Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why So Serious? Batman Versus the Avengers

I've now seen Batman: The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man three times each, which means The Avengers officially still holds my heart. If I had to rank the three films, I'd say The Avengers is my favorite, The Amazing Spider-Man (while still enjoyable) is my least favorite, and Batman is somewhere in the middle.

I'm not entirely surprised by this, since I've been a geek for The Avengers for roughly thirty years. But maybe I should be surprised. Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is entirely unique in the catalog of superhero films; it's the only set of films that's had a fighting chance at winning Oscars for acting or directing. (Heath Ledger, for example, won best supporting actor for his portrayal of the Joker.) Superhero films are in a class all by themselves, judged by their own peculiar merits, but among superhero films the Batman trilogy is in a class all by itself. And yet this year I prefer The Avengers, which, for as much as I like it, is pretty standard comic book fare.

I find myself wondering, What if? What if Batman had been released first? It's possible that, as much as Batman Begins was hailed as a "game changer" at the time of its release in 2005, resetting the bar for what a superhero film should be, The Avengers was this year's game changer, and The Dark Knight Rises suffered in our estimation as a result.

I've written elsewhere about what might be called the "sine wave of silliness" in Batman storytelling. To wit: Stories about Batman are either serious or silly, and they trend toward the one or the other for long periods of time until the pendulum swings back. The 1960s Batman TV show was unabashedly campy, and it defined the character for the better part of a decade. Then the serious side of Batman came back with a vengeance, until Saturday morning cartoons demanded a kinder, gentler and smileyer Bruce Wayne--until Frank Miller envisioned a dystopian future when a retired Dark Knight Returns. And then, George Clooney put on the tights for Joel Schumacher's homage to 1960s camp in 1997's Batman & Robin, killing a film franchise that under Tim Burton's watch had effectively reconciled Batman's silly and serious sides.

And then, in 2005, Batman Begins made us take superheroes seriously. The film was dark and sober, penetrating and poignant. Everything since then, from Superman Returns to Ghost Rider, has been judged by it. Only Batman: The Dark Knight eclipsed it, with Heath Ledger creating a portrait of the Joker that is still haunting.

Just because nothing compares to Batman films, however, doesn't mean that we won't drop good money on other superheroes. Iron Man benefited from our good faith, presenting us with a lesser-known character portrayed by an actor whose career had stalled. Robert Downey Jr. delivered a comically care-free and cool performance, a billionaire playboy whose superpowers are not natural but manufactured,--a less heroic but more relatable alternative to Batman's uber-serious, mopey Bruce Wayne.

The success of Iron Man set into motion the release of The Avengers, which retained Downey's cavalier and larger-than-life attitude, and extrapolated it out into a team/community setting. The Avengers was the culmination of five films showcasing four characters (six, if you include the cameo by Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye in Thor and Samuel L. Jackson's appearance in Iron Man and Captain America). Over the course of those films (all of which, with the exception of the first Iron Man, were released in between the final two films in the Batman trilogy), our expectations have been changed: we've come to ask of our superhero films--with Heath Ledger's disturbing Joker, ironically enough--"Why so serious?"

If Batman: The Dark Knight Rises had come out in April, we would have thought of The Avengers quite differently come May. But in some respects the die had already been cast: whereas Batman is a trilogy, The Avengers has been, in a manner of speaking, a quintilogy. Five against three in the battle between serious and silly: the odds favor silly.

Fair warning, Batman fans: your next Bruce Wayne, I predict, will look much less like Christian Bale and much more like Adam West.

1 comment:

Rick said...

I'd only disagree with your statement that DK was the only series worth Oscar mention. Would hope Whedon will get a nod for Best Director for AVENGERS - seems everyone understands how much he did in whipping that one into shape and still producing a solid winner.