Captain America Out-Batmans Batman … and It Didn’t Take Much
It’s on. Captain America will go head-to-head against Batman and Superman in the DC heroes’ all-but-guaranteed megasmash crossover, when both franchises’ next movies are released on the same day: May 6, 2016. Improbably, brand loyalty notwithstanding, Cap has the advantage if you’re waiting for an emotionally charged, kick-ass thrillride.
Providing three-or-more thrills a minute, the pulse-pounding new ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ retroactively reduces all Batman movies’ scores by two letter grades. (OK, 2008’s ‘The Dark Knight’ only loses one letter, for reasons we’ll get into).
If “Winter Soldier” isn’t the best Superhero Movie, Superhero Action Movie, and Comic Book Movie, then it’s certainly in the Top 3, in contention with ‘The Avengers,’ ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ and M. Night Shylaman’s under-recognized ‘Unbreakable’ — but definitely not Chris Nolan’s Bat-movies (or Bat-writer David Goyer’s mixed-bag of a Superman reboot, 2013’s ‘Man of Steel’).
Captain America’s dark return once and for all shines a spotlight on the glaring fact that Batfans have been hesitant to acknowledge since Tim Burton’s slavishly overrated 1989 ‘Batman': On the big screen, Batman has never been presented as an action hero.
Both modern Batman franchises have been propelled into cult status through heroic applications of geek gratitude: A decent, dark Batman movie is better than no Batman movie. So the fanboys eat them up. And the people who don’t know any better embrace them as well.
In retrospect, the Batmovies from the ’80s and ’90s paved the way for the superhero movie as we know it. But as Batmovies, they’re thorough failures. Burton’s first ‘Batman’ was an art film with roughly 30 seconds of action, half of which involved Batman firing machine guns at Jack Nicholson, who was impersonating Daffy Duck but somehow passed off himself off as the Joker. Clad in a rubber suit, Michael Keaton’s Batman punches a couple guys and almost randomly squares off with a Joker goon who has some martial arts training … for about six seconds.
And the rest of the old-school Bat franchise is downhill from there. By 1997’s ‘Batman and Robin,’ even with action icon Arnold Schwarzenneger in tow, the movies had developed into a campy drag-queen aesthetic. The universally derided — yet financially successful — final installment did more justice to Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy than Batman or Bane. (In itself, there’s nothing wrong with that vibe, but it’s not what anybody wants in a Batflick.)
At least Michael Keaton aced the brooding aspect of Batman. With George frickin’ Clooney and Val Kilmer in the Batman role, these supposed action flicks become costume fantasies that are invested in the idea that a person can put on a costume and suddenly become something completely different. And maybe that works at nightclubs, but not when you’re fighting crime. And we’ll grant you that “wardrobe-based alternate personalities” is a valid, compelling angle to read into any superhero character, but when it comes to Batman, it’s not in the Top 17.
At the heart of those Batflicks is a willful blind eye to physical reality: Someone who spent his whole life training to become Batman would not look — or move — like Keaton, Clooney or Kilmer. Those movies barely pass the actors off as a billionaire playboy. And the action? Forget about it. The ’60s ‘Batman’ TV series holds up better.
That said, physical reality didn’t serve the Nolan Batmovies well either. ‘Batman Begins,’ the first outing from 2005, provides an origin tale of young Bruce Wayne as a brawler-turned-ninja. And while it features some respectable action scenes, they’re not anything to make a viewer cringe or rewind and watch again. True, Nolan finally depicts Bruce Wayne as a guy who does some push-ups. And real martial arts are in the mix, albeit with some stiff choreography.
In 2008, the overlong ‘The Dark Knight’ staged a couple swell action sequences, but they weren’t essentially rooted in Batman’s character.The most memorable IMAX-size scene is the Joker’s escape from a police van. In this second outing, Batman doesn’t emerge as an Olympic-level athlete. In fact, the plot’s tech-heavy resolution doesn’t make a very good case for Batman as a Sherlock Holmes-caliber detective either. The guy in the costume is not doing what Batman is famous for doing.
And the controversial misfire that was 2012 ‘The Dark Knight Rises’? Batman does fight more in it, but it’s nothing to blog about. Squaring off time and again, Batman and Bane trade rudimentary martial arts moves. The fighting style is realistic for a couple guys that size, but it’s dull.
Batman’s big move is a thrusting front kick, which he uses over and over again. The technique is devastating when it connects, but you can see it coming all the way from the triskelion. Batman’s first fight with Bane would be slightly more exciting if was really shot in total darkness.
The movie’s climax involves a big vehicle chase, in which a weaponized camo SUV lobs a half-dozen slow-arcing, heat-seeking missiles at the Batwing. And it zooms away. Big whoop. Catwoman’s action had better choreography and revealed more about her character. At some point, Nolan deluded himself into imagining he was making a James Bond movie. ‘Dark Knight Rises’’ most memorable action sequences involve …
1) Bane hijacking a plane (with Batman nowhere in sight).
2) Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward running back a kickoff for a touchdown as a football stadium collapses behind him (with Batman nowhere in sight).
3) Bane punching the s— out of a Tuscan column (instead of turning around, zeroing in on Batman and displacing the rest of the Bat’s spinal column).
After all that realistic fighting, Bane can suddenly bare-handedly demolish a stone column? Now, obviously, Nolan made a decision to root his Batmovies in reality. But who cares? What’s more exciting? Tom Hardy, Chris Nolan and very few invisible wires? Or this boss fight from the video-game ‘Batman: Arkham Origins’?
Batman has endless potential as an action hero. And it’s not like it can’t be done. The only Batman movie with real action scenes that will make you applaud, duck and empathetically flinch is the 2013 adaptation of Frank Miller’s game-changing mini-series ‘The Dark Knight Returns.’
Director Jay Oliva researched real-life muay Thai and mixed-martial-arts techniques to choreograph larger-than-life action scenes like Batman taking out an entire SWAT team (granted, they have the aim of Imperial Stormtroopers) and dissecting a feral gang leader who’s bigger and fiercer than Bane.
In the movie’s adaptation of the greatest fight in comic-book history, Batman defeats Superman in visceral hand-to-hand combat. (More or less: Bats is wearing an armored suit, and Superman is weakened from a previous nuclear explosion.) Maybe bringing the ultimate Batman story to life requires a cartoon. But then again, maybe not.
In the Rocksteady video-game ‘Arkham Knight,’ photo-realistic CGI turns Batman into a high-flying, car-jumping, slow-mo leaping, gang-punching, bullet-dodging man of action (with the aid of some brilliant writing on par with Nolan and Goyer’s best).
Presumably, Goyer’s upcoming Batman-Superman reboot will take its cues from ‘Man of Steel’ and deliver some superspeed hand-to-hand combat. But as of now, no Batmovie’s action scene can be roughly described like this: “Batman swoops in out of nowhere and punches the bejeezus out of a bunch of formidable foes in a nimble, uber-athletic manner.” No, if you want that kind of action, you need to see ‘Captain America: The Winter Solider.’
If you experienced seen the movie yet, we know it sounds suspect. ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ was a good superhero origin story. But it wasn’t an earth-shaker. Not like ‘The Avengers,’ which sets the bar on superhuman, comic book-style, truly epic-scale action. But ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ brings the pain better than any franchise since the ‘Bourne’ movies. The action in the new Cap flick isn’t about the Hulk and Thor taking down an invading alien army. No, in ‘Winter Soldier,’ simply put, the characters — guys and girls — kick ass.
Now that is “Hero drops in from the darkness and punches the bejeezus out of a bunch of formidable foes in a nimble, uber-athletic manner.” The first 10 minutes of ‘Winter Soldier’ present Cap as an unstoppable fighter who thinks as fast has he moves. No slow build. The credits roll and bam! Cap takes out an elite commando unit almost single-handedly. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, but Batroc the Leaper has more moves than Nolan’s Batman.
In ‘Winter Soldier,’ the fight scenes show you how the characters think and illuminate who they are. In one fight after another, Captain Rogers, his allies and foes sink deeper into a disorienting world of intrigue and escalating stakes.
And Cap’s small crew of well-defined characters convincingly fight like they’re in an MMA cage. Flying knee-smashes. Lethal acrobatics. Interpersonal hand-to-hand combat that leaves you ducking in your seat. Intricate weapons-play that might not be believable, but is sure as hell memorable. The Nolan Batman movies? Batman’s just punching some dudes.
You don’t feel the bones crunch, like you do in ‘Winter Solider.’ Captain America even walks up to Batman’s home turf and makes it his. Contrast these two rooftop scenes:
‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ rooftop scene:
‘The Dark Knight Returns’ rooftop scene:
Guess whose is more awesome? Again, perhaps not physically plausible, but awesome. Even without Cap running through walls, which one is more likely to make you want to watch it twice? Christian Bale would have made a better Luke Duke than Bruce Wayne.
In Nolan’s Batmovies, the Bat Tumbler may have provided some highlights. Batman sure operates motor vehicles a lot. But contrast the Bat-chases with this motorcycle scene from ‘Winter Soldier.’ Of course, nobody could really single-handedly take out a fighter jet. But the movie makes you believe, if only for a moment, that Steve Rogers could. The real ‘Superman’ movie made a generation believe a man could fly. And the Nolan Batmovies? They’ll make you believe a man can hop into a small flying vehicle and zoom away.
If Goyer and Nolan have seen ‘Winter Soldier,’ they should be losing sleep over it. The spent around $600 million to make three movies that are memorable mostly for their ambiance and an unforgettable Heath Ledger performance. Compared to ‘Winter Solider,’ the Nolan Batman films represent the largest wasted opportunity since the ‘Star Wars Episodes I-III: The Jar-Jar Trilogy.’ The ball’s in your court, Bats. We’re eagerly awaiting your response.