2012’s Best Superhero Movie

Three high-profile superhero movie franchises enjoyed various stages of life this summer — launch, reboot and conclusion.

But who won? We’ve built an impressive algorithm here at Stew Over — powered by snark, coffee and too much free time — to crunch the movies and select a winner.

Let the arguing begin. Ahoy!

HERO
Avengers: One hero is so 2011. How about 6.5? (We’re half-counting Nick Fury.) Before they get their acts together for the final 40 minutes, the batch of them spend a lot of time acting like high school sophomores. “I thought you didn’t WANT me for your club,” sulks Tony Stark. Boo hoo, rich boy. Put the drink down and suit up. This group has a ton of charisma. Even nearly mute Jeremy Renner makes a mark as Hawkeye.
Amazing Spider-Man (ASM): Part of Spider-Man’s appeal has always been Peter Parker. Until now. The quiet nerd who gains confidence when he got bitten by a spider is now a skateboarding hipster with great hair and mad skillz in the lab, yo. Plus, he’s kind of a dick.
The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR): Broken by the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne has spent eight years holed up in Wayne Manor. He realizes he’s needed. He gets broken. He battles back. He saves Gotham. This, gentlemen, is heroism. As long as you ignore the whole eight years in self-imposed exile part.
WINNER: TDKR

VILLAIN
Avengers: Loki, the preening Asgardian, and a teeming mass of aliens who wouldn’t be terribly out of place in a 1950s drive-in movie. But aside from a smack down with Captain America and Iron Man and getting his ass handed to him by the Hulk, Loki doesn’t really DO much. Aside from opening a portal so the aliens can destroy New York City.
ASM: The Lizard, a scientist/father figure not unlike The Green Goblin. Only less charming, interesting and sensical. He wants to perfect a serum. Or kill Spider-Man. Or turn New York City into a bunch of lizards. Or kill Norman Osborn. Who can fathom the intricacies of the half-reptilian mind? Certainly not the screenwriters.
TDKR: Bane, a kind of mumble-mouthed strong man with a love of high-collared coats, and Talia, daughter of Ra’s Ah Ghul. Bane and Talia concocts a rather elaborate plot to destroy Gotham City and break Bruce Wayne’s spirit before they kill him. And they want him to feel bad for being rich. And handsome. At least I think that’s what Bane said.
WINNER: Avengers, thanks to scope of villain ambition.

PLOT
Avengers: Loki steals Cosmic Cube with the help of mind control. Nick Fury tries to get heroes together to get it back. Calamity ensues. Shwarma gets eaten.
ASM: Jerk gets kind of bullied. Jerk worms his way into highly secure laboratory. Jerk further worms his way into secret room filled with genetically engineered spiders. Jerk gets bitten by one. Jerk’s uncle gets killed five seconds after Jerk doesn’t stop a robbery. Jerk makes costume. Jerk tries to avenge Uncle. Jerk stops that when police start going after him. Jerk tangles with Lizard man. Jerk wins.
TDKR: Bane sets out to destroy Gotham City. Batman comes out of retirement to stop him. Batman maybe should have trained a little before fighting Bane. Batman gets ass kicked. Batman gets locked into prison. Batman finds Eye of the Tiger. Batman goes back to Gotham and kicks Bane’s ass back. Batman gets shivved by girlfriend, recovers and flies McGuffin out over bay and blows up. Or does he?
WINNER: I don’t know that you go to these movies for the plot, per se.

BREAK-OUT CHARACTER
Avengers: Bruce Banner/Hulk. He had more great moments than he did in his two previous movies combined.
ASM: Captain Stacy, I guess, who played the role of non-trusting adult. But he dies in the end, so you won’t be seeing him in the sequel. Face!
TDKR: Two: beat cop, John Blake, and Catwoman. I have gone on the record as saying the casting of Anne Hathaway was one of my biggest WORRIES about this movie. Say what you will about Christopher Nolan as a director, the man knows how to cast and get a performance out of actors.
WINNER: I was going to say TDKR, but Hulk is SO memorable and enjoyable, it has to go to Avengers.

LOVE STORY
Avengers: The bromance between Tony Stark/Iron Man and Bruce Banner/Hulk is really cute. And Agent Coulson had a major crush on Captain America. But Agent Coulson died. Face!
ASM: Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy seemed to actually ike each other. And act like awkward teenagers around each other. Or as awkward as actors in their late-20s can be around each other. Which wasn’t much of an act, since they are now dating IRL.
TDKR: Bruce scores two ladies. One is the daughter of a psychotic terrorist. She ends up stabbing him, literally, in the back. The other is a kind of reformed grifter/burglar. Bruce Wayne also has Bad Girls Club on his Tivo.
WINNER: ASM. It’s hard to deny the chemistry between Garfield and Stone.

TONE
Avengers: Pure fun. This whole saving the world thing? It’s kind of a lark.
ASM: Wrong. Spider-Man is one of the funniest characters in comic books. Why Marc Webb treated everything like Batman Lite is beyond me.
TDKR: The world is a horrible, horrible place. And in a city of 8 million, only 3 men give a shit. So, kind of depressing.
WINNER: Avengers, because it didn’t make you want to stick your head in an oven after you left the theatre.

FIGHT SCENES
Avengers: A forty-minute smack down between the Avengers and the alien army.
ASM: Small, intimate fisticuffs between Spider-Man and The Lizard.
TDKR: Two brutal, visceral face-offs between Batman and Bane.
WINNER: Avengers. Joss Whedon took the Metropolis show down of Superman II, the previously definitive superhero punch fest, and showed what a budget and computers could do. It’s cartoon violence, but it’s fantastic, fun cartoon violence.

“NO EFFING WAY” MOMENTS
Avengers: Loki kills Agent Coulson. The Avengers battle across New York City. No effing way moments in the good sense.
ASM: Peter Parker skateboards. Peter Parker gets into Osborn Industries without getting his ID checked. Peter Parker sneaks his way into a clean, closed and secured lab. Uncle Ben gets shot one block away from Peter, one minute after Peter acts like a dick. Every single hard hat in New York City synchronizes their cranes at THE EXACT SAME TIME to give Spider-Man a path to the baddie, at a time when the economy has basically shuttered all new construction in New York City and Spider-Man didn’t ask for help. No effing way moments in the bad sense.
TDKR: Wait, Talia was Ra’s’ kid they’ve been talking about the whole movie. I knew Ra’s’ had a daughter and that still surprised me. They let Bruce Wayne retire. They gave a nod to Robin in John Blake. No effing way moments in the fanboy way. (Unrelated, but there is NO guidance on the possessive form for Ra’s.)
WINNER: TIE, Avengers and TDKR.

BEST MOMENT
Avengers: TIE: Hulk punches Thor, because he can. Hulk treating Loki like a rag doll, the puny god.
ASM: The high school fight scene between Spidey and The Lizard, which featured the only good Stan Lee cameo ever. Mostly because he didn’t speak.
TDKR: Bruce and Selina, sharing a drink in Venice, as Alfred looks on.
WINNER: TIE: Avengers and TDKR

SEQUEL?
Avengers: Of course. There’s almost 2 billion reasons to make another.
ASM: Unfortunately, very likely.
TDKR: Uncertain. We’ll see another Batman movie, especially as DC ramps up for their Justice League movie in 2015, but whether it will pick up where Nolan left the franchise is TBD.
WINNER: Avengers. The franchise, solo adventures and spin-offs (Hulk? Black Widow? Hawkeye? The ghost of Agent Coulson? Ant-Man? The Avengers’ janitor?) will all mint money for Marvel for at least seven years.

SEE IT AGAIN?
Avengers: Saw it twice in theatres. Will buy the Blu-Ray in the commemorative Agent Coulson urn of ashes, or whatever ridiculous packaging it comes in.
ASM: No.
TDKR: Will see again at least once in theaters. Will buy collected Blu-Ray trilogy. Will memorize dialogue.
WINNER: TDKR

SPECIAL EFFECTS
Avengers: You’ll believe a computer-generated man can fly. And fight. And smash.
ASM: When he’s in costume, Spider-Man soars.
TDKR: Present, but not showy. Although they are completely impossible due to laws of physics and mechanical engineering, you buy that the Batpod and The Bat actually work.
WINNER: Avengers. This is how you go full on digital spectacle. I’m looking at you, George Lucas and Michael Bay.

 

BANTER
Avengers: Tony Stark is the Dean Martin of superheroes. “We have a Hulk,” is one of my favorite lines of the summer.
ASM: He has that tiny knife joke, which got beat into the ground well before the movie came out.
TDKR: Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox have a wry give-and-take that offers a couple of light moments. But this is Batman. Banter is for sidekicks. And there are no sidekicks.
WINNER: Avengers

COMIC BOOKY?
Avengers: Probably the most literal translation of the comic book mentality, spectacle and spirit to ever hit a movie screen. (Although The Incredibles is a pretty close second.)
ASM: Yes, in the worst way possible. Characters are one-dimensional, at best. And Peter Parker neither changes or grows, necessarily. There is nothing noble about honoring a dying man’s request by blowing off your the love of your life without any explanation.
TDKR: While inspired by some seminal comic book storylines — The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, Knightfall — this transcends the source material and treats Batman like his original interpretation, a crime buster right out of the pulps. This is a crime story with capes.
WINNER: Avengers

MISCELLANEOUS WINNERS
Joss Whedon. Welcome to the majors, son. Please enjoy the hookers, blow and automatic green light on all your future projects.
Mark Ruffalo: No more half-assed, indie movie craft services tables for you, sir. May we suggest the lobster stuffed with tacos?
Server farms: Now is the time to buy an interest in processing power. Avengers and TDKR are going to become two of the top five grossing movies of all time. Bring on the MoCap suits!
IMAX: The place to see these kind of movies. Just like the westerns of John Ford in the 50s and 60s, movies are rediscovering their greatest asset: breath-taking spectacle. Forget 3D, which is pointless and distracting. Giant screens with digital clarity is the way of the future.
Superman: The pre-TDKR trailer looks pretty damned sweet.
Fans: Love them or hate them, there is an increasingly willingnes to honor the source material, but not feel completely constrained by it for fear of pissing off the Fanboy Legion. The next couple of years may find some entirely new tales and spectacle that haven’t appeared in the comics.

WINNER
The Dark Knight Rises, by the tip of Batman’s ear. I was mightily entertained by the Avengers. Twice. But I was affected by TDKR. The reason is one of scale. While the Avengers is a cosmic, world could end sort of affair, the emotional impact pales comparative to TDKR. While I enjoy the team that assembled, the threat is a little hard to wrap your head around — the whole world might die. And the violence is a little bright and shiny, akin to Elmer Fudd hunting Daffy Duck. Sure, Daffy might get shot in the face, but he’s fine once he rubs off the gunpowder. So it never felt like anyone was in danger. And while I mourn the loss of Agent Coulson, that is the safest road to take, as he is acceptable cannon fodder in the Avengers’ machine.

TDKR is considerably more visceral of a thrill. While he doesn’t beat you over the head with it, Nolan gives us a Batman who is a little older, a little less physically able at the start of the movie. It clouds his judgement and abilities. He gets beaten, handily, in maybe the most brutal superhero fight scene ever. Everything is grounded in the particular, not that terribly far off from our own reality that Nolan set the franchise up in. It feels like there are real stakes.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect movie. The whole 99%/Occupy storyline is a little pasted on. The bomb plotline doesn’t quite track, once you think about it. (Why didn’t they just decommission the fusion reactor? Why did Bane drive it around town for five months since he was blowing up Gotham anyway? Why didn’t he put a liuetenant inside the prison to keep an eye on Bruce Wayne, just to make sure he didn’t escape?) But still, these were holes and faults I found myself forgiving because I was willing to go along for the ride. (I could not do that, at all, with ASM.)

I will admit to being influenced by the finality in the air. You walk in, knowing this is the last in a series, and I think that influenced my read and reaction. I found myself wondering, most of the movie, if Nolan was just crazy enough to kill off Bruce Wayne.

That may also be the reason I give it the nod. Because other superhero movies — even most franchises — are all beginning and middle. There IS no end.┬áBond has been middle for decades. It’s just one adventure after another. And frankly, the man would be dead of syphilis by now. The Superman franchise? An origin and middle. Raimi’s Spider-Man? An origin and middle. There is no LIFE arc to these characters.

As a result, TDKR benefits from a bit of additional gravity, that when coupled with Nolan’s approach to the material, always made the thing feel a little bit more than a ‘superhero’ movie.

I’ll miss Nolan’s Gotham. It’s a formative part of the superhero movie resurgence. But, I am more than ready for some of the wide-eyed, we-can-do-it optimism the Avengers offers.

 

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