Why so serious indeed?
If ever a tagline was perfectly suited to a film (and the critical/audience adoration of it) it would have to be this three word gem created by a marketing superhero for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, the film that currently sits at #1 on the IMDB Top 250 films of all time, and has been proven to cure cancer, put an end to all wars, and solve erectile dysfunction.
As with most long-underwear films (why must superheroes wear tights?), it's not uncommon for the legion of fanboys (and girls) to take it as a personal affront when confronted with a dissenting opinion. However, if you consider the emotional and financial investment given to comic books, figurines and other items related to the mythology, it's not terribly surprising that anyone daring to criticize the celluloid representation of their idol is treated like a heretic.
Yet with The Dark Knight, the seething anger and raging bile that's been ejaculated on dozens (if not hundreds) of pages of comments all over the Interweb far exceeds the typical zealotry. Nolan's film is stirring up reactions and emotions that I've heretofore never encountered, and I've spent the past few days trying to figure out why.
First, a confession. I saw The Dark Knight, and, well, I had a grand time. Compared to other summer blockbusters I suffered through (Indiana Jones and the Zzzz..., Iron Man) Nolan's film more than adequately delivered what I want from a Hollywood mega-production. Well written (though painfully overearnest), gorgeous to look at (some of the IMAX sequences were stunning), genuine suspense, and top-notch performances from (nearly) all. Doubly impressive when you consider that it's the single-most marketed masscult object of the year. I just refuse to take it as seriously as Nolan would like me to.
That's not to say I didn't have problems with it. [Note: potential spoilers follow.] The kill-or-be-killed conundrum of the third act was vastly overdone, and the kind of scenario you'd expect to find on an Introduction to Ethics final exam. Yet rather than truly explore the idea (such as Fukasaku did in Battle Royale), Nolan uses it as a cheap (and unnecessary) narrative device to illustrate the already obvious dichotomy between Batman and The Joker's respective world views, while at the same time exposing the audience's prejudice with a haughty condescension that is a more than a tad unbearable. (Thank you, Professor Nolan, for teaching me that large, black male convicts can be human after all. I never would have imagined...)
That the entire film is painted in such broad strokes is its greatest offense, and this may be the root cause of the war that's being waged online. As co-screenwriters, brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have filled their screenplay with basic philosophical/ethical/moral struggles that will hardly come as a revelation to anybody who has ever picked up a work by Hobbes, Sartre, Nietzsche, or Kant, or knows a thing or two about deontological ethics. Chaos/order, chance/fate, free will/determinism, the rule of law and the rejection of reason — these are but a few of the themes that the brothers touch upon in discourse-heavy scenes that clearly have had an impact on impressionable minds. (Not since The Matrix has a populist work tried this hard to convey "deep thoughts." I wonder if Zizek will write a book about this one as well.)
In his pan of the film, Armond White opens with the line, "Every generation has a right to its own Batman." Though he hated the film's "hip, nihilistic tendencies," I think this is precisely why the film has stuck so deep a chord with so many, for The Dark Knight addresses the zeitgeist of our post-9/11 world, but does so without the annoying complexity of real-world issues. There's no ideology, or clash of cultures/religion at play here — the Joker is unquestionably a terrorist and Batman unquestionably good, even though he occasionally employs methods that are ethically/legally questionable. (Sound familiar?) What the film does do well is capture this new age of anxiety in which we live, and its nihilism is perfectly suited to these dark times. With a senseless war being fought overseas, an imaginary war on terror at home, and a collapsing economy to boot, people seem to be taking comfort in the film, and, judging by some of the comments I've read, its effect has been outright cathartic. How else to explain such vitriol when faced with a negative review?
There's been much debate over the film's politics, and both sides of the spectrum have claimed Batman as one of their own. (Andrew Klavan's Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal comparing Batman to Bush is particularly pathetic.) I haven't spent much time thinking about its political bent (nor do I care to), but on the surface it appears, like most Hollywood films these days, to play it extremely safe, ensuring that neither side is offended. Batman violates civil liberties, but only to fight evil, but then destroys it blah blah blah. Yawn. Imagine if people spent half as much time thinking about gross political violations occurring in the real world...
Critics who refused to swallow the red pill have been treated as enemy combatants. About.com's Jürgen Fauth and The House Next Door's Keith Uhlich (both friends, I should add) are two such critics. Neither of their reviews was intended to provoke, nor were they playing the contrarian — they simply didn't like the film. As of this writing there are 938 comments in response to these reviews. (Both at their sites as well as their links on Rotten Tomatoes.) Some go no deeper than Fag!; some are actually amusing - Keep your head in Little Women and Suffrage texts you pansy, but others are downright ugly. On Rotten Tomatoes, someone felt it would be beneficial to post as many personal details about Jürgen that they could find, while another likened his crime to Joan of Arc's:
This guy is a terd [sic], let him rot. Lets [sic] burn him at the stake!
The comments left for Keith are even more vile, particularly this one, which the author later claimed was written while channeling his inner Joker. Yikes. (All [sic]):
You know, some people have been so enraged by your little opinion piece that they want you to kill yourself. Please DON'T!!! You know why, because I am going to have so much fun killing you myself! I promise, it WON'T be painless. I am going to carve a smile in your face. And then I am going to carve you stomach. And you know why? Because i just want my phone call. You're my bitch now! I am going to track you down through your IP address and then I am going to f@#%!%* kill you!!!
Oh the humanity! Perhaps the Joker is right and that, given the slightest push, we one day truly will destroy ourselves.
As I said, I believe this to be more than a merely a case of "when fanboys attack". The Dark Knight has become a religion, an opiate, and an ethos. It's Thus Spoke Zarathustra for the post-literate set. (Ouch...now who's guilty of haughty condescension?)