What Gotham City Says About Us

Two polar ends of the glitzy blockbuster—Sex And The City and The Dark Knight—have been entrusted with quite a bit of cultural weight this summer. While one has been mocked for advocating materialism in the face of recession and the other hailed as the pinnacle of an oversaturated genre, both have sent millions to the multiplex and fueled a rhetorical storm on the web.

Consequently, questions have arisen among journalists. What does the execution and success of these films say about their creators and the culture that embraces them? And, whether a critic declares a frantically publicized film historically significant or deems it a waste of our attention, what's the role of a film reviewer in a culture that prints the public's critical ramblings for free?

Sex And the City was easier to mock for brand-centricism and anti-feminist undertones, while The Dark Knight, driven by Heath Ledger's sinister and heartbreaking performance as the Joker, has been tougher to tackle among those who weren't crazy about the film.

Two trends have emerged in the past week: A number of professional critics are countering The Dark Knight's colossal success by questioning the effectiveness of its narrative, while another discussion is taking place about the state of film criticism in general (fittingly, this is also the week that critics Richard Roeper and Roger Ebert chose not to renew their contracts as hosts of At The Movies).

Salon, one of my daily reads, encapsulated Batman's battle with the critic this week. In a post entitled The Saga of George W. Batman, Andrew O'Hehir makes note of critic Dave Kehr's argument that the combat strategies of President Bush and Batman seem to be strangely parallel; over 100 highly argumentative reader responses follow Kehr's post on his site, O'Hehir notes.

"The perspective of fans who are outraged by any pinhead-intellectual attempts to rain on the pop-culture parade does not go unrepresented, even in this rarefied zone," Says O'Hehir, referring to the relatively small amount of debate that The Dark Knight has spurred on—perhaps because the 'haters' are too afraid to speak up.

"Is there some uniquely Yank quality to the irrational bile directed at the insignificant handful of commentators who, for whatever reason, have disliked what may well turn out to be the most popular motion picture in history?" he continues. "Raising even the feeblest of objections to the worldwide (and Web-wide) adulation of this murky action flick will get you not just disagreement but kilobytes of hate by the butt-load."

Salon critic Stephanie Zacharek, who, by the way, was one of the few reviewers to dislike The Dark Knight, described film criticism as a dying profession in yesterday's issue of Salon. Fittingly, A.O Scott of The New York Times used similar lingo to describe the overexposed superhero genre.

"I don¹t want to start any fights with devout fans or besotted critics. I¹m willing to grant that ³The Dark Knight² is as good as a movie of its kind can be," he writes, continuing to say that Nolan and his brother Jonathan were able to create an affecting world thanks to a $185 million budget that few artistically inclined filmmakers dream of.

"But to paraphrase something the Joker says to Batman, ³The Dark Knight² has rules, and they are the conventions that no movie of this kind can escape,"
he continues. "Those poor, misunderstood crusaders must turn big profits on a global scale and satisfy an audience hungry for the thrill of novelty and the comforts of the familiar. Is it just me, or is the strain starting to show?"

The strongest critical voices in journalism are certainly finding ways to place the summer popcorn flick under serious cultural evaluation—and thankfully so, considering the emotional weight of The Dark Knight as a film (a week after seeing it, I'm still mulling it over in my head).

But as long as their criticism is followed by the infuriated responses of Batman-loyalists, (see for yourself here, here, and here), it's no wonder that some writers are going on the defensive.

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  • Kevin Ohannessian

    I agree that many comic book films feel constrained by rules -- the filmmakers are hindered by the companies that own the characters and the ongoing comic book series that feature said characters: whether it is Spider-man, Iron Man, or Batman. This is what will make Watchmen interesting -- it is a single graphic novel and not part of a still running series. The Watchmen movie should be more like any other book adaptation than the comic book films that have been made before.