Reverse Shot Catches Superhero FEVER!!

by robbiefreeling
July 22, 2008 10:30 AM
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A catch-22: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight demands, in a mean, raspy voice, to be taken more seriously than your average comic book movie. But when one endeavors to do just that—to analyze its loudly explicated themes of duality and ethical impasse; to parse the implications of having its villain be referred to and self-identify as a “terrorist;” to consider the use of invasive surveillance technology as a post–Patriot Act plot point—one is reprimanded for bullying a defenseless Pop object. Hey, guys, why so serious?

It’s a frustrating double standard, and while it shouldn’t preclude an examination of what’s wrong with The Dark Knight, it does give a critic pause—and so does the astounding volume of angry correspondence generated by the film’s fans on message boards and website comment threads. Those critics who didn’t see fit to acclaim the film a masterpiece, or at least a genre high water mark, find themselves perched precariously above an angry horde calling for their heads (or worse), much like —SPOILER ALERT! —Batman at the end of The Dark Knight. For the eight people reading this who didn’t see the film on its record-breaking opening weekend, the film’s final moments find Batman manfully taking the rap for the crimes of the deceased Two-Face/Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) so as to make the latter a martyr for good in the eyes of a populace reeling from the brutal crimes perpetrated by the Joker (Heath Ledger).

Click here to read all of Adam Nayman's review of The Dark Knight.


Talking faux-seriously about juvenilia has become a marvelous way to avoid talking seriously about the serious. The slew of hyperbolic, overheated critical rhetoric that follows in the wake—hell, in advance of—the latest high concept blockbuster is enough to make one gag. In these cases, critical investigation has by and large become a matter of repeating verbatim the films’ stridently announced surface-level themes with some linguistic curlicues and intellectual tumbling tossed in. As it has so often, commercial calculation finds a willing handmaiden in critical laziness, even (or perhaps especially) that evinced by those more intelligent and discerning writers who devote their efforts and talents towards designing elaborate intellectual justifications for films that neither require nor deserve them.

What’s most obscene about this pop-cultural mythmaking is that it works so resolutely against expanding taste or knowledge about movies. By focusing so obsessively and voluminously on the most readily, tyrannically available items, critical discussion is not simply reflecting the commercial film distribution situation in North America, but actively contributing to it. By elevating the latest pop detritus to the level of godhead, by implicitly declaring the centrality of pop moviemaking (most often bad pop moviemaking) above all else, it only further occludes those films that don’t have the advantage of being relentlessly drilled into our consciousness by the marketing machine. Why bother wrestling in print with films that are challenging, strange, obscure, or entertaining in different and novel ways when The Truth is playing in 2500 theatres?

All of which is a grand lead-up to the comparatively puny declaration that Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II is a lousy piece of moviemaking and a lousier work of imagination, its thunderous acclamation aside. Click here to read all of Andrew Tracy's review of Hellboy II: The Golden Showers.

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  • Alex | July 27, 2008 10:40 AMReply

    Hey Travis! It was some of your reviews together with some of Uhlich's which brought me to this site. I read some stuff from you two and really liked the insight you presented and started looking for more reviews and ended up here some days ago. I actually posted that day (some 5 days ago) on your 2006 review of Pan's Labyrinth on the House Next Door which is the first review from you I read, or at least the one which made me notice your name.

    Anyway, after agreeing with many of the movie-specific negative things about The Dark Knight that have been said by different critics here but then also defending it against cheapening it to the stature of Iron Man, I do want to say I think your statements of what is going on surrounding the movie are perhaps a bit exaggerated even if I could agree the movie is getting more credit than deserved.

    People do react to detractors of the movie because they want to love it desperately, and that could come to cheap emotional insults saying that those who criticize it are not smart; but I don’t think neither of your points a) or b) really portrait a major problem in society regarding the movie outside irrelevant current reactions which will pass with time. TDK’s respect will probably linger but the calling people dumb for not appreciating it or the settling with it as the source of everything “smart” is not something that will live much longer than the few days-- or in many cases, minutes—in which these people react to the “attacks” (as they perceive them) to the movie.

    Before going on, I got to say that although I agree it is not as intellectually powerful as some say, I do see some aspects of the film that try to go beyond an action flick and comment about specific issues in one way or another. There is (and I say this while agreeing with all or most of Uhlich’s review) at least something there, not well achieved if you will, but the attempts are there and a few things do work at least in some level. I don’t see in Nolan someone who planned to appear smart just to get the money, I do see him intent in exploring certain issues that could go in hand with the superhero mythology. And though he might have done it ineffectively, this intent alone with its few, or if you will, insignificant, results, is something to be grateful for (even if the adoration it has received could be frustrating) because it shows that the studios are allowing (yes, for their economic benefit, but still) some space for filmmakers to use the business and genre and at least aim a little deeper instead of just having fun but completely irrelevant superhero movies like Ironman and the tons that are soon coming. Sure, there’s space for those movies too, but a bit of extra ambition --I stress the “bit” part-- never hurt anybody. I do see an extra ambition in Nolan, and I see he has stuff to say (in contrast to the likeable as person and imaginative Del Toro, who just appears yet to have nothing to say to the world whatsoever, in movies or in interviews even); and is perhaps still on the works for first establishing within himself stuff to say and eventually put it out there (or maybe someday it will be evident he has nothing to say whatsoever either, like Aronofsky is seeming to try to prove after the Fountain).

    Back to the comments about the evils of what surrounds the movie: stating that the studios have this sort of scheme through Batman to make people think that is all they need for their intellectual pursuits sounds like a bit too much. People who watch alternative movies will still watch alternative movies; even maybe a few people who felt more intellectual for getting to ponder the stuff that came from TDK’s hype, might now be less likely to be satisfied with the likes of the traditional popcorn flick, and will now look into movies that in the end go beyond what Batman did. In the end however, the studios will still try to somehow cash in from alternative movies as they will keep cashing in (more so) from the marvel movies as they will keep cashing in from batman, It’s all the same. Stating that a multinational studio is manipulating all this reaction to shut out alternative voices sounds at the very least deceptively cynical…

    TDK is over, people watched it, many enjoyed it: good; many overreacted: I understand your frustration and some response is called for and kudos to you all for responding; but these three statements you mentioned about the actual impact of the movie in current culture might be just a little inaccurate and unnecessary as actual statements. It is OK to denounce the specifics of what TDK does not do when the world seems to stubbornly want to convince itself it does; but the reaction should not be allowed to become similar to that of those fans who reactively insult the detractors of their temporary idol observing the reality surrounding it with most eager subjectivity.

  • Travis Hoover | July 24, 2008 7:02 AMReply

    Thing is, we'd rather not lower our expectations. And the other thing is, the insane doomsaying hype far preceded the backlash- in fact, the backlash is in to the hype, which far exceeds what one encounters on normal films, even smash hit films. In a sense, to borrow a phrase from J Hoberman, the hype IS the movie- the whole thing is sort of a live fan event which starts with the film but which then fans out over the discourse surrounding it, which has been staked out so completely by true believers that you get sucked in even if you don't really care. The subtext of much of the discourse is a) if you don't fixate over Dark Knight, you're not smart, and b) you don't need to think of any off-book smart things now that Batman leads the way. I have no problem with people liking Batman (though for the record I hated it), but its domination of the discourse is a bit sinister when you consider what it's squeezing out. If it were one more pop movie you go to and like (and clearly, you're not one of the true believers, Alex), that would be whatever, but the refusal of this movie to say die- a surprise situation expertly manipulated by a multinational studio all too eager to shut out alternative voices- somebody's gotta call bullshit.

  • Alex | July 24, 2008 5:14 AMReply

    Ok, I agree with most of the negative comments you and Keith Uhlich say about Batman as a movie, but maybe you are taking it out of proportion when you place it below solid but mediocre summer flicks like Iron Man, or below plain bad ones with all and their assets as Hancock. If someone wants summer fun, better go see the Dark Knight than any other (unless you personally dislike long movies and just want something short and intently meaningless). The Dark Knight is probably as flawed, maybe more flawed than the somewhat neatly executed Iron Man (even with the latter's yawn inducing pretense that this character is all he is supposed to be with the typical cheap justifications you have to endure through the first half and an uneventful climax), but that is because batman at least, and you really got to give it credit for that, seeks to shoot higher and broader. That it falls short does not mean the interesting topics are somewhat there, nor that the movie does not do quite a few things right, nor that its even its failures do not overshadow the unique theatrical experience it renders which ends up being purely a fun show if you will. The subject matters that do exist do provoke some thought even if they are not portrayed powerfully and solidly enough to establish much-- and this is not like in Pan's Labyrinth where a topic is forced into the movie and the enthusiasts have to make an effort to consider it thought provoking. Thought is provoked even if by the end it will only be your enthusiasm that creates solidly achieved statements. It is a pity that this movie fails to be what so many want it to be and what it could perhaps have been, but it has enough merits to have it be memorable beyond this summer, and weightier as entertainment than movies that conform with what they are and simply try to do it with some decency like Spiderman and Ironman, or even like Indiana Jones, taking us for granted knowing that we are still to flock theaters with our money on hand.

    I understand your reaction to the fact that Batman is getting exaggerated respect as something that it simply does not achieve, but that shouldn't make us favor lesser cinematic exercises out of contempt. I can't see how any other superhero movie could be comparable to this one, first in ambition even if the ambition wasn't justified by the end product; but also in the product itself which is notable for having the impact it has(an impact with less relevance than what people are willing to accept so far, but impact as a movie experience indeed) even despite its huge shortcomings from what it supposedly attempts. I personally enjoyed the jokers confabulations to create havoc and the specific way these bring the movie and characters together. I know this was not achieved as well as it could have been, but it was a good cinematic experience nonetheless, better and more interesting than Iron Man, Spiderman, Superman,and the bore that was Hellboy to name a few; more enjoyable than the perhaps better achieved Heat, more memorable than many other respectable films, etc, etc.

    Don't consider this another hate response at all though, I have rather love and true admiration for what the little I've read here. I just think that the reaction to the response it has gotten is taking over what the movie itself is.

  • brotherfromanother | July 23, 2008 7:43 AMReply

    It's not an insignificant detail; I'm chastened to learn that I misidentified MJ White (who is in the film, of course) and I've asked that the line be changed. Your eye is better than mine, obviously.

  • jake | July 23, 2008 6:18 AMReply

    One of the reviews got a small, probably insignificant detail wrong: that wasn't Michael Jai White who tossed the detonator away on the ferry in the Dark Knight review, but that other actor who played Deebo in Friday. Might want to edit that for accuracy.

  • clarencecarter | July 23, 2008 5:06 AMReply

    I wholeheartedly recommend INDIANA JONES...though I seem to like it far more than the majority of my RS colleagues. I think robbie's notes on IRON MAN certainly apply here, plus there's some weird pre-history hooey, which I really get off on.

    I also think HANCOK has been unfairly maligned. Sure, it's dumb as a post but it has a few honest laughs, a few cheeky twists, and is far better made than it has any right to be. Also, with all that plot crammed into 92 minutes, it sure feels like some kind of a deal. Especially with most blockbusters weighing in at 2+ hours these days.

  • robbiefreeling | July 22, 2008 12:31 PMReply

    I, for one, liked IRON MAN a lot, and I know a lot of my colleagues did as well. Smart, well-paced, traditional storytelling that managed to be relevant and humane and serious, without taking itself that seriously. Adam Nayman's review can be read here:

  • craig | July 22, 2008 12:13 PMReply

    okay you guys. i have a serious question: can you recommend action-filled blockbusters that are also good movies? i am 100% serious i really want to know. i used to love summer movies.