A mixed review of a feverishly anticipated blockbuster in the making — let’s take “The Dark Knight Rises” as an example — works like a Rorschach inkblot. Readers read what they want to read, all the more so if they’re seriously pre-invested in the third and final chapter of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, a capper about to unleash its fury on a global audience.
A couple of less-than-glowing reviews popped early, including one from Christy Lemire of The Associated Press, and suddenly the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes (owned by Warner Bros., which distributed “The Dark Knight Rises”) felt the need to shut down its comments board, because the worst commenters were spitting so much vitriol and death-threatening rhetoric. Rotten Tomatoes editor-in-chief Matt Atchity was quoted as saying earlier this week the site may shift to a Facebook commenting system, which in theory cuts down on the anonymous “You’re a tool! I haven’t seen the movie yet, but you’re a tool!” type of posts.
In the wake of the early “Dark Knight Rises” reviews (most of them ranging from admiring to awestruck, plus a few tweeners and a handful of outright dismissals), Atchity said that “the job of policing the comments became more than my staff could handle for that film ... it just got to be too much hate based on reactions to reviews of movies that people hadn’t even seen.”
It’s a sure sign of a film’s value when the film provokes more than one type of response, more than one sort of reading. For me “The Dark Knight Rises” tips the story elements so far into apocalyptic severity, after a strong first hour it begins to lose its way. The grimness is precisely what some critics resisted in “The Dark Knight” (2008), a film which seemed to me to be quite brilliant in its balancing acts. As one Twitter follower tweeted the other day: “Condolences for the death threats you’re probably getting from the very people who celebrated your rave of The Dark Knight.” Nobody’s asked for my head, exactly, but thanks.
A few other Rorschach test results. “That is a great balanced review of TDKR!!” emailed Vikram Koppikar of Maharashtra, India. I’d respond to that with the reminder that “balance” doesn’t really do a critic or a review any good at all; with “The Dark Knight Rises,” the Chicago Tribune review (2 1/2 out of 4 stars, meaning halfway between “fair” and “good”) wasn’t striving for any sort of objective balance, because objectivity has nothing to do with criticism. Nothing. It’s informed subjectivity I’m after. Sometimes I get there, sometimes I don’t. And if you ask any number of readers and/or “Dark Knight Rises” pre-fans, sometimes I’m a tool, I’m a tool, I’m a tool.
I tried not to spoil anything significant in the way of narrative surprises in the review. Clearly I succeeded. One tweet earlier this week said, succinctly, “Lost my patience and read three Dark Knight Rises reviews, all mercifully spoiler-free. Thx @phillipstribune, @ebertchicago & @scott — tobias.” He referred to me and my valued Chicago friends and colleagues Roger Ebert and Scott Tobias of The Onion’s AV Club.
Well, at least I didn’t spoil anything. But wait! “I read your review online today,” wrote Joe Connors, and in his view the review’s allusion to a particular (and exhausting) fight scene counted as “a huge spoiler.”
Another reader, M. Di Fiore, who noted he hadn’t fully recovered from my assessment of “the psychedelic crap” of “The Tree of Life,” had this to say: “Sometimes I just can’t agree with you.” (That’s fine; honestly, it’s fine. You’re not supposed to, really.) “Probably if this Batman movie was in French or some other foreign language, you would’ve given it 4 stars.” That’s true. Dub it into French, add a few bits from “The Tree of Life” and “The Dark Knight Rises” gains an automatic 1.5 stars in my book.
The commercial life of “The Dark Knight Rises” hasn’t even begun. Probably the film is headed for the same north-of-a-billion worldwide gross of its predecessor, “The Dark Knight.” I loved that film, and will never forget Heath Ledger’s Joker, the most unruly, unsettling and unforgettable adversary in a film based on a comic book (or graphic novel, for that matter). I admire much of the new film, though it’s a lesser achievement. I was pleased this week to get so many comments in so many arenas, on so many platforms, all over the map. It’s nice to see everybody cranked up on a movie, and ready to defend it (having seen it or not) against its perceived attackers.
It’s also nice to hear Atchity of Rotten Tomatoes remind his most rabid constituents, as he did a couple of days ago, to “take a deep breath, step away from the computer, and maybe go for a walk.”