This seemed like an interesting follow-up to yesterday's discussion about angry fans lashing out at critics who write negative reviews, and a fun question to ponder over the weekend (I think it's fun to ponder about film criticism over the weekend, okay? I'm too pale to go outside!). It's a piece by Darren Mooney of The M0vie Blog about the the nature of subjectivity in film criticism. Here's an excerpt from his essay:
"There are obviously those who will disagree, and who will argue that film is a technical medium that can be measured in mostly objective terms. That various writers, directors and artist have quantifiably measured skills in particular techniques, which might be stacked up against each other to provide definitive and incontrovertible proof of a movie’s worth. While I can respect that to an extent, I think that rigidly adhering to that idea takes the fun out of what is a popular pastime…I’ve always found it interesting that people who are going to see a film anyway react so strongly to negative reviews. Why does it affect their opinion of the film in question? (Especially since, in most cases, they have not seen it yet.) Whether or not they like a work shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of it. Sure, some film writers (such as Armond White or Rex Reed) might make ad hominem attacks on fans, accusing particular movies of being for brain-dead morons or such, but people tend to get more worked up by the idea that “they didn’t like what I liked!”
The way people respond to negative reviews cuts right to the heart of what we were talking about yesterday regarding fans who lash out at film critics for panning "The Avengers." But why do they do it? Why does an Avengers fan care if one critic at one film website lodges a bad review? Out of 51 reviews of "The Avengers" currently aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes, 49 are positive. That puts it on pace to become one of the best reviewed movies of the year, and certainly the best reviewed blockbuster of the year. What's the difference whether it ends up with a 97% or a 98% approval rating? It's not like Amy Nicholson's review of "The Avengers" makes it illegal or impossible for anyone else to enjoy the movie. She's just voicing her opinion. And opinions are hard to get wrong.
It seems to me that critics who stray from the consensus on highly anticipated properties like "The Avengers" are the victims of the way the world of modern film culture operates, which involves months (if not years) of hype. Though I have absolutely no sympathy for anyone who would make cruel, vicious personal attacks against a critic who dislikes something, I can understand a bit of the mentality that might lead someone to do it. Fans have had "Avengers" hype shoved down their throats for the better part of 2 years — or even longer, if you count the first teases that popped up in the original "Iron Man" all the way back in 2008. If you've read set diaries, watched trailers, bought advance tickets, collected action figures, and blugeoned people with light-up Thor hammers, you've got a lot invested in this thing, literally and figuratively. When fans like that starts screaming at critics like Amy Nicholson, they're not mad at her; they're mad at themselves for possibly having wasted years of their lives on a movie that could turn out to be terrible. And that possibility is terrifying. And what do people do when they're terrified? They lash out.
But back to the question of opinions: can they be wrong? No, but they can be uninformed, and that's what really seems to stick in the craw of some fanboys. If you're going to review "The Avengers," you'd better be an expert on the comics — or else. Granted, it's not an entirely unreasonable desire to want a critic to be able to put a film within a larger pop culture context. You wouldn't expect a reporter who covers baseball for ESPN.com to write the site's piece on the first day of the NFL Draft because that's not their area of expertise. But a critic who doesn't know anything about "The Avengers" might be called upon to review the film.
But what aggressive fans seem to lose sight of in their rush to vilify outsiders (besides the fact that comic book culture used to a welcoming place, as we discussed yesterday) is the fact that not all outlets are geared to the same audience. A comic book website like Newsarama is going to run an "Avengers" movie review dense in "Avengers" mythology, because their clientele want to know how the movie stacks up against the comics. The readers of a daily newspaper like The Kansas City Star could care less about that stuff — theirs is a general audience, many of whom haven't read "Avengers" comics and maybe haven't even seen the previous films like "Captain America." They just want to know if the movie is fun, interesting, and whether it makes any sense to someone who hasn't read 30 years of serialized fiction. That's why their readership might be better served by a critic who couldn't tell you Hawkeye's other super-hero aliases (Goliath, Ronin, and The Golden Archer, for those keeping score at home).
It's worth remembering that when reading a review. Who is the critic writing for? What is their taste like? Do they make valid points even if we don't agree with them? Most importantly, let's not forget that someone who ridicules a critic for disliking a movie they themselves haven't even seen yet holds the most uninformed opinion of all.
Read more of Darren Mooney's "That's Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man: Movie Criticism and Subjectivity…"