When Marvel and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers came hulking out of the cinematic gate this summer, instantly making $1,000,000,000 (that’s a billion if you don’t like counting zeroes), the gauntlet was apparently thrown down to its supposed biggest competitor of the year, DC and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Certainly Iron Man and his amazing friends bested Batman and his extended family at the box office, but no movie boasting more than a billion dollars, which Rises also surpassed, can be considered any kind of loser. Besides the fortunes of the already-rich, there’s been a quietly seething battle between fans of either superhero epic to determine which of the two is actually the better film. The debate hasn’t broken out in the Cheetos-stained fisticuffs that have plagued other, older movie franchise wars, but fan-boy and -girl foot soldiers on both sides tend to be quite passionate in their arguments or rebuttals, as is their wont. Like the never ending battle of wills between Batman and the Joker, the fan dance is one that will likely go on forever. Or until some other genre-defining products come along in the same year.
As for the critics, The Avengers nets a better overall score on Rotten Tomatoes but The Dark Knight Rises metes out a much better rating over on Metacritic. So, it looks like we’re at a draw there, as well. However, in my lazy anecdotal research, it would seem that The Avengers generally comes out on top when critics and bloggers stack the two movies against each other and gauge the merits of what each of them were trying to accomplish. More often than not, though, whatever the end result of the comparison, it’s nearly always couched in terms of both movies are good, but the one the writer prefers is just “objectively” better - no matter how slight the difference. Of course, the mostly unspoken truth is that neither movie must be in competition with the other, that’s just the easiest angle to report on.
One movie made more money, the other also made a ton and was perhaps hindered in making more due to a tragedy on its opening night. Each movie was made by companies in direct competition on comic book store shelves, but the movies’ release dates were spread far enough apart to ensure the neither would be hurt by the box office success of the other. Both movies received equivalently high ratings from critics and moviegoers alike. Normally, to deflate this unnecessary rivalry, it would be enough to show what each of the movies did best and how we can appreciate both because of, not in spite of, their differences. The concept of Yin and Yang is a simple way of evoking that, but these two movies go beyond the obvious light and dark, fun and serious dichotomy - with a little bit of gloom in the light, a little bit of levity in the dark - that is often cited as the way to differentiate these two wildly different styles of comic book adaptations. But that proved surprisingly hard to do here because this instance of yinyang goes deeper, into the plots of the movies themselves. Because…
The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are the same movie.
That is, admittedly, pretty glib. After all, the aforementioned styles of the two films are markedly different, but that’s purely a surface observation and only means they are told differently in order to appeal to similar but disparate tastes. Not only are they the Yin (Avengers) and the Yang (Rises) of the comic book movie genre, they’re the Yin and the Yang of the exact same story.
Tony Stark is to Bruce Wayne as Bruce Wayne is to Tony Stark
Obviously nobody needs to be reminded that both Stark and Wayne are wealthy beyond imagination, the heirs to empires their fathers built who then used those fortunes in ways never imagined. For large portions of screen time, both also sport truly terrible facial hair. Both of their story arcs hinge on learning that they can’t do everything on their own and, most importantly, that they may have to sacrifice more than they’re prepared to give in order to overcome their demons, both personal and manifested in the movies’ villains. Speaking of whom…
Loki is to Bane as Bane is to Loki
Loki and Bane both have some fairly inscrutable plans that drive the plots of each movie: they need to be captured and transported aboard aircraft, they need to force brilliant scientists to work for them, they need to use the heroes’ own tools against them, they need to amass foreign armies to take over a major metropolitan area, they both need to increase tension in the heroic ranks causing them to react irrationally, and they both manage to kill only one person of any possible emotional consequence in the entirety of their villainy. They’re also both Brits named Tom, but that’s probably just a bonus.
Black Widow is to Catwoman as Catwoman is to Black Widow
Attractive white women in skintight not-leather jumpsuits with a penchant for acrobatics and gun play, right? Of course, they also both come from shady backgrounds and shaky loyalties before joining the side of the angels — but that’s also the source materials. Then it’s a good thing both Natasha Romanov and Selina Kyle also want to erase those shady pasts so they can have better, less fragile lives. They happen to kick a lot of ass and save the day, too.
Betrayal and Redemption
Relating directly to Catwoman’s redemption, after betraying Batman by sending him unprepared directly to Bane, is one of the main overarching themes in both movies. Hawkeye and Prof. Selvig both betray S.H.I.E.L.D. (against their own will, yes) for Loki and then redeem themselves in the last act, just like Selina. Of course,
Miranda Tate Talia al Ghul also betrays Bruce and doesn’t redeem herself by film’s end. Not to worry! That just makes Nolan’s version of Thanos.
The Avengers Initiative is Reactivated and Batman Comes out of Retirement (twice)
One could argue that Nick Fury successfully reactivating the “Avengers Initiative” first mentioned in the Iron Man series was a foregone conclusion for a movie named The Avengers. Well, then the same is equally true for Batman un-retiring in a movie called The Dark Knight Rises, no matter how many other meanings and puns can be inferred. What about the fact that Batman returns to duty fairly early in the movie, while the Avengers aren’t a team until the very end? Bruce Wayne does indeed put on the cape and cowl earlier in his movie, but it’s arguably not until he returns from Bane’s prison that Batman is actually back in Gotham. Logically it’s an iffy proposition, but thematically it makes just as much sense as Bruce Banner suddenly able to control “the other guy.”
Green Energy is Used as a Weapon, Requiring a Nuclear Response
To be fair, the “nuclear response” in Rises is the same MacGuffin as the “green energy” weapon, whereas in Avengers the Cosmic Cube and the S.H.I.E.L.D. nuke are two different things. That said, it is fairly redundant for two different superhero movies to reference some magical and/or miraculous clean energy solutions that are then used as weapons against the very people they were meant to help. Then those must people must be saved by literally flying nukes out of the city — with Gotham Bay apparently as adequate a disposal site as a portal to deep space. Speaking of those nukes…
The Hero’s Sacrifice Can’t Be Done Alone
Whether it’s a missile or a ticking time-bomb, those are some pretty big ways to highlight the significance of Iron Man’s and Batman’s dual sacrifices at the end of each movie. Granted, neither die and one was kind of a dick by making everyone think he had, but both needed to happen for the stories to reach their satisfying conclusions. Not coincidentally, neither plan would have worked if others didn’t step in to give provide big assists: Fury trying to shoot down one of his own jets and confronting S.H.I.E.L.D.’s super secret benefactors; Prof. Selvig trying to help Black Widow disrupt the Cube’s portal; all the other Avengers, natch; Lucius Fox trying to disable the bomb by flooding the chamber; Gordon going above and beyond to track the bomb; the aforementioned Bake-slaying Catwoman; all the other Gotham police officers, including JGL’s John Blake. I mean, for giant ensembles, that’s just good writing.
They Aren’t Afraid, They’re Always Angry
All right, I agree, this is a little ridiculous. But it is somewhat fascinating that both of these movies deal so directly with the benefit anger can bring to a dealing with a problem. Especially if you want that problem dealt with forthrightly and with no other possible solution but your own. Might makes right is definitely a comic book convention (and no I don’t mean like the one in San Diego), but anger is fairly specific to the Hulk and Batman as it informs everything that they do. Again, that’s just good writing, but the similar emphasis on such similar lines — “I’m always angry” and “I’m not afraid, I’m angry” — is fairly original for summer blockbusters.
The Franchise(s) Must Go On
I mean, obviously. The studios make too much money for these moves — and not just these types of movies — to not continue being churned out into theaters around the world. Even if it’s more likely that Warner Bros. will simply recast and reboot rather than continue on with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, there will be another Batman movie (regardless of the proposed Justice League movie) within the next ten years, probably five. But I’m less interested in the needs of franchises in general than in how these movies set their futures up with two very distinct images. For Rises it was John Blake discover the Batcave with Bruce’s permission to continue the war on crime*, for Avengers it was a lingering look at the only remaining letter on Stark Tower, the “A,” implying we’ll see Avengers Tower in the next film. Both images are hopeful about tomorrow, despite being tinged with a sense of the destruction that came before and the likelihood of it returning in the indeterminate future.
A Tale of Two Beat Downs
It should be noted that the above indulgences are not exhaustive comparisons that showcase the two movies’ core similarities amidst their more obvious divergences is greatly appreciated, just the ones I found most compelling or entertaining. Those parallels now force us to ask, how can either movie be better than the other when they are fundamentally the same? Answer: They can’t. But that probably won’t stop anyone from believing The Avengers is so clearly better than The Dark Knight Rises, or vice-versa. That’s fine for those who can’t resist a pointless debate. The rest of us know it is moot, because The Dark Knight was already the genre’s best in show.
* Footage not found.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He’s going to try to stop writing about Nolan, Whedon, and superheroes for the rest of the year, but no promises.