Would everyone's reaction to this summer's movies be different if the release dates were reordered? I have some personal evidence that may be so. Finally saw The Avengers last night and The Dark Knight Rises earlier this week, so I saw them in reverse order; and I think the Batman movie is definitely the better movie, plus the better use of my money according to my Official Rule of Movie-Going (Is it worth the $10?). The hive mind that is Rotten Tomatoes thinks The Avengers is better, but of course I know I'm right.
The Avengers did everything it was supposed to, and that's part of the problem. It didn't do a single thing I didn't expect, at least not between the "not-a-submarine" moment and the shawarma joint scene (what, you didn't wait through all the credits? Tsk tsk.). All the repartee was witty, all the internal and external fights were exactly what they should have been, and there were about 500% more laughs than TDKR. The climatic battle was long but not too long. And the real moral center of the movie was Captain America, not Iron Man (was this the real "fight" of the movie?). Most importantly and most impressively, Hulk was done right, which is apparently about as hard as balancing an egg on its end.
Maybe it was this proficiency and tidiness that decides the balance for me. TDKR never hit the pervasive bone-rattling sense of dread that the previous Dark Knight did, but it didn't need to: that's what the Joker feels like, and Bane feels different. Bane as a villian has always felt messy and half-baked to me. After all, Bane's claim to fame is physical prowess, messing things up, rather than pure psychological terror. In the same way, TDKR was satisfyingly messy -- at least for a Christopher Nolan movie. It's Nolan's version of a Dickens tale, and he knew it too, because he put in all those Tale of Two Cities references (there's not really any references like that in The Avengers, beyond Tony Stark's glib name-calling).
In feel, TDKR was a touch warmer than Inception (which just means it was a few degrees above absolute zero, but it does means I could actually relate to some of the characters, like Blake) and it had a nice solidly directed sequence for the part when the Dark Knight actually rises. That and other images stick with me, most spoiled by the trailer but a few not. The Scarecrow's courtroom is just the right mix of absurd and perverse, for example. And the pacing and intercutting at the end is arguably finer filmmaking, technically, than anything found in The Avengers.
I was going to say TDKR doesn't reward thinking about it, but that's not quite right. It does indeed reward thinking about it, because finding the plot holes and imperfections has the same kind of satisfying pop as popping bubble wrap. There's lots to find, but it's kind of fun to do it, and it doesn't ruin the movie for me. Finding TDKR's flaws is part of the experience, because the flaws that are there are put there by Nolan's vision. At least Nolan is adapting someone else's mythology to his vision, and has several storyline innovations in the movie, as in how Bane maintains his power over his minions and how Batman's back is broken. (By the way, notice how Bane's mask is Batman's inverted? That's a Nolan innovation, not in the original.) Whedon follows the known Marvel Universe too closely and that may be why I wasn't surprised at all by his vision. I've already seen his movie in panels on pages.
It comes down to the fact that I'd rather have a more flawed movie that deviates from the comic universe than to have a perfect movie that fits in exactly with the comic book universe I already know. Nolan's vision is imperfect, but it's HIS vision. Whedon's vision is Marvel's familiar vision, so I was slightly bored by it, and by what it has to say.
Conclusion: if I'm the ref, Batman wins.
I wonder what this says about the Spiderman movie I haven't seen yet?
(One final note: This is nothing against Whedon, who co-wrote The Cabin in the Woods: my favorite movie I have seen in a theatre this year. I love Whedon's style, skill with characterization, and way with a one-liner, but maybe again, I'm too familiar with it already.)