Ladies and gentleman, what we have all been waiting for: A.O. Scott weighs in on The Dark Knight and the current state of the superhero genre: How Many Superheroes Does it Take to Tire a Genre?
If you've been around these parts before, you know the level of esteem I hold Tony Scott in. But I think he's substantially missed the boat on this one ( I said the same thing about Heath Ledger, then had to admit (provisional) error).
Tony writes: "Still, I have a hunch, and perhaps a hope, that “Iron Man,” “Hancock” and “Dark Knight” together represent a peak, by which I mean not only a previously unattained level of quality and interest, but also the beginning of a decline. In their very different ways, these films discover the limits built into the superhero genre as it currently exists."
He goes on: "But to paraphrase something the Joker says to Batman, “The Dark Knight” has rules, and they are the conventions that no movie of this kind can escape. The climax must be a fight with the villain, during which the symbiosis of good guy and bad guy, implicit throughout, must be articulated. The end must point forward to a sequel, and an aura of moral consequence must be sustained even as the killings, explosions and chases multiply." He continues in this vein, but for now, we have what we need.
First, a minor spoiler for The Dark Knight: "The climax must be a fight with the villain." Perhaps Mr. Scott and I watched a different movie, or are unsure who the villain is, or don't agree on what "fight" means. My favorite line in the entire movie is (paraphrasing): "Do you think I'd risk the battle for the soul of Gotham in a fist fight with you?" Tony, I don't know if you noticed, but there wasn't really a climax to this movie, and there wasn't really a fight between the hero and villain, or even between the hero or either of the villains. It just didn't happen. The movie wasn't interested in it. So when your point is that even the best superhero movies adhere to a formula, and then you lay out that formula, and the movie in question DOES NOT adhere to that formula, I think you've got trouble.
But beyond that singular but significant misstep, what I really want to discuss is A.O.'s analogy. After arguing that The Dark Knight only states serious questions, without ever exploring them. he writes: "And yet stating such themes is as far as the current wave of superhero movies seems able or willing to go. The westerns of the 1940s and ’50s, obsessed with similar themes, were somehow able, at their best, as in John Ford’s “Searchers” and Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo,” to find ambiguities and tensions buried in their own rigid paradigms."
Luckily for me, the Western is my primary area of expertise. So let me begin by saying that Red River would have been a better Hawks choice than Rio Bravo, in terms of dealing with those themes, and that Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may have been the most morally and intellectually sophisticated of all of them. And yet, the NY Times film critics of the day (Bosley Crowther and sidekick A.H. Weiler) said:
Red River: "And even despite a big let-down, which fortunately comes near the end, it stands sixteen hands above the level of routine horse opera these days." The "let-down" of which Crowther speaks is what Scott would call the "ambiguities and tensions" of the paradigm. As Crowther puts it, Red River is an excellent movie, but "runs smack into 'Hollywood'" conventions at its end.
The Searchers: "Mr. Ford, once started, doesn't seem to know when to stop. Episode is piled upon episode, climax upon climax and corpse upon corpse until the whole thing appears to be taking a couple of turns around the course. The justification for it is that it certainly conveys the lengthiness of the hunt, but it leaves one a mite exhausted, especially with the speed at which it goes."
The Searchers is considered by many to be the greatest film of all time, but if you've read any reviews of The Dark Knight, you know that many reviewers could have used this paragraph intact, except that they'd have to insert Nolan in place of Ford.
Rio Bravo (Weiler steps in, as Crowther was apparently tired of superheroes, er, I mean, Westerns): "Despite its slickness, virility, occasional humor and, if it may be repeated, authentic professional approach, it is well-made but awfully familiar fare." Just another Western.
And the coup is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which appeared after the Western's "peak" but today stands as one of the very best. Weiler sounds a a great deal like Scott on superheroes when he writes: "The Old West, ravaged by repetition and television, has begun to show signs of age...time has made their vehicle creaky. Their basically honest, rugged, and mature saga has been sapped of a great deal of effect by an obvious, overlong, and garrulous anticlimax." Too many Westerns, says Weiler! The formula is ravaged! Except the film he was watching wasn't formulaic and was a masterpiece. But he missed that.
The point of all this is not that to reprimand those critics who claim that The Dark Knight is a classic, or those critics who claim that The Dark Knight is not a classic, for making the decision too early. When you see a new movie, you have to call it like you see it, and you won't know how the film will be regarded in a few decades. But Tony didn't just write a review of The Dark Knight, he wrote an entire feature claiming that The Dark Knight didn't have the ability to render its genre problematic like the classic Westerns did.
And that is seriously going out on a limb. As we have seen, Scott's 50s counterparts did not realize those Westerns were masterpieces. They got it wrong, in each and every case - they praised those Westerns, but found them overlong, exhausting, anticlimatic, too Hollywood, etc. In other words, they made all the exact same arguments that Scott did about contemporary superheroes, particularly noting that they went on too long, had too clear a formula, and never managed to overcome that formula. But at least they did so in otherwise positive reviews. Scott wrote an entire piece making it clear that The Dark Knight didn't have that same ability to transcend its genre. He may not have to regret it. But I don't consider it very wise.