It isn’t hyperbole to say that this summer will witness the release of the two biggest superhero movies ever made. This Friday, Marvel Studios will finally bring its madcap five-year plan to fruition with the release of The Avengers, a mega-sequel action bonanza. But, as my colleague Adam B. Vary points out, moviegoers who see The Avengers this weekend will be treated to a preview for a very different comic book film: The Dark Knight Rises, the concluding chapter of Christopher Nolan’s bleak epoch-defining Batman trilogy. It’s not just that The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises offer different perspectives on the superhero genre. The two movies are diametrically opposed down to the microscopic level.
Nolan’s Batman series was conceived during the mid-’00s boom in big-budget grit. Call it the Bleakbuster Era, a cultural moment during which The Bourne Identity and Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and post-Cuaron Harry Potter minted money off of moral ambiguity and 9/11 allegory. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight feature conversations about the nature of evil, and villains sprinkled with terrorist allegory. As far as we can tell, The Dark Knight Rises is about an urban uprising symbolizing Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, depending on your politics.
And then there’s The Avengers. The fifth film produced by Marvel Studios, Avengers unites four franchises into one film. And while Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and the two Iron Man movies each featured different styles, they’re united by a candy-colored sensibility and whimsy. Without spoiling anything about Avengers, I’ll say that the movie is close in spirit to the Sam Raimi/Jon Favreau model of superhero movie — which is to say, it’s about as far from Christopher Nolan as you can get.
The differences pile up as you dig deeper into the two movies. Rises reflects Nolan’s preference for practical effects over digital; Avengers features shots of digital superheroes firing digital energy bolts at digital enemy things. Dark Knight Rises earns press for declaring itself the genuine End of the Batman Saga; Avengers is a saga that never has to end, with the movie standing as an argument and an advertisement for a hundred more Marvel spin-offs and reboots. The two films also reflect the eternal Marvel vs. DC comic book debate, although you could argue that the debate has switched sides: Now, DC has the “realistic” superhero and Marvel has the gods.
Both movies will make an ungodly amount of money. But in the showdown between Rises and Avengers, are we witnessing a battle for the future of the genre — an attempt to define what the superhero movie will be from now on? I know plenty of people have gone sour on Nolan’s particular brand of ponderous-chic moviemaking, but his superhero films focus on personality and reflect an attempt to adapt comic book narratives to cinema. The Avengers is old-fashioned studio product, with a fast-paced production that supersedes any one creative force. (The next Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor sequels will be helmed by franchise-newbie directors.)
I haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises, and I’ve done my best to avoid hearing anything about it beyond what I see in the trailers. So I’m speaking purely from conjecture when I say that I worry moviegoers will find it disappointing. For one thing, the Spider-Man series established the general three-act structure for superhero franchises — a decent first movie, a great second movie, a bad third movie. More importantly, Internet culture has created a generation defined by high expectations and angry responses when those expectations aren’t met — I can’t help but wonder if the angry reactions to Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and even Mass Effect are warm-ups for a whole series of angry responses to Rises. If there’s one thing that the trailer makes clear, it’s that Dark Knight Rises is going for weird and dark — and it’s not clear that the movie-going masses will be happy with either of those flavors.
Even if Avengers and Dark Knight Rises both make the same amount of money and receive the same critical acclaim, Avengers will likely have the longer tail — among moviegoers, but also in Hollywood. Say you’re a big-shot studio executive trying to build your next superhero franchise. Which movie are you going to make: A dark thriller about a frowning orphan who fights murderous freaks with a tank? Or a fun special-effects flick about a handsome dude who exchanges witty banter with a babe and battles a space villain using the power of love? Keep in mind: The first movie will have two sequels that come out over the course of seven years, but the second movie has the potential for two sequels, five spin-offs, and a reboot. If you like having a job, how do you not choose the second option?
The Dark Knight Rises might mark the end of the notion that superhero movies can be real movies, instead of just products that look good on quarterly earnings reports. Or maybe The Avengers is just the next stage in the genre’s evolution — a genial step away from of a decade of grim action heroes, an endearingly self-aware return to old-fashioned ’80s beefcakery. Whichever you prefer, the two movies represent a genre at a crossroads — and a summer that may just define the next cycle of blockbuster movies.