Reality Check: Iron Man vs. Batman Begins

Is Christopher Nolan’s gritty Batman series really more realistic than Iron Man?

Cameron Carpenter


If you’ve been too busy looking for stone furniture for the rock you live under, then I’ll let you in on a debate the comic book movie fanbase has been having about Marvel Studios’ films and Warner Brothers’ DC stable, particularly in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. Many, though certainly not all, claim that Nolan’s Batman films are “more realistic” than the Marvel Studios movies and that gives them some credibility over their rival that cannot be touched by the likes of the Avengers roster. I’m here to dispute and analyze that argument with a look into Jon Favreau’s Iron Man with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

So, as we start, we’ll take a look at our protagonists; men of the same ilk with a great gap in philosophy, morals, and personality. In Iron Man, we find billionaire and technological prodigy Tony Stark (portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.), who, when not creating virtual and mechanical mayhem, is busy getting mileage on the bedsheets with the likes of any woman he so pleases, save his loyal secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). In the other corner, we have brooding, obsessive, and impromptly-charming Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), whose determination and dedication to the job at hand rules over his life with an iron fist. One, a citizen of real-life Malibu, California (Stark), the other housing in fictional Gotham City (Wayne). With that in mind, we’ll look at Tony Stark and the plot of Iron Man before we get into Batman Begins.

Tony Stark is the son of a brilliant technological magician, who ruled the weapons industry in the 1940s and on, creating an empire that would eventually be Tony’s by birthright. After a demonstration of his newest creation, The Jericho Missile, in Afghanistan, Tony is captured by terrorists and forced, in a cave, to create a weapon of mass destruction to be used at the kidnappers’ own discretion. Tony is mortally wounded in the process, and proceeds to build a weapon…for himself. So, the birth of Iron Man begins as he breaks free and begins to live a double-life as a playboy, vigilante with a new heart of gold. However, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) wants the energy source created by Tony on a much larger scale, and is willing to double-cross his business partner for the ticket to streets of gold. In the end, Stane creates a (much larger) Iron Man-esque machine and battles with Tony in LA streets. He doesn’t get too far and by the time the credits roll for the film, Tony Stark reveals to the public that he is, indeed, Iron Man, before we’re treated to Black Sabbath’s Iron Man.

So, in a nutshell, Iron Man is about a billionaire weapons designer who creates a suit of armor to defeat terrorists and weapons manufacturers. The film takes place in real-life locations (Malibu, Afghanistan) and features heavy US military involvement. As far as non-realism goes, the major aspects include Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit (in form, design, and weapons affiliation), Obadiah Stane’s enormous suit, and, debatably, the progressions of technology in the movie in contrast to the advancements made at that time. In essence, Iron Man is incredibly grounded in premise, but jumps into a world of fantasy in execution, with the larger-than-life machines battling publicly and Tony Stark’s uncompromising brilliance and altogether demeanor. While not completely out of the realm of possibility, these elements certainly push the limits of what we can consider grounded. But at length, Iron Man is still pretty darn “realistic” in the sense that it uses almost complete referential devices and themes such as terrorism, weapons manufacturing, big business, and propaganda.

It’s pompous thinking, but the argument exists that because Iron Man is lighter in tone and nature than Batman Begins, the former is “less realistic.” That really speaks volumes about the perception of reality by those making that argument, does it not?

On to Batman Begins.

Bruce Wayne is the son of the famous surgeon Thomas Wayne, whose philanthropic endeavors have kept rays of hope alive in the corrupt, gloomy Gotham City, where mobs and criminals run wild in a town watched by corrupt cops and public officials. After his parents are murdered in his childhood by a common street thug, Wayne educates himself in the best schools and then becomes a criminal himself, eventually ending up in the east and being trained in the art of the shadows by the head of a ninja academy aptly named The League of Shadows. After refusing to execute a criminal for his crimes, Wayne turns his back on the League, destroying their monastery in the process, while saving the life of his teacher (Liam Neeson). Bruce returns to Gotham as Batman, a creation and personification of his own fear of bats, to save the city from its despair in the hands of criminals. He finds refuge in Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine). We’re also shown the dastardly plans of Johnathon Crane (Cillian Murphy) who runs the Arkham Asylum for the mentally insane, who, he himself, keeps the inmates insane with a fear toxin. Through a series of events, Batman takes down the mob, fights off a plan by the return of the League of Shadows to destroy Gotham City, and begins to inspire the people of Gotham as a masked vigilante.

Right off the bat, we’re introduced to a fictional arena with Gotham City. Not only is it made up from the source material of the comic world, but in a story that mirrors the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s literally so bad, that The League of Shadows, a brotherhood of assassins responsible for the sacking of all major societies in history, become obsessed with destroying it (playing the role of God to Bruce Wayne’s Abraham). Here, we’re given the idea that a city is so digested with evil that it is beyond saving; an idea that while truly terrifying, is fairly fictitious in today’s society of what we perceive to be a city in the United States of America (while Gotham is fictitious, the movie does imply that it exists in the States). We’re also introduced to villains who are responsible not only for the imminent doom of Gotham, but for the legendary destruction of Rome and the like. A play on organizations like The Illuminati, the League isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility, but is highly unlikely.

While Batman doesn’t use jet boosters and fire projector beams out of his palms, he does acquire quite a bit of technological doozies from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) that doesn’t help the “realism” factor, even though we’re told the suits and prototypes were intended for military use. Just like in Iron Man, we can’t realistically picture tanks being decked out with motorcycles without slamming a fist up in the air and shouting, “Hell, yeah!” The technology isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but it doesn’t sit well with 2005’s standard by any means, either.

While I think Wayne is a “more realistic” character than Tony Stark, it comes down to character vs. world. The fact is, the universe of Iron Man (excluding the Marvel Cinematic Universe that followed) is a real-life place, where characters may be larger than life, but the realm of possibility is pushed without teetering over the edge. We’re given the fantastical elements because the film is a superhero movie and its source material calls for it. On the flip side, Batman Begins presents a realistic protagonist in a fairly fictional world where cities’ sins are being judged by the great forces at work responsible for the destruction and take down of elder and rigorous societies.

I don’t want this article to come off as if it’s bashing Nolan’s movie, because I really enjoy Batman Begins and it’s my personal favorite of the trilogy. But I think people misunderstand Nolan’s take on the material when they hear him talk about making a superhero movie grounded in reality. What Nolan, as a screenwriter and director does, is explain why things are the way they are in an interpretation that mirrors and homages both the source material and the tone and narrative of past crime-thrillers. He’s not out to make Batman “realistic” as much as he’s out to give it sensible footing and take it in a new direction, with a planned character and story arc defined to a universe that plays by our real world’s rules and utilizes personal themes (courage, faith, hope, fear). With that comes the darker tone of Batman Begins. The film is grounded in its own realities and merits and abides by the rules and standards set by its own story. It’s as fictitious as possible while having “real-world” results. In a city like Gotham, being opposed by villains like The League of Shadows, many debaters that “a man who dresses up like a bat and fights crime” seems to be what stands out, when (excuse the play on words) in reality, it’s a reversal. Anyone can dress up like Batman and fight crime; they’ll have trouble finding a doomed city like Gotham and villains like The League of Shadows, though.

Both movies succeed in providing different and exciting interpretations of superheroes, and both were greatly successful because of it. Hopefully, this helped distinguish some of the elements of the films that people so blindly attack with arguments of “realism.”