Critics vs. Comics

>> Sunday, August 3, 2008

It was with a bit of dismay that I first heard of David Edelstein's negative review for The Dark Knight. I've actually enjoyed several of his reviews of other films on Fresh Air. I waited to read his review until after I had seen the movie for myself. I like to go in with as clean of a slate as possible.

So, now that I've seen the movie, I've been able to read that negative review. And one other review that was extremely negative by Stephanie Zacharek of Salon. I think I found Zacharek's review more annoying for its seeming ignorance than Edelstein's hyper-negative review dismissing the film's violence and tone.

My first reaction to reading Stephanie Zacharek's review of The Dark Knight is that she does NOT understand who the Joker is. She states, "To encourage thoughtful beard stroking among his audience, Nolan throws in a "Lifeboat"-style (Who should die first? Me or the other guy?) plot device." No, that's actually part of The Joker's modus operandi, which the writers nailed. Perfectly. The Joker loves to watch other people go crazy and commit crimes. In fact, driving the "good man" crazy or to deplorable depths is the plot of The Killing Joke. The Killing Joke is famous for The Joker shooting Barbara Gordon (while not dressed up as Batgirl) and attempting to drive Commissioner Gordon crazy. Gordon being the "good man." The Nolans just upped the ante. They not only had Dent go crazy but the whole city. (It's the perfect setup to do the origin of Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, which I find to be the most interesting story about the character.)

The other impression that I come away from reading her review is that she does not truly understand who Batman is either. Batman is a crazed loner. Gotham City is full of criminals. Batman is OBSESSED with controlling criminal activity in Gotham. This has been the solid focus of many comics writers. Something that also appears in cartoons such as Batman Beyond.

"With "Batman Begins," Nolan assured his audience that he understood that the characters originally created by Bob Kane -- and further developed by the likes of Frank Miller -- were rich, fascinating ones, and they are: It shouldn't be hard to write good stories around them. But what the Nolans have come up with here is just more pretentious poot, dumped onto the screen in a style that pretends to be fresh and energetic but is really only semicoherent."
It's ironic that Zacharek refers to Frank Miller as he has written the textbook crazed loner material on Batman--The Dark Knight Returns. Zacharek focuses a section of her review on the "romantic rivalry" between Wayne and Dent, which is a minor tangent of the movie. (Really, doesn't the end of the tower scene with The Joker and Batman send it home that they're perfectly meant for each other? Also something other writers have touched upon.) Instead, Zacharek chose to not pay much attention to the movie since 1) she admits she could not watch Ledger as the Joker without thinking of his unfortunate death from a drug overdose and 2) is determined to view Christopher Nolan's work in relation to Alfred Hitchcock.
"The performance is unsettling and difficult to watch, partly because it's impossible to remove it from the context of Ledger's death. But it's a fine performance regardless, and I wish the movie around it were more deserving. "The Dark Knight" may be somebody's idea of a masterpiece, but I doubt it would be Hitchcock's. Nolan may want us to believe in the darkness that lurks within each of us, but instead of leading us to it visually, he chops it up and sets it out in front of us, a grim, predigested banquet. The difference between Nolan and his idol is that Hitchcock demanded that we trust ourselves; Nolan demands that we trust only him."
Zacharek is nothing but hellbent on her comparison of Nolan to Hitchcock. I don't understand why. If the Nolan were going around saying he was trying to create something Hitchcockian, then I would understand. However, he's not. Her Hitchcock connection in her review was determined before she even saw the film. It is her own mental detritus clogging the wheels in her film viewing and reviewing.

Edelstein seemed to have it in for the film for reasons I can't quite determine. But in my estimation, he also does not seem to understand the Joker like Zacharek:
"How is Heath Ledger? My heart went out to him. He’s working so very hard to fill the void, to be doing something every second. It’s rave and rage and purge acting. This Joker is a straight-out psychopath—a Stephen King clown-demon with smudged greasepaint and yellow teeth and hair that appears to have never been washed."
Edelstein's misconception of The Joker is a bit mind boggling. The Joker IS a psychopath. He's always doing something to put his victims on edge. It's his prime technique, and he uses the strategy well to get underneath everyone's skins. When I reminisce on comics I've read with The Joker or the depictions in cartoons, I can think of the one guy who typically gets under Batman's skin and other heroes can't seem to figure out because nothing and no one seems to matter. Ledger nailed this perfectly.

Edelstein's review caused such a stir that he wrote a response to all the commenters on NY Magazine: "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." Yeah, I like Tim Burton's Batman, but I see hints of The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller more than Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. The Dark Knight is much closer thematically to The Killing Joke than Burton's Batman. (Burton's Batman actually commits the faux pas of having Batman knowingly kill people. Something the Batman in comics doesn't do, which Kevin Smith has pointed out previously.)
"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.)"
I think the "moral seriousness" Edelstein attributes to it is purely his perspective. I didn't find The Dark Knight to be some kind of a lament but a horror film, particularly in its last half. Isn't it a cruel joke to terrorize occupants of a city so that everyone only wants to escape via ferry yet those on the ferries come to find out that they could be blown to smithereens by their chosen mode of escape? Why should the film not be slightly oppressive? Living in Gotham for the fictional habitants is not easy! Shouldn't that oppressiveness be portrayed in the film in order to express the terror wreaked by The Joker? That there is something at stake by not capturing The Joker? To do otherwise would insinuate that The Joker is completely harmless and his actions are mere pranks. Gee, why not invite The Joker to your child's birthday party!

Some of the idiotic statements above have reminded me of a comment I've heard regarding the Watchmen trailer, which appears before The Dark Knight, from two people. Namely, that it looks stupid. Considering that the trailer is a series of images, it's pure ignorance to make such a statement when not knowing the plot or characters. It's fair to say that if a similar trailer was done for The Dark Knight without an audience knowing who Batman was, they'd probably say the same thing. Man dressed up as a bat? Who would do that? Dumb! Because in terms of degrees of difficulty in adapting a comic to film, Watchmen is The Lord of the Rings. It's that dense and intricate.

I read Watchmen for the first time last year. It's earned its much deserved place in the pantheon. For those snide remarks above, I've never read a comic that was so morally and politically astute. Or as Watchmen director Zack Snyder recalled after screening footage for an executive who then said, "This makes Superman look stupid." Except because it's a comic, people will instantly dismiss it. (Or better yet, they'll refer to it as a "graphic novel.")

So it was my delight to hear this letter read on NPR after Robert Siegel's interview with Christopher Nolan. Ben Watanabe of Philadelphia:
"Listening to you repeatedly ask Nolan how he avoided making The Dark Knight just a comic book movie, I became curious, when was the last time you read a comic book? With every new book I read, movie I watch and song I hear, I am more and more convinced that comic books are the last bastion of original creative thought in contemporary art. Comic books have become an integral part of the American experience and deserve more respect and thought."


Janel B 04 August, 2008 06:42  

Nice. You should post at least some of this as comments in both of those bad reviews.

House of Brat 04 August, 2008 08:44  

I believe Salon's commenting period has already closed. I haven't read through the comments on Edelstein's review yet, but there are more than 200.

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