This morning I was slightly appalled to see that Rotten Tomatoes, the movie review aggregator, had to shut down its comments on The Dark Knight Rises after response to negative reviews got out of control. Apparently, fans are so loyal to this film that they are spewing vitriol at reviewers who haven’t liked it, even though the fans haven’t seen it yet.
I am guilty of this kind of thinking myself. I am an avid fan of The Hunger Games books, and before the film adaptation opened I read review after review, exalting the positive and disdaining the negative. But rather than getting angry about the negative reviews, I rather became sad, as I started to think that the movie I had been waiting for over a year to see wasn’t going to be everything I had hoped. I tried very hard to manage my expectations. The film ended up exceeding my consciously-lowered expectations and I was happy. But it took a lot of effort on my part.
This reaction to negative reviews brings to light a problem with The Dark Knight Rises that I’ve been predicting for a long time. I feel that, no matter how good the movie is, it’s going to be disappointing. Nobody is going to be completely satisfied. For four years this movie has been built up, almost never being entirely out of the pop culture conversation. Expectations have been growing and growing until they literally exploded with these comments, which reportedly included significant profanity and threats against the reviewers. How can Rises possibly reach the heights to which fans have prematurely set it?
Perhaps a more relevant question than how can it meet expectations is how it got those expectations in the first place. It started with the release of The Dark Knight itself. The highest opening weekend gross (at the time). Heath Ledger’s incredible performance and the posthumous acclaim he was garnering. The Oscar Buzz. Then Oscar season rolled around and the general pop culture public was roiled to see that Knight had not been nominated for Best Picture. Heath Ledger won the Oscar. Soon after the Best Picture category was expanded to ten nominees instead of five. The Dark Knight Rises was announced. Inception was released to acclaim and box office success. It snagged a Best Picture nod. Famous faces were added to the Rises cast list. Shooting began. Photos were released. Some were grabbed by the paparazzi. First teaser. More photos released. First poster. First full trailer. Six minute prologue premieres.More trailers. More photos. More posters. More trailers. TV spots. Viral marketing.
And on and on and on. Not to mention the simple fact that The Dark Knight, to many fans, surpassed Batman Begins by far, and so the logical expectation is that The Dark Knight Rises will do the same. It’s just too much for one film to live up to.
I actually missed a lot of The Dark Knight pandemonium. I was studying abroad in London when it premiered in the US and it didn’t premier in the UK until after I had left. By the time I got home all of my friends had seen it already. I ended up seeing it alone several weeks after it had opened. I liked it, I did, but I suffered from the expectations problem. It was only natural. I watched from across the pond as the film swept the US, and heard accounts from my friends with phrases like “it completely blew my mind,””life-changing,” and “the best movie ever.” I read articles and reviews about it and saw it break box office records. So by the time I saw it I really was expecting the “best movie ever.” It wasn’t. Maybe that’s blasphemous to some of you, but it’s not my favorite movie nor the best movie ever in my opinion. I did really like it. Heath Ledger completely blew me away. I thought Aaron Eckhart was also incredible. I always love effects and big fight scenes. I was surprised by the psychological and political undertones of the movie. But I was also very underwhelmed.
I have, in my mind, an idea of what “the best movie ever” would be. I imagine it would have much of what was in Knight. Great actors, great performances, great story, great effects, great pacing, great music, etc etc etc. But it also has to have something else. Some kind of x factor that punches you in the gut while your watching it and does leave you changed when you walk out of the theater. It doesn’t have to be emotional. It just has to stick with you. I felt that with a few movies I’ve seen in the past few years. Million Dollar Baby. Brokeback Mountain. Slumdog Millionaire. The Avengers.
The Avengers is a good comparison for The Dark Knight Rises. It also a highly anticipated comic-book adaptation preempted by multiple movies. Although none of the Marvel films leading up to The Avengers came even close to the impact of Knight, they did do very well in their own right, and the two Iron Man movies greatly exceeded expectations. But the sheer amount of build up for The Avengers was also incredibly huge, with the simple truth that no movie like it had ever been made. It also had similar marketing campaigns that involved leaking select photos, teasers, and posters, to build up to the premier. And it worked. The Avengers has since become the third highest grossing film of all time.
But the thing that is different about The Avengers I think, is that everyone who went to see it and everyone who wrote about it had, in the back of their minds, the idea that The Avengers could fail, and fail miserably. Six superheroes, one movie. Five lead up films. No one had ever done anything like that before. It could have crashed and burned. The story could have been nonsensical to people who hadn’t seen the original five films. The personalities of the different superheroes could have clashed. It could have ended up as Iron Man 3, with Robert Downey, Jr. stealing scenes. It could have just been bad.
And so when the movie bypassed all of these potential problems and went above and beyond expectations, the world responded in kind. And that’s really what it’s about. Expectations. So much about how we enjoy things is based on the context in which they are experienced. Think about a bad time you had at the movies. A movie you wanted to see because it looked good in the trailer, and then it disappointed you. Maybe you went with a group of friends and they were talkative and distracting. Maybe other people in the theater were obnoxious. Maybe you wore uncomfortable pants, or the popcorn sucked, or you had to use the bathroom for two thirds of the movie or the projector glitched or the sound was off or any other number of things. We can’t deny that context is incredibly important. It’s part of the reason I didn’t like The Dark Knight quite as much as everyone else. Maybe if I had seen it earlier with a group of excited friends I would have felt the same as they did. But I saw it alone, weeks late, and so I didn’t have anyone to chatter with excitedly about my favorite parts. I instead had only to dwell on my disappointment in the car ride home alone.
On the other hand, I truly loved Batman Begins. Based on the expectations game, I was inclined to like it. The only previous Batman movie I had ever seen was the disastrous Batman and Robin, nipples on the Batsuit and all. I knew nothing about movie other than that it was about Batman. I saw it with my family, a movie-loving group that loves to dissect films in the car ride home and for days after. I didn’t particularly like superhero movies then. All in all I had very low expectations and excellent context. Batman Begins turned into one of the films that changed my mind about superheroes. I really loved everything about it. The background into Bruce Wayne’s training and travels. Cillian Murphy’s really scary Scarecrow. The climactic fight on the train. The whole dark feeling of the movie. The way that Gotham felt like it desperately needed a superhero, and how Bruce Wayne filled that role. I definitely felt that x factor when I walked out of the theater. It was just so much better than I thought it would be. And I loved it for surprising me like that.
I’m sure that The Dark Knight Rises will do well this weekend. I’m sure lots of people will like it. But I’m also sure a great many will be disappointed. It’s just the way expectations work. We can either be hyper-aware of it, in the way I treated my Hunger Games viewing experience, which requires conscious effort, or we can roll with it and let our expectations guide our reactions. It just depends on how you like to see your movies. If you’re like me, you may be more likely to choose the former. But, validly, we can’t always control how we feel. Sometimes, we just love or hate something.
Personally, I’m cautiously excited for Rises. I’m seeing it midnight Thursday, so you can expect my take Friday morning. I’ll try to keep my expectations out of it.