Warning to the four people who have yet to see The Dark Knight: Spoilers ahoy!
From my obsessive trawl through the heated debate which is popping up everywhere like weeds in a poorly tended garden, the opinion of the blogospherical joint consciousness seems to be bouncing back to an overall negative view of the movie's merits. Over the last couple of days I've seen The Dark Knight lambasted for not featuring enough Joker, for showing too much Joker and not enough Batman, for rushing Harvey Dent's transformation, for being too violent, for not being violent enough, for spending too much time on Dent at the expense of the Joker, for being too long, for not developing its ideas far enough, for not explaining the Joker properly, for smelling of rotten eggs, for being too loud (because Christopher Nolan is going from screen to screen adjusting the volume), for being badly lit (!!!!!), for not generating genital-obliteringly powerful spontaneous orgasms in those who see it like we were all promised, etc. etc. etc.
As a result of the excitement and enthusiasm of the fanboy massive, the drubbings have been especially vicious. Armond White's increasingly notorious panning (during which he suggests only 21 year olds could be enthusiastic about it, and compares it poorly against De Palma’s vapid and messy Black Dahlia, of all films) and Kevin Uhlich’s dissection of the film are especially forthright, coming early and thus gathering the majority of internet hatred like some much hatey pollen to a bee’s leg, much of which is so knee-jerk and poorly written that it does the fanbase a terrible disservice. There was more to come; Patrick Goldstein from the LA Times comments on the rapidly growing phenomenon here, and this Cinematical article followed the growing online controversy here, at the bottom of which you will find comments from critic David Edelstein, commenting on being flamed by many Batfans. It’s all depressing, but, as Cinematical points out, at least there’s this excellent response to Keith Uhlich and Stephanie Zacharek's reviews at Only The Cinema. It is possible to engage with the critics in an intelligent, non-flamy manner, and that proves it.
The question I pose myself, though, is can I do that? If some critics had an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the movie, then that's the experience they had. Obviously there's nothing wrong with that. And yet, my gut response to these criticisms, from paid reviewers and unpaid bloggers, is "What the fuck is wrong with these people? It's a work of unbelievable integrity, vision, and genius!!!" I'm not leaving insulting and poorly written comments on people's blogs, but still, I've been pissed. It's only once I've stopped gripping my Batman action figures with all the force of my frustration that I realise I've gone fucking crazy. What is going on here? Why have I taken leave of my senses in the same way that the Batman fanbase has? And why would I do that when Batman isn't even my favourite superhero? Or even in my top ten? It's deeply worrying, and a few days ruminating on it leads me to believe we (the fanboys) are all being silly, losing our perspective, but that we do have reason to be irked by some of the negative remarks, i.e. those that have been made from either a position of ignorance or snobbery. The problem with that is, how can I tell genuine, justifiable dislike from expressions of that critic's bias against movies of this type?
First, I'll address my craziness. One of my fears (an unprovable one) is that the negativity is just a reaction to the crazy praise it was getting prior to release. If this is one explanation, I understand, considering Peter "Shill" Travers was first out of the gate with the line "the haunting and visionary Dark Knight soars on the wings of untamed imagination", which is beyond parody. The IMDb vote craziness certainly justifies a slapped forehead of horror, even if you really loved the movie. Not that it matters much in the scheme of things, but it can make a viewer predisposed to disliking the film just because the fanboys are crazy (I gather this is one of the reasons people reject Joss Whedon; his fans are often seen as too enthusiastic). As I say, there's no way I can prove this, but it happens.
Another part of my frustration is definitely rooted in my nerdiness, and the reflexive defensiveness I have towards myself and those of my ilk (I make it sound like we're a put-upon ethnic group, for crying out loud), hoping for some validation from the critical establishment that the superhero genre (or the sci fi genre, or the horror genre, etc.) that I love so much is not just treated as the low-quality flotsam and jetsam of modern culture, that they are understood to be tools and canvasses for telling stories and exploring modern life, and not just whizz-bang-zoom spectacles that overload the eye but avoid the heart and brain. I realise that that defensiveness is my problem, not anyone else's. However, how can I take the thoughts of a critic seriously is his or her dislike of a genre is not backed up by anything other than a sense that it is not worthy of serious appraisal?
I get that critics might have biases against filmmakers; hell, I get angered to the point of localised space/time warpage at Lars Von Trier's experiments in audience baiting. But an entire genre? Canyon and I once had a long conversation about romantic comedies, and she made me see how crazy it is to dismiss every movie in a genre just because it doesn't appeal to me. She was right. We both think the genre has been ill-served over the last few years, but that's not the genre's fault. The movies have just often been uninspiring. That's not a criticism that can be levelled at the superhero genre (which bleeds into the action and sci fi genres, or the crime genre as in The Dark Knight). This year has already seen the vastly entertaining Iron Man and the bold failure Hancock (which tried to approach the genre from a different angle, though it didn't really succeed the way I had hoped), though the unambitious but amusing Incredible Hulk didn't help my argument. Luckily, The Dark Knight reaches higher than all of them. Which is where the difference of opinion seems to fall most often.
Sure, a lot of people are down on the movie for the filming of the action. To be honest, I only had a problem in the hostage sequence toward the end of the movie, though that could have been because I was trying to get my head around the moral quandary at the heart of the scene and I was freaking out a little (because, emotionally, I'm like a small child). Others think some actors didn't get much to do (I'd say Gyllenhaal definitely got the short end of the stick), and that Batman was sidelined (I'm not sure about that, but if that's your take on it, then... well... that's your take on it, I guess). Some hated the palette (totally! It really needed some garish reds and oranges and maybe some lemon yellows!). I'm sure someone out there hated it because the Scarecrow didn't get enough to do, or Killer Croc wasn't introduced, or because Batman contradicted something he said in a Denny O'Neil issue from the 70s. I would be crazy to have a problem with any of that opinion (except the palette criticism).
That’s not the kind of thing I want to rail against, though. I don’t agree with much of that, but it’s someone else’s opinion. However, what really does gall me is that UK critics seem to hate the movie mostly for trying to expand its ambition beyond the parameters of the superhero genre that they have decided upon, thinking it incapable of being more than a reductive and nuance-free depiction of a black and white battle between opposing forces. If you think no critic would ever dismiss an entire genre like that, read this wilfully nasty and unfair review by Michael Atkinson.
Somehow the entirety of American culture, young and middle-yeared and old, is embracing the childish universe of superheroes – which is structured around the easily-distracted worldview of kids, not around the reasoned, complex worldview we would hope children would grow into. Does America need that badly a post-post-9/11 big Daddy to vanquish danger so we can slumber in our cradles? The much-lamented infantilization of the mass populace continues, and at what cost?
As you can imagine, I have no truck with that opinion, nor with the rest of his pissy review, especially his comments about there being no story there, which baffle me. He must have been scribbling “HATE HATE HATE” in his notebook during it and forgot to watch it. That said, fair play to him for nailing his colours to the mast. UK critics exhibit similar bias, but don’t go as far in expressing their hatred. Superhero movies represent the most obvious example of dumbing-down in modern culture? Is he serious? The wish-fulfilment aspect of the genre is definitely an important part of it, but it’s not the most important, especially when a movie like The Dark Knight comes along and challenges that specific notion. Is he angry because once the genre is legitimised by this and, hopefully, Watchmen, he will have to go to the trouble of finding a new knee-jerk enemy of culture to hate on (I doubt this would happen, somehow)?
If you have read this blog before, you'll know that I have a bee in my BatBonnet about possible bias against genre movies (and all of the Shades of Caruso team has a problem with the possible bias against genre TV). I had hoped that The Dark Knight, directed by a Brit, would avoid that kind of thoughtless dismissal, but sadly not. I'm not saying the UK reviews are proof of a definite bias, and I'm certainly not saying it amounts to any more than a hill of biased beans in this crazy mixed-up world, but if I'm ever going to take the work of a critic seriously, I don't want to have to work around their preconceptions about an entire genre. Michael Atkinson in particular is someone I cannot bring myself to read again, not because he insulted me and my brethren, but because he is incapable of seeing the merits of a large proportion of popular culture, the best examples of which often become cultural signifiers or benchmarks of artistic quality over time. It’s not I'm having a hissy-fit just because his worldview doesn’t tally with mine 100%; whose does? It’s that he refuses to grapple with these pop-culture phenomena in a serious manner. I may not like comedies that do little more than spoof other movies in the most flat and obvious way possible, but I’ll at least engage with them, a position that once led to an unexpected fit of giggles experienced while watching Scary Movie 4 (bravo, Anna Faris. Bravo).
Anyway, here are some examples of what I see as an obnoxious bias against the superhero genre in the UK press, which was far more negative than the US press. Sukhdev Sandhu, in the Daily Telegraph, liked the movie, and yet still had to get a dig in [from this point on, italics mine]:
anyone who prefers their entertainment with less rather than more of a message may wish to shield their ears during the dialogue about the "cost of power"... Other reservations: shouldn't Nolan, marvellous as his directing here is, be creating original films rather than rebooting and retooling franchise fare? Why can't Hollywood put a tenth as much of the craft and vim into its average releases as it does into what is ultimately only a superhero movie?
Philip French seemed to like it more than most, but also said:
The Dark Knight is a clever, loud, technically brilliant film, superbly designed by Nathan Crowley and dramatically lit by Wally Pfister. Whether such a movie can bear the increasing moral weight imposed upon it is another matter.
Peter Bradshaw, whose Iron Man review annoyed me earlier this year, seemed to thoroughly enjoy The Dark Knight, but even so, is under the impression Christopher Nolan is doomed to do nothing but make nothing but summer superhero movies for the rest of his life:
Nolan has made an enormously profitable smash with the Batman franchise, but at the risk of sounding priggish, I can't help thinking it may be a bit of a career blind-alley for the talented director who gave us brilliant and disquieting movies like Following (1998) and Memento (2000), whose inventions still linger in the mind. The Dark Knight's massive box-office success has surely given Nolan the means to write his own cheque, and in addition something sweeter still - clout. I hope that he will use it to cultivate movies that are smaller and more manoeuvrable than that great armoured Batmobile.
Anthony Quinn thought it average, but when he gets the chronology of the film wrong you tend to think he wasn't really paying attention:
Art and entertainment feel locked in a deadly struggle, which accounts for the movie's peculiar schizoid personality. Just when it poses its most heart-stopping question – how do you tell a loved one facing imminent death that "everything's going to be all right"? – it swerves into a maniacal car chase, with our hero now hot-rodding a vehicle known as a Batpod, a kind of monster-truck tyre with a seat. The ear-lacerating volume and the automotive mayhem that attend these action sequences seem to be doing everything possible to shake whatever subtleties that may have entered one ear straight out of the other.
Dude! The shots of the BatPod racing through the streets are not part of a chase, but a tension-cranking cross-cut between the imminent death of two characters and Batman's attempts to save one of them. Surely this is self-evident, unless you're trying to score points against it. Fellow Independent reviewer Jonathan Romney also seems to have not been paying attention:
Played again by Christian Bale, he now speaks, when masked, in a gravelly synthetic bass; he also has an eerie habit of suddenly appearing out of and vanishing into shadows.
He now speaks and hides in shadows? What was he doing in the first movie, then? His comments about the Batmobile in the next paragraph suggest he didn’t see Batman Begins at all:
This is an impressive film in many ways, and Nolan directs with real confidence, yet the overall result feels cumbersome. The tenor is set by Nolan's conception of the Batmobile – a clanking all-terrain engine of war, a chunk of brutalist engineering that manifestly weighs tons. There's something comparably tank-like about the film, and despite several genuinely head-spinning moments, it all comes to feel grimly overwhelming, a vision of total war you fear will never end.
For goodness' sake, no one expected a return to Adam West and bad puns, but this cocktail of ultraviolence, artillery and pessimism makes for a gruelling, even depressing experience. Perhaps Warner Bros could offer the next episode to Werner Herzog, just to cheer things up a bit.
We see a genre damned for being fluffy, or damned for trying to do something more ambitious. Why did Nolan bother? Especially when Britain has its very own Michael Atkinson, except with a tiny IQ and a fear of the modern. Christopher Tookey, you win some kind of horrible internet award for being an out-of-touch Toryboy waggling a miserly fist at a world you can’t even be bothered to try to understand:
You can take a character out of a comic-strip, but you can't take the comic-strip out of the character. Batman is not a tragic hero at all, but an adolescent action-figure with the kind of problems most of us can only dream of having. This may make him good box-office - especially among males who feel ineffectual, impoverished and lacking in even one personality - but it doesn't give him the depth of Hamlet.
Oh Tookey, you little bitch!
This summer blockbuster explores grand themes: whether it can be right to use torture on terrorists; the conflict between public and private morality; and whether the public prefers to be told lies rather than deal with the truth. The Nolan brothers are clearly determined not to be confused with the Nolan Sisters [ZING!]. I appreciate their ambition, but they've over-reached - and lost their sense of humour... Their film is compromised by the perceived demands of its audience. It's grimly sadistic. It doesn't fight terror, it embraces it. Ledger becomes, in a curiously twisted way, the moral centre of the film, and this makes The Dark Knight an unintentionally sick spectacle, pretending to justify law and justice, but in reality celebrating violence and chaos.
Perhaps when you're a critic sitting in the dark with a bunch of similarly disgruntled men and women whose heads have been filled with talk of movie genius, it's easy to think that, but how does that account for the reaction of the audience I saw it with, comprising a demographic of men and women of differing ages, ethnicities, and cultural expectations, who reacted most strongly to Tiny Lister's disposal of the detonator during the ferry scene. I know I choked up at his decision, and the room erupted into applause and cheering. Sorry, Tookey. The Joker actually lost completely, both in Gotham and the real world. Rail against the Hypothetical Idiot all you like, but he/she is HYPOTHETICAL! Get used to it.
It wasn’t all bad. While this incoherent rant on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section does little to dispel the suspicion that CiF is The Great Blogging Graveyard, this blog from The Times is endearingly nerdy and filled with good points . In fact, James Christopher is the only UK critic that seemed to really love it, though Cosmo Landesman's point-missing Sunday Times drubbing made up for that. The FT’s magnificent critic, Nigel Andrews, wasn’t crazy about it either, but at least his review was well-written and contained many good points, as always.
So is it just a knee-jerk dismissal of the genre? Surely something like that would have been universally applied across transatlantic lines, and while I’ve linked to some reviews that have just sneered, “superheroes are for kids”, most critics embraced the film for taking the genre seriously and showing what it is capable of illuminating. Jenny McCartney, who also rails against its rating in a dramatic piece full of Daily Mail-esque "WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN!?!?!?!!?? panic, also says in her dismissive review:
This is essentially an adult action thriller, in which the action itself is often difficult to discern from the darkened screen, a roaring tangle of crashes and explosions and muttered imprecations. Added to this is a jumbled sprinkling of philosophy on the nature of heroism, villainy and the necessary lies it takes to keep the public believing in something grander than selfish survival.
If the meaning behind the mayhem is difficult for an adult to perceive, it would be well nigh impossible for a child. But then, despite the heavy marketing and the almost inconceivably indulgent 12A rating (meaning that any under-12 can see it with an adult) this is not a film that pre-adolescent children should watch.
The Independent ran a piece about the rating that put the BBFC's decision in a clearer light, but I'm still pissed that the BBFC chose to do that (either in a fit of liberalism or due to pressure from Warner Bros.), if only because this adult movie now ends up being treated as Public Enemy No. 1 Child Corrupter (knocking Grand Theft Auto IV off its perch of evil) when it is plain to see it is not a movie for children. It's an adult movie dealing with adult themes (in a manner I found easy to follow, UK film critics, and I'm not alone in that judgment, I'm sure), and that it came during the summer months, when film critics froth at the mouth at the lack of substance to Hollywood movies, has served to confuse panicky critics who were expecting nothing more than BOOM BANG.
Yet what do we get? Relief that it is possible to fuse serious subject matter with the expected number of WOW moments? Of course not. Just anger that something from such a tawdry genre, designed merely to appeal to children, would be crazy enough to try to address a serious subject in a thoughtful manner, when it should only be full of explosions and bright colours and two-dimensional motivations and not be seen by anyone who has the complete Bergman collection at home, because liking genre movies means you are a simpleton and emotional retard who is incapable of seeing more than two sides to a conflict.
Of course, if The Dark Knight was like that it would be hated for not having any ambition, but what are you going to do? American culture is morally corrupt and intellectually dead, anyway. Oh, if only Christopher Nolan could return to the country that recognised his talent and threw money at it all those years ago! Then he could make another version of Northanger Abbey or Jane Eyre! Or a comedy about two mis-matched Islington professionals trying to find love in the middle of a multicultural city
Even worse than all of that, some writers are reading the film as a pro-Bush, pro-rendition, pro-phone-tapping argument. It's not pro-phone tapping or rendition. These actions undertaken by Batman are shown to have negative effects. Lao, captured by Batman and dragged back to Gotham to testify against Maroni, is brought into immediate danger and killed by The Joker. Batman raises the game with his bold actions and loses the love of his life, the way out of his psychic torment (though he was deluding himself all along with that), and even his support from the world, having to paint himself as a villain, a martyrdom that must have been borrowed from the little bits of messianic symbolism left over from Wall*E.
Yes, Batman prevails, but the Joker is still around, and to just capture him he has to betray himself and isolate himself from everyone, symbolised by the switching off of the phone-tapping program (which I thought was a nice nod to Brother Eye). If it is a straight reading from this to America and the War on Terror, it's saying, "if you're going to play as dirty as the bad guys, you're going to have to give up everything that you are and everything that you have, and even then you're not going to win. The only way the battle can be won is if we all agree to not lose our heads, to remember on an individual level that we are human". The battle rages between two men high above the city, but it is won with two simple choices by two "mortal" men, one “evil”, one “good”.
That's how it is done. We're not meant to approve of Batman's actions; Morgan Freeman, as the audience surrogate, proves that with his displeasure over "Brother Eye". Critics seem to have missed that point, thinking that because it's a superhero, he is the one we should be automatically applauding, which means the Nolans are expecting us to accept his immoral tactics, but that's not the case. We're meant to be horrified. Considering all of this talk about the movie not being as deep as people thought, it seems it was too deep for those who couldn't appreciate that glaringly obvious fact. The only writer who seemed to understand that the movie was loosely playing with War on Terror tropes without actually transposing them directly from our world to the world of Batman was Moriarty’s customarily excellent take from AICN. Some of the other cultural commentators would do well to read that.
Why should I care what anyone else thinks? Why would I get so monstrously obsessed with the experiences of people I'll never meet, and I regularly both agree and disagree with? And, perhaps most pertinently, why would I doubt the opinions of others, thinking them the product of some innate snobbery or inherited bias, and not just their actual opinion made from a point of view that is merely different from mine and not caused by some form of voluntary cultural myopia? Possibly because of all of the films I've seen recently, this was the one that moved me the most, more than almost any movie I have seen in the last few years. Believe me, I was as annoyed by the relentless hype as anyone, and tried to keep as open a mind as possible, fully expecting to like the movie but not love it, especially after a pre-Dark Knight viewing of Batman Begins revealed that I had increased reservations about it since it was first released.
Those efforts were futile. The Dark Knight amazed me more than I could ever have hoped, leaving me emotionally drained even before the final, heartbreaking scene. The escalation of The Joker's campaign of psychological torture, the city's response to it, and Batman's final sacrifice shattered me. Is that merely because I love superheroes and superhero movies? Maybe, but for the most part I forgot I was watching one. It was more like watching L.A. Confidential than a "popcorn flick".
Was it because I saw it in IMAX? Possibly. We were lucky enough to see it at the Leows IMAX in New York, with a mostly fantastic audience (except for the shrieky woman sitting in front of us who refused to turn off her phone and tried to kill the guy who asked her). Every big moment in the movie was greeted with laughter or applause; the pencil trick, the BatPod, the end of the big chase sequence, The Joker shuffling out of the hospital, and best of all, Tiny Lister and the detonator. I'm not ashamed to say that made me cry. What I suspect would have already been an overwhelming moment was made even more moving by the elation around me.
While critics have carped about the action scenes and what they consider to be faux-profundity, the only flaw in the movie that I could see was that Heath Ledger’s performance was of such an otherworldly nature that it overshadowed Aaron Eckhart’s excellent work as the inspirational Harvey Dent, and the twisted psychotic Two-Face. In the middle of a superb cast taking the subject matter as seriously as possible, he was a stand-out. Even better, those incredible IMAX shots of Gotham, shot with glorious precision by Wally Pfister, took our breath away. On that vast screen it was like looking through a window at a real world (I know it was filmed in Chicago, but surely there were buildings added in post-production). As we left Loews and walked around New York, it felt like we were still in the movie, so much so that I expected Batman to zoom past at any moment.
That feeling lasted all day, keeping the movie running through my head long after we left, riding past a construction site covered in signs featuring the word Gotham, and on to the Lincoln Tunnel, with its art deco spires. I didn't just see a movie; I had an amazing experience, and New York was only half of it. I've proselytised about IMAX before, and been obnoxious about it on message boards, but really, if you want to see The Dark Knight in such a way as to make it hard to care about the flaws or shortcomings of the film, you need to see it on a bigass screen. Maybe it won't work for me on a small screen. Maybe in time my high opinion of it will fade over time just as it has for Batman Begins. Perhaps critics who were agnostic about it would love it in IMAX, seen with an enthusiastic audience, especially one that isn't baying for blood like The Hapless Tookey imagines. Who can say? All I know is that for now at least, it might not be the best film I've ever seen, but I can't imagine 2008 offering up anything superior. It was everything I had hoped for and much much more. Now we have to see if it holds up to further viewings, as soon as IMAX Waterloo has some tickets spare.