Because no battle is ever won he said.
The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion.
–William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
The Dark Knight is filled with cruelty, hatred, and sorrow. The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) films are much more fun and kid-friendly. In a superhero movie, the bad guys usually rack up a fair amount of kills, yet these deaths rarely have any lasting affect on the heroes. When a good guy dies in the MCU, it’s either an extra or a side character whose death is ignored or mourned for only a moment. Twelve MCU films and no dead superheroes. Are you shitting me, Marvel? How can you call an Avengers movie Civil War without killing off a single Avenger? Marvel’s pussyfooting has made (most) the action in these films devoid of suspense, as the audience (or at least the adult section of the audience) knows that the heroes and the innocents they protect can’t die. And thank God they never get maimed either.
The Dark Knight
I’m so glad Marvel never disfigures the Avengers. What kind of sick mind would want to blemish the immaculate face of a Hollywood star?
Distinguishing TDK from traditional superhero movies is its willingness and determination to portray the horrors of terrorism and the consequences of heroism. It is, for the most part, a very unpleasant movie—as it should be. When your story is about soldiers or cops (or vigilantes acting as such) forced to kill people and/or witness the death of allies, your story sort of has to be dark—that is, unless you’d rather make a rock-em-sock-em, fun-filled adventure that all the kids’ll love. Personally, I prefer the former approach. Christopher Nolan’s uncompromising direction contravenes the trite commercial conventions of the MCU films. This article doesn’t argue that TDK is the best superhero movie (does it need to be argued?). My aim is to illustrate Marvel Studio’s cowardly refusal to make a comparably subversive film.
It’s not the end of the world and we know it
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Uh-oh, it appears Ultron plans on destroying all organic life on Earth (Wanda discovers by reading his mind)! Can the Avengers stop him??? (*massive spoilers ahead*)
Most scifi/fantasy blockbusters feature an end-of-the-world scenario. This is particularly common in sequels. It’s hard to get the public excited about a sequel if there isn’t more at stake, so we see the same general threat conveyed over and over: the destruction or enslavement of the world (or a city, nation, etc.). This requisite conflict often forces writers to give their villains the same genocidal motivations, making it quite difficult to also give them nuance or depth. In Avengers: Age of Ultron (AoU), I found the titular philosophical AI quite interesting (particularly in how he reflects Tony’s character with his theatricality)—up until we learn of his banal plan to annihilate mankind.
Whenever the villain says something like “Your world’s gonna end,” I instinctively roll my eyes at the film’s attempt to make us worry about a potential disaster we know the heroes will prevent. The characters fear the villain’s threats, but the audience doesn’t. Part of what makes Heath Ledger’s Joker so extraordinarily menacing is his ability to make the the characters and the audience fear his threats. Who can honestly say they knew how the Joker’s climactic game would end (when he rigs two fairies with explosives and threatens to blow them both up unless a passenger on one boat decides to detonate the explosives on the other)? Rather than threatening the lives of millions, he threatens to kill a relatively small number of civilians, and because we’ve already seen him kill a handful of innocents (like Harvey’s hapless squeeze)—and because we’ve seen his ability to make ordinary people commit murder (when two civilians and a cop try to assassinate Reese)—a catastrophic outcome to the finale felt entirely possible, even likely.
In many (or perhaps most) MCU action scenes, the heroes are pitted against an overwhelming number of trained, elite killers trying to kill them. The outcome doesn’t vary much. How does Marvel expect their villains to feel intimidating if they always lose? Thankfully, TDK’s Joker is much better at the games he plays. While most bad guys try to kill the heroes, the Joker endeavors to turn them into villains. “Why do you want to kill me?” asks Batman. In an hysterical fit of laughter, the Joker corrects his error. “I don’t wanna kill you! What would I do with out you?” His master plan is to drive Gotham mad with rage and terror, and to pull it off, he needs his heroic puppets alive and unwell.
The Dark Knight
Here, the Joker lowers his gun as Batman approaches. “C’mon, I want you to do it I want you to do it,” he mutters. “Hit me. . . Hit me! Hit me!” He’s so mad, so malicious that he would gladly let one of Gotham’s knights kill him in order to precipitate his fall into darkness. After murdering Rachael, the Joker gives Harvey a revolver and aims it at his own head, and when Batman throws him from the tower, he laughs hysterically on his way down, overjoyed with the prospect of getting Batman to “break his one rule” (to avoid killing).
The Joker’s primary motivation isn’t to kill but to transform. “What do you believe in?” cries the mob bank manager, enraged by the mad man’s treacherous operation. “What do you believe in?” Placing a smoke grenade (that looks like a frag grenade) in the manager’s mouth, the Joker explains, “I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you— stranger.” Someone made Thomas Schiff stranger when they gave him his scars, and now he’s driven by a desire to scar others. Here, he decides to traumatize rather than kill his enemy.
In The Avengers, Loki acquires a weapon with the potential to destroy worlds called the Tesseract. In Thor: Dark World (TDW), Malekith genetically enhances his army with a mythical substance called Aether. In AoU, Ultron builds a machine that can lift cities into the sky and send them crashing to the ground. The Joker’s arsenal—“a few drums of gasoline and a couple of bullets”—is less spectacular. While MCU villains use hyper-advanced technology to wreak havoc, the Joker relies on words as a primary tool of destruction. Instead of killing Reese (the weasel who threatens to reveal Batman’s identity) himself, he convinces Gotham to do his dirty work. Threatening to blow up a hospital if Reese isn’t killed, he drives at least three people (who try to kill Reese) mad with terror. The Joker doesn’t just want to watch the world burn. He wants the world to tear itself apart.
The Joker doesn’t have any badass superpowers or physical prowess. What makes him intimidating is his mad genius and limitless cruelty (bolstered by Ledger’s insanely convincing performance). There’s not much on-screen violence. Still, Nolan’s PG-13 film is far more disturbing than your average R-rated action romp. “Do you wanna know why I use a knife?” Joker asks the cop (who lost six friends to the mad man), toying with his grief. “Guns are too quick. You can’t savor all the little emotions. You see, in their last moments, people show you who they really are. So in a way, I knew your friends better than you ever did. Would you like to know which ones were cowards?” Damn. This guy should probably see a shrink.
There’s a disquieting truth in all the Joker’s evil taunts. “Does it depress you, Commissioner, to know just how alone you really are?” he asks Gordon. “Does it make you feel responsible for Harvey Dent’s current. . predicament?” Each hero’s arc ends with irreparable tragedy. “We have to save Dent! I have to save Dent!” cries Gordon, desperate for redemption (for letting Rachel get killed and Harvey get blown half to hell by ignoring the DA’s warnings about the traitors in his unit) that he never receives. In the final scene, Gordon tells Batman, “The Joker won.” Sure, he lost his explosive fairy game, but he succeeded in severely scarring (emotionally or physically) Gotham’s three heroes. “You’ll come after me. Set the dogs on me,” Batman tells his partner. First the commissioner learns that the cops (Wuertz and Ramirez, whom we saw him bonding with in two prior scenes) he’s trusted with Dent’s life have betrayed him, then he loses contact with his only other friend, forced to lie to the city (by claiming Batman murdered Dent) and hunt him down in order to prevent chaos from spreading any further (which would occur if Dent’s downfall became public knowledge). Unlike the MCU villains, who foolishly assume they’ll be able to kill the Avengers, the Joker makes accurate predictions. At the end of the film, Gordon is left broken and alone.
Don’t let the bodies hit the floor
In TDK, numerous civilians die (mostly offscreen). This doesn’t happen very often in a PG-13 movie. Most audiences enjoy watching bad guys slaughter red shirts, but not that many want to see unarmed bystanders get caught in the cross-fire. Most kids (and sadly, many adults) need comic relief to enjoy a battle scene, and comic relief doesn’t work all that well when civies are getting crushed by rubble.
Captain America: Civil War
MCU films have made strives to emulate TDK’s gritty realism, but they’ve all come up short due to Marvel’s refusal to dwell on the despair that surrounds death. Captain America: Civil War (CW) deviates from the norm by finally addressing the fact that when buildings fall, people die. I love the scene where the Avengers realize they’ve been acting like negligent idiots. While showing them footage of their wanton destruction from four prior fight scenes (including the above image of a dead child), Secretary of State Ross guilt trips the gang for “seeming unconcerned about what they leave behind.” Thanks for ruining our fun, asshole. Now it’s kind of hard to rewatch Avengers and AoU and take them seriously, because during the action scenes that CW revisits, the tone is predominantly triumphant, not one Avenger considering the possibility that, after helping the bad guys destroy several city blocks, they may have failed to save everyone. I guess prior to CW, the heroes were blind to everything the kids didn’t want to see. Let’s hope Marvel doesn’t go back to ignoring the cost of victory.
In most superhero movies, the scenes involving heroics are pathetically predictable. Every time we see a civie in danger, we inevitably know (or should know) they’re going to be saved by the hero at the last second.
The following 12 images are from the finale of Age of Ultron.
Oh no, that woman’s falling! Gosh, I hope she doesn’t get hurt!
Go, Thor, go!
OMG my hero…
Wow, What an amazing throw!
Great catch, Cap! Phew, now I can breathe again!
Oh no! That lady’s son was left behind!
Go get ’em, Hawkeye!
Wow, such bravery!
“That building’s not clear. Tenth floor,” Friday informs Tony.
Uh-oh, will Iron Man be able to rescue the whole family before the building falls off the cliff???
Wow, cool! He put them all in the bathtub! Such ingenuity!
Does anyone actually find this shit suspenseful? It seems many are too distracted by the impressive visual effects, choreography, and display of superhuman dexterity to realize they’ve seen this scene countless times before. Personally, I can’t stomach the artificiality of such formulaic storytelling.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
It’s so laughably pitiful how most superhero films fail to address the offscreen death toll. (In Marvel’s defense, this is a systemic problem that countless other action films [particularly those by Michael Bay] are equally or more guilty of perpetuating.) This city hasn’t been evacuated yet. We see people running around screaming in the background of every other shot, so there’s gotta be people in that neighborhood that just got leveled, right? The film suggests otherwise, as we never see a single dead bystander. Director Joss Whedon only shows us the civies lucky enough to be saved by the heroes (probably not by choice, as the director had limited control).
Attack on Titan
If you’re interested in sci-fi/fantasy about heroes who can’t save everyone, watch an anime like Attack on Titan, Fate-Zero, or Fulmetal Alchemist—series that observe rather than ignore the inevitable loss of innocent life that results from war.
The following four images are from the prolonged finale of Deadpool. Each shot is separated by intervals of fight footage.
OMG like halp!
OMG like can’t breath!
OMG like almost died!
Even a creative Marvel movie like Deadpool (a satire deriding the trappings of the genre) features some traditional action that attempts and fails miserably to create a sense of peril. Given the film’s predominantly cheerful tone, we know the damsel in distress isn’t gonna die, so each time Deadpool screams her name in dismay, and each time we get a shot of her clumsily trying to escape the gas chamber (that the villain has kindly made quite easy to escape from), the film feels as routine and unintelligent as the films it mocks.
Thank God Nolan (and Warner Brothers) had the balls to do something that very few blockbusters had done before (or have done since): he killed off the damsel in distress.
The Dark Knight
“Harvey, it’s okay. It’s alright. Listen. Somewhere—”
Damn, Nolan, that’s cold! You could’ve at least let the poor girl say goodbye.
Can we not be heroes for just one day?
The Dark Knight
The final scene of TDK is optimistic, but it hardly qualifies as a happy ending. “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough,” Batman tells Gordon (after he kills Harvey). “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” He’s saying that the best solution to their problem is to lie (and frame Batman for all the people Harvey murdered so that his status as “Gotham’s white knight” won’t be tarnished). The scene has problematic sociopolitical implications—suggesting that sometimes, it’s okay for government agencies to lie to the public in order to hide the horrific truth and prevent a panic—and in my opinion, that’s not a bad thing. It’s thought-provoking. The film doesn’t pull a bullshit sit-com move and pretend that there’s some easy, ideal solution to the characters’ problem (which is how most Hollywood movies end).
Captain America: Civil War
The surprisingly brutal finale of CW (where Tony learns his parents had been murdered by the Winter Soldier and that Steve had covered it up) also features a hero’s betrayal, the villain’s victory, and a problem with no ideal solution. Undoubtedly, it’s the most intense scene in the MCU, mainly because it’s the only moment in the series (that I can recall—if I’m wrong about this, please correct me in the comments) where an Avenger briefly becomes a villain. Tony (presumably) knows that Bucky wasn’t truly responsible for his parents’ death (as his mind was being controlled by HYDRA), and when Cap tells him that revenge would be futile—“This isn’t going to change what happened”—Tony replies, “I don’t care. He killed my mom.” Holy shit! A hero making an immoral, purely selfish decision at the end of the film? That’s suppose to happen towards the beginning, so that he can redeem the act by the end. For the first time in the series, a major conflict between the Avengers (Steve’s betrayal) is left unresolved. Of course, this conflict is hardly insoluble. (The scene would’ve been sooo much more memorable if Tony had killed Bucky.) Steve and Tony’s fractured friendship will undoubtedly be mended in a future film when Tony brings Steve his shield and tells him that they need their Cap back to defeat an unprecedented threat. Still, it’s encouraging to see Marvel finally let a villain win (a victim of the Avengers’ wanton destruction who strives to turn them against each other), even if it’s only a partial victory.