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Why so serious?

Fans respond to negative Batman reviews with death threats to critics

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Back in 2008, The Dark Knight seemed to be setting a new level for comic-book adaptations. The movie did blockbuster box office while garnering good reviews -- and gaining a posthumous Oscar for Heath Ledger's scary, anarchic Joker.

Now The Dark Knight Rises is being billed as the triumphant culmination of director Christopher Nolan's deep, dark trilogy. It's also fuelling a climactic firestorm of fanboy fury against anybody who doesn't see it this way. Viewing DKR as one helluva summer movie is no longer enough. It's got to be The Iliad and The Book of Job and Das Kapital and Nietzsche all rolled into one.

The first DKR reviews that popped up on Rotten Tomatoes were very strong. Then poor Marshall Fine, an L.A.-based career critic, ventured to say that the film was perhaps a bit ponderous. Holding this negative line all by himself, he got pasted. Rampaging Bat-fans crashed his server, and RT removed the review at his request but kept his rating as part of the movie's aggregate score.

Many comments on Fine's review included line-by-line refutations, despite the fact that the film had not yet opened for general viewing. (There's nothing like that tone of crystalline certainty seen in the no-movie-viewing-necessary school of criticism.) The RT people were kept hopping, policing hateful and obscene comments. Once The Associated Press's Christy Lemire sent in her mixed review, they had to watch out for misogynistic comments as well, since she's, like, a girl.

And then there were the death threats.

At this point, Rotten Tomato's editor-in-chief, Matt Atchity, brought in a sense of perspective -- and a much-needed a sense of humour -- in an open letter titled "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things." He explained that RT had made the unprecedented decision to temporarily disable the user-comment option. "There are plenty of other things to get angry about," Atchity offered helpfully. "Like war, famine, poverty and crime. But not movie reviews."

Rotten Tomatoes pitches a big tent. That's the whole point of an aggregate site. It doesn't present one critic as a final authority but offers a range of views, making room for loads of professional critics and passionate fans. This openness is supposed to generate discussion. Not death threats.

So, yeah, maybe DKR auteur Nolan is a genius. Or maybe he's a huge no-fun-nik. Maybe DKR is an epic saga. Or a maybe it's a bloated 164-minute gloom fest. Maybe Nolan is making important statements about humanity. Or maybe his icy, cerebral approach makes little room for, you know, actual humanity. Maybe the movie brings New York City grit and realism to comic-book archetypes. Or maybe it's just a Law & Order episode that happens to include a masked super-villain and lots of intense whispering. Maybe DKR's vision of class war, with nothing between corrupt oligarchy and bloody mob rule, is morally and politically complex. Or maybe it's just confused.

Ferocious fanboys seem intent on shutting this conversation down, probably because Batman -- or, as everyone in the movie keeps saying, "The Batman" -- is the comic-book lover's Great Black Hope for gravitas. That dancing Spider-Man and those in-joking Avengers aren't going to do it. The Dark Knight trilogy is fandom's best crack at cinematic weight and cultural prestige.

But -- to quote that lightweight Spider-Man franchise -- with great power comes great responsibility. If DKR is that serious, it should be able to hold up to serious discussion.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 E3

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