September 20, 2012 by Devin
This is Part 2 of a 3 part discussion comparing and analyzing The Dark Knight series and The Avengers. Part 1 is here.
I have heard that Iron Man was a reaction to Batman. That idea makes sense, given that both Iron Man and Batman are billionaires who fight crime in their free time with suits made possible by their enormous wealth. Yet these characters are also incredibly different, showcasing different ideals of identity and different motives for their actions. In this post, I will explore two different dimensions of these characters by comparing and contrasting them to each other. Like I said in my last post, this will not be a discussion about which one is better, but rather will highlight the important themes each character brings up by comparing them to a similar character that chose to highlight different themes.
(Again, I’m going to note that there will be serious spoilers for these movies. Stay away if you haven’t finished The Dark Knight series or the Marvel movies)
Both Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are similar in that they are both orphans. While Stark’s orphanhood was not nearly as dramatic as Wayne’s, the lack of parents still give the characters a need for identity. Stark wonders if making weapons was really what his father would have wanted. Wayne’s father is still a huge presence in his life when he first returned to the manor as a young man trying to find his way in the world.
Where they diverged is where their search for identity ended, or more accurately, didn’t end. For Wayne, he found his identity in Batman. He became Batman wholeheartedly, leaving little room for himself. However, Stark found his identity in general philanthropy and helping others out, and the Iron Man suit is a result, rather than a cause, of Stark’s identity.
Christian Bale played Wayne mainly as a soldier. He carries the wounds of battle with him wherever he goes. He is rarely humorous, frequently grouchy, and does not seem to know how to have fun. Even his attempts to look like he is capable of enjoying himself are awkward and stilted. He is awkward in public because Batman is awkward in public. Even his movement is reserved and non-expressive, as if he is always wearing the clunky Batman suit. For Wayne, he is always Batman, but it does not work the other way around. Batman is a symbol that Wayne adopts in all of his life, but that symbol has little of Wayne’s personality, with the notable exception of his fear of bats.
Stark is the opposite. Unlike Wayne, whose personality is reserved and submissive, Stark is loud, aggressive, and bold. Stark becomes the man he wants to be way before he actually puts on the suit. He is a philanthropist before he ever got Mark II up and running. In fact, while Wayne needed the suit to become the symbol that would save Gotham, Stark really has no reason to continue building the suits except that is just the kind of person he is. After he escapes the Middle East, after he gives up the weapons divisions of his company, does he really need to do any more? From his perspective, he did not need another suit to do good. He destroyed his weapons, escaped, and stopped his company from making any more. It was only after he heard of the shadier sides of his business that he began to use the Iron Man suit as a philanthropic tool. Stark finds his identity in the actions that he does rather than the persona he takes.
For Wayne, his personality is affected by Batman. Wayne cannot exist or function outside of this persona. But for Stark, his superhero is directly affected by his personality. Iron Man, like Stark, is loud, aggressive, and bold, right down to the color scheme. But Stark is not Iron Man, at least not completely. Stark is Stark, doing good by promoting philanthropic causes, working on renewable energy, and doing Iron Man stuff. That is why Stark is so unaffected by Captain America’s challenge, “Take away the suit, what are you?” Stark does not need the suit to be a superhero, but for Wayne, the giving up of the costume was a much bigger deal. He had to learn that he was a person outside of Batman.
In possibly one of the strangest coincidences of this summer, both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises ended with a billionaire superhero flying away with a nuclear bomb to their supposed death (even though they both end up surviving). However, like most of the other tropes these movies share, they emphasize different sides of the same coin.
For Stark, his character revelation is in the sacrifice. In The Avengers, Captain America critiques Stark for his selfishness, and the interesting fact is that he is right. Tony Stark fights for himself and people he has a personal connection to. He is philanthropic, but his philanthropy is closely tied to his ego and his personality. Unlike Wayne, he cannot be the hero that the public hates. If he is going to save the world, he wants the world to know it. That is why he cannot have a secret identity. That is why he shows off the suit so much. That is why he wants his scientific discoveries to be advertised to the world.
Wayne is the opposite. His character revelation is not in the sacrifice, but in the return. Wayne does not want to be known for his actions. He does not want to be recognized personally. He keeps his identity secret for more than practical reasons. He wants to sacrifice. He wants to give up his life for his city. This death wish is a result of the death and turn of Harvey Dent. Dent was the white knight that was going to make Batman unnecessary, but because that failed, Wayne sees no way out of his job except through death. He does not even want the normal life because he does not believe he can have it.
For both of these characters, their final actions showed a growth beyond their initial terms in the movie. Stark became the character that was willing to give up everything for people that he did not even know. This change is shown not just in his sacrifice, but in his willingness to sacrifice. He jumped at the opportunity to take the hit because he was not just willing to be the sacrifice, he wanted to be. He was willing to look outside his own personal well-being, and even the well-being of his loved ones, and sacrifice for people he hardly knew.
Wayne, on the other hand, learned that his life as a human being outside of Batman was valuable. Earlier I pointed out how Wayne was caught up in the identity of Batman and his identity did not exist without Batman. At the end of TDKR, though, this thought changed. For Wayne, he learned that sacrifice was not his ultimate gift. He learned that people did not want his sacrifice, but rather they wanted what was best for him. It was this idea that gave him the desire to continue living. He had to learn to live for other people and not just die for them.
Both of these characters exhibit characteristics of people caught up in the superhero game for nearly completely different reasons. Wayne finds identity in saving his city; Stark’s identity leads him to naturally be a hero. Wayne learns that life is as valuable as sacrifice, while Stark learns that he ultimately needs to be willing to sacrifice. Neither of these messages are inherently better than the other, but rather they speak to different areas of the human condition. These are heroes who are ultimately about finding themselves and figuring out what that means.
So what did you think? Did I miss anything important? Am I completely wrong? Sound off in the comments below.