This is pretty close to my feeling after my first viewing. Full review/re-write to come.
I am writing this on an international flight, just after finishing the Avengers on the little screen in front of me. This movie is so good, I could dedicate at least a half dozen articles to talking about why, but for now, I’m only going to focus on the element that hit me hardest this time.
There are a few roles which were both written and performed well enough to carry the whole movie. Actually, almost every role is that way, but there are a few who really reach out and grab you. I could dedicate an entire article to Phil Coulson, Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Hawkeye each, and there’s already an article here talking about why Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner made us care about the Hulk in a new way. But I’m not going to focus on them today.
The three who were already famous – Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Chris Evans as Captain America – each explored new dimensions to their characters while delivering the greatest action-adventure romp of the year with the same winning mannerisms and characters that we have cheered for in the past. But I’m not going to talk about them, either. That’s right, one of the top factors contributing to the Avengers’ success is Loki, performed by the inestimable Tom Hiddleston.
Loki is the perfect villain for this group. His rhetoric about freedom being a dream humanity chases in a self-defeating frenzy is not what makes him so, nor do I believe it was meant to be. One of the movie’s central themes is the larger-than-life egos of the would-be heroes, and how they have to get above themselves to work together as a team and save the world. That’s one of those tried-and-true tropes of team-forming movies, from Remember the Titans to that gospel choir movie that just came out to this. And Loki is the embodiment of that idea, that reckless pride and disunity. Just listen to his first conversation with Thor; he considers himself a higher life-form than us mere mortals – as by rights any of the Avengers could – and wants to rule over a world to satisfy his bruised ego.
He always loses in direct confrontation: Cap and Iron Man subdue him; Thor consistently has him on the ground (Loki gets one cheap shot on him, but certainly doesn’t win any of their encounters); Hulk, of course, beats him like a rag doll; even Hawkeye’s arrow gets the better of him. When Agent Coulson shoots you through a wall and in the minds of the audience definitively wins that confrontation after you already killed him, you lose any credibility as a direct threat.
No, Loki is not a formidable foe to fight, but what he lacks in firepower he more than makes up for in treachery. He is a master manipulator, and he manages to get inside every one of the Avengers’ heads. He plants – or exposes – doubt and mistrust, and lets their egos and lack of team strength do the rest. With just the right push, they are separated, scattered, and defeated, simply by sticking to their guns.
That’s the mark of a good villain; turning the heroes’ strengths into your most potent weapons. The Joker nearly drove Batman over the edge in TDK by ramming him up against his own rules. The Green Goblin torments Spider-Man by using his own sense of self-sacrifice against him. And Loki uses the Avengers’ own self-confidence to tear them apart, letting him nearly complete his take-over-the-world scheme.
Why is this so important for a good villain? It’s not because it’s the most effective way to take over the world; it’s just one of a myriad number of effective tools. Being able to out-fight Thor, out-wrestle the Hulk, and/or out-strategize SHIELD* would have made Loki a lot more successful, but not much of a better villain.
When I say this ability to turn a hero’s strengths upside-down is important for a good villain, I mean that from a storytelling perspective: Good villains are ones which make the heroes face something about themselves and give them an opportunity to change. Sometimes the heroic thing to do is change, as in the Avengers’ case, but other times we want them to hold true, as in The Dark Knight. But it’s those moments when the hero is vulnerable and exposed somehow that the audience can really plug into them and it’s then that we cheer for them.
And the best way to create that scenario is to have the villain find a weakness in the hero’s heroic character to exploit. One thing that the Dark Knight Rises did right with Bane was the whole exposing Jim Gordon (and by extension Batman) as a liar bit. By turning the Pyrrhic victory from TDK on its head, he was hitting the good guys where it hurt. Unfortunately this wasn’t really a huge point and didn’t have much lasting effect for anyone; everyone still trusted Gordon and Batman, anyway, and no one brought it up again after the scene where it occurred.
But to wrap up, strong super hero stories are ones where the themes are reflected in the conflict between the hero and villain. The villain being overwhelmingly powerful and scary like Bane isn’t enough, unless that reinforces the main idea. Like Loki, a good villain often turns a hero’s strength into a weakness, which makes them face a turning point and do the right thing to overcome the situation. That is when the hero is most human, when we see ourselves in them. That’s when we cheer for them the most, because we feel for them.
We love to hate Loki, that’s what gives the scene where Hulk throws him around such a satisfying catharsis. He is such a good villain, and gets exactly what every good villain deserves; a sound thumping and then justice (we assume) off-screen (somewhere). 😛
So here’s to the good villains; you make the heroes heroic. You make everyone hate you and you get beat up and imprisoned and sometimes die, just so we can enjoy the good guys. No one ever even knows that without you the hero would be just an arrogant, lazy jerk with no need or desire to do good. Thanks for changing that. You’re the best of the bad.
Addendum: We now know that Joss Whedon will return to direct Avengers 2! That is great news. Now what kind of villain will they face then? If they follow my advice here, that’ll depend on what they want to explore with the heroes; how will the team grow and change in the next round of movies, and what brings them together to save the world again. While his name may be Thanos, we don’t know just how he’ll approach the Avengers; we don’t know how he’ll challenge and test them. What are your predictions? Leave a reply with what you want to see from Thanos and why. I’ll cover my thoughts in the near future.
*One might argue that Loki was able to nearly bring down the helicarrier and destroy all of SHIELD’s leadership and Phase 2, but I would reply that the attack on the helicarrier was, as far as I can tell, planned by Hawkeye: He shows his ability to think strategically frequently throughout the movie (he identifies and acts on Fury’s stalling tactic in the opening scene, he identifies what needs to be done to open the portal after a brief conversation with Dr. Selvig, and plans that attack as well, and then there’s his tactical guidance in the final fight) and Loki was relatively inept without his expertise to help out – the Tesseract was left defended only by its own shield and the Chitauri appeared to have no coordination or purpose in their attack whatsoever. So, no, Loki can’t out-strategize SHIELD; he still loses to an army of 6 and a borrowed nuke when he has thousands, if not millions of troops at his command. Hawkeye, on the other hand, is awesome.
OK, it’s been long enough, time for my Dark Knight Rises review:
- Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle was a pleasant surprise; I remember all the apprehension I felt when I heard that casting decision, but she really nailed it.
- This is Michael Caine’s best performance of Alfred by far. I’ve never looked at Alfred as so human a character before.
- Christian Bale has a great understanding of the Batman/Bruce Wayne dynamic, and continues to drive that one home. This film lets him shine as Bruce Wayne in a way the others didn’t.
- Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Blake are also really engaging; I felt for the former when he was explaining the “structure as shackles” thing to Blake and for the latter at the bridge scene.
- The gadgets, the Batpod rolling over itself, the Bat being all…cool…and all that stuff was good. This movie also has possibly the best fight scenes of the trilogy.
So, all in all, definitely worth seeing for these performances and the sheer marvel of film that it is.
I have to say, though, that the writing for this movie was mediocre compared to the other films. The Dark Knight had clear themes it was speaking to and got to some gripping conclusions about them, and, most importantly, every scene helped to build to one of those conclusions. It was solid. TDKR, on the other hand, definitely has themes it explores, but it doesn’t commit to them the same way TDK did. I’m just going to focus on one theme, and ignore some others for brevity (other problems include this movie’s villains and plot being nothing more than the first movie with new paint, the way it referenced the Occupy movement but said nothing interesting about it, and the sudden disinterest in the goodness of Gotham’s citizens): Bruce Wayne’s struggle to get past being Batman is the focus at the beginning of the movie, but its then subverted with the appearance of Bane and Gotham being plunged back into utter peril, proving that Gotham needs Batman; all the scenes in the prison of him working himself back into Bat-shape and “getting angry” is just him turning Batman up to 11. At the end, though (huge spoiler here, stop and go back until you’ve seen the movie, I’ll wait!), Bruce Wayne gives up being Batman as if he’s reached some kind of resolution.
Well, if he did, I didn’t see it. It was hinted at, but it seems like Bruce Wayne’s important character development doesn’t really get very much screen time. He ultimately chooses to stop being Batman so he can live a real life as Bruce Wayne, and ends up dating Selina Kyle. This is a great ending, but it’s not built up throughout the movie very well. While it’s definitely the ending we want, there’s scant evidence that it’s the ending Bruce ever wanted. Bruce’s relationship with Miranda Tate, the first time he’s opened up to a woman since Rachel Dawes, ends up being a bad, bad decision, but he just gets over it and starts smooching Catwoman, who has never shown any interest in him until that scene? Yes, I realize that all of a sudden they were faced with the possibility of never seeing each other again and that does bring stuff out that wouldn’t otherwise come out, but while that is a perfectly realistic explanation, I’m not talking about real life, I’m talking about the conclusion to a cinema epic 7 years in the making; you can’t spring a love story on me like that essentially out of the blue.
The worst of it is that it seemed like they had all the pieces to make a poignant resolution to the whole trilogy, but instead of coupling these pieces together they left them separate and just sprinkled the whole thing with vapid spectacle instead. The conversations between Bruce and Alfred (my favorite scenes) put it perfectly; Bruce wanted to die for Gotham City, in a selfish way which, in his torn mind, seemed like self-sacrifice. But what he needed to do was find something to live for instead. If Bruce died fighting Gotham’s battles, then ultimately Gotham’s problems overcame him. But if Bruce saved Gotham and then reclaimed his life – actually overcoming the grief and rage he had harbored and fed since his childhood – then the victory was truly Bruce’s.
While they played this up well during the first half of the film, once Bruce was thrown in the prison, the only motivation Bruce ever mentions is wanting to throw himself back into being Batman. The doctor guy in the prison was right there talking about how he needed to fear death in order to have the strength to get out. He was just a hair’s breadth away from saying what needed to be said; that something to live and fight for is more important than not fearing death. Instead of making that connection to life, though, they left it at “you need to fear death.” Period. They didn’t bring it full circle to what Alfred and Lucius Fox talked about in the first hour of the movie.
Had that point been made, then the relationship he had randomly begun with Miranda Tate could have been much more important. Bruce’s desire to get out wasn’t about Bruce getting angry, it was about him realizing that he had a life to go back to that he actually wanted, and that he needed to fight to save that opportunity now. That would have given the whole final conflict so much more emotional punch, and the betrayal by Miranda would have been that much more treacherous. But the best part of that would be that when Miranda explains how she really just wanted revenge on Bruce, he could then turn around and – instead of flatly-delivering some one-liner about slow knives – say something profound about how he knows revenge inside and out, and it will never satisfy her, it’s a loser’s game, or something much better than that but to that same point; he could invite her, even at that stage, to overcome that grief as he had and redeem herself. Of course she wouldn’t, and that’s fine. Because then, when Catwoman does come back a moment later, it proves that she’s actually the one with the kind of heart that Bruce could love.
Ideally Bruce and Selina would have had a tad closer of a relationship, then he would consider both Miranda and Selina in the prison, and ultimately choose Miranda as his motivation, then reverse that when their true colors are shown. Then when he says he’s going to sacrifice himself a couple scenes later, there’s a real emotional tug because we actually know that at this point he and Selina were on the verge of a great relationship, but he’s sacrificing that for Gotham, and Selina would know that, too, and actually be sad with us. Instead of watching their attraction to each other go from 0-60 at the speed of plot, we would be cheering for this relationship as it developed more organically and felt how much Bruce’s sacrifice would really hurt. Then the reveal with the auto-pilot would have sent us through-the-roof crazy with cheers because we were emotionally invested, instead of just being “cool.”
So, in the end, TDKR is fun to watch, but really it’s only a wild success based on the momentum of TDK; the narrative fails to get us sufficiently invested in the characters, relationships, or even the themes it explores. I’d say it’s at the high end of average, but not truly exceptional like TDK or even Avengers is.