The dark stink rises
“Why so serious?” a worthy foe of The Dark Knight once enquired. At least the Joker had a sense of humour – more than can be said of the hordes of online hyper-fans who police the web for anyone who dares to puncture their comic-book bubbles. OMGWTF? asks DONALD CLARKE
BEFORE WE BEGIN, let us make one thing clear. There will be no revelations about the plot of The Dark Knight Rises in this illtempered, mean-spirited rant by an older film critic who – though he likes the series – doesn’t think Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise can solve world hunger or reverse climate change. So, there will be no need to access Twitter and type the (horrible) word “spoiler” over and over again until your thumb bleeds.
The obsession with plot revelations in reviews is just the most conspicuous manifestation of contemporary hyper- fandom in action. The whingeing has become a modern parlour game. A million film fans devote all their spare time to scouring copy for elements of story. Critics have been discussing the plots of novels for aeons. Reviewers have been offering synopses of films for a century. In the past five years, however, the unavoidable practice has taken on the quality of well-poisoning or cattle molestation. Forget about revealing that Rosebud is a sled. Don’t dare even mention that Charles Foster Kane wears a hat.
The hyper-fans wander around in a state of permanent righteous indignation. They don’t just adore the latest superhero picture, juvenile wizard adaptation or science-fiction reboot. They feel they own the property. If any critic dares to defile the sacred entity, he or she will be made to feel they have burst into the commenter’s home and taken a dump in the baby’s cot. The internet throbs with fury.
When did it all begin?
The release of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002 is probably a good place to start. Columnists would not begin babbling about Web 2.0 for another two years, but there were already enough outlets on which Spidey fans could get stratospherically upset about the great “organic web-shooter” controversy. As you may recall, Sam (unlike the makers of the recent The Amazing Spider-Man) had decided that, even in the Marvel Universe, it seemed implausible that Peter Parker could, over a busy afternoon, manufacture a substance that would revolutionise materials science. So, rather than emanating from machines, Spider-Man’s webbing emerged from glands in his wrist. Taking on the mantle of brave Rosa Parks, the angrier commenters demanded a boycott.
When I spoke to Raimi about this before release, he smiled and cast his eyes to heaven. The virtual furore seemed to have taken him entirely by surprise. Within five years, such spats had reached epidemic proportions.
The web-shooter outrage offered a model for one growing strain of hyper-fan mania: an obsession with faithfulness to the source material. The comments section of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) swells with accusations of creative apostasy. The assumption is that any deviation from beloved source material is, in itself, something to be denounced and demonised. The suggestion that any alteration may actually improve the smooth running of the plot is greeted with utter bafflement. One seems to hear Annie Wilkes, the antagonist of Misery, furiously remembering an infelicity from an ancient movie serial. “He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!” she bellowed. Come to think of it, the entire internet seems, at times, to be populated by keyboardhammering versions of Ms Wilkes.
The release of Watchmen in 2009 triggered a particularly virulent attack from the Faithfulness Police. When critics suggested that Zack Snyder’s boring film suffered from sticking too closely to Alan Moore’s mighty comic book, one felt a million brains spinning into a state of advanced geek-shock. “How is that even possible?” one genuinely confused punter asked on IMDb. Watch the movie and learn, young fellow.
The Harry Potter films slip into narrative chaos as – apparently fearful of the online mob – they desperately strive to include every possible incident from JK Rowling’s often-enormous books. Yet the hyper-fans still bemoan the goblins and elves that have not quite made the final cut. Who would now dare meddle with a bestselling book the way the writers of Jaws mucked around with Peter Benchley’s pulp sensation? “Hooper dies in the cockadoodie end!” a time-traveller from 1975 writes. The folk with the burning torches have Hollywood’s new Frankensteins on the run.
Now to this week’s subject of discussion. The hyper-fans reached the height of their power with the release of The Dark Knight in 2008. Like 1970s rock’n’roll fans eager for their prog idols’ first collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra, many comic- book enthusiasts (of which I am one) have long yearned for artistic respectability. Nolan’s second Batman film seemed to deliver that holy grail. A serious director offered up a beautifully made, obsessively gloomy entertainment that won rave reviews from the majority of critics. But that wasn’t enough. The Dark Knight had to be a masterpiece. Indeed, the militant wing would only be happy if it were recognised as the greatest film of all time.
Shortly after The Dark Knight was unveiled, it surged to number one on IMDb’s list of the best films of all time. Fair enough. The hyper-fans, all of whom breathe online air, are entitled to give the picture 10/10. But here’s the thing. It soon became clear that the same enthusiasts were simultaneously awarding The Godfather 1/10 to drag the gangster picture’s average beneath that of the Batman flick. An online campaign was afoot to make the dream a reality.
Meanwhile, any critics who dared to dislike The Dark Knight were subjected to tirades of abuse. Stephanie Zacharek, then writing for Slate, was treated like filth for articulately questioning the film’s brilliance. In a YouTube review she joked: “Girls are not supposed to be allowed to review comic-book movies.” She was not overstating the case. “This woman is a fucking idiot . . .” harveydents writes beneath her clip. “she just needs to get laid,,,or come out of the closet...fuckig? c**t.” (Insert [sic] wherever seems appropriate.) The comment was not an aberration. Many similar slabs of ordure still lurk on the electronic ether.
The cacophony of boorish antiwoman muck kicked off again with the release of The Avengers earlier this year. Over on Rotten Tomatoes, the horde waited for the first reviews and pounced. Even before the film was released, dissenting female critics – on average no more negative than the men – were being lambasted for failing to recognise Joss Whedon’s amusing romp as a copper-bottomed classic.
Does all this matter? Not much. The least-balanced and most intemperate voices always make the loudest noise. The vast majority of enthusiasts for The Dark Knight (or Spider-Man or Harry Potter) are still capable of holding civil conversations with those who think differently. Critics will surely hold their nerve and remember that any decent review should contain a brief outline of the plot. But many once-useful outlets for reasoned discussion have been overwhelmed by anonymous fanatics who regard dissent from their orthodoxy as a cause for public immolation. The bullies too often boss the playground.
As I write, the early reviews of The Dark Knight Returns are coming in. Within a few hours of the first negative notice arriving – from brave Marshall Fine at Hollywood Fine – its corner of Rotten Tomatoes was submerged by more than 700 comments from people who hadn’t yet seen the film. Elsewhere on the site, every second critic is accused of unveiling spoilers.
Most of the comments beneath Mr Fine’s review were, however, encouragingly sane. “Giving negative reviews to fanboy films is worth it just for the hyperdefensiveness from fans who haven’t even seen the film yet,” the wise Alessandro C notes. Goodness me. Have we moved on?
As if. Then Christy Lemire, writing for Associated Press, popped up with a mildly negative notice. The pack moved away from Fine and began hacking hunks out of the “stupid woman”. By Tuesday morning, Rotten Tomatoes had suspended all comments on reviews of The Dark Knight Rises. Nice work, hyper-fans.