Hello. I'd like to talk to you folks about The Dark Knight Rises.
I wasn't planning on writing a post about this movie, because let's face it. Writing about Batman is exactly what you'd expect from me, isn't it? But there's been something on my mind that I'd like to talk about.
To be clear, I'm not going to be talking about the movie so much as the ramifications of the movie. I haven't seen the movie yet, obviously; I will be attending the midnight premiere tomorrow night. In fact, I'll be going to the theater at six o'clock with a friend of mine from Haverford, and we will be watching the Dark Knight Marathon--Batman Begins and The Dark Knight will be showing on the big screen before the world premiere. My friend has never seen Batman Begins, so I am particularly glad we're attending this marathon. I am chagrined when I hear about all the people who have seen and enjoyed The Dark Knight without ever going back to watch Batman Begins. Yes, The Dark Knight is better, but Batman Begins is well worth it, and you'll be able to appreciate The Dark Knight as well as TDKR in a more rounded and satisfying way.
So I'm excited. Very excited. That's part of why I'm here, typing this. Not just because I'm so excited that I want to talk about it, but because I want to talk about why I'm so excited about it. Don't worry, this isn't going to devolve into a drooling fanboy commendation of a movie I haven't even seen. But it's funny you should assume that...
First I'll talk a bit about my personal connection to this movie.
I was reared on superheroes. I like them a lot, as you probably know. I never read any comic books growing up, and I've only had tertiary connections with them as a teenager/adult/whatever you want to call me now. I know everything I know about superheroes from watching cartoons, movies, reading about the characters, and talking to people. I've read a few classics like The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One and Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? and Marvel 1602 and Watchmen.
I have a confession to make. I didn't immediately fall in love with Batman Begins when it came out. In fact, my first reaction to it was, What's the big deal?
I had no idea who Christopher Nolan was at that time. I was a fanatic for Raimi's Spider-Man films, and I had several arguments about the Spider-Man films' superiority to Chris Nolan's Batman debut. (Keep in mind Spider-Man 3 hadn't come out yet...) I really misjudged Batman Begins.
Years later, with a few other Nolan movies in my back pocket (The Dark Knight, Memento, The Prestige, all fantastic movies), I went back and watched Batman Begins. My appreciation for it skyrocketed. Over the past several years, Christopher Nolan has become my favorite director. The man can do no wrong (so far). A few years ago I speculated as to who would have a flop first: Chris Nolan or Pixar? The answer is Pixar. Cars 2 and now Brave, which is not a flop so much as just floppy. But we can talk about that some other time.
Christopher Nolan is my favorite director. I have seen all of his movies. In my eyes, he is the best of the best, even above the greats: Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, whoever. Not saying he's better. I'm just saying he's better for me, and unquestionably brilliant. I admire his writer/director skills, his attitude of zero compromise or gimmickry, and the fact that he apparently never sits down while he's directing. Chris Nolan is an important role model for me, an aspiring writer. He has managed to achieve both artistic integrity and mainstream success in a bombastic way that has never been seen before.
I also love Batman as a character. He has compelled me ever since I watched the Batman cartoon of the 90's. Spider-Man was always my favorite, but in recent years, Batman is chomping at his heels. The looming, brooding, self-sacrificing, spectacular, dark, larger-than-life, notorious Batman.
When Chris Nolan meets Batman, some of the best movies I have ever seen are born.
Okay, so I drooled a little. Now let's get toward my point. I've told you why this premiere is important to me. But I'm far from the only person this franchise is important to. There are tens of thousands of Bat-fans out there, from casual to rabid. But this is no typical summer comic book movie romp. You've probably gathered that by now.
The radio at work today was tuned to the dreaded WISH 99.7, soft rock and inane pop. I was price gunning items and tuning out the WISH lady's voice (Chris Winter, I believe?) when the words "The Dark Knight Rises" perked up my ears.
She said that The Dark Knight Rises would be the first movie she's seen in the movie theater since 2004, when she watched Anchorman. I found that tidbit amusing. She also stated that Pittsburgh was getting ready for "the biggest movie of all time, or so they say."
The biggest movie of all time. That's a bold statement, especially arriving in a summer of blockbusters that include the unbridled success of The Avengers (important in its own way) and The Amazing Spider-Man (not nearly as important as I had hoped).
The biggest movie of all time. How did we get to this point, where a film about a comic book hero who dresses up as a bat could be considered one of, if not the, biggest movies of all time? I could give you an approximately important history of the comic book industry's penetration of the film media, but we don't really need that in a blog post that's already too long and not long enough. Instead I'll just talk a bit about the predecessor to TDKR that matters the most: The Dark Knight.
The Joker summed up the import of TDK best.
|"You've changed things... forever."|
I mean, everybody saw it. TDK was one of those rare cultural phenomenons where the person in a group who didn't see the movie was considered strange. You could strike up a conversation about that movie almost anywhere and get immediate feedback. Not only comic book fans saw it, but kids saw it, normally disinterested parents saw it, movie buffs saw it, nonregular moviegoers saw it, priests saw it, my Uncle Steve saw it, even soccer moms saw it. That movie hit every audience except MAYBE octogenarians.
|Sorry soccer moms. The only stadium featured in The Dark Knight Rises is American football.|
Heath Ledger knocked it out of the ballpark. He elevated the film from amazing to truly special, and for that he was posthumously awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. This award was both monumental and inevitable. The Dark Knight was the first comic book movie to receive any real attention from the Academy Awards. That's because it was arguably the first comic book film to transcend the medium. The Rotten Tomatoes blurb for TDK sums it up well:
"Dark, complex and unforgettable, The Dark Knight succeeds not just as an entertaining comic book film, but as a richly thrilling crime saga."
The key word there is "just", juxtaposed with the modifier "not".
Ledger's Oscar victory isn't the only thing that TDK changed for the Academy. The film, arguably, got snubbed. It didn't receive a Best Picture nomination. This caused something of an uproar, to the point that it actually forced the Academy to change a major rule that had been in place for decades. Thanks in large part to TDK, Best Picture nominations are no longer limited to five films--they can be anywhere from five to ten.
This movie had an impact. I have friends who have seen it upwards of ten times (probably including me). I have friends who have seen it once, casually, and enjoyed it. I have friends who watched it because everyone around them was watching it. I have friends who watched it to glean material for a sociological essay. I do not have friends who watched it for Maggie Gyllenhaal.
You can also see why people are seriously excited about this new film, to the point of proclaiming it The Biggest Movie of All Time. The sentiment has been especially prevalent here in Pittsburgh, the location for much of The Dark Knight Rises' filming. Every day for the past week or so, there have been newspaper features about the upcoming movie.
My parents have been pulling them to give to me, almost certainly thanks to my repeated, unsolicited conversations about the subject (in much the same way that, ever since I mentioned that I enjoy pumpkin pie years ago, my grandfather has been buying me pumpkin pie after pumpkin pie whenever I am home from school, the only difference being that I still like Batman). My mom handed me the feature for today, a write-up detailing the local locations you might be able to pick out in the film (Heinz Field and the like).
She said, "They're really going to town with this movie coverage. Don't you think it's a bit... excessive?"
I didn't respond, for fear that I might bite her head off, or at least a finger. But that opinion is shared by many, I'm sure. So which is it?
The Biggest Movie of All Time?
Or A Bit Excessive?
I want to look at both of these viewpoints, beginning with the latter. Now, there are two kinds of people who might espouse this viewpoint. The first are the people like my mother, the casual movie-watchers, who look at a crowd of rabid Bat-fans standing in line for hours for a midnight premiere, and can't help but think how insane/immature/misguided those people must be, to put so much of their lives into a silly comic book movie! Or worse: how misguided they must be to put so much of their lives into a silly movie.
These "It's a Bit Excessive" people only see movies as entertainment, and their mantra is "I don't get it."
The other party of people who find the coverage excessive are those who look down on the movies because, frankly, they feature a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime in the most improbable of fashions.
You'll often find these folks in academia.
There's a real sense of snobbishness/superiority/cultural elitism in academia. It's frustrating. I'm very pleased that I go to Haverford, a school that is undeniably academic but seems to feature much less elitism than a typical Ivy League school. Still, there are incidents. Like the time I had to keep myself from drop-kicking a peer for proclaiming that "Stephen King has never written anything worth reading."
I have a hard time with both of these viewpoints. In regards to the "just a movie" bit, well, I'm an English major and an aspiring writer. In calling TDKR "just a movie", you are devalidating everything that I hold dear.
Fanboyism is fascinating. It's complex. It's childishly simple. It's ridiculous. But it is NOT stupid. The fact that these people can dedicate themselves to an intellectual, artistic, fictional properly with such vigor is a testament to the power of narrative. It's not a delusion or an unhealthy obsession (although it can be). It's a way to experience life. Movies, books, video games, whatever, can mean the world to people. They can change people's lives, how they view the world. They can give them what they need to press on in life. They can reveal truths, cultivate emotions. This is what I plan on dedicating my life to pursue, so don't dismiss anything as "just a movie". Certain movies have added a richness to my life that I would not have achieved otherwise. This is why the Humanities exist.
Now, those elitists who study the Humanities... These are the people who would never speak a word against literature or the great classics, and might even allow themselves to appreciate some classic films. But don't you dare call a blockbuster like The Dark Knight "art", and don't even think about using the words "art" and "graphic novel" or "video game" or "popular novelist" in the same sentence.
Art may be what I've dedicated my life to, but rallying against this elitist sentiment is what I've dedicated much of my academic career to. I'm not going to feed you an argument like "If I like something, you can't tell me it's not good." I won't argue that because I don't believe it one bit. Thoughtful critics can make measured, quasi-objective comments about the quality of a movie, judgments not based on personal opinion. For example, tons of people love Twilight and Adam Sandler. But come on. They are bad.
|Twilight + Adam Sandler|
You know people used to think novels the lowest form of art? Or not art at all. The same has been said about poetry at various times. The inception of film met a lot of resistance. People thought it unhealthy, unartistic, evil. Those sentiments have mostly been done away with by now. People thought the same about television, they thought it caused stupidity, violence, and unculturedness. Now, it's hard for anyone to speak against the artistic integrity of The Wire. Graphic novels and video games are currently facing the same prejudices, those prejudices that seem to disappear with the palette change of a generation swap or two.
I would love to talk to you about this if you disagree, but I find that Sandman, Watchmen, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Dark Knight are undeniably artistic endeavors, just as the genres of Sci-fi, Fantasy, and Horror are not inherently less sophisticated than the "classics". I have written seriously about the aforementioned works in academic essays (except The Dark Knight--I only conversed with a friend about their essay). They are fertile ground for criticism and analysis. They are what I love (although yes, I really appreciate many of the "classics" as well). They are art.
Sorry to mount the pedestal, but that topic is very important to me. The ample coverage and excitement over The Dark Knight Rises is not A Bit Excessive.
But is it the Biggest Movie of All Time?
Well, I don't know. But now I want to tackle a topic that is equally as important as the last, but harder for me to talk about. Specifically, the dark side of fanboyism.
I know your finger is probably cramped from scrolling down by now, but I want you to read this article.
That is an article written by Film Critic Hulk, who is absolutely brilliant. No hyperbole. If you take some time to really look at that link, you'll see. I won't say it's his best work, and I don't quite agree with all of it, but it's really important to this blog post. Without it, I probably wouldn't have written this in the first place.
See, I've been perusing Film Critic Hulk's articles for a couple of weeks (articles that an elitist might dismiss because of the persona he chooses to adopt, which is a shame because the Film Critic Hulk probably has better insights than the elitist despite, or perhaps with the help of, his amusing persona), and they've caused a lot of self-reflection.
For those who don't want to read all of the admittedly long article, I'll pluck a few of the key points, although my generalizations of his argument will be far less subtle.
Hulk's fundamental question here is, Why do people love Batman so much? Sure, he's exudes coolness, and he provides readers with an indulgent fantasy. Who wouldn't want to be a badass superhero who has incredible technology, detective skills, and innovation in tough situations? These are some of the fundamental draws of any superhero mythology (perhaps going all the way back to the Greek gods?). But there is something about Batman that's just... different.
It can be summed up by the phrase: I'm the goddamn Batman.
I don't remember where I first saw the above comic, but I actually hate it. I see the humor in it, sure. But this is also, I think, exactly what Hulk means when he talks about the wish fulfillment/dangerous entitlement inherent in the character. There's something disturbing about the idea that we would willfully give a man this much power, just because he's so damned cool. This is a topic that Nolan's movies seriously and maturely tackle, but the Bat-fans seem to forget about that. When people aren't careful, Batman isn't given proper depth, and his character is reduced to that simple, dangerous phrase: "I'm the goddamn Batman."
But even when his character is treated maturely, the dark side of fanboyism can rear its ugly cowl. Batman's fans put him on a pedestal. He's just somehow different and better than other superheroes, and his fans are more dedicated/forceful/rabid. The superhero persona is beyond human, but it's almost as if Batman's persona has gone beyond superhero. For example, try to tell people that Superman would beat Batman in a fight--a totally reasonable supposition, as Superman is invincible and ridiculously superpowered. However, you will meet strong opposition. They'll say Batman will win, for one simple reason: He always wins.
|He's the goddamn Batman.|
That's Film Critic Hulk's real point. He loves The Dark Knight and everything, just like everyone else. But he doesn't let that blind him. That's why he's such a good critic. He'll heap praise upon movies like The Avengers or The Dark Knight, but only when they deserve it. He's not above praising something that other critics would look down upon, nor does he sink to the levels of uncritical fanboyism. He is able to call into question the elements of Batman's character (coolness, wish fulfillment) that everyone latches onto, and he is able to critique what he calls a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Batman's character, a contradiction centered around the fact that he really does dress up like a bat and assault thugs at night.
Let me give you an example of the dangers of this unique Batman brand of fanboyism.
That's an article from the website Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregate site that I mentioned earlier. You don't have to read that one, although it is interesting. Basically, it's an article written by a member of the Rotten Tomatoes team about what has been going on with user commentary on the Batman reviews. This same sort of thing happened years ago for The Dark Knight, by the way.
In a nutshell, the reviews for The Dark Knight Rises have, so far, been very positive. Opinion seems to be split as to whether this movie or its predecessor is the better one, which is a good sign in my opinion. However, commenters on Rotten Tomatoes have been laying siege to the few bad reviews that have trickled in so far. One critic in particular had the misfortune of posting an unfavorable review to Rotten Tomatoes, only to have his website flooded with traffic from angry commenters, many of them not even reading the review before spewing their vitriol, to the point that his website crashed from all the negative traffic. Rotten Tomatoes has had to disable commenting on the reviews temporarily, to stem this ridiculous backlash from fans who haven't even seen the movie yet. Remember, it comes out tomorrow.
|I would show you a screenshot from TDKR page, but remember, comments are disabled there.|
Fanboyism can be liberating, but it can also be crippling. You know the scariest part about this? When the first couple of splat reviews eked their way into the Rotten Tomatoes database, I was annoyed. Even a little angry. My first impulse was to pore over those reviews to find the flaws, and maybe even leave comments about it. I disliked those critics automatically.
Until I remembered Hulk's article, and read that piece by the Rotten Tomatoes editor. And I recalled that I had a similar reaction to Hulk's article when I first read it: a reaction of indignation. That is, until I kept reading the article, and Hulk said so many smart and insightful things that I realized, hey, he's right about a lot of that. This can really be a problem.
I've been thinking about why I am so passionate about Batman for the past couple of days, and that's important. We should always be self-reflective about our passions and our idols and our inspirations. But the real question I'm asking is about fanboyism, and I don't really have an answer.
See, I'm in the unenviable position of simultaneously wanting to defend fanboyism and wanting to critique it. I have done both in this post. Because fanboyism can be cruel. But it can also be cool.
|My sense of coolness is suspect.|
I guess there's a middle road between willfully blind denial of "lesser things" and accidentally blind following of "greater things".
Batman is still important to me. These films are still important for a lot of people. I'm still undeniably excited for the premiere tomorrow. I mean, cripes, I'm streaming TDKR soundtrack as we speak. Er, type. I'll experience it as a fan, but I'll also try to experience it as a critical human being as well. I'll have a blast watching it, then I'll think about it, and I'll try to be fair, neither giving it a free pass as a superfan, nor shrugging it off as popcorn fun just because that's what the academics say you're supposed to do with a summer blockbuster. Just like how I enjoyed watching The Amazing Spider-Man, yet admit the movie has tons of problems.
If someone tells me these Batman movies are good, but not their favorites, I won't call them tasteless. If someone tells me these movies are good, but not as good as that Batman movie with George Clooney, I probably will call them tasteless.
|I mean, come on.|
This movie is going to be big. I don't think artistic integrity and summer popcorn blockbuster sensibility have ever combined so effectively. But we'll see. I can't wait. If you want to know how it was, ask me Friday.
But first I have to go clean the house.
|I couldn't help myself.|