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Gotham's Most Wanted

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Sunday, Jul 20, 2008

They are not supervillians. They are not some cartoon-clad combatants looking to make the life of the Caped Crusader a living graphic novel Hell. They don’t hold the fate of the world in their hands - as a matter of fact, within their chosen profession, many believe they barely matter in the marketplace of ideas. When you’ve got a messageboard community that senses they set the benchmark for all movie discussion, what does a mere cadre of critics have to offer? That’s right, Gotham’s Most Wanted is not a clown faced murderer, a fire-scarred ex-DA, a burlap masked pharmaceutical loon, or a disgruntled world criminal. No, it turns out that Batman’s biggest enemy - and by indirect linkage, the biggest bane of fanboy existence - are the 12 journalists (and holding) who gave The Dark Knight a bad review.


Now, there is nothing wrong with voicing one’s opinion. By its very nature, film criticism is a contrite exercise in singular self-expression. Sure, we reviewers try to measure the medium against its past while taking the demographic and intended market motivations into consideration. And when you think about (if you think about it), Peter Travers or Roger Ebert aren’t really putting all of cinema into perspective. They are giving you a glorified judgment call on how they spent 90 to 150 minutes in a darkened theater. Thumbs up? Thumbs down. Sometimes, the experience is wonderful. On rare occasions, it’s a test of one’s personal tolerances. But for the most part, movie journalism is a journey into sustained mediocrity, either end of the decision spectrum being the true rarity. 


It shouldn’t be a surprise that the current meter rating for The Dark Knight over at Rotten Tomatoes.com sits at 94%. Out of 198 recorded articles, 186 have given the film a positive or “fresh” evaluation. The other 12 are listed as “rotten”, though how many of that dozen could actually be considered an outright dismissal of the movie is up for question. What’s even more amazing, between these dissenting voices, there are almost 2600 angry comments attached to their work (2538 as of 20 July). Like many websites, RT uses the ability to interact (a sham delineation - more on this in a moment) to drive hits and stimulate page views. The concept goes a little something like this: disgruntled/happy reader lets critic/bastard know how right/wrong he or she is, then visits repeatedly to see if anyone agrees/disagrees and if, miracle of miracles, the subject decided to talk back.


Now, the notion of interactivity has always been the ‘Net’s biggest carnival bark, a fallacy articulation that doesn’t really mean what the blinders drawn believers feel it does. For them, the sound of their own voice is apparently communication enough. Comments do not foster a conversation, since for the most part, they are declarative or assertive in nature. Picture it this way - you and your best friend are hanging out, having a few beers, when the subject of Salma Hayek comes up. You believe she’s hot. Your pal thinks otherwise. The WWW version of the dialogue would go a little something like this:


“Salma Hayek is HOT!”


“Salma Hayek is NOT HOT”


“SALMA HAYEK IS TOO HOT, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) (Various Emoticons)”


“(EXPLETIVE DELETED) YOU (EXPLETIVE DELETED) (Various Emoticons)”


Not really the Algonquin Round Table when you think about it. Of course, within the context of said exchange, a great deal of spoken subtext and interpersonal reaction is missing. A one or two sentence statement at the end of a review is not really a tête-à-tête, and should never be thought of as same. It’s more like the chant at a soccer match, or the applause/razzberries at a live performance. Aside from the self-aggrandizing element (most comments are more about the person than the piece they’re challenging), these exchanges are reminiscent of Monty Python’s Argument Clinic - the automatic nay-saying of anything the other side has to say.


Proof of this arrives when you look at the Dark Knight consensus. The 12 negative reviews have an average of 211 replies each. The lowest has 77. The highest taps out at 365. On the positive side of the situation, the standard is much, much smaller. Many favorable reviews have no comments, while others have garnered upwards of 30 or 40. A rough estimate would therefore be somewhere in the range of 5 to 7 replies each. Of course, there are aberrations. Two critics in particular warrant responses in the hundreds, but upon closer inspection, the reason becomes apparent - their reviews are less than glowing, and are very critical of the film overall while pointing to elements that allow them to recommend the experience. These are not the glowing raves the community requires, and thus the increase in reactions.


Those under the rejection radar have been eager to defend themselves, calling the web a “hotbed of immaturity” where “mob mentality” rules beyond clear critical thinking. Of course, that’s specious logic, since it suggests that the 186 critics who loved the film are just as out of the loop as the complainers. Clearly, the vast majority of those employed in a professional (or semi-professional) capacity as film journalists believe The Dark Knight to be something very special, so dismissing group opinion when a completely contradictory example of same stares you right in the interface seems baseless. It makes about as much sense as having someone who loved the movie complaining that mass consensus means their own feelings are less valid.


Being the odd man out, especially with something that is (at this point) fairly well received, means that you have to be prepared to take the slings and arrows that come with said status. It applies in either circumstance - this critic loved both Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween and the Wachowski’s recent Speed Racer, and the vitriol still hasn’t ebbed. So if you can’t stand the heat, get out from behind the typewriter, so to speak. But the unusual thing about The Dark Knight discussion (at least on the web) was that much of the hate started BEFORE the film was released. Critics like David Denby of The New Yorker, David Edelstein of New York Magazine, and Marshall Fine of Star Magazine had their reviews up on the Monday before the film was released. Yet within hours, each had dozens of dissenters, all arguing in favor of a movie they had yet to see.


The need for such an outsized defense of a yet to be released film may help explain why there is so much eventual anger against those who have failed to fall under Christopher Nolan’s spell. While the current media message is that critics don’t matter, it is clear that those personally invested in their favorite franchise want very few raindrops on the days before their parade appears. To argue that someone’s negative opinion is invalid, even without being able to ascertain your own verdict on the subject, smacks of a pathetic preemptive strike. Discredit the messenger in case the message turns out to be true, right? Even better, the Internet now fosters a kind of universality when it comes to ability. A few years sitting in front of the VCR/DVD player has turned everyone into a film expert. Bashing those with a few more career credentials under their belt is just another means of making your unqualified point.


Now, this is not to say that every critic is an authority. Some voices are so limited in their purview that they automatically dismiss specific genres or certain actors. But one of the things that a journalist can say - print or online - is that, if doing their job correctly, they consistently see a larger variety of films. Within any 52 week span, a reviewer can go through 200 general and limited releases, and that’s before DVD and other media outlets (such as Pay Per View) offer more options. Within that array are foreign films, documentaries, independents without certain distribution, and other outside the Netflix queue offerings. When said individual decides to dissent from the standard sentiment on a film, one hopes they do it with said perspective ready and articulated. And they typically do.


Sure, some are dismissive just to be different, to be the one who “hated” ET or “loved” the latest Uwe Boll movement. But for the most part, the reaction you see ‘blurbed’ as part of a Rotten Tomato or other summarization is just that - a reaction. It’s how the person saw the film at the moment, and there is little doubt that said subjection would change with time or another viewing. Being outside the mainstream view is not a bad thing, just a curious one. If 195 critics (and the Academy) felt that No Country for Old Men was worth honoring, what did the 11 people who disliked it see that they didn’t? And better yet, how do the 19 people who enjoyed The Love Guru defend themselves against the 108 who hated it?


The answer to such questions begs the original issue. Should someone who panned The Dark Knight be subject to such outsized fury, especially when those complaining were without the proper evidence (i.e. an actual screening) to back up their bashing? Certainly, once the naysayers saw the film, all bets are off. The Internet continues to provide this sham suggestion of interactivity, and therefore comments become the necessary evil that arrives with the new medium’s territory. As long as the business model supports such a hit driven divisiveness, situations such as this one will become more and more prominent (say, when Watchmen arrives in eight months?).


Still, do the Gotham 12 deserve the wrath they received? Why are these critics, and this film, becoming such a cultural lighting rod? It appears like, as print continues its cost-cutting, job eliminating ways, and the web decries its own self-styled position as the latest post-modern example of McLuhan’s laws, more of these circumstances are likely. As it stands, film journalists from foreign countries frequently find racial slurs and other ethnic slams as part of the comment section of their blog/review entries. Maybe it’s the growing pains that accompany any major expression shift. Perhaps we are seeing the calm before the storm before the readjustment. It could just be that, in the world of populist cinema, the geek will countermand the Establishment whenever they feel the need.


Whatever the case, the dozen (and possibly more) negative views of The Dark Knight is just part of an overall commercial phenomenon. Like the film itself, it will take time to see if it has legs, or merely represents a blip on what is frequently an overanalyzed and overhyped event. In the film, good guy Harvey Dent says something very prophetic to Bruce Wayne. “You either die a hero,” he articulates, “or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” In the film criticism game, it’s clear that, in the minds of Generation Vexed, some journalists have overstayed their welcome. They’ve become the nemesis to the nu-media. Sadly, the film also makes it clear we get the very kind of champions we deserve. If those who use anonymous comments as a means of venting their own insular ire are the future, we may also need some kind of comic book superman to save us as well.

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