On the latest episode of Operation Kino, Dave Gonzales — alongside co-hosts David Ehrlich, Matt Patches, and Katey Rich — puts forward a provocative and potentially damning criticism of his peers. He argues that the explosion of articles nitpicking “The Dark Knight Rises” this week stems from a fundamental fear on the part of many critics to express how they really feel about the movie in their reviews. Some critics, he claims, were so wary of knocking the movie that they effusively praised what they liked while minimizing what they didn’t, and then saved those complaints for later so-called “nitpick posts.” Here’s some of Gonzales’ argument:
“It was very important in the initial days of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ coming out to have liked this movie… It seemed to me like people were using these posts as a way of talking about some of the problems they had critically with the movie under the guise of ‘This is just fan nitpicking! It’s fine! We just want to talk about these plot holes!'”
In other words: aggressively defensive nerds will jump down critics’ throats if they dare to pan a movie they love, but they’re fairly receptive to nitpick posts, which mask critique in the form of lists and features, thus mitigating the damage they cause to geek psyches that are too delicate to accept the notion that “The Dark Knight Rises” might be flawed. As Ehrlich puts it, these lists are a way for disappointed viewers trapped by denial to “rationalize” their reaction “while still preserving the integrity of the experience.” So the Batman hardcores want to have their cake, and then debate whether the cake has the narratively appropriate number of layers too.
Gonzales is unquestionably correct in one regard: there was a surplus of articles this week devoted to breaking down “The Dark Knight Rises” with a thoroughness worthy of Talmudic scholarship. If you like when people pick apart movies, this week was like Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa and your birthday all rolled into one. You could enjoy “15 Things That Bothered Us About ‘The Dark Knight Rises,'” or if that was too much of a commitment you could settle for “11 Things That Didn’t Work in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’” (or, if you were really in a rush, you could try “9 Logical Gripes With ‘The Dark Knight Rises’“). If you were feeling more inquisitive, you could partake of “12 Questions We Had After Watching ‘The Dark Knight Rises’” or “‘The Dark Knight Rises’: 7 Lingering Questions” or “‘The Dark Knight Rises’: 5 Unanswered Questions.” And on and on and on.
Certainly the sheer number of pieces — and the amount of overlap between them — was a bit of overkill. But was it an act of cowardice? I’m not so sure. Gonzales and Ehrlich go out of their way not to name names on their podcast, but my own research comparing reviews and nitpick posts didn’t turn up a smoking gun. Movieline had logical gripes; their review gave the film a 7.5 out of 10. Film School Rejects found 11 things that didn’t work; their review graded the film a C. Huffington Post had lingering questions, and their site republished Marshall Fine and Christy Lemire’s early, controversial pans. A few websites did post more positive reviews alongside nitpick posts — /Film and Movies.com, for example — but in just about every case, the reviews and nitpicks were written by different people. I haven’t found anyone calling “The Dark Knight Rises” a masterpiece in one breath and a confusing mess in the other.
Are critics more willing to write nitpick posts because they can get away with more criticism that way? I don’t know, although Ehrlich does posit an interesting theory why comic book fans embrace nitpicking even as they reject negative reviews. “Plot,” he says “is something that can be incontrovertible.” Nitpicking, he adds, “is a much easier tact than… arguing that [something] doesn’t work in an artistic way.” Speaking anecdotally, I have noticed how often the angry commenters on Rotten Tomatoes or other similar sites chide critics who write negative reviews for being “biased” or for offering their “subjective opinions” instead of “objective facts.” This, of course, is a ludicrous mindset — it’s basically the reason I have a Funniest Internet Commenter every week — but it does jibe with Ehrlich’s logic. Plot holes and narrative mistakes can be seen, in the warped eyes of some, as a more “objective” form of criticism. If I thought Bane sounded like a Welch carnival barker talking into an empty bottle of seltzer and you thought he sounded badass, those are our two equally valid but different opinions. But if I tell you it’s impossible for a man with no money, identification, or food to survive a trek through the desert and sneak into a city that’s under impenetrable lockdown and you don’t have a comeback, then I’ve got an argument that’s much tougher to break.
I have to imagine that if critics were so concerned about pleasing — or at least not riling up — their nerdier readers, they would include allegedly “objective” mistakes in their reviews instead of leaving them out. Instead, I think the urge to nitpick separately from reviews comes from two impulses: the desire to indulge the very vocal segment of readership that wants to keep all spoilers out of film criticism, and the urge to wring as much traffic out of “The Dark Knight Rises” as possible.
If critics (or the editors who assign their content) are afraid of anything, they’re afraid of readers coming down on them about spoilers — and without spoilers, nitpick posts are basically pointless. Out of Movies.com’s 12 questions about “The Dark Knight Rises,” 11 are spoilers (the twelfth is a joke); likewise, HuffPo’s 7 lingering questions all ruin important secrets about the movie. If critics can’t talk about spoilers in their reviews, then they can only write about plot holes in the vaguest possible terms. As a result, you wind up with early reviews full of broad generalities and later posts — whether they’re called second looks or in-depth analysis or spoiler reviews or lists of lingering questions — that are far more detailed.
Let’s not forget either that comic book fans love to nitpick. In the 1960s, Marvel Comics even began encouraging nitpicking by awarding a “No-Prize” to readers who not only found mistakes in Marvel books, but found plausible explanations for them. If an issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man” stated Peter Parker was 17 years old six months after another had said he was 18 years old, and you hatched a convincing reason for the mistake (i.e. “Peter was so flustered talking to Betty Brant, he gave her the wrong age!”) Stan Lee would award you a No-Prize (appropriately, given the absolute absurdity of the pursuit, the prize was an empty envelope). Nitpick posts on “The Dark Knight Rises” or other comic book movies fit into that long, dorky tradition.
This approach certainly benefits editors in one way: it means twice as many articles, and twice as many chances to draw traffic to your website. Why write one review of a popular property when you can double your pageviews by writing two? In their video review of “The Dark Knight Rises,” /Film’s Peter Sciretta and Germain Lussier say they’ve written something like 600 posts about the film over the course of the last four years; I’ve written at least a dozen all by myself here on Criticwire in just the last two weeks. Fans of long reads are better served by one “Dark Knight Rises” review, but folks who make their living from ad revenue might have a different motivation.
If you disagree, and you have a legitimate reason for that disagreement, then you, sir or madam, get a No-Prize.