Funnybook Babylon

July 11, 2008

Dark Knight, the Film Critic Community and a River in Egypt

Filed under: Blurbs — David Uzumeri @ 11:33 pm

I think most fans of nerd-based movies have been sitting and watching as the fresh tomatoes come in on The Dark Knight. And, you know, it’s pretty fantastic news – it’s close to universally agreed that this is a goddamn good, if not truly great, movie. I’m hearing “better than Batman Begins“, and since that’s my high-water mark, I’m pretty happy.

However, what truly baffles the shit out of me is the critical attitude towards liking it. I mean, I know that the superhero genre has a bad rap in the overall groupthink, and considering some of its representatives in the past (Helen Slater’s Supergirl, Batman & Robin, Daredevil) it’s hardly lost on me why that would be the case. But, guys, come on:

In its rethinking and transcending of a schlock source, The Dark Knight is up there with David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly. It turns pulp into dark poetry… The Dark Knight is bound to haunt you long after you’ve told yourself, Aah, it’s only a comic-book movie.
Richard Corliss, Time Magazine

Nolan wants to prove that a superhero movie needn’t be disposable, effects-ridden junk food, and you have to admire his ambition. But this is Batman, not “Hamlet.” Call me shallow, but I wish it were a little more fun.
David Ansen, Newsweek

In other words, you expect moralistic underpinnings in a Martin Scorsese movie; in a Batman movie, they hit home with renewed vigor.
Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter

Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is another unforgettable offering from the visionary that defies all expectations by creating a serious “superhero” movie for grown-ups, one so grounded in a brutal reality you’re left in a cold sweat by its stalwart refusal to cater to escapist fantasies.
Edward Douglas, Comingsoon.net

This is not a Batman movie… this is a 2008 version of The Untouchables with The Batman as Elliot Ness, The Joker as Al Capone, much better toys, and, it seems, a topper.
David Poland, The Hot Button

What is this, the denial hour?

Is there nobody on staff at fucking Time and Newsweek to point out that their reviewers are praising the film for ‘transcending’ limitations that don’t exist? Dark Knight certainly looks more intellectually stimulating than the Burton/Schumacher flicks, which were just audiovisual spectacles with varying degrees of commercial success – design masterpieces without soul. (Well, at least the first two.) As an object to compare The Dark Knight favorably to, it does the job just fine.

However it’s just astonishing, although I really shouldn’t be surprised, to see the film critic community react in such a bewildered fashion to an interpretation of Batman that challenges their minds as much as their senses. While I admit that I have not yet seen The Dark Knight (although if anyone has some sweet preview passes for Toronto I would be your friend forever) the aspects of the film commonly praised – the focus on moral quandaries, the intelligent and reasonable approach towards cause and effect, the thematic unity, the roots in crime fiction – for God’s sake, these aren’t new to the character. They aren’t anywhere close. The modern conception of Harvey Dent and the theme of violence escalation in Gotham came from current fan community whipping boy Jeph Loeb. I can’t even imagine how reviewers would react if presented with The Long Halloween, never mind Death and the Maidens or The Killing Joke or, shine on you crazy diamond, Batman R.I.P.

As a former expatriate from comics fandom, I understand the tendency towards ambivalence in the public mindset regarding the artistic merit of superhero properties. But, when presented with evidence to the contrary, don’t try to pass it off as something else – justifying its quality as saying it took more cues from crime films, or being disappointed for not falling within its predetermined boundaries, is a mistake. Above, Honeycutt essentially states that, due to the fact that The Dark Knight is a Batman movie, the bar is lower with regards to intellectual stimulation – so, essentially, a smart Batman movie is a greater achievement than a smart crime film, like the Bat is some kind of horrendous creative albatross.

So, I mean, let’s stop this ridiculous notion of treating comic book movies differently because, you know, they’re just comic book movies, right? Stop giving things you don’t think are that great a free pass on characterization and theme because of their origins. Simultaneously, don’t try to decontextualize works that don’t fit within the expected boundaries. And don’t be surprised when other established franchises start getting adaptations this good.

I’m looking forward to seeing the public reaction to the first truly thematically intact and intelligently constructed Superman film.

11 Comments »

  1. Pow! Zam! Comics aren’t for kids any more!

    Comment by david brothers — July 11, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

  2. The Corliss quote is especially stunning–didn’t Time magazine name Watchmen as one of the great novels of the last century? Not graphic novels–NOVEL novels? You’d think someone on staff over there would grasp where comics are at nowadays, and wake up Corliss long enough to tell him.

    This is a pretty good argument for why the recent firings of major film critics at major dailies is not necessarily a BAD thing. Seems like there’s a thick layer of institutionalized old fogies that should just retire to their home theaters already.

    Comment by Matt — July 12, 2008 @ 7:07 am

  3. I have been okay for years with ignoring the “mainstream” about comics. I don’t normally care about trying to justify my habit to others, but I realized that for the creators in the industry it’s frustrating to have work that you put such grand effort and time and basically be told that it’s only “comic book good”.

    That’s got to be harsh when you are being compared to the lower rungs of media. It’s just going to take time. It’s kind of awesome to finally see people outside of comics even hearing about the amazingness of Kirby.

    Comment by Pedro Tejeda — July 12, 2008 @ 10:55 am

  4. I too hope for an intelligently constructed Superman movie. I liked Superman Returns, but it was basically a ‘love-letter’ and a remake for Donner’s Superman. With that out of the way, I really hope Singer can create something amazing. I think he’s capable of it, and he loves the character enough to want to do so.

    Another great article David!

    Comment by Joe Don Baker — July 13, 2008 @ 1:35 am

  5. It’s pretty easy to criticize people’s feelings towards Batman if you’re going to cherry pick quality stories to represent the Batman character–all of these sorts of reactions are easily comprehensible if the critics didn’t happen to have somebody “in the know” recommend Death and the Maidens and ended up with Gotham By Knight, or Bane of the Demon, or City of Light, or–well, come on. The list of terrible junk that the character has been thrown into is a hell of a lot longer than the list of stuff that are examples of intelligent, mature, quality storytelling. I understand the criticism of elitism, and yes, it’s a shitty stance to take when a reviewer hangs the “albatross” around the neck of what should just be treated as a film, but it’s no more obnoxious to me than to claim that people’s arguments don’t matter because they haven’t taken the time or effort to wade through the immense amount of crap comics to get to Long Halloween. Disregarding comics shops totally, even if a writer just grabs a trade collection at Barnes & Noble, how are they going to know they should ignore the copies of Knightsend and pick up Long Halloween instead? And how many people are going to give Batman comics that many more chances after they read the shit stuff?

    Most people, I’d imagine, aren’t like comics fans–willing to go back to the same well again and again after reading shit like “Batman: Toyman” and “Gordon of Gotham.” That type of stalwart courage requires a level of faith and masochism that most people, thankfully, don’t have.

    Comment by Tucker Stone — July 13, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

  6. David,

    I think your reaction is a valid one, but just the same, a reaction. Having read a good portion of your writing here at FBB in the last month, I know that you know that for most of these guys what they write is bullshit. Its a bullshit job, where they have bullshit bosses and they better write something that’s gonna give their editor a little wow. That being said, they have a job to do, and like Tucker mentions, there is a lot of crap out there in relation to Batman. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt a reviewer to walk into a comic book store, or a bookstore and have some recommended to them.

    I think Pedro brings up the most valid reaction, and its the one that stings a little. As a consumer, reader, movie goer, and fan, we above nearly every other subgroup of entertainment loving individuals, except maybe Trekkies, should know that the typical movie reviewer is going to go down the “Zip, Bam, Pow” route because it is the path of least resistance. Its easy to dismiss movies based directly, or indirectly on the comic-book (capes) genre because its something that the general public is used to.

    However, the geek crowd (us) and our movies have been carrying the film industry the last couple of years. And while we may not know net grosses on movies like Iron Man, or The Dark Knight, Hollywood seems perfectly content throwing gross dollars out there. Right now it is the Geek Age in Tinseltown, and we should bask a little in that.

    What’s even more amazing is how easy it is for reviewers (few, if any of these clowns are critics) to dismiss comic movies as being so poorly done. Unlike the myriad of other movies in other genres that have totally been stillborn or atrocities against the viewers five senses, I guess.

    And I would tend to argue that most people will continue to go to the well, albeit different wells for the same shit, because that’s just what we do. It might be the local news, or somewhere for coffee, of a car, or house cleaner. It is easier for us to bitch about things than to change them.

    Keep up the great work, David!

    Comment by Shaun Behrens — July 14, 2008 @ 1:29 am

  7. I’m not arguing regarding the insane morass of godawful Batman stories out there, but I really think the hypothetical “a guy walks into a Barnes & Noble looking for a Batman comic” situation is relatively rare and assumes an uncommon level of willful ignorance – painting “regular people” as generally unwilling to ask friends for recommendations or do Google research is kind of unfair, especially since many bookstores set up Dark Knight sections with only the most highly-recommended stuff.

    And even if they do pick up rehashed crap like Long Halloween or Knightfall or whatever, the fact of the matter is that even at their worst they still deal with the stuff that critics are praising Dark Knight as being innovative for. I certainly don’t expect every film critic to have an encyclopedic knowledge, nor should they. But if they don’t know anything about the comics, they should just review the film as a film instead of extrapolating a bizarre picture of Batman comics largely informed by the ’60s TV show. And if they do extrapolate that picture, surely someone on staff will be able to catch the error (and it’s not a subjective statement; calling Batman’s source material “schlock” is simply incorrect. It’s pulp, but it’s not schlock.)

    Comment by David Uzumeri — July 14, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

  8. Critics are used to having everything spoonfed to them while maintaining a paper-thin veneer of informed detachment. They are also not very imaginative and are usually not very good writers. So it’s hardly shocking that 99% are going to fall back on the blatantly obvious in reviewing a film like Dark Knight — it would be more surprising if anyone actually turned out a work that actually qualified them as a film critic, rather than a mere reviewer.

    Comment by Aaron Poehler — July 14, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

  9. David-Well, that’s a basic disagreement that’s sort of insurmountable then–I happen to believe that the majority of people don’t know anything about the difference between the well-written Batman trade collections and the latest collection of whatever happened in Batman: Confidential. The idea of “friend recommendations” is one I can’t buy either–the implication that everybody is just one conversation away from a super-hero comics fan is patently unbelievable, and considering the raft of comics fans willing to back up any and every mini-series that gets published, I don’t see the google idea of holding much water either. So I’m reading your essay from that point of view entirely–that I don’t agree with what you’re saying are some of your agreed upon premises.

    All that aside, I still sort of feel like you’re responding to elitism with another form of elitism–that of the “woe is the comics fan, no one respects my hobby” mentality–which is probably not really giving you the benefit of the doubt, as I don’t really see you as a regular spouting that idea.

    Comment by Tucker Stone — July 14, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

  10. No need for surprise, becaue there’s no reason for anyone to know about the extreme jump in the quality of writing in superhero comics. This is because superhero comics still don’t sell well compared to the media that employ and occupy critics.

    Beyond its cast, Iron Man was a success largely because it pulled directly from the most mature and entertaining recent arcs of the comic, but you can’t expect reviewers to know that. One reviewer flaunted his knowledge of comics by explaining that Iron Man’s “real” origin was in Vietnam in a one-dimensional 1960s Cold War story – although of course most of his “new” film origin appeared in the comics first (and second and third) and became the “official” history before the movie was ever written. Let’s face it: explaining Marvel’s sliding timescale to someone who already sees comics as laughable is a ridiculous prospect.

    Comics aren’t going to be elevated by movie reviewers and most consumers, who (against the evidence of Marvel Studios) are going to assume that the closer a movie is to the comic it’s based on, the bigger the handicap it has. Batman’s been “grim” and “realistic” and “adult” in Nolan’s vein for so long in comics that it’s a decades-old cliche and writers like Morrison are still trying to find a way out of it. But what film reviewer could realistically be expected to know that?

    Comment by Jbird — July 15, 2008 @ 5:27 am

  11. kudos to the makers Dark Knight for their record breaking opening weekend… it’s no wonder there’s talk of another one coming out ASAP

    Comment by patrick — July 23, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

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