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Nitpicking the 'Dark Knight Rises' Nitpickers

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by Matt Singer
July 26, 2012 3:50 PM
22 Comments
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"The Dark Knight Rises."
"The Dark Knight Rises."

On the latest episode of Operation Kino, Dave Gonzales -- alongside co-hosts David Ehrlich, Matt Patches, and Katey Rich -- puts forward a provocative and potentially damning criticism of his peers. He argues that the explosion of articles nitpicking "The Dark Knight Rises" this week stems from a fundamental fear on the part of many critics to express how they really feel about the movie in their reviews. Some critics, he claims, were so wary of knocking the movie that they effusively praised what they liked while minimizing what they didn't, and then saved those complaints for later so-called "nitpick posts." Here's some of Gonzales' argument:

"It was very important in the initial days of 'The Dark Knight Rises' coming out to have liked this movie... It seemed to me like people were using these posts as a way of talking about some of the problems they had critically with the movie under the guise of 'This is just fan nitpicking! It's fine! We just want to talk about these plot holes!'"

In other words: aggressively defensive nerds will jump down critics' throats if they dare to pan a movie they love, but they're fairly receptive to nitpick posts, which mask critique in the form of lists and features, thus mitigating the damage they cause to geek psyches that are too delicate to accept the notion that "The Dark Knight Rises" might be flawed. As Ehrlich puts it, these lists are a way for disappointed viewers trapped by denial to "rationalize" their reaction "while still preserving the integrity of the experience." So the Batman hardcores want to have their cake, and then debate whether the cake has the narratively appropriate number of layers too.

Gonzales is unquestionably correct in one regard: there was a surplus of articles this week devoted to breaking down "The Dark Knight Rises" with a thoroughness worthy of Talmudic scholarship. If you like when people pick apart movies, this week was like Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa and your birthday all rolled into one. You could enjoy "15 Things That Bothered Us About 'The Dark Knight Rises,'" or if that was too much of a commitment you could settle for "11 Things That Didn't Work in 'The Dark Knight Rises'" (or, if you were really in a rush, you could try "9 Logical Gripes With 'The Dark Knight Rises'"). If you were feeling more inquisitive, you could partake of "12 Questions We Had After Watching 'The Dark Knight Rises'" or "'The Dark Knight Rises': 7 Lingering Questions" or "'The Dark Knight Rises': 5 Unanswered Questions." And on and on and on.

Certainly the sheer number of pieces -- and the amount of overlap between them -- was a bit of overkill. But was it an act of cowardice? I'm not so sure. Gonzales and Ehrlich go out of their way not to name names on their podcast, but my own research comparing reviews and nitpick posts didn't turn up a smoking gun. Movieline had logical gripes; their review gave the film a 7.5 out of 10. Film School Rejects found 11 things that didn't work; their review graded the film a C. Huffington Post had lingering questions, and their site republished Marshall Fine and Christy Lemire's early, controversial pans. A few websites did post more positive reviews alongside nitpick posts -- /Film and Movies.com, for example -- but in just about every case, the reviews and nitpicks were written by different people. I haven't found anyone calling "The Dark Knight Rises" a masterpiece in one breath and a confusing mess in the other.

Are critics more willing to write nitpick posts because they can get away with more criticism that way? I don't know, although Ehrlich does posit an interesting theory why comic book fans embrace nitpicking even as they reject negative reviews. "Plot," he says "is something that can be incontrovertible." Nitpicking, he adds, "is a much easier tact than... arguing that [something] doesn't work in an artistic way." Speaking anecdotally, I have noticed how often the angry commenters on Rotten Tomatoes or other similar sites chide critics who write negative reviews for being "biased" or for offering their "subjective opinions" instead of "objective facts." This, of course, is a ludicrous mindset -- it's basically the reason I have a Funniest Internet Commenter every week -- but it does jibe with Ehrlich's logic. Plot holes and narrative mistakes can be seen, in the warped eyes of some, as a more "objective" form of criticism. If I thought Bane sounded like a Welch carnival barker talking into an empty bottle of seltzer and you thought he sounded badass, those are our two equally valid but different opinions. But if I tell you it's impossible for a man with no money, identification, or food to survive a trek through the desert and sneak into a city that's under impenetrable lockdown and you don't have a comeback, then I've got an argument that's much tougher to break.

I have to imagine that if critics were so concerned about pleasing -- or at least not riling up -- their nerdier readers, they would include allegedly "objective" mistakes in their reviews instead of leaving them out. Instead, I think the urge to nitpick separately from reviews comes from two impulses: the desire to indulge the very vocal segment of readership that wants to keep all spoilers out of film criticism, and the urge to wring as much traffic out of "The Dark Knight Rises" as possible.

If critics (or the editors who assign their content) are afraid of anything, they're afraid of readers coming down on them about spoilers -- and without spoilers, nitpick posts are basically pointless. Out of Movies.com's 12 questions about "The Dark Knight Rises," 11 are spoilers (the twelfth is a joke); likewise, HuffPo's 7 lingering questions all ruin important secrets about the movie. If critics can't talk about spoilers in their reviews, then they can only write about plot holes in the vaguest possible terms. As a result, you wind up with early reviews full of broad generalities and later posts -- whether they're called second looks or in-depth analysis or spoiler reviews or lists of lingering questions -- that are far more detailed.

Let's not forget either that comic book fans love to nitpick. In the 1960s, Marvel Comics even began encouraging nitpicking by awarding a "No-Prize" to readers who not only found mistakes in Marvel books, but found plausible explanations for them. If an issue of "The Amazing Spider-Man" stated Peter Parker was 17 years old six months after another had said he was 18 years old, and you hatched a convincing reason for the mistake (i.e. "Peter was so flustered talking to Betty Brant, he gave her the wrong age!") Stan Lee would award you a No-Prize (appropriately, given the absolute absurdity of the pursuit, the prize was an empty envelope). Nitpick posts on "The Dark Knight Rises" or other comic book movies fit into that long, dorky tradition.

This approach certainly benefits editors in one way: it means twice as many articles, and twice as many chances to draw traffic to your website. Why write one review of a popular property when you can double your pageviews by writing two? In their video review of "The Dark Knight Rises," /Film's Peter Sciretta and Germain Lussier say they've written something like 600 posts about the film over the course of the last four years; I've written at least a dozen all by myself here on Criticwire in just the last two weeks. Fans of long reads are better served by one "Dark Knight Rises" review, but folks who make their living from ad revenue might have a different motivation.

If you disagree, and you have a legitimate reason for that disagreement, then you, sir or madam, get a No-Prize.

Listen to Operation Kino #73: The Manic Pixie "Ruby Sparks" and Nitpicking "The Dark Knight Rises."

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22 Comments

  • Terraformer | October 7, 2012 8:47 PMReply

    This film bored me to death. I love the dark knight but this film was just horrible in my opinion. Really really overrated and Christopher Nolan is very overrated in my opinion and very cheesy with dialogue. but that's my opinion.

    But I agree with this author. Any time i give my opinions on this film or the avengers I get nothing but dim witted little kids going on some god forsaken rant. Opinions are opinions. Everyone has them.

  • Bane Coat | September 28, 2012 2:39 PMReply

    It was my best movie of all time really enjoyed watching it.
    http://www.cosplayfit.com/products/The-Dark-Knight-Rises-Tom-Hardy-Bane-Cosplay-Coat.html

  • Dark Knight Rises Bane Coat | September 28, 2012 2:13 PMReply

    It was my best movie of all time really enjoyed watching it.
    Dark Knight Rises Bane Coat

  • JL | August 18, 2012 1:52 PMReply

    I've read a lot of complaints about this movie and the other two Nolan Batmans and it seems to me the people making some of them don't quite get the concept of suspension of disbelief. It is a superhero movie, after all. Also some complainers seem to just want to look like mega observant viewers, like they're being so clever by pointing out the most insignificant flaws. On the other side of the equation you have die hards making death threats to discenting movie critics. So annoying nitpickers on one side and possible psychos on the other. Anyway you can find little logical flaws and discontinuities and such in pretty much any movie, so it's not a big deal if TDKR has a few. I didn't see any worth getting upset about.

  • P Adams | August 9, 2012 12:15 AMReply

    Watch Dark Knight Binges parody
    Better plot

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVsn4RMJgwI&feature=youtube_gdata_player

  • S | August 3, 2012 9:54 PMReply

    The nitpickers are whiny little comic book nerd sons-of-bitches who need to get laid. Sure there are inconsistencies and a few plot holes but firstly, how many epic action films can you think of that don't have a few of these and secondly, as a trilogy of about 7.5 hours altogether it's a very solid and fine job. The direction is great, the acting is great (despite Christian Bale's growling voice) and the plot lines are minor and unimportant.

  • Jon Kim | July 31, 2012 3:24 PMReply

    Ongoing critiques of the various inconsistencies and leaps of logic in The Dark Knight Rises (DKR) are based not on a misunderstanding of the film, but rather on the premise that these inconsistencies dramatically weakened DKR and had the overall effect of lessening the enjoyment of the film.

    It is true that Nolan attempted to explain away some of the various problems with the story (i.e., the hi-tech leg brace, Bane's exposition on the role of hope in despair, etc.). It is also true that one can deduce answers to some of the issues that have been raised by chalking it up to Bruce's resourcefulness (i.e., he's Batman). Yes, I agree that Bruce may have had secret bank accounts he could access from anywhere in the world. I also agree that, yes, Bruce may have previously set up contingency plan ABC in order to deal with scenario XYZ and so forth (i.e., returning to Gotham after escaping from a hole in ground halfway around the world with no money or Bruce regaining access to his Bat gear after being outed as Batman by Bane).

    However, filmmakers by definition are storytellers, and the best storytellers have the ability to create a world in which audience members can lose themselves, one in which they can easily believe. In order to successfully achieve this goal, the filmmaker must not allow plot holes and other inconsistencies to appear in the final cut, because these problems ultimately have the potential to take audience members out of the world depicted in that movie, thus lessening the overall enjoyment of the film and diluting its impact. This is exactly what happened to me and others when we were watching DKR.

    If Nolan wants us to believe that it is plausible for a man like you and I to dress up as a giant bat and run around the rooftops of a major metropolis beating up criminals, then the plot and the narrative and all of the techniques used to move that story forward must be plausibly constructed. This is the reason why Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are regarded as great films that transcend the comic book genre: Nolan created a world on film in which the existence of Bruce and Batman was plausible.

    In DKR the moments of implausibility substantially outweighed the moments of plausibility. For example, we understand that Bane's plan to blow up Gotham is meant to unfold over the course of 90 days or five months, as you say. The problem with using this approach, though, is that it effectively slows down the story while simultaneously opening up gaping plot holes. There is no plausible reason for Bane to wait three to five months to blow up Gotham other than the fact that this grants Bruce sufficient time in the screenplay to recuperate from his back injury.

    We understand that it is the tradition in these larger than life good vs. evil stories for the bad guys to give the hero a chance to win the day by wasting precious time explaining their plans to the hero (i.e., monologuing) or making some bumbling mistake at the end, rather than simply carrying out their plans to destroy the world in a ruthless and efficient manner. The difference between a good movie and a mediocre movie of this type is how much plausibility the filmmaker can bring to this moment, the pregnant pause before the enactment of the master plan.

    In James Bond movies, the villain usually captures Bond, tells him what his plan is, leaves him to die, and then goes off to execute his plan. After the villain leaves, James Bond escapes and finds a way to foil the plan. I would argue in the majority of movies of this sort there are very few villains who would wait three to five months to execute their master plan after the big reveal. There is a good reason for this. It's because allowing for the passage of that amount of time immediately saps the film of its energy and believability. By choosing to allow Bane to exercise such (in your own words) "strange logic and motivation," Nolan serves to muddle the line of his story unnecessarily.

    Once having made this narrative decision, Nolan is now forced to find ways to keep the audience interested in the events taking place in Gotham while Bruce is offstage. He does this by following Commissioner Gordon and John Blake around and by depicting the various kangaroo courts in action until such time that Bruce can heal himself and find his way back to Gotham. Again, the problem with this approach is in both the execution and the plausibility. We already know that the bomb will blow, and we also understand that the actions of Blake and Gordon during this stretch of the film are meant to create a sense of hope in the minds of Gotham's citizens and in the members of the audience.

    However, we also know that there is nothing that Gordon and John Blake will ultimately be able to do to stop the bomb. We know this, because Batman has been established as the single character who can successfully foil Bane's plot. As the protagonist, Batman is the one character whom the audience as well as the characters in the film have invested their hope in. Unfortunately, Batman is not on screen for most of the second act. Instead, he is stuck in a hole in the ground, and when he does escape, Nolan does the audience a grave disservice by failing to show or even tell how Bruce returns to Gotham as Batman. This further raises the implausibility factor. I must, therefore, conclude that the three-to-five month nuclear setup and Bruce’s time in the hole create a dead spot right in the middle of the film when the audience is primed for the climax to begin.

    In closing, I would caution against people dismissing the inconsistencies that I and others have raised as nitpicking or that "It's only a movie" or "It's a movie based on a comic book--what do you expect?" I think that we as sophisticated film goers and believers in the Batman mythos have a right to expect movies produced by filmmakers who seek to ground the adventures of Bruce Wayne/Batman in reality, and who purport to represent our hero in a gritty, realistic, and plausible fashion to play by those same rules throughout the course of those films. If the film fails to do that or lapses into such illogic or implausibility that it sufficiently jars viewers out of the world and out of the story that is being shown on screen, then that film must necessarily be defined as a lesser film. I suspect that there are many people who would agree with me when I say that similar plot holes, leaps of logic, and inconsistencies in Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin film also lessened their enjoyment of that movie. The best course of action for Nolan would have been to tighten his narrative and eschew those plot points that muddied the clear line of his story, which fundamentally seems to have been one of revenge (Talia & Bane taking revenge on Bruce for defying Ras al Ghul and the League of Shadows). That approach, in my view, would have been superior than to leave all these story problems and other inconsistencies hanging about for moviegoers like us to dissect.

  • Edward Douglas | July 27, 2012 11:24 AMReply

    I can totally understand the need to keep the conversation going on important movies as well as trying to avoid major plot spoilers in reviews, which are generally being read by people who haven't seen the movie yet, but there's a certain point where you're just saying the same thing that everyone else is already saying and if you can't find an original way of saying it, then what's the point? Well except for the ad revenue from traffic of fans who will read anything to do with their favorite movie in order to either agree or disagree with the writer. There was a day last week where I saw something like six posts about the ending of TDKR in the course of an hour... I'm guessing all these writers had the same idea on their own, but there's also this feeling of "Well, that site wrote something about this so we should, too" that's aggravating.

  • James | July 26, 2012 10:52 PMReply

    I really wanna see some of the films made by these nitpickers. I'm sure they're incredible works of cinematic art.

  • Frank | August 18, 2012 1:32 PM

    It depends on the nit-picker's choice of words. If they say something like "I didn't really like it, some of it didn't make sense to me," then that's fine. But if they say something like "This movie was horribly flawed and had so many problems that I can't be bothered to list them all here," trying to sound like a sophisticated film critic or something then they imply that they could make a better movie, in which case a comment like the one above seems valid to me.

  • Joel | July 29, 2012 10:54 PM

    It really bothers me when people on the internet make comments like this. So does that mean you can't hate a song by Justin Bieber if you aren't a musician? No. It's art. It's MEANT to be interpreted by other people. Most professional film critics don't make movies either.

  • Gerry W | July 26, 2012 6:15 PMReply

    Mmm... You like a movie, you didn't like a movie, big whoop. Why do people take reviews so seriously? Its a nice hobby, but get a real job.

  • Mike Ryan | July 26, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    As one of the authors of a "nitpick post" mentioned here, I will explain, at least, my reasoning. First, I write a post every Monday that delves into spoilers. I wrote one about Ted. I wrote one about That's My Boy. I will do the same thing with The Watch. (And these aren't necessarily traffic bonanzas every week.) And, yes, I wasn't going to skip TDKR just because others were doing the same thing with this particular movie. And, you know what? Devin's right: It's not an in-depth piece. But I do feel that I/we have a tendency to move on to the next movie well before the general audience has had a chance to see the movie we *used* to be talking about. So, on Monday morning, this particular post every week serves as a "Now that you've seen it, let's talk about it" post. Which I (when I have time) jump into the comments and debate the film with readers. It's fun to do that! (Or it's laziness or I'm a coward or I'm writing without thinking. All of these things could be true.)

  • Scott Mendelson | July 26, 2012 5:20 PMReply

    The problem with lists and 'plot hole alerts!' is that they allow writers to point out little things that didn't work about the movie without doing any thinking in regards to what the film's overall flaws were and/or perhaps why the film was an overall 'miss' (in my opinion of course). It's basically dictation (ok, the 12 plot holes are...) without any real commentary or analysis. It's not doing the work of being a film critic, which is to analyze and subjectively critique the whole rather than sarcastically make fun of individual parts in a hit-friendly list format. It also protects critics from having to come right and say 'this isn't a good movie and it fails on some pretty basic structural levels', which few want to admit due to their understandable fandom of both Nolan and the Batman character. *


    *For those who care - an old-school *essay* about what fells The Dark Knight Rises - http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com/2012/07/how-severe-lack-of-cause-and-effect.html

  • Corey Atad | July 26, 2012 4:24 PMReply

    I'll also add that part of the problem with a film like TDKR is that it naturally gets a lot of scrutiny. The fact is, plenty of movies have plot holes, make ridiculous dramatic leaps or take easy and lame shortcuts. (Isn't it stupid that Glinda tells Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road, conveniently forgets to alert her about the fork AND doesn't bother offering a quick ride to the Emerald City via magic?) Now, maybe a lot of people feel that the flaws of TDKR are quite deep and that they are reflected in part by plot problems, but the thing a good writer should be doing in that instance is analyzing what it is about those plot holes that reveals the greater flaws of the film. Most critics seemed to agree that The Avengers was a total mess, but that it also managed to be a lot of fun, so clearly its messiness doesn't indicate much in the way of deeper flaws. Critics should be inquisitive. They should be asking why? It's not enough to tell me the plot is stupid or the themes are bogus. Tell me why. Do some proper critical analysis, not a bunch of critically shallow lists.

  • Robert | July 28, 2012 3:56 PM

    couldn't agree more.

  • Jordan Hoffman | July 26, 2012 4:12 PMReply

    The OpKino theory is interesting, and there may be some truth to it, but there may be something else at play with some, how shall we say, less-seasoned critics.

    I think TDKR and Chris Nolan in general is the type of filmmaker that leaves you in an afterglow more so than most others. It's the editing, it's the music, its all very very big and very very propulsive. His movies, I feel, really need to be chewed on for a bit before pen gets put to paper. As it happens, the movie studio was unusually difficult about granting screenings to press, such that most editors were banging their desk J. Jonah Jameson-style shouting "where's my review?!?!" while critics were using Ethan Hunt-like methods to get into a screening. (That's all the pop culture references in this one, I swear.) As such, many were going directly from the theater to their laptops, and this may have been the absolute WORST movie in which to do so.

    For the record, however, I stand by my initial take. TDKR is a load of cinematic fun, but wholly ridiculous. I was able to produce a lucid review loaded remarkable insight with minimal turnaround because I'm that much better than all the other stooges out there. (<---this is meant to be funny, but that doesn't mean the problem of some of the dialogue being owned by fanboyish bloggy-blogs isn't real.)

  • Corey Atad | July 26, 2012 4:09 PMReply

    I dont think it was cowardice, but it was laziness. First off, lists are classic hit-getters, which makes for a strong motivation right there. Lists like these are also pretty easy to put together because they don't require much research (and sometimes rely on faulty memory as evidenced by some mistakes in some of the articles.) It also isn't criticism, not in an analytical sense. The only conclusion drawn is that the movie has plot holes and/or takes convenient shortcuts. There's no depth beyond that. It's the illusion of criticism, but in reality it's just easy copy for posting at a relevant time.

  • Paul Harrell | July 26, 2012 4:08 PMReply

    I found myself doing the same thing as these articles. My initial thoughts toward the film were fairly positive, but the more I think about the film, the more things bug me. Listening to the /filmcast on TDKR, Dave Chen and Germain Lussier both said that they wished they had been harder on the movie in their reviews. I think these lists are a reflection of TDKR as a movie, not as a social phenomenon.

  • Da7e | July 26, 2012 4:45 PM

    I haven't listened to that episode nor have I posted a TDKR review myself, so I'm going to be more general in my response: My question would be: "How many different individual content items are required before I get a complete review?" Wishing you were harder in your review while on a podcast is even tricker because one of the things taught in the most basic advertising classes is you lose the majority of your audience asking them to switch media (print to TV, TV to audio, audio to print, etc). If there's a review post, then a podcast about how the review wasn't the whole story, doesn't that take credibility away from the review post? That's a genuine question.

  • Devin Faraci | July 26, 2012 4:01 PMReply

    The nitpick columns feel to me like the culmination of a number of negative trends in online writing:

    - the tendency towards lists instead of real writing

    - the coddling of readership - too many online writers feel like they're Burger King and the reader gets it their way

    - empty SEO hit whoring - none of these are particularly in-depth pieces, but they provide extra TDKR traffic.

    It's no accident that almost all of these pieces ran within hours of each other. Everybody was waiting to drop their SEO bombs on the day that their tracking numbers told them they would be best received.

  • Devin Faraci | July 26, 2012 4:01 PM

    UGH. Apologies for the terrible formatting of that.

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