WARNING: This review may contain spoilers for both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Read at your own risk.
This past Friday night, or technically Saturday morning, as I walked out of the theater from The Dark Knight Ri
ses I was texting with Eat Your Serial President, Shawn Abraham. I knew full well that he had also been seeing a late opening night showing of the film so I didn’t feel bad about texting him at this hour (actually I don’t feel bad about texting him at any hour because, well, screw that guy). In our snarky 2 AM text session we discussed the pros and cons of Bane’s voice effects, the real deal with John Blake, and our feelings on Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. Then, I made a statement. And, to be fair the statement was seeded by Editorial Director “Slick” Nick Newert’s spoiler-free endorsement of the film earlier in the day. I stand behind this statement 100%, without qualification.
The Avengers is the best comic book movie I’ve ever seen; The Dark Knight Rises has transcended the genre to become something else.
Both movies are film adaptations of comic books and, certainly, adaptation is the call of the day. Whether one is adapting an older film to our times or creating some kind of crossover property from written or printed word to the silver screen, it’s pretty safe to say that the key to solidifying your franchise in the modern world of merchandising is a good film adaptation. We’ve seen this work quite well in bringing J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books to a generation of adults and in bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to my generation in the past decade. In that same vein, it is now of the utmost importance that the cinematic portion of a franchise be its crown jewel so that the widest possible audience can experience—and spend money—on the property.
These two films, or series of films really, provide two starkly different approaches on crossing over comic books into the mainstream via blockbuster filmmaking. The two franchises are Marvel’s Avengers (or Marvel Movie Universe Phase 1 as it is now called) and DC’s Dark Knight trilogy. Both of these properties were approached from completely different perspectives and can be viewed through different lenses on the degree of their success. While Marvel’s approach was to attempt, in an authentic way, to translate the experience of reading comic books in a shared universe to the big screen, via various directors and culminating wonderfully in Whedon’s spectacular film. DC’s Batman was approached through a metaphorical and allegorical perspective using the property as a platform, and redefining the symbolism surrounding the character in a way that arguably transcends the niche of the “comic book movie” into the realm of straight-up film.
What might these differences in approach amount to? I suppose the aim of either is to entertain, entice, and engage the audience, but the method of doing so is different. While Nolan uses the action and thriller genres to create thought provoking and dynamic movies using comic book characters as symbols, Whedon used the movie to translate the adventure, excitement, and escapism of comic book reading—as well as a create the visual aspect of comics on the big screen.
When I roll my mind over The Avengers, I remember most vividly what is, for me, the defining moment of the film—the splash page. Those of you unfamiliar with the lingo of comics might know “the splash page” as magazines do, the “two-page spread.” In the epic battle scene in New York City, director Joss Whedon was able to create a fully moving dynamic shot following the action of the battle across the city, highlighting each hero and their interactions. Despite everything else in the move that I loved, this was the moment that the full promise of comic books adapted to cinema was realized. In a comic book, a scene like this usually covers a two-page single picture—the type of thing you have to turn the comic book on its side to take in. In translating this essential convention of comic book visual storytelling to the movie screen, Joss Whedon showed his understanding not only of comics, but also of film.
In The Dark Knight Rises the defining moment is, for me, Bruce Wayne stuck in that hellish prison, mending his broken body, and failing as he watches Bane set Gotham ablaze both spiritually and physically. The movie deals with dark themes and the psychological torment of its characters, their moral crises, and their goals. In the prison pit, Batman, in his greatest failure, has no place to go but up—both literally and metaphorically. The city represents the popular uprisings of both the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party in civil unrest, and illustrates the current disapproval with the status quo (though more heavily with the Occupy Movement and the “spread the wealth” spirit they often embody). The Dark Knight Rises is a movie about politics, America, and the human spirit, wrapped in Batman’s cape and cowl—and, as such, it is a wonderful piece of pop-cinema that is certainly worthwhile and fantastic. Nolan understands the heart of the characters he has taken stewardship over in such a way that he is able to use them as a vehicle to express his message while respectfully and deftly maintaining their core and the source material.
The Dark Knight Rises transcends the comic book genre of film while The Avengers sets the bar for it. Both of these movies set out in very different ways to tell stories with very different purposes. The Avengers is an adventure; its pursuit of fantasy, escapism, action, and humor is carried out in a way not only familiar to comic book fans, but also accessible to a general audience. The Dark Knight Rises challenges and provokes thoughts without offering hard answers, while remaining thrilling and engaging; evoking dark imagery, and using familiar characters to voice arguments and counter arguments.
These are the blockbuster event movies for the fanboy set for summer 2012, and it is fair to say they did not disappoint. In fact, they both succeeded in ways so vastly separated that it would be unfair to compare them blow for blow. The only area they can actually be compared in is the box office and at the moment, it’s still too soon to tell.