coming weeks, but not by much. Certainly not enough to match it's predecessor's final total of $1 billion and change. These numbers indicate one thing: neither of these movies can be classified as a commercial or critical failure.

The reason the Avengers made so much money is the same reason Titanic did, and Avatar, and Dark Knight. Not only were new people going to see it with each additional week, but the same people were going back over and over again. I myself, saw it three times while it was out, and am confident that it has found a place among Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as a film I'll be able to watch infinitely, and never feel like it's not the first time I'm watching it. I left Dark Knight Rises feeling that, not only would I not have to see it in theatres again, I could probably go the rest of my life without rewatching it.

So what made one so endearing, and the other more of a cinematic punctuation mark? Well, it certainly wasn't the timing. Both films clock in at over two and a half hours long. Yet, DKR feels longer; it drags itself along. Avengers, on the other hand, flies by. This has everything to do with plotting. DKR has a lot of big ideas, but it also has to set up an environment for those ideas to flourish. Which every movie has to. Where DKR falls into trouble is that once those big ideas are established, it lingers too long. It uses time skips (that aren't well rendered) to show the effects of the ideas, but all this does is grind the story to a halt. Bruce Wayne spends much of the second half of the film trapped in a pit. The other characters don't act against their environment, or if they do, it is in such an ineffectual way that it is tantamount to inaction. For a solid portion of the film, nothing is gained, nothing is lost, and nothing is achieved in doing either.

Avengers keeps a pace. It cheats a little in that, all the elements used in the film had been introduced elsewhere, allow it to jump to sixty from the word go. Despite the fact that it feature several sequences of just conversations, it never slows the film down. Everything feels like it's building to something, and that something is a nearly half hour action sequence that never relents, but also never feels like it's too much. The film pushes the viewer along with the characters, so that you feel as menaced as they do. That it takes place over a very short period of time, and that the final act happens almost entirely in real time, is a major factor in how it manages to feel like a shorter film. And people are willing to rewatch a shorter film, even if it actually isn't.

Avengers is also more fun, and people will always choose something that is more mirthful rather then something more dour. There is a line in Batman Begins, where Wayne instructs Alfred to "tell them that joke you know," which is a pretty telling statement about the series as a whole. It takes itself very seriously. And it falls into the trap of using comedic relief. Morgan Freeman, and to a lesser extent, Michael Caine, are there to provide the sarcasm, the witty rejoinder, and the stunned silence. Begins is a lighter film, with most of the characters getting in a line or two, but as I've said before, it's not really part of the Dark Knight series, it just happens to share the same cast.

Joss Whedon, who came up through the world of sitcom comedy, understands that some people are more serious, and some people are funnier, but in real life there is no such things as the comedic relief. Everyone is funny sometimes. And people are likely to use humour during hard times as a coping mechanism. Which is why the levity is shared across all his characters. It makes them more endearing to the audience, and makes them more enjoyable to watch. Who do you route for more, the guy who can crack a joke while saving the world, or the guy who feels crushed under the weight of it?

Avengers benefits from having a simple idea to work around. Simple, because the focus of the film is the complexity of the characters and their relationships. It doesn't need a complex plot to get hung up on, because the real drama comes from the mistrust between siblings, or the competing ideals from different generations, or the internal conflict within a single man. The Avengers is a high gloss character study.

DKR is a movie of ideas. Characters are secondary to a  very specific story that Nolan wanted to tell. At no point did DKR feel like a definitive Batman movie, because those characters could have been swapped out and replaced by anyone else, and it wouldn't have changed the movie. It was, as I've mentioned previously, a movie with Batman in it, and barely at that. It was about a nuclear bomb. The Avengers was a movie about the Avengers, featuring a scary sky hole.

Oddly, both movies conclude with a central hero attempting to save a city from a nuclear explosion, which felt perfectly acceptable in the Avengers, and felt out of place in DKR. Strangely, both of the heroes in question are the billionaire playboys driven by revenge, and both movies conclude with a statement about sacrifice, but take completely different tones. Avengers uses sacrifice to a show how Tony Stark has evolved from the egotistical, focused individual that he was at the beginning of his story, to not only becoming part of something larger, but willing to give up his life to protect it. His survival is a rebirth, allowing this new man to appreciate what is available to him, and to fully embrace his new place in world.

Before I go on, I'm one of those that believes that Alfred's vision at the end of DKR was a fantasy. However, lets assume that Wayne did survive the blast, and is living in Europe happily. The message DKR gives us is the opposite of the Avengers. A sacrifice must be made to save the city, but at the absolute destruction of the man. The isolation of the saviour is required for the success of the mission. Whether he dies in the blast, or lives on in Europe, he's no longer Bruce Wayne. In DKR only death, or the complete abandonment of the former life and friends and history, is the result. Making a better world, with no place for those that made it. In Avengers, that someone is willing to make that attempt, to put everything on the line, is what makes them the most worthy to live in the world they have created.

The titles are mismatched in a way. In DKR, by the end, very little actually rises, especially the dark knight. The dark knight falls farther then anyone else. The rest tend to endure, to use Alfred's word from The Dark Knight. Gotham remains. The public are beaten down, and rebuild. Selina Kyle is abandoned. Gordon is vindicated. The only thing that ultimately rises is Blake, but only to a station previously held by someone else. So really, he just succeeded. That the public opinion of Batman has changed, that he is now worshipped in some way is not an evaluation, it is a memorial. In the Avengers, nothing is avenged. Stark says it himself. They'll be doing that if and after Loki succeeds. What they do is assemble, and defend. The Avengers are the ones doing the rising, while the dark knight is doing the avenging. Not the titles could, or should, be changed, but it's just interesting to note. 

Some might say that Avengers is style over substance, and the DKR is a smarter film. But I'd argue that Bruce Banner's personal journey is no less important or dramatic then Bruce Wayne's. That Loki's feelings of anguish and jealous rage are no less intense then Talia's. Or that an alien invasion being the climax in no way lowers the academic viability of the piece, compared to a handicapped terrorist. That Avengers might be discriminated against because it falls a little more into the realm of sci-fi then DKR is ugly genrism.

Each film must be judged on it's successes, and failures. To my eye, though each has plenty of both, the Avengers comes out the better looking of the two, strengthened by an appreciation of the characters, a love of the world they reside in, and how good it felt after it was done.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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