Honestly, when I was 12, I used to get in arguments with Bob Barton who ran the neighborhood comic book club about this. Being a Marvel loyalist, I swore allegiance to the patriotic fury of Captain America but Bob held out for the dark power of Batman.
These two characters are flagship iconic brands for the Marvel and DC universes. It’s almost impossible to conceive of either of them really existing properly without what these characters bring to the table, whether that table is part of the Avengers or the Justice League.
Batman has clearly outstripped Captain America in overall name recognition in our times (although that could change), but both characters are equally important in what they mean to their caretakers.
Like the new Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class and Thor from earlier in the summer, Captain America: The First Avenger is an origin story. So, too, was Batman Begins when it came out in 2005. Captain America hopes to launch a franchise while Batman re-booted a faded franchise by starting over.
Despite my historical embrace of the First Avenger, I promise as a former honorary junior member of the Justice League of America, I am perfectly capable of rendering a judgment for the Dark Knight if he’s deserving. So then — which of these origin films is the most successful adaptation from the page to the stage? Here’s the Tale of the Tape, matching up with the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con.
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The film starts with the archetypal guy who needs help from body-builder Charles Atlas, a shrimp of a Brooklyn kid named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who wants to escape the bullies who punish him at home and take the fight to the Nazis in Europe. Even being 4F doesn’t keep him from getting in the Army, because the kid’s got grit.
The magic path into uniform involves Rogers becoming the guinea pig in a secret program to create a super-soldier, and guess what — it works. Before you can say “Marvel,” Rogers is a foot taller and the prototypical fighting machine. He eventually puts on a classic red, white and blue costume because it’s World War II and people all over thew world still revere America and what it represents, but mostly because he’s ordered to in order to sell war bonds (making it oddly similar here to Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers).
The story itself benefits from the fact that Captain America is super-human, yes, but not that super-human, and the criminal mastermind he comes up against is also grounded in at least what passes for reality in comic books and movies. That would be Johann Schmidt (played by the always nasty Hugo Weaving), a.k.a. The Red Skull. He’s a Nazi, to be sure, but he’s such a raging badass Nazi that he dreams of putting the wuss Hitler in his place and taking over the world for himself and his organization of Hydra sycophants who dress like Star Wars stormtroopers.
The film is full of 1940s costumes, great locations, period set dressing, the works. Naturally, World War II looked nothing like this, really, but it feels like it should have. Besides, if Inglourious Basterds can be passed off as an artful war film, then so can Captain America: The First Avenger.
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The Defending Champion
Batman Begins literally threw aside four increasingly desperate and degenerating films in a late 1980s-into-the-1990s series that saw the Caped Crusader played by three different actors. It was a bold stroke of reinvention for director Christopher Nolan to say never mind and just start over with Christian Bale.
Nolan’s re-boot worked. It was controlled enough to be dark, gritty, cool and fun but only when it wanted to be. Bruce Wayne gets an origin story that involves being thrown down a well full of bats, parents murdered in front of him, and getting recruited into secret societies as dark and brooding as he was. Basically, this origin is the story of a messed up kid who grows up into an adult with a lot of unresolved issues. The film goes out of its way to make the case that Bruce doesn’t put on the Batman suit on a lark but because he is driven to do so, nearly to the point of madness.
Wayne is DC’s millionaire playboy by day, Dark Knight by, well, night. No movie does a better job of showing that being a rich adult just means you get better toys. Enter Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, the paternal genius who can build just about anything. They play a scene where new toys get tested that is better than any James Bond version of the same ever.
It is no spoiler, however, to say the story is complicated. Young Bruce in the well, for example, turns out to be a nightmare that the adult Bruce is having as a prisoner in Bhutan. He is approached by Henri Ducard, who speaks for Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows, and invites him to train with the elite vigilante group. This takes up seven years of his life before he returns to Gotham City, realizes what a sinkhole of crime it’s become, and decides to create Batman to scare the bad guys straight. The actual evil plot of the film involves a potion that induces fear, and the introduction of the badass, The Scarecrow.
Check it out! Here’s our video trailer between the Red, White and Blue leader and the Man-in-Black solo artist. This SmashUp! is voiced by none other than our Voice of Smack, Edd Hall, the voice of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for 12 years.
And here’s the bell…
We already know that Batman Begins is formidable competition, making $372-million in gross receipts, of which $167 million came from overseas. So Captain America has his work cut out for him at the almighty global box office, trying to be a patriotic, freedom fighter in a world that tilts a lot more toward anti-Americanism than it did in 1941 when the comic was born. So, it may not work. Then again…
There is the possibility that Marvel Films has sliced this one just right and given us an embodiment of American power that is imperfect but still necessary on the world stage — a warrior who is battered and bloody, but who battles for certain core principles because they’re right. He may have been born in the more innocent times of World War II, but it’s possible the character is the right guy at the right time in the 2010s. Still, whether Captain America: The First Avenger turns out to be another breakout for Marvel or second tier, it’s not about just this film. It’s also about the Avengers movie due out in 2012 and you can’t have the Avengers without Captain America. They’ve tried in the comics, but they always come back to Cap. He’s the real deal.
Yet while Captain America is a born leader of men and super-heroes, Batman has always represented something different in the DC universe. Whenever he shows up in the Justice League, he feels a little awkward. Batman, as we all know, is the ultimate guy who growls, “I work alone.” The films reflect this split, but Captain America bridges it successfully by having the title character be what he truly is, a leader of men.
Both films have their fill of CGI, and both — in contrast to the heavier reliance of Green Lantern, Iron Man and Thor — use their effects budget in the service of the story and not the other way around. Overall, though, Batman Begins wins here because Nolan uses it as sparingly as he could but Captain America‘s director Joe Johnston seems to have fallen in love with the look of blue laser guns and cannons.
However… outside of the action sequences, wimpy volunteer Steve Rogers’ transition from weakling to genetically pumped-up superhero comes about wonderfully and naturally in Captain America. Chris Evans gets the Brad Pitt treatment from Benjamin Button and is made to look like both a 98-pound weakling so convincingly that when the real Chris Evans shows up on screen as the buffest of the buff you feel like it’s got to be CGI, too. That is not the case with Christian Bale who looks like himself and grows in stature because his suit does the buffing.
Chris Evans, you’ll recall, also played the Human Torch, and was about the only good thing one can say about that recent Fantastic Four silliness. The cocky wiseguy performance that made the Torch work would have misfired with Cap, and this time he plays him for his square-jawed toughness. Oddly, in Batman Begins, there are moments, particularly with the Bruce Wayne scenes, where the filmmakers appear to be trying to humanize Batman by giving him more banter — something that Bale may not be perfectly wired for either.
Steve Rogers is a lot easier to like than Bruce Wayne. Chris Evans feels right at home in the role but, at least in Batman Begins, Christian Bale played the character about four different ways. Steve Rogers is happy doing what he’s doing because he knows it needs to be done. Bruce is unhappy doing what he’s doing but does it because he’s the only guy who can. Points to Steve.
With their superhero alter-egos, things may pivot a bit. Batman seems to be the guy who is most comfortable (or comfortably uncomfortable) in his costume and might take Captain America on points there. When Rogers sneaks into a secret Nazi/Hydra base with his first version of a red, white and blue shield, I wanted to scream out for him to lose it. Bright patriotic colors are not the stuff of stealth — for that you need basic black, like a bat.
Both films suffer from the feeling you get while watching them that they are not the main event but the set-up for the main event. Neither one feels exactly like a single piece, a film made to stand alone. Captain America, like Thor, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, are all leading up to 2012’s The Avengers.
As they say, timing is everything. When Batman Begins came out in the post 9/11 world, we were pretty beaten down and disillusioned, and he may have been the hero we needed. Now, maybe it’s time to shrug off the angst and pick up our mantle of leadership greatness once again. Maybe it’s time to emerge from the mess the world is in, and who better than Captain America to show the way?
Remember the spontaneous crowds that gathered and chanted “USA, USA” in a way that felt just a little unseemly when Osama bin Laden finally got what he had coming? All that hollering in the streets showed how relieved we were to learn we still had some mojo left. Riddling that mass-murdering son-of-a-bitch with bullets made us feel as though finally a page had been turned.
Captain America feels like a page turner of a film. Not that Batman will ever go away, because he won’t. But there’s room for his good-guy doppelganger, a position that used to be filled by DC’s own Superman. But Superman really isn’t aging that well and the fixes all seem so desperate. This may be the moment for Cap. We shall see.
You know this isn’t easy. But one thing that makes it slightly more so is the definition of this Smackdown. We’re not comparing character versus character — Captain America against Batman, period. We’re instead comparing origin film versus origin film.
The bottom line is that Captain America: The First Avenger is not as good as The Dark Knight which, to this day, reigns as the greatest comic book film ever made. But Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t have to be. It has to be better than another great film, Batman Begins. And you know what? I think it is.
So, in this Smackdown, on this day, with these films, the winner in a fight where it is a shame that either fighter has to lose, is Captain America: The First Avenger.