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‘Wall-E’ Is a Masterpiece for the Ages
Reflections on Manny Farber, a Critic and an Artist

‘The Dark Knight’ of My Soul

  • 7/15/08 at 3:25 PM

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Fun! Fun! After nine years of anonymous fanboy attacks at Slate whenever I dared to criticize a masterwork like The Mummy Returns (“I only wish harm to you and your family”), I figured I’d finally escaped the rabid nerd hordes. But they seem to have arrived here en masse — maybe thanks to a Web headline somewhere branding me the author of “the first negative review of The Dark Knight.” (There have been other negative reviews since.) Comments below the review here and elsewhere have struck similar chords:

(1) I am “an idiot trying to make a name for himself” and get “hits for his site.”
(2) I am a pretentious prick.
(3) I am a fag.
(4) It's not New York, it's Chicago, fool.
(5) My reason for criticizing The Dark Knight is that it is “too dark” when everyone knows that Batman is supposed to be dark.
(6) The idea that Heath Ledger went to a bad place to play the Joker shows a dim understanding of actors’ craft.
(7) May God have mercy on my soul.

Needless to say, 99 percent of these attacks have come from people who haven’t seen the movie — which is not to say they won’t love it, having so much emotional energy invested in its greatness. (It took awhile for the fanboys to come around to the consensus that The Phantom Menace was inept — I got death wishes for that review, too.) Anyway, Peter Travers says it’s a masterpiece and Heath Ledger should win an Oscar, so that settles that.

The name-calling — idiot, fag, prick — is easy to ignore (and many comments were removed, at least from here, by a moderator), although I’ve always thought “prick” applied to people who resorted to such name-calling in lieu of argument. I can swear on Heath Ledger’s grave that I have never tailored a review — positive or negative — for the sole purpose of making a name for myself. For better or worse, I wouldn’t know how; I’m pathetically limited by what I actually think. Possibly that notoriety brought hits to New York’s site, but I assure you the site and the magazine are doing fine.

As for the New York/Chicago distinction, the film's Gotham City might indeed be modeled on Chicago; the larger point is that it's a real metropolis and not the stylized urban landscape of Burton's (or for that matter, Nolan's first) film.

“Pretentious” is tougher to counter. Professional critics, at least good ones, are by definition pretentious, since they value their opinions enough to proclaim them loudly. But in this case, invoking Shaw seems to have elicited some catcalls — even from people who argue that The Dark Knight grapples with big themes that no other comic-book-inspired film has ever touched. The Nolan brothers are well-educated Brits who made their mark with Memento, which reversed the narrative trajectory of a revenge movie to explore the deeper idea of cause-and-effect. Batman Begins stopped dead for the characters to ruminate on the meaning of vigilantism — on the cost-benefit analysis of going outside the law to enforce the law, even when the social order has been corrupted. The Dark Knight is practically a colloquium that takes those arguments a step further, even introducing a character (Two Face) who pivots between Batman-good and Joker-evil. Don Juan in Hell (the core of Shaw’s Man and Superman) is not a precise correlative, but the Joker explicitly fancies himself a Superman (not D.C.’s Superman, fanboys, I’m talking Sadean or Nietzschean) who is beyond rules, beyond justice, beyond God, and wants to engage the mostly-by-the-book Batman on a philosophical level. The fanboys can’t make up their minds: They attack you for snobbery, for treating films like The Dark Knight as unworthy of serious discussion; then they call you a pretentious for engaging with those films beyond the level of “Wow!” (There’s nothing wrong with the level of “Wow!” by the way. I was wowed by the bat-flights in The Dark Knight.)

Did I criticize The Dark Knight for being “too dark?” Not remotely. I said it was dark. But I also said it was jumbled and sadistic and with jolts of brutality to keep you revved up. I said it was so weighed down with its own moral seriousness it turned into a dirge. (At Newsweek, David Ansen said it was impressive and oppressive — and that he wished it were more fun.) Tim Burton’s Batman was certainly dark. It was partially inspired by Frank Miller and by the graphic novel The Killing Joke, but in spite of its compromises and screwups, the vision was all there. Batman was a freak, an addict who couldn’t let go of his private pain, and the movie was designed to conjure up his inner Batcave. I titled my enthusiastic review in the New York Post “Wings of Desire.” (An editor there changed it to “Pow! Batman Flying High.”)

The Heath Ledger issue is even more tangled, and I hope I didn’t give the impression I think playing the Joker killed him. He was an addict who went too far. But as an actor, he was still unformed; he was testing and pushing himself, bashing up against his own limitations. We know he was never satisfied with his work, and the Joker — this Joker — is the sort of role in which no matter how far you go you can always go further. You can see that his acting exacts an emotional cost — just as you could see the cost to, say, Brando in Last Tango in Paris (who vowed that he’d never go to so dangerous place again).

(This is all aside from my feelings that the plotting is herky-jerky, the psychology perplexing, the action scenes incoherent, and Two-Face’s coin flips a pale echo of Javier Bardem’s in No Country for Old Men.)

Why — apart from narcissistic injury — do I respond to the abuse? Because there has been a lot of chatter in the last few years that criticism is a dying profession, having been supplanted by the democratic voices of the Web. Not to get all Lee Siegel on you, but the Internet has a mob mentality that can overwhelm serious criticism. There is superb film writing in blogs and discussion groups — as good as anything I do. But there are also thousands of semi-literate tirades that actually reinforce the Hollywood status quo, that say: “If you do not like The Dark Knight (or The Phantom Menace), you should be fired because you do not speak for the people.”*

Well, the people don’t need to be spoken for. And a critic’s job is not only to steer you to movies you might not have heard of or that died at the box office.** It’s also to bring a different, much-needed perspectives on blockbusters like The Dark Knight.

*Note to readers: You blunt the force of your attack when you write to an author to say, “No one cares what you think” — because, uh, at least one person does.

**Saw Kit Kittredge: An American Girl this weekend with my own American girls and it didn’t deserve its box-office death. It’s very moving, one of the few recent family films rooted in the real world, and its portrait of Great Depression’s effect on kids is vital given the economic collapse that likely awaits us. Kit Kittredge’s impulse to document social injustice as a reporter will be inspiring to children and grown-ups. And Abigail Breslin is really cute. Hurry before it’s gone.

Related: Bat Out of Hell [NYM]