With Batman v Superman currently stomping box office records and critics sobbing in their corners of collective futile contempt, we thought it appropriate to pit two of the greatest superhero films against each other and see which is truly the best—the darkest knight or the bluest tights? The conclusion of this episode of Movie Battles might surprise you. It surprised even us! We found this particular battle unusually tough to judge. We'll begin with a film more than 30 years old that steadfastly remains just as terrific as it was in 1980, following up with 2008's monumental success, The Dark Knight. Be sure to let us know in the comments which superhero epic you feel is the real winner!
Superman II (1980) - directed by Richard Donner and Richard Lester
This film just seems to have more confidence in Superman, or maybe they had more confidence in Christopher Reeve. Reeve was a huge gamble for the producers the first time out, basically plucked out of obscurity from a pool of thousands of potentials to play the part. The producers’ solution to balance that gamble was to give Reeve third billing in a film where he played the title character, beneath Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. Promoted to second billing here, Reeve is breathing a little easier, and so is the material. The humor comes a little easier, doesn’t feel quite as forced, and instead of a convoluted crackpot Lex Luthor scheme at its core, Superman is confronted by genuine threats from his destroyed home world.
This is where the casting directors earned their weight in gold. When you cast Terence Stamp in anything, you’ve automatically taken things up two or three notches. The man has so much charisma and commanding screen presence that Reeve deserved an Oscar nomination just for holding his own on screen with both Stamp and Hackman at the same time. Stamp plays General Zod as a jet-propelled vessel of pure pride and arrogance. The House of El has slighted him and he will see the last son of El kneel before him if it’s the last thing he does, even if he and his sidekicks from the sexually confused Matrix have to destroy the planet to achieve that goal. Lex Luthor’s involvement here is purely for comedy gold, and Hackman brings it like non other. His knack for glorious self-promotion and pure idiocy is the perfect foil for Zod’s commanding control freak. Everyone but Luthor can see that he’s hopelessly outmatched and outclassed by Zod in every way, so their every scene together vibrates with gentle belly laughter.
|"So, we keep the girl and you get $14 for the new Beyonce album? Deal."|
But a hero is not just the sum of the villainy he faces. Superman II gives Kal-El a true arc that was missing from the first film. It seems like the second installment of many a comic book franchise since this one has to get the titular character asking his or herself whether they want to continue to play the part of the unsung savior. Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight both followed the path laid out here by the two Dicks, and in all three cases, love was the catalyst for their hero to try and embark on a path of normalcy. This leads to the film’s very best scenes, where Reeve shows us just how good he can be in this part when he’s not playing Clark Kent like a prat-falling commentary on humankind. Superman, and Clark Kent, get to experience true weakness; not the kind that comes from suddenly finding yourself unable to benchpress nuclear missile silos, but the kind that comes from looking someone in the eye and trusting them with your heart. The question that spawns from that choice is obvious: Can someone be a superhero and still have love? Even if your skin can stop bullets, you’re only as invulnerable as love lets you be.
The answer Superman II provides still pisses many people off to this day. Up there but not quite approaching the epic crap factor of flying Earth backwards, the magic memory erasing kiss is a cowardly way of navigating this narrative back to the status quo. Not only is it a horribly bad deus ex machina, but it’s a prime example of a core problem permeating this entire series: Superman’s powers are just whatever the screenwriters wanted them to be. Making illusionary doubles of himself, rebuilding the Great Wall of China by staring at it, and throwing magical giant shrink wrap S shields that he pulls out of his ass, and breathing in space, just to name a few. He can’t do those things in the comics, and let’s face it, if he did, we would still think it was stupid. But at least it comes after one hell of a whopper finale, with Metropolis under fire from four Kryptonians. City busses flying, shit blowing up. Hell yeah!
Even with its numerous flaws, this is still as good as it gets (so far), at least on the silver screen. When you’ve got titans of acting like Hackman, Brando, Reeve, and Stamp sharing the canvas together, even if the painting is slapdash at points, it’ll still be levels above most others, and Superman II has remained the gold standard for the Man of Steel for 36 years. A worthy feat for the Last Son of Krypton.
The Dark Knight (2008) - directed by Christopher Nolan
Even if I wasn't the biggest fan of Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's follow up film got my attention, especially with such a unique twist on the Joker with the surprising Heath Ledger in the role. I even got bitten by their viral marketing bug with their tantalizing Joker campaign. I went to see this three or four times in the theater, dragging as many people as I could with me. Over time I've grown to appreciate it in new ways, but also see through it in others.
The biggest setback for me is Bale's Batman, and it's not always his performance that bothers me. It's mostly the writing. The first film sets up Wayne as a man doing whatever it takes, conquering fear, and training as a ninja for years in order to bring justice back to Gotham, but that's thrown all away here. He seeks to abandon all of it for love, therefore leaving me with practically no reason to root for the guy. All this talk of devoting yourself to an ideal, restoring peace and justice, and disappearing for seven years to train and rediscover who he truly is, then all it takes is a pair of boobs to convince him he's not interested in Batman anymore. It really defeats the purpose of the character and makes it hard to care about his motives at that point.
No matter its few shortcomings, Dark Knight is paced far better than Begins, the character arcs more balanced with each other, and the tone is steady and gripping. Unlike Begins' matter-of-fact camerawork showcasing talking heads against a backdrop of dull browns and greys, the cinematography of Dark Knight takes a giant leap forward. The phenomenal IMAX shots sport incredible color breadth, immense depth, and inky stark contrast, giving bigger action segments a sense of spectacle and immensity second to none. Like Burton's original Batman, Nolan's Dark Knight has what have already gone on to be some of the most iconic scenes in all of comic book films, thanks mostly in part to its stellar cinematography. Take for example the epic chase scene that finishes with the huge semi truck flip. It's not just the semi, it's the build to the moment that is so engaging, loaded with slick surprises like the batpod breaking free from the Tumbler allowing Batman to continue the chase when you thought he had failed. Leading into the scene, we get the dissonant one-note Joker theme singing the silence of a massive air shot, following the caravan of Harvey Dent as they are just about to enter a tunnel. The sense of impending doom is palpable. Fast-forward and you are treated to an exhilarating action scene finale when Batman weaves through the streets and under the Joker's semi, towing a cable which pulls taut and causes the semi to launch ass over face into the pavement. The physics are debatable, but the scene couldn't have ended better or looked better. It's the kind of moment that makes your eyes go wide and remember why you love going to the movies.
|"Oooh! Piece of candy!"|
The theme of fear was one abandoned about halfway through Batman Begins, but the chaos versus order theme of Dark Knight is consistent, especially considering the Batman/Joker dynamic. Without Joker, however, Batman himself is a bystander in his own film. Without Ledger's Joker, Dark Knight would likely not be half of what it is given that Christian Bale manages to sound even more ridiculous this time. One scene in particular is a test for just how straight you can keep your face while Bale gruffly babbles his lines after every exhausted breath:
"What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone's as ugly as you? You're alone!" The writing is fine—but, really—go back and watch Bale deliver this line again without laughing hysterically and you're a much more forgiving person than I am.
It's no secret that it's truly the villains that make this film what it is. The Harvey Dent arc is still just as strong it's tenth watch as it is on its first. Surprisingly, it also makes sense. His turn doesn't feel forced, but feels as if it was always something lurking in the shadows of his psyche waiting to come out—which compliments Joker's "like gravity it just takes a little push" message. Including Harvey Dent was no accident. It wasn't a draw from a hat. The idea of chaos versus order permeates the script, and Harvey is the physical embodiment of the dynamic between Batman and Joker. It's a simple and obvious idea to adopt the Two-Face story here, but just as smart and no doubt highly effective and Aaron Eckhart delivers a performance just as convincing as Ledger's even if it's less deliberately wild.
Before I wrap up, though. I feel a compelling urge to bring up a small problem I've always had with one scene. I know it's nitpicky, but when Joker has Michael Jae White, the gang leader, with a knife to his cheek, does Joker just cut his cheek or slit his throat? What does he do that causes him to die, go unconscious? What happens there? Can anyone actually make sense of what he does to the guy?
Anyway, this is without a doubt the best live-action Batman film ever made—at the cost of not being so much a great Batman film—but an exceptionally made crime thriller with Batman kinda hangin' out. Even after seeing this movie a dozen times, I don't think I'll ever not be disappointed that Batman essentially throws all those years of ninja training and conquering fear out the window. Instead of getting a scary demon lurking in the shadows waiting to strike with sharp, deadly swiftness, we get a brawler, swinging his arms about, punching a lot, and screaming bad death metal growls at bad guys. It doesn't vibe with everything the character is built up to be. Regardless of who we know Batman is in the comics—in Nolan's vision, or more precisely, Goyer's script—the character's arc, his motivations, his methodology for doling out justice simply doesn't make sense. It's awash in contradictions and nonsense. I believe this is probably the biggest mistake of the franchise, almost ignoring Batman's training to control his own fear and redirect it against his enemies—his entire ideal that we spent more than an hour establishing in the first film is reduced to a confused man-child smacking around stupid criminals and wanting to throw in the towel in hopes of rekindling a missed romantic connection. Not only does it betray everything Batman has been known for throughout history, Nolan lets the very foundation of the character crumble! Sure, he's surrounded by some amazingly realized villains, a gorgeous score by Hans Zimmer, and some incredible set pieces, but this Batman just sucks, in my opinion, in spite of starring in one of the best comic films ever made.
It’s amazing how different two films can be, so dissimilar in execution, the antithesis of each other’s tone, and yet have so much in common. We have a hero settling into his role who contemplates giving up fighting crime for the love of his life, and in both instances, the actions of a maniacal villain force his hand, and consequently he embraces the role he was born to play. If it sounds trite and cliche, that’s probably because — on the outside — it is. Steve Rogers knew that the hero is one to make the sacrifice play. Peter Parker recognized that the life of a crimefighter meant the possibility of never having the fulfillments an ordinary life can provide. Logan will tell them both to go f**k themselves. Therein lies the transcendental tragedy of the hero that provides the undercurrent driving all their stories, especially in their second chapters.
While The Dark Knight is a bleak and chaotic tragedy of a film, Superman II is an optimistic thrill ride that skirts some deep emotional baggage. Yet their stories progress along the same thematic trails and their weaknesses lie in nearly identical areas. When the time comes for both men to make the decision that will determine not only their future, but the future of those who depend on them, both heroes make remarkably dumb decisions. Batman chooses to take the blame for crimes he did not commit when those crimes could have just as easily been pinned on the Joker; Superman uses a memory-erasing kiss to reset his franchise to a status quo that provides comic relief and reduces Lois Lane to little more than an obligatory cameo in the next installment. Douche ex machina.
- Introduction and Dark Knight review by J.G. Barnes
- Conclusion and Superman II review by Blake O. Kleiner