Plot holes and politics: Do you need an airtight reason to dislike a movie?
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Remember a couple of weeks ago, when just about every negative advance review of The Dark Knight Rises sent the Internet into a tizzy, with Bat-fans rushing to shout down the critics, and critics rallying to decry the corrupting influence of Rotten Tomatoes? Then the movie came out, and the conversation changed. It changed in part because of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, which deflated some of the zeitgeist-y summer-blockbuster fun. But it also changed because the movie itself is far from a smooth ride. The Dark Knight Rises is oversized and lumpy, with strong highs sitting alongside moments that are distractingly inelegant. Whenever an ambitious-but-imperfect, geek-friendly movie or TV show hits, battle lines get quickly drawn, as the people who care about such matters fight to define the legacy. Saying, “Eh, the movie had its moments” won’t suffice. Is it awesome or awful? Star Wars or The Phantom Menace?
These battles are fought on different planes. In the week after The Dark Knight Rises’ release, several websites published lists of the movie’s biggest plot holes, with gripes ranging from the legitimately concerning (like those questioning the logistics of the villain’s plans) to the merely nitpicky. In defense of the plot-hole spotters, if they were hung up on why Bane and his associates would need to wait five months to destroy Gotham, then the movie clearly wasn’t working for them. Whether it was failing because of bad plotting or because of some more esoteric reason doesn’t matter. The fact is that writer-director Christopher Nolan lost those people somewhere along the way—which is worth noting.
In defense of Nolan, though, some of what have been called plot holes in The Dark Knight Rises are just editing choices. One of the most frequent “this doesn’t make any sense” charges levied at TDKR (warning: mild spoilers ahead) is that once Bruce Wayne is left penniless and stranded in a foreign land, it’s implausible that he’d be able to get back to the U.S. so quickly, and to infiltrate a Gotham City that’s been heavily guarded and cut off from the rest of the country. But how is that a plot hole, exactly? It isn’t hard to imagine that someone as resourceful and secretive as Batman would have cash reserves and travel documents stashed all over the world, or that he’d have secret passageways into and out of his home city. Would the movie have been any better had Nolan included a short scene of Bruce Wayne hitching a ride to the nearest bank? Or would it just have been longer?
There have also been some squabbles over whether the message of Dark Knight Rises is liberal, conservative, or hopelessly muddled. What does it mean that the bad guys in the movie seem to be calling for an Occupy-style revolution? Is grassroots activism being purposefully associated with destructive evil? Or are Nolan and his brother/co-writer Jonathan being more critical of the wealthy, for abdicating their responsibility to keep the engine of society properly fueled?
Here are a couple more questions:
1. Does it matter whether the film is expressing a clear leftist or rightist perspective? Can a liberal not appreciate a well-crafted action movie with a conservative worldview, or vice-versa?
2. Does it matter if the film is expressing no political perspective?
Christopher Nolan has indicated in interviews that he was more interested in merely referencing the world of today than in making a statement about it. The Dark Knight Rises has a fairly complex view of heroism and symbolism, recognizing that people need heroes while also realizing that the line between leadership and demagoguery is thin. The Nolans seem to want to get the audience thinking about where that line should be, without providing any definitive answers of their own. Is that a blunder?
The Dark Knight Rises is being used here as an example, but it’s far from the only movie this summer that’s been widely dismissed on political or plot grounds. Beasts Of The Southern Wild has been dinged for being set in a fantastical version of post-Katrina Louisiana, which some feel diminishes the experiences of the real people who lived through that tragedy. It’s also been criticized for showing its characters as distrustful toward doctors and other government-aid workers. Again, like TDKR, Beasts references the real world, but obviously isn’t the real world. (There are giant extinct creatures wandering around, for goodness sake.) The idea that the movie is intentionally anti-government/anti-Obamacare—or even unintentionally so—seems a bit of a reach, given that the movie is more about its florid style and plucky young heroine than about politics. But even if Beasts were covertly Randian, would that alone be a reason to dislike the film? We tend to give older movies the benefit of the doubt when it comes to any dubious political or social commentary. Why can’t we be as open-minded about contemporary cinema?
On the plot-hole front, the multitude of Dark Knight Rises takedowns can’t match the bevy of skepticism that greeted Prometheus earlier this summer. (One of the sharpest and funniest examples of Prometheus eye-rolling came from our contributor Mike D’Angelo, who imagined a text chat between one of the movie’s characters and one of the “Engineers” of human existence.) Prometheus is one case where slipshod plotting and characterizations are indeed glaring; it’s as though six different scripts were filmed at the same time, then roughly edited together. But while weak storytelling keeps Prometheus from being top-tier, it doesn’t diminish the movie’s moments of soulful awe and visual splendor, which are so plentiful that Prometheus remains one of the most moving and visionary of this year’s summer blockbusters.
On Cinemablend’s Operation Kino podcast, Dave Gonzales took some pointed jabs at plot-hole posts on websites otherwise friendly to big Hollywood genre movies, suggesting that these articles are a way for sites to placate fanboys while still firing off something like a pan. On Indiewire’s Criticwire blog, Matt Singer rebutted this, pointing out that as near as he could see, the sites in question were pretty consistent about being critical toward The Dark Knight Rises. Singer instead seized on something that Operation Kino’s David Ehrlich said, describing plot as “something that can be incontrovertible.” Singer notes that often people on the Internet excoriate critics for ignoring what to some commenters are objective qualities of good and bad. Matters of aesthetics and taste are hard to dispute, but the logic behind a movie character’s master plan can be argued with some measure of conclusiveness.
Singer and Ehrlich’s take rings true, for a couple of reasons. First, as mentioned above, the discourse on popular culture these days doesn’t allow much space for “not bad” or “pretty good.” That’s partly because consumers of movie reviews are naturally drawn to read about and see movies with A or F grades, while shrugging off B’s—which is a shame, because often the B movies are the most interesting, either because they’ve tried something ambitious and fallen short, or because they’ve elevated iffy material in an entertaining or artful way. Some cantankerous souls especially go for the A reviews because they’re easier to refute. “Hey, idiot, how can this movie possibly be an A when that one guy fired seven shots from a six-shot pistol?”
That’s why plot-hole and political nitpicks are more similar than they may initially appear: Both seek to stack the deck in an argument over what a movie is trying to say and how well it says it. Viewers who praise movies with logical inconsistencies—or movies that appear to some to be espousing socially regressive viewpoints—are forced into defensive postures, asked to answer for mistakes that they may not actually care about. And that tends to suck some of the fun out of discussing movies. It’s hard to have a friendly conversation with someone who doesn’t just claim to be right, but also righteous.