As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

The Dark Knight, Watchmen, and the perils of reviewing

Posted by Hedwig on July 24, 2008

As some critics discovered recently, most notably the two Davids (Edelstein and Denby) but also Keith Uhlich over at the House Next Door, writing reviews can sometimes be a risky enterprise. It’s a testament to the Dark Knight hype machine that there were insults and even death threats from people who hadn’t even seen the film. Mow that the rabid fanboys have got their hands on the final product, there seen even more vehement, almost as if trying to convince themselves.

The Dark Knight sky-rocketed to the #1 spot on the imdb Top 250 (a list that really should have a time delay built in), it’s currently at 95% on rottentomatoes, and it got an 82 on metacritic.

So now I’m going to say something risky: that 82? That seems about right. The Dark Knight is a solid 4 star film, dense, with interesting thematic currents, but also a bit too solemn and self-important, and with a construction that could be tighter. It’s a good movie, absolutely. The second coming of the Christ, however, it is patently not.

*cowers in the corner*

The thing is, as critics, we like to see ourselves as barometers, as objective as possible, seeing films through our sophisticated eyes, dissecting the merits and balancing the score. The truth is a little different: we might analyze a movie while we watch it, but in the end, the decision on how to point our thumbs doesn’t take place in our brains. It takes place in our guts.

Only once we’ve decided if we like a movie or not do we sit down, let our thoughts crystallize, try to explain why we did or didn’t. The points of criticism in the “pro” and “con” columns don’t precede the judgment, they follow it. Sure, sometimes, when you try to make sense of your own reaction, your thoughts change. You see something that you hadn’t thought about before, or you discover that the movie doesn’t quite linger as you thought it would. You can also later choose to like a film more or less than you originally did, overlooking the flaws or searching for more. The exact appreciation of the film takes time, but there’s a raw, unfiltered reaction at the origin that usually doesn’t change significantly.

All this to justify myself, I suppose. I wanted to love The Dark Knight. But it never drew me in completely. I never forgot about the nachos at my feet, about the illogicalities of the plot (sonar? really?). It didn’t hit me in the gut, is all I’m saying. After it the world outside didn’t feel strange and unfamiliar. I didn’t walk out in a daze.

Did I put too much expectations on a superhero movie? Perhaps. But other people seem to have had those expectations, and consider them met.

Let me try to explain again (sorry for the verbal diarrhea, but I haven’t written anything in a while):

There’s a Lipton commercial that simply goes: “Tea can do that”. In order for a film to qualify as a truly Great Movie, or even for that M-word I try to avoid, it has to make me go “Wow. Movies can do that.” But The Dark Knight doesn’t really do anything all that new, although it combines familiar elements in a way that I don’t think anyone achieved in this genre up until now.

Maybe the problem is that I’ve just finished reading Watchmen for the first time, and while I didn’t quite get the gut-punch from that either, I was deeply impressed by it, and its complexity makes all that Christopher Nolan attempts seem painfully on-the-nose and overstated. Yes: there are interesting dualities and parallels to be found, between every combination of two from the central trio, but they are stated so explicitly that even the 13-yo boys, who’ll surely revisit this over and over again for the thrills, won’t be able to miss them. Same for the obvious terrorism parallels. It’s not that I’m complaining these themes are there, but it shows a contempt for the audience (which is, in all fairness, composed mainly of boys of all ages looking for thrills) that sits uncomfortably with me.

Watchmen also has a tendency of stating and re-stating its points, but it’s so layered that I’m sure I missed about half of them, and I’ll read it again soon just to plunge its depths. Mostly, it’s an impressively structured work, using different perspectives, mixing different time-lines, adding secondary documentation for background… In a way, it makes sure we see the story develop as Dr. Manhattan does: past, present and future all happening at once, our perception of them jumbled. Unfortunately, like Dr. Manhattan, it makes you feel somewhat disconnected from it all. If all’s predetermined, why should we care?

But that’s getting off on a tangent, even if it’s an interesting one. The point was: The Dark Knight, and why I feel I have to defend so vehemently my (very modest) reservations. As said before: I liked it. I even let out a “whoop!” at the end of the big chase scene that ends with the truck. You won’t find me fighting the chorus of praise Heath Ledger has gotten either: he’s terrific, and terrifying as the Joker, and it makes you feel once more a pang of regret for all that could have been.

Still… Adam Nayman over at Reverse Shot captures the dilemma quite well: The Dark Knight clearly is a movie that wants to be taken seriously, as an “adult” movie despite its comic-book origins. But as soon as you start critiquing it like you would an adult, serious, you’re a sad loser who just can’t sit back and enjoy popcorn fare.

The Dark Knight wants to be deep and dark and complex, but in the end, it’s neither of the three. Yes: you read that right: not dark either. In the end, after all, *Slight SPOILER* people turn out to be fundamentally good. The Batman and the Joker are aberrations, not symptoms of a diseased world. The White Knight might get tainted, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still represent hope.

I’d like to go on, about how movies feel the need for the stakes to get higher and higher to a point where it feels almost pointless, about the violence and the action and how they’re handled (Craig has an interesting point of view on the rating, but few in the comments agree), and so on. But as my word counter tells me I’ve gone into quadruple digits, I’ll save that for a next post – though I’m not promising anything.

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13 Responses to “The Dark Knight, Watchmen, and the perils of reviewing”

  1. Sam Juliano said

    I quite agree with you lock, stock and barrel in that 4/5 rating for it Hedwig. I have said my piece elsewhere so I won’t be redundant, but thgis is quite a nice appraisal.

  2. Kudos! You managed to weave tea and “The Dark Knight” into the same paragraph 😉

    Seriously, I totally get what you are saying though, TDK wasn’t anything strikingly new or anything but the way it combines its elements is utterly gripping.

  3. sarcastig said

    Thank you both 🙂

    I realize, re-reading this, that it really is a rambling mess, and that I actually didn’t really say anything about the movie, just my reaction to it. I’ll try to get something more coherent up tomorrow. At the same time, now that I’ve read all the great reviews that have been written (both the positive and the rare negative ones), I have no idea what I could possibly add.

  4. Kaj said

    “The White Knight might get tainted, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still represent hope.” Only through false representation and lies. So all he really represents is false hope. Meanwhile, the real hero may sacrifice himself for the greater good to some extent, but he’s still somewhat of a fascist that thinks he and he alone knows what’s best, never mind civil rights or liberties, while he inspires the worst in people, rather than the best. Oh, and Harvey doesn’t just “get tainted”, his whole complexion changes from white to black. Everything he stood for and believed in gets destroyed by a madman who is not out to prove that people aren’t fundamentally good, but that this foundation can be rocked to it’s core and become completely eroded. Just like he did in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. He destroys a man’s soul, and just because elsewhere, some people do not kill each other, humanity is good and saved?

    Speaking of Moore, I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say with the Watchmen comparison. You compare two entirely different mediums, and take the absolute top of one medium as a standard for another. I’m not sure what you’re trying to do there. A comparison between both movies (which nobody will be able to do until Watchmen is released next year) would make sense, or a comparison between the comic and certain Batman comics. But this, although interesting, I’m not so sure proves anything. What really confuses me though, is that after your praise of the depth of one comic, in the next paragraph you state that comic-books cannot be ‘adult’, because according to you, movies based on comics cannot be critiqued as ‘adult’, even though you’re statements about Watchmen contradict that, and it makes me wonder how you feel about movies like Ghost World or American Splendor: are they not ‘adult’?

    I’m looking forward to your next piece.

    “TDK wasn’t anything strikingly new or anything but the way it combines its elements is utterly gripping.” Well, that never has stopped Birth of a Nation from gaining a classic status.

  5. sarcastig said

    Read carefully Kaj: this piece is not a critique of The Dark Knight, it’s an attempt to find out why I didn’t respond to it like most people did. And just reading Watchmen might have been a factor. I know it’s unfair to compare to media, but that doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be an influence in my perception because of it.

    As for the darkness: I actually had a big problem with Batman being held responsible for everything. People died because of him? No, people died because the Joker is crazy. Without Batman – or, alternately, if Batman had acted differently – he would just have killed for another reason. To bring up the (not unwarranted) real-life parallel: just because terrorists kill people and say it’s because of some Danish cartoonist doesn’t make it so.

    I’d like to go on more in depth, and I will later, but I’ll miss my train if I don’t stop now.

  6. Lanchka said

    Thanks for this run-down of TDK. It’s refreshing to read a review that’s not falling over its feet in its rush to praise the movie. We probably won’t get to see this till it comes out on DVD, but are looking forward to it immensely, and your tempered reaction is just what we need so as not to work ourselves up only to be disappointed.

    I don’t think that Hedwig is saying that ALL comic books/comic-based movies can’t be taken seriously as adult fare. She seems to suggest that TDK in particular is trying a little too hard, but maybe a different approach would have yielded a more satisfactory result in that department. Her comment on TDK is not to say, however, that other comic-based movies cannot be successful as serious adult movies if handled more astutely.

    While I haven’t read Watchmen, perhaps despite its publication as a comic (by DC Comics) it leans more in the direction of a graphic novel? In which case it can easily be interpreted in a much different vein than Mickey Mouse or XKCD…

    On that note, here’s hoping that we’ll get to see a feature-length movie of stick figures in the near future 😉

  7. Kaj said

    @ Hedwig: Ok, but several sentences about what TDK wants to be, but isn’t, according to you, do sound like criticism of the movie to me, wether or not the piece as a whole is.
    And about Batman being held responsible and the Danish cartoons: the most important is that Batman himself starts to feel responsible. And although the Danish cartoonist is not responsible for the violence that ensued, if he were to draw some more similar cartoons, I’ll bet you there will be a lot of Danish people who won’t want him to publish them for the ‘trouble’ he might cause. There was a lot of that reasoning going around prior to the release of Fitna, and a lot of that was, sadly, not because people thought he was an idiot, but that it was irresponsible for him to do so because of the possible violent reaction. So while it may not be Batman’s fault, it’s certainly not unrealistic that the general public would feel that he was partly responsible.

    Also, the Joker’s excesses are a reaction to Batman’s, and organised crime gives him carte blanche to do his Toto Riina (Sicilian mob boss who murdered a DA in 1992) thing exactly because of Batman’s actions. In another social climate, The Joker would’ve been much more like M (Peter Lorre, not Bond’s boss).

    @ Lanchka: Hedwig never literally says it, but the sentence “an “adult” movie despite its comic-book origins” suggests to me a misunderstanding of what those origins are. Also, the distinction between comic and graphic novel to me has always been one of snobs that just wanted to get away from the appparent negative connotations the word comic brings with it.

  8. sarcastig said

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Lani. Sometimes Kaj makes me question the clarity of my writing, and it’s a big reassurance that you got exactly what I meant.

    Where to start…well, with the part Lani already addressed. Where do you read that I don’t want comic book adaptations to be “serious”? On the contrary, I think it’s absolutely great that more complexity and depth is attempted – although in my mind, something can be complex and deep without necessarily being serious and/or dark, I don’t get why the two categories are so often equated. And Kaj, you know me a little, so you should know that I do not look down in ANY way on comic books: I consider them a medium as valid as any other, with exponents that – like with literature, film, or really any form of art – range from fluff to works of great art.

    The sentence “an ‘adult’ movie despite is comic book origins” comes not from any disdain for comics, but is simply based on the fact that comic book MOVIES tend to be fairly silly. This is not to say that they are without depths – Burton’s Batman films have very interesting undertones, and in some ways dare MORE than the Nolan ones, X-men had something to say about racism, X2 about homophobia, Spiderman 2 about feelings of impotence in the face of today’s society and, yes, destiny, with Doc Ock’s journey having parellels to Dent’s, etc. Even Hellboy 2, which admittedly has significant narrative problems and will only get 3 or 3.5 stars in my review, had potent undercurrents concerning, amongst other things, environmentalism, something I usually resent but was done in such an inobtrusive, melancholic way that I loved it.

    But that’s another story. Suffice to say: I applaud more complex, deep movies, whether they’re based on comic books or not. But if you want your movie to be taken seriously, it should be able to stand up to serious analysis and criticism. However, as soon as you start discussing the themes and complexities of The Dark Knight, and, in the process, its flaws, you’re blamed for nitpicking, taking a popcorn flick “too seriously” etc. THAT was the point made by Nayman: not that there shouldn’t be serious movies, but that they should stand up to serious scrutiny. Nolan’s movie is dense, and there are a lot of ideas, but they don’t cohere. His idea of complexity is a rather teenage one, thinking having a lot of thoughts is the same thing as being thoughtful.

    I won’t admit that in the big pile, there are some interesting ones. Alexander, for example, wrote a very thorough and interesting analysis on his blog that’s made me want to revisit the film.

    The strangest thing is: I LIKED the film. But there’s such rabid enthusiasm over it that if you only liked it, you’re backed into a corner and almost forced to attack it. I think The Dark Knight is an ambitious, interesting film with some great performances and moments of perfection (like the shot of the Joker above). But I also think it is flawed, that there are some jarring plot holes and inconsistencies, that it bites off more than it can chew, and that in the end, I was underwhelmed.

    I know I haven’t addressed all your points, Kaj, but this is as long as another post, and I’m tired. I might come back to the rest, but don’t hold your breath.

  9. sarcastig said

    As an addendum, A.O.Scott worded my basic problem with The Dark Knight almost perfectly:

    Instead the disappointment comes from the way the picture spells out lofty, serious themes and then … spells them out again. What kind of hero do we need? Where is the line between justice and vengeance? How much autonomy should we sacrifice in the name of security? Is the taking of innocent life ever justified? These are all fascinating, even urgent questions, but stating them, as nearly every character in “The Dark Knight” does, sooner of later, is not the same as exploring them.

    ADDED: Nathaniel has some really interesting points too. I’m not quite as pessimistic as he is about the state of criticism, but I can empathize.

  10. Kaj said

    I don’t think the merits of lack thereof of comic books has ever come up in one of our conversations, but I’ll take your word for it. Sorry if I tend to get hung up on certain words or sentences, but in my opinion the sentence “an ‘adult’ movie despite it’s comic book origins” suggest that the comic origins would somehow stand in the way of a movie being adult. But maybe I didn’t fully get your point because I have not seen these “nitpicking” arguments, and this is sort of the only blog I read, except when you point out others. I take TDK completely serious, and am of the opinion that it holds up in a serious, adult way, despite the spelling out. Which apparently is not all that blatant either, considering how much criticism misses the mark when it comes to the themes and messages they take away from it. But then again, as a young boy I had one Batman comic that I clung to for years, even though I don’t have it anymore, and me and a friend of mine dressed up as the Dynamic Duo from the camp tv show when we were 7-9 years old, and in preparation for TDK and three years ago for BB I’ve been reading up on a lot of what is considered the top of the Batman comic canon, as well as watching some Lang (I like the mention of Fritz in Coleman’s and Gross’ pieces), so I’m probably biased, and perhaps see more in The Dark Knight than some others because of what I know to lie behind certain surfaces in the movie that seem to be points in itself. But I could be wrong about that, and do risk sounding condescending when that’s certainly not my intention. I have no idea if others who saw the same as me “come from the same background”, and that’s probably not at all necessary to have the same insight I think I have in the movie.

    Nathaniel does have some interesting points, but in the end the state of film criticism is dire because he doesn’t agree with most critics?

    “I don’t get why the two categories are so often equated.” Perhaps because in Hollywood movies, the opposites are more than often forced together?

  11. Lanchka said

    I feel compelled to add that the phrase about TDK wanting to be “an ‘adult’ movie despite its comic book origins” blah blah blah appeared to be a paraphrase of Adam Nayman (so why take Hedwig to task?). I also think it’s clear contextually that it is not a blanket description but one specific to TDK, which can be seen in the reference to the movie before that final clause. Then again, Foucault or Derrida or another one of those dead French hippie philosophers propagated the idea of the death of the author, so maybe we can all read whatever we like into it after all.

  12. I’m a little late to the party here (I just now got around to checking out your site — love it)…but I have to say I greatly enjoyed your piece here (I didn’t find it rambling at all) and I thoroughly agree. I tend to put TDK in the same category as V for Vendetta (though TDK is clearly an improvement): a new breed of comic book films that all have a huge chip on their shoulder and need to prove that they’re “more” than mere comic book films. What’s funny, though, is that this is what makes them fail: they feel like they have to try so hard to prove something to everyone, that they end up being distancing to the audience. Watching TDK, I was entertained, but never felt fully engaged or moved emotionally.

    Ironically, most great genre pictures are great because they embrace what they are — allowing the themes to develop as they may — rather than fighting it. Star Wars never set out to be anything other than a light, breezy popcorn flick, and it’s a masterpiece. Die Hard wasn’t conceived as anything other than a taut thriller, and somehow it tapped into a vein of repressed masculinity running through an entire culture. TDK, on the other hand, is trying to be a “serious” film from the get-go, and it never feels like anything more than a pimply-faced fifteen-year-old lecturing you about why people should take comic books more seriously. You kind of admire his conviction, and he might even make a few good points, but the bottom line is he’ll never have a girlfriend. 🙂

  13. sarcastig said

    Hehe, I love that analogy. Welcome to the site, Luke, it’s been a bit quiet around here of late, but as soon as my thesis is done (which I’m really, really, really hoping I’ll manage to achieve by August 25th), activity should pick up again.

    I actually haven’t seen V for Vendetta yet… I probably should, not because it might be a great film (though you never know), but because it’s part of the conversation, and with Watchmen coming up, it might be a relevant reference point.

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