Warning: This is really just me rambling and processing my thoughts after being wowed by the two movies, rather than a review. And there could be some SPOILERS in there so proceed with caution.
As an unabashed DC fanboy, I have to admit a certain degree of envy as I’ve watched Marvel’s movie strategy unfold. Despite a few hurdles, it has had something DC have generally lacked – a sense that they actually know what they are doing! The shining exception has been the Batman movies helmed by Christopher Nolan. So, it was a great deal of anticipation that I waited to see whether the final Batman movie could possibly compete with Avengers, which completely blew me away. The short answer is that it couldn’t. Not that it wasn’t incredible, it’s just that they are completely different sorts of movies and it would be like comparing apples and oranges.
Now, this might seem a little odd, considering that they are both ostensibly super hero movies, but they represent two distinct types, and the pinnacle of those at that. I am going to cheat a little though, and discuss the Batman trilogy as a whole because I think that is the only way to approach it. Even though Avengers benefits hugely from watching the movies leading up to it, and one has to admire the coherence of Marvel’s vision, at a pinch you could watch it cold and still thoroughly enjoy it.
The Avengers is very much a spectacle movie. It’s built around its stunning special effects and the sheer scale of the mayhem. Fortunately, the CGI doesn’t over power the movie as has been the case in too many other super hero films. That’s not to say that the acting is not of an extremely high quality, it’s an excellent cast with lots of strong performances and the chemistry is delightful, and we do get a look at what makes the character’s tick. But, it is very much about seeing how many things they can break and that’s what makes it so fun.
The movie is immediately identifiable as a Joss Whedon work, with his trademark snappy banter, and ability to mix humour and actions without being ham fisted about it. The Hulk was the surprise package to me, there were quite a few moments when the whole cinema was laughing with genuine humour. George Lucas should take note, that is how you do comedic relief! I bet that the studio didn’t pick that the Hulk would be so popular, especially given his previous track record.
That leads on to something else that Whedon did very well, the ability to sketch a character and give us an insight into their character, in just one scene or even one line. The way that everyone tiptoed around Bruce Banner in his unaltered form as if he were a bucket of nitro glycerine gave him a sense of lurking menace, while Tony Stark shocking him with a cattle prod told us all we needed to know about the playboy’s nature. Even one line could do it, Captain America had a wonderful line about there only being one God that hits home perfectly how much he was a man whose values were from another time. I also enjoyed the two scenes where Black Widow appeared to be out of her depth and vulnerable, only to reveal she had been in control the whole time and using those false perceptions of her as a potent weapon.
The movie was dotted with scenes and lines that did this, and it’s actually a vastly underrated talent, to be able to have faith in the intelligence of your audience and paint with a subtle brush rather than a sledgehammer. There were only a few moments that fell flat, like the odd scene where Thor gazed at his hammer and did a little finger shuffle (we really were given no reason for Thor to rejoin the group, a slight voice over from Odin reminding him of his duties might have helped). Perhaps the most disappointing was the inexplicable decision to spend what seemed like an uncomfortable eternity focussed on Colbie Smulder’s tighly clad backside rather than on the panoramic view of the flight deck – a gratuitous sop for a certain demographic. But all in all, the movie was a triumph and deserves the hype.
Dark Knight Rises takes a very different path. Throughout the movie, the focus has been very much on the development of the characters. While Nolan has not skimped on the gadgets or the epic action, he has completely removed all traces of supernatural or metahuman elements from his world. There is nothing in the movies you couldn’t imagine finding in another action movie, it’s almost James Bond in cape and cowl. As much as is possible in a movie, and physics of his wings aside, it is essentially a realistic take on Batman. This is very much borne out in the condition of Bruce Wayne’s body eight years on.
While there is certainly plenty of action, and some of the most ambitious scenes imaginable outside of the CGI madness of something like the Avengers, these really just provide a vehicle for the real strength of the movie, which is the cast. Starting with the ever impressive Christian Bale as our hero, Nolan has not only brought in some serious acting talent, but has coaxed exceptional performances from them as he has reinterpreted the Batman mythos, boiling it down to its essence and breathing fresh air into a iconic character who has not always been treated with the respect he deserves.
There are so many great performances that I am sure I will forget to mention some that deserve mentioning. I really enjoyed Michael Caine’s version of the ever faithful Alfred, who managed to provide a real emotional centre for the conflicted Bruce Wayne, and acted as an ever present place for him to come back to –which added more power to the final confrontation. Alfred is one of the few characters who actually cares about Bruce Wayne as a person, rather than a symbol. And, Gary Oldman was the perfect foil as a Commissioner Gordon increasingly bowed down by the pressures of trying to be a straight cop in a bent city. He is by no means a paragon, but from the moment we see him put a coat around the young Bruce Wayne’s shoulder we see that he is an essentially decent man struggling to rise above the corruption around him.
It was really Nolan’s interpretations of the villains, though, that stole the show. Liam Neeson was as reliable as ever , playing a R’as Al Ghul you actually wanted to like. Heath Ledger was electric as a truly psychotic Joker, perhaps the best version so far, who really communicated the depths of that character’s capacity for violence and evil in way I haven’t seen outside of the very best comics. I know the push for it was in many ways born of sentiment, but an Oscar for that performance wouldn’t have been the most unreasonable in that award’s chequered history.
When we come to the third instalment, I have to say that I felt a certain trepidation after the few previews I saw (I steered clear of the buzz on the net as best I could). The Bane in of the DCAU (still my favourite DC product) is huge, brains and brawn combined. The stills I saw made me worry that the movie version would not have any sort of physical presence; he didn’t look much bigger than Batman. Well, I was wrong and happily admit it. In the movie, Bane is so physically imposing he carries menace wherever he goes, he looks like violence waiting to happen and unstoppable violence at that. There is a scene a where he simply rests a hand on someone’s shoulder, no more, but it is terrifying! His voice took a bit of getting used to, though.
Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman was another casting triumph. I thought the Selina Kyle of Dark Knight Rises was far closer to what I see as the” real thing”, more the street wise thief than the sex kitten that has been strangely popular, as far away as it is possible to be grotesquely warped version of modern comic book covers. She stole every scene she was in and proved more than Batman’s equal. They had that great chemistry that Batman and Catwoman need, both refusing to compromise who they are for the other.
It did have that Studio 60 vibe of trying to tie up as many loose threads as possible, knowing it was all coming to an end. But, frankly, I am a sentimental guy and I love resolution and happy endings and just that little hint that they could make more movies if they really wanted to. It’s going out on a high and I quite enjoyed it.
Both these movies show that you don’t need slavish devotion to the often convoluted canon that builds up around comic book characters to make a good movie. What you need is someone who cares about the characters and the history, who is willing to strip away the crud that accretes over time and explore what the core of the story is. What are the essential elements that make Batman who he is? What is at the heart of the idea of a super hero team up like the Avengers?
Both these adaptations show how to do this the right way, as opposed to the cautionary tales that are far too frequent. All I can hope is that DC have heeded the lessons and that when they inevitably start working towards a Justice League movie that they look at a movie like the avengers, and that Man of Steel captures the essence of Superman the way that Nolan did Batman’s. One can only hope.