Throwing Down


It’s time, I’m afraid, to let loose the dogs of apocalyptic cultural complaint, this time upon the throat of The Dark Knight, which I was coerced into finally seeing despite my official moratorium on voluntarily watching superhero movies, or any film in which someone puts on a mask or has "special powers," the latter of which is all by itself a dead giveaway, as a narrative device, to the film-culture mess we find ourselves in. Superheroes are, essentially by definition, idiotic confections intended for children, and the fact that I can’t escape them as an adult so far this millennium makes my blood boil. I did my time as a kid loving X-Men and Spider-Man and The Avengers and Jack Kirby specials (and E.C. reprints and even Warren mags like Creepy and Eerie), and heaven knows I do not begrudge the American early-adolescent his or her time in the shade with comic books, or their afternoons in matinees watching Batman or Iron Man or whatever. But it’s gotten to the point that superheroes comprise the substantial percentage of movie options we have now, in one form or another, and to avoid them as a grown-up you’d have to avoid cinema. What’s more, adults are flocking, adults reviewers are treating the movies seriously, the filmmakers themselves apparently believe they’re making coherent and profound statements. Meanwhile, the digital whooshing and ultrasurroundsound noise are getting so assaultive it seems we’re not that far away from a movie somehow reaching out during an action scene and just hitting you in the head with three-pound piece of flying shrapnel, just to "make you feel" the chaos.

But that’s my beef in general; The Dark Knight epitomizes the problem specifically not by simply being a Caped Crusader trifle masquerading as Paradise Lost, but because it failed to do the simplest things movies have always done: tell a fucking story. The film is quite literally one violent set-piece followed by a 20-second snatch of exposition, to explain what significance the set-piece is supposed to have, repeated again and again and again, for over 2.5 interminable hours. Stories require character and incidents that happen to those characters and decisions those characters have to make, and us watching them make those decisions, and then the tragic/triumphant/ironic result of those decisions. The Dark Knight runs along literally like a series of disconnected cabaret acts, with what passes for narrative happening off-screen most of the time, and the ample screentime remaining filled up with chases and fights so haphazardly shot and cut you can’t tell where anybody is or what’s going on. We hardly see Bruce Wayne, the Joker (yes, Heath Ledger was fascinating) has no backstory or motivation, plot holes loomed like event horizons (sure, you evacuated that hospital), dialogue scenes never lasted more than a few seconds – in other words, anything that might substantiate the film as dramatic material fit for adults was almost completely elided. I’ll tell you the two moments I appreciated, both missable in the melee: Christian Bale’s dry, almost imperceptible chuckle at Michael Caine’s I-told-you-so mini-punchline as they walked away from the camera, and the way the hulking gangbanging convict played by Tommy Lister went back to his seat after tossing the detonator overboard, brooding over perhaps having sealed his own death by doing the right thing. You can see why: these tiny instances involved humans, reacting and revealing their history. That’s about it for the whole film.

We wouldn’t be having this conversation if the audience were only kids, however large that audience might be. Somehow the entirety of American culture, young and middle-yeared and old, is embracing the childish universe of superheroes – which is structured around the easily-distracted worldview of kids, not around the reasoned, complex worldview we would hope children would grow into. Does America need that badly a post-post-9/11 big Daddy to vanquish danger so we can slumber in our cradles? The much-lamented infantilization of the mass populace continues, and at what cost? How much public effort and energy and time is spent consuming this attenuated nonsense – watching it, watching PR stuff about it, ‘Net-surfing for it, blogging about it, texting about it, pursuing gossip about it, rewatching it, YouTubing it, ad infinitum – and not attending instead to a government that eats tax monies like a Moloch and kills people by the thousands? Movies can be art, and can connect us with human verities and empathies and experiences that might help us deal with the real world. That’s what stories have always been for. But instead we’re using film as the walls of a bubble we’re constructing around ourselves like the disturbed children of abusive parents. Old Hollywood movies have always had their fair share of bullshit, but they were about people, always (or until Star Wars). Not anymore.


 

 

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  • 7/27/2008 11:53 PM harman wrote:
    I liked the special effects and the choreography in the film, but I have the same complaints as you from the film.

    This was a tight film, impressive in its visuals, but ultimately an infantile one.
    Reply to this
  • 7/28/2008 1:00 PM Joel Reed wrote:
    Agree on almost every point. But excuse me while I jump on the Ledger bandwagon. It really was a one of a kind performance that more than lived up to the hype. Watching him, I kept thinking of how, as a kid, I'd turn over a rock, see some unidentifiable bug and say -- "what the hell is that?" His complete immersion into insanity -- an unleashed virus that's taken on human form and consciousness -- made up for the films many failings. But, yes, it's more than just the hyper earthquake sound track, dreadful cartoon balloon line readings and fight scenes with no sense of time or space that indict the film. You're dead on in your lament about the culture at large, and I fear that it's only going to get worse as sharing and talking about fart jokes, car crashes, and vicious head whacks over the internet seems to be entertainments future. Thank God for TCM.
    Reply to this
  • 7/28/2008 9:20 PM Lev Raphael wrote:
    As a writer, I've been growing less and less fond of these movies. They're basically interchangeable, much of a muchness, and Dark Knight hasn't even sounded like it's worth renting or watching on cable when it's out (and that's my guess based on the rave reviews). I'm glad to hear someone protest against films like this being treated by critics as if they're works of genius, or deep commentaries about our time, or anything more than what they are: comics, throwaways no matter how many millions they cost to make or how much they gross.
    Reply to this
  • 7/28/2008 9:21 PM Rob Gibbs wrote:
    Look, I don't want to be one of the psychotic raging fanboys who have been indiscriminately flaming every negative review of this movie, but you appear to have staked out pretty much the polar opposite end of that particular spectrum as you announce an arbitrary hatred for movies about superheroes. Digging in your heels and refusing to enjoy any movie about a superhero suggests that all of them are the same, but as with any genre there are good superhero movies and there are bad ones. Your blanket prejudice against all superhero movies is as absurd as saying you all cop movies are stupid little boys fantasies, lumping The French Connection in with Tango and Cash. Summer blockbusters have always drawn in mass audiences young and old, they have always had at their hearts somewhat childish elements, but there have also always been films among the popcorn movies that have tried to be something more and which critics have responded to positively. These things are cyclical, after Star Wars sci-fi was the Summer Movie genre of choice, but within the genre there was a wide range of variations on a theme and a range in quality of films. Right now Superhero movies are the popcorn film of choice, but your assertion that any superhero movie is by definition stupid and juvenile and you overwrought outrage at the suggestion that a superhero film even could be thoughtful and interesting makes you seem like a closed minded pretentious jerk. You ignore the fact that in this summer alone there has been a huge variation in films about superheroes, and if you went to see The Dark Knight, Hellboy II, and Iron Man and felt like they were all the same kind of movie for the same audience I would have to question your judgment and fitness to be a critic. Now it's true that after you get done bitching about the fact of comic book movies and their popularity you do finally get down to talking about The Dark Knight, but by the time you get there you have so thoroughly established yourself as unwilling to give the movie a fair shot that your opinions about the film just aren't particularly credible.
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  • 7/28/2008 11:47 PM Mitch DeVillier wrote:
    I had this exact discussion with a friend who says I'm being silly and that 'the comics' are used as the basis for films the same reason top law firms hires the guy who wrote for law review: Ball-less executives. To wit: If the young lawyer fails the hiring partner can always say. "How was I to know, he seemed to be so promising." And if a comic book movie fails the studio vp can say "How was I to know, _______ seemed to have such a huge following."
    Reply to this
  • 7/29/2008 3:15 AM Staggolee wrote:
    The cinematic merits and failings of The Dark Knight have been exhaustively debated elsewhere, so I won’t raise those issues here. However, I am puzzled by your belief that the superhero genre is dominating the movie marketplace to the point that “superheroes comprise the substantial percentage of movie options we have now, in one form or another, and to avoid them as a grown-up you’d have to avoid cinema.”

    Over two hundred films have been (or will be) released in the U.S. between January and July 2008. Of these, only six are superhero movies (Superhero Movie, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hancock, Hellboy II, and The Dark Knight.) Given the remaining options, (not to mention Netflix) it seems to me that anyone who dislikes the superhero genre can easily avoid it and still enjoy ample access to cinema.

    You also seem to believe that Americans who enjoy superhero movies are incapable of attending to more serious matters as well. I would be willing to bet that most engaged, active Americans who are deeply concerned with “a government that eats tax monies like a Moloch and kills people by the thousands,” occasionally engage in frivolous pursuits like watching The Dark Knight or blogging about film criticism without compromising their social activism.
    Reply to this
  • 7/29/2008 7:01 AM Mike Grost wrote:
    Is the entire superhero genre to blame, for current bad Hollywood movies? There have been many thousands of superhero stories in comic books, good, bad and indifferent. Please take "Superman Under the Green Sun" (Superman #155, August 1962), written by Bill Finger. Superman loses his powers, and is incarcerated in a slave labor camp on a planet run by a Hitler-lookalike dictator. It is an important pre-MAUS look at the Holocaust - and the parallels were explicitly set forth in the letters column three issues later. This was a thoughtful, morally and politically serious look at human history.
    Aren't you blaming a genre - for the depredations of the badness of current Hollywood?
    Reply to this
  • 7/29/2008 3:46 PM Sandy wrote:
    Sometimes a well-reviewed, well-received movie is just a good movie. Sometimes, no matter how much you want to hate it, your reasons might be just plain wrong. I have my complains too, mostly revolving around Christian Bale's ridiculous growl when suited up, but it stands as a good movie. It's not really for kids, but I don't think it caters to adults searching for a "a post-post-9/11 big Daddy." If you said the same thing about Iron Man, I'd buy it; Iron Man is a straightforward, fun type of superhero action flick. But Bruce Wayne and Batman are severely flawed, and the characterization explores the duality and ambiguity of morality. Not only is it not always easy to do the right thing, it's not even always easy to see what that thing is. If you want to draw a comparison between the Joker and terrorists, then so be it, though I think that's oversimplification. Terrorists admittedly have motives, though they may be foreign to us. The Joker identifies himself as an agent of chaos, though, and he only sees himself as a fly in society's ointment. He is indiscriminate in his attacks, and as evidenced in his early claim ("I'm NOT crazy," muttered more to himself than anyone), he probably derives markedly less joy in his own actions than anyone would expect. He's compulsive. And at the end of the film, he's still alive. Wouldn't a straightforward, savior type of superhero (and remember, Batman doesn't have powers, he has skill and gadgets) have killed him? As much as he is repulsed by the Joker, the Batman shares his view that they are two sides to the same coin, and that one cannot exist without the other. He feels a kinship that fills him with disgust. So the Joker lives to kill another cop, blow up another hospital, set another D.A. on fire. Was it all worth it? That's the greatest ambiguity of the film, and one we have to answer ourselves. The bad guys don't win, but neither do the good guys; just like in life.
    Reply to this
  • 7/29/2008 6:11 PM Krazy Kat wrote:
    Great observations. I didn't have a problem with the Joker having no backstory as Ledger was so fascinating to watch. He was the best part of this movie. The bad guy can definitely be more fascinating that the hero, and here with a flat Christian Bale (who is great in other things) the bad guy just is so much more interesting. I get the feeling Bale feels like he's slumming as Batman, but if you agree to do a film, you have to imbue the character with something other than a voice change when you're wearing the suit. I feel bad saying that because I think he's a great actor, and the script was lacking, as you said, so that was another problem.
    Reply to this
  • 7/30/2008 5:09 AM Graham wrote:
    Aww, this is adorable! Grumpy old man doesn't like what the kids are into these days. Or the adults! And we should listen to him. Because he's a grown-up, which those of us who like Batman aren't, no matter how old we are.

    Thanks Mike. I realize now I was wrong. I'll go watch your beloved Major Dundee now, which everyone knows was a masterpiece of character development narrative coherence.
    Reply to this
  • 7/30/2008 12:00 PM Pamela Martinez wrote:
    I totally agree with you. Applauses.
    We are indeed becoming more idiotic by the day.
    sigh
    Reply to this
  • 7/30/2008 3:03 PM james keepnews wrote:
    splat! oooof! you fanboys protest too much, up to and including mr. a (shoutout to you steve ditko objectivists), boyfan of aesthetically challenging cinema.

    first of all, many commenters are conflating "superhero" with "comic book", understandable as marvel and dc have trademarked the word "superhero" (one of countless examples: http://tinyurl.com/ov7z8). mike is also discussing films available now, not in the entirety of the first seven months of 2008. a glance at the local multiplex listings near me show not just dark knight, iron man, hellboy II, the incredible hulk (mike, can you do a separate throwdown on unnecessary re-makes well before their time (read: never), and why edward norton is in all of them?), but hancock, wanted, i'd even include kung fu panda, which seems to follow the same narrative logic. that seems to me to be a "substantial percentage", alright.

    mike grost's offering of a bill finger superman comic book script from the early '60s as proof of the worthiness of the superhero genre suggests, to me, that he needs to spend a little more time under the yellow sun. a jim shooter legion of super-heroes script that takes place on a prison planet could also be cast as a trenchant critique of the prison-industrial complex, but i suspect angela davis would have her doubts, as, say, daniel goldhagen (or, dear g-d, art speigelman!) would undoubtedly where "Superman Under the Green Sun" is concerned. even assuming the very best from one of the goofiest periods in dc comics, if (self-conscious) moral seriousness were equal to great art, we'd be seeing many more stanley kramer retrospectives.

    likewise, mr. gibbs suggestion that mike's aversion towards superhero film makes him a "closed minded (sic) pretentious jerk" surely cuts both ways. newsflash: the manner in which one articulates a viewpoint in essay form is not necessarily the manner and/or order in which the essayist arrived at that viewpoint. more likely, mike came to his conclusions in his first paragraph in part because of the experiences in the second -- just because you assume he arrived to the dark knight with his prejudices fully-formed and didn't give the films fair shake accordingly, is rather close-minded of yourself. say what you want about this year's slate of übermenchen -- ain't none of them satantango.

    with all of that said...man, i really did love hellboy II, though my high school age nephews found it pretty sappy. del toro is a definite auteur, and able to make the most hoary narrative gambits rich, strange, funny and tragic, with a visual sense for such fantasy paralleled only by peter jackson, who undoubtedly saw a kindred spirit when he lateraled del toro the hobbit.

    i look forward to seeing del toro's the hobbit. i do not look forward to seeing aronofsky's robocop, especially if edward norton stars in it. jack kirby is g-d. i am almost out of characters...
    Reply to this
  • 8/6/2008 5:16 AM Weicher wrote:
    It's really amazing how so-called "intellectuals" grow from the dust like rats to trash mainstream films, even as good as this one.

    Could I say that this film IS about characters and provides the audience with some interesting dilemmas that (i) no other blockbuster film has provided in the past, and (ii) could be impossible to send if there wasn't any kind of empathy between the narrative and the audience? Hence the success of the film.

    Despite of that, this guy considers all "superhero" films as "idiotic" (which is nothing else than a prejudice) and laments on society: "Oh, shit... why isn't the people as educated and bright as me?": sorry. For me, this is bullshit.

    Superhero films is as valid as a genre as any other: westerns, for example. I wonder what would this guy say about, for example, "The searchers"... No, no, this is a film about characters... well, I think The dark knight is, too. Sadly, Nolan's style is not even appraised by this "review"... and that means something: you'd better get used to the times, man. We're talking about an instant classic, whether you like it or not.
    Reply to this
    1. 8/11/2008 1:42 AM John M wrote:
      "You'd better get used to the times, man. We're talking about an instant classic, whether you like it or not"?

      Wha?

      Looks like one fanboy's taken the film's Machiavellian bent to heart. Jesus, cool your jets, bucko. Lower the brass knuckles.

      I have to agree with Atkinson--and, ahem, a good deal of other critics--that the film is a lousy piece of storytelling. With the churning, bland scoring, and constant cutaways from any moments of dramatic interest, the blurs of needlessly harsh violence, it just feels like 75 trailers slammed together.

      And Nolan's action set pieces aren't terribly distinctive. He's got some kind of eye for darkness, but nothing in the movie MOVES--it just EXPLODES, over and over and over.

      And I wanted to like the movie. Honest.

      The overpraise was infectious.
      Reply to this
  • 8/12/2008 12:44 PM Katie Chico wrote:
    You are writing a review as though you has no film theory background and yet you've published. And what's worse is that he is writing the comic angle from memories or depictions of kids reading in the shade and not necessarily from the body of knowledge that encompasses its theory. If you’re going to bash something with this rhetoric, know your stuff. Instead of complaining because you can't get over the fact that film in history have always been spectacle for the greater societal needs and to say that we don't need a post-post 9/11 hero is one who clearly has been watching fox news and paying too much attention to the Edwards scandal as Russia and Georgia declare war. I think a lot of it comes from the way comics are structured in general. In comics there are things called gutters and essentially they are the black lines between frames. What this results in is the reader having to make those connections. Now, not all comic writers had this going on in there work for example Frank Miller does not however, Allen Moore did. And Allen Moore was required reading for this movie as his depiction of the Joker is the most accepted for Batman cannon. The missing plot lines you speak of really are these gutters. Comics are not supposed to lay everything out for you like films, in some ways its for a smarter audience. And I can understand the frustration in trying to adapt and suspend an audience to this way of "reading". This is also where I get irritated with someone who talks about kids reading books in the shade and really understanding the function of such "reading". Its like taking a silent film and remaking it with sound and not realizing that the over dramatic expressions were a function of the medium calling it cheesy what not. I also think people don't like the underlying intentions of the film either. They are very subtle but at the same time hit home pretty hard. I don't think people like the idea that there are people out there "who just want to watch the world burn" and don't have a background that we know about and don't have any alias to speak of. We laugh in this film at some of the most horrific parts because we don't know what else to do. I think that is where the post post 9/11 thing really hits home. Why would anyone want to destroy the "rules" we have set up? The other problem is you might like the character of the joker on paper or film, but you don't even understand him. Hence your statement: "The Dark Knight runs along literally like a series of disconnected cabaret acts, with what passes for narrative happening off-screen most of the time, and the ample screen time remaining filled up with chases and fights so haphazardly shot and cut you can’t tell where anybody is or what’s going on." If you really got the character you would know this is the Joker embodied in a media form which is also commentary on our world in general. Sorry if you just don't get the high art kid. We'll just bring back Adam West for you. *POW*
    Reply to this
  • 8/26/2008 8:24 AM Nicholas Sheffo wrote:
    Boy, did you miss the point of these films:

    http://www.fulvuedrive-in.com/review/7386/The+Dark+Knights'+Returns
    Reply to this
    1. 8/26/2008 5:03 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:

      Can't say I did, or that you proved so.
      Reply to this
  • 8/26/2008 2:58 PM Josh wrote:
    I can identify childish, psuedo-intellectualism when I read it, and this article reeks of it more than any banal super-hero movie I've ever seen.
    Reply to this
  • 8/26/2008 4:32 PM Jack Jarvis wrote:
    You know, it really disturbs me whenever I see people that are like some of you, mainly the original poster.
    Why does every film have to be intelligent? Why does every film have to "go deeper"? Why does every film have to be all artsy? I just don't understand why a film can't be for anything more than enjoyment.
    Reply to this
    1. 8/26/2008 5:04 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:

      That just about says it all.
      Reply to this
  • 8/30/2008 6:43 PM Zxcvb wrote:
    Michael,

    I absolutely agree with your frustrations, but I also feel like TDK is more of a (benign) symptom than part of the disease itself. For example, I found the Joker's lack of back story surprisingly complex (avoiding the usual shallow psychological explanations Hollywood loves to inflict on its characters). Also, since when is a film's purpose always to "tell a story"? TDK worked (most of the time) for me precisely because it wasn't concerned with plot points, but tone, imagery, and an evocative score.

    No, what's sad is that American mainstream culture has been dumbed down to the point where TDK is considered great art (rather than the occasionally interesting entertainment that it is). Cinema has room for a Dark Knight or two...just not thirty other (sub-par) superhero knockoffs.
    Reply to this
  • 11/3/2008 12:33 PM Matt Sigl wrote:
    That fact that so many critics swooned over this film perplexed me. I think the worst thing about The Dark Knight is not only that it is as infantile and silly as most other comic book movies, I can and do enjoy infantile and silly movies; it's The Dark Knights pretensions of seriousness and import that really rankle. Now every young man with a case of permanent-adolescence-disorder thinks they have seen a "serious" "challenging" movie that makes no compromises. Puh-lease. The story is incoherent, the action sequences a noisy blur and the thematic through-line muddled. The Dark Knight's ending even had a neo-conservative odor that most fanboys accepted all too blindly. At least Tim Burton knew that comic book movies should be fun first and foremost. To take them "seriously" (in the most literal, lugubrious meaning of the term) is to only emphasize the ideas essential silliness.
    Reply to this
    1. 11/3/2008 3:40 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:
      Skol!
      Reply to this

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