This weekend saw a battle even more cataclysmic than the one being waged between the Dark Knight and the Last Son of Krypton, thanks to the release of “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” —namely, the beef between critics and fans. Reviews for Zack Snyder’s hotly anticipated superhero blockbuster, the followup to “Man Of Steel,” and the official launch of a DC Extended Universe, were posted a few days before the film’s release on Friday. They were, on the whole, not good. “About as diverting as having a porcelain sink broken over your head,” wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times, while Tasha Robinson at The Verge said that the film “doubles down on the grimness, the ugliness and the indifference to human life” of its predecessor. Our own review wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.
The aggregators had represented the overall critical take, with the movie scoring 28% on Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, fans of the two title characters have been unhappy that the critical response was so poor, swamping social media and comments sections with thoughts ranging from angry to murderous. Ben Affleck’s sad face went viral, while future “Justice League” members Jason Momoa and Ray Fisher responded on Instagram with various degrees of incoherent defiance.
Studio big shots spoke out as well. “There’s a real disconnect with what some critics wrote and how the fans are enjoying the film,” said Warner Bros’ domestic distribution chief Jeff Goldstein. The film earned over $400 million worldwide in just three days, numbers that Variety’s Brent Lang called “a devastating rebuke to the power of mainstream American critics.” Has Snyder’s film finally proven that the critical community are entirely redundant to a general audience?
Frankly, that’s a stupid question. In ‘Batman v Superman,’ Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor pits the title characters against each other (sort of, it’s all a bit muddy, and it’s not exactly crystal clear why he does this, but we’re getting off topic), when in fact they should be on the same side, or at least existing side by side in their own separate franchises. Similarly, critics and audiences are being unnecessarily forced into a confrontation.
To begin with, critics didn’t have any impact on the opening weekend of ‘Batman v Superman.’ Nor did they expect to, or even want to. It’s probably true that a brace of glowing pull-quotes can help elevate a blockbuster further into must-see territory. “The Avengers” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” both exemplify well-received tentpoles that did even better than the sky-high expectations, in part because mostly enthusiastic responses from critics influenced a snowball effect of buzz in the run-up to release. Perhaps ‘Batman v Superman’ would have gone even higher with its box office haul than it did with better reviews. Perhaps not.
But opening weekends are less a reflection of how well received a movie is, and more a reflection of marketing, as well as a certain ineffable want-to-see factor. Warner Bros. needed a hit, and spent a huge amount on advertising to get one. And so the picture had earned at least $30 million before reviews even landed. That said, however much the studio spent, “Aquaman v Cyborg: Dawn Of Justice” would have earned a fraction of what ‘Batman v Superman’ has in its first week —those two characters are icons with 70 year plus histories that no other comic book characters can rival, and regardless of the Rotten Tomatoes score, clearly a large number of moviegoers were curious enough to check the movie out no matter what.
A movie like this was always going to open to some hefty numbers, but the jury’s still out on whether a mass audience will like it over time: as we pointed out yesterday, the B Cinemascore the film received is significantly lower than most superhero movies or blockbusters tend to get in general, and a record box-office drop for a superhero movie between Friday and Sunday suggests that word of mouth may not be strong. Which means that those super-fans blanketing Twitter and Facebook with attacks on critics who gave the movie bad reviews may yet prove to be a vocal minority, and likely are.
Meanwhile, some of that subset of fans have spun conspiracy theories that critics of the film have been bribed by Marvel, or are inherently picking sides in the ancient battle of Marvel vs. DC. I can’t quite believe that it needs to be said, but both of these accusations are obviously thunderingly false. Critics have a hard enough job getting paid for a review by the outlet that they work for without trying to get a giant conglomerate to send them money for dissing another studio’s film. There is no such animal as a Disney marketing executive who would sooner pay thousands of dollars to critics rather than, say, buying a “Zootopia” TV spot. And Marvel are as invested as anyone in making sure that the superhero bubble doesn’t burst any time soon. A failure by DC puts even more pressure on them to succeed.
As for any perceived tribalism, that’s possibly even more ridiculous. Some critics read comics growing up, and some didn’t. Some might have preferred DC, and some might have gone with Marvel. Plenty read both. But no professional film critic treats one studio like they’re football teams, cheering one blindly and jeering the other.
Which is not to say that critics aren’t biased. Critics are biased. We’re all biased. Having taste —good taste, bad taste, whatever— is a collection of biases. Some are conscious, and some are unconscious. There’s an idea that seems to have emerged from the GamerGate swamp that reviews should be "objective." But so long as a critic is aiming for something more ambitious than ‘‘this film was/wasn’t in focus,’ "objectivity" is impossible: we all see a film through our own prisms, and we each have a very different experience with that film as a result.
Some fans may be confused because critics write from a position of authority, and get the impression that they are being told by critics that they’re dumb for not agreeing with them. But a critic panning a movie isn’t setting out to stop anyone from seeing it or to ensure its financial failure —they’re sharing their own subjective opinion.
Any critic is hopefully doing so with wit and insight: when done right (and there are at least as many bad professional critics as there are bad professional filmmakers, which is to say plenty), criticism is its own art form, and reading a great piece of writing by a Pauline Kael or a Roger Ebert or a Wesley Morris can be as entertaining as the film itself, whether you agree or disagree. They’re not right, and they’re not wrong, and they’re not merely giving consumer reports on whether you should see a movie.
I should probably acknowledge here that I saw ‘Batman v Superman,’ and I hated it. I thought it was grim, boring, incoherently told and fundamentally broken in its depiction of the characters. I should also acknowledge that I suspected I would hate it going in (but, like most critics, I hoped I would love it: no one goes into their job every day hoping they have a terrible time). I have increasing superhero movie fatigue, I’m not a big fan of the Frank Miller comics that the movie largely draws from, and I’ve literally never liked a Zack Snyder film.
These are my biases. I have others —I have a physical reaction against Sean Penn performances, I’m allergic to garbled English dialogue by foreign-language filmmakers (this means you, “Clouds Of Sils Maria”), I don’t like torture porn, I have a British fondness for repressed emotion, and I think Seth MacFarlane is terrible, to name but a few. None of these opinions are necessarily correct. None are necessarily wrong either. None qualify or disqualify me from having an opinion on this film or any other.
But even as I hated the whole, I found moments to like that made the price of my ticket worthwhile. I was entertained by the brief appearances of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, even if she seems to have been written as Catwoman. I found Affleck’s Batman to be a somewhat fresh take on the character and one I’d be reasonably keen to see more of, even if I could have done with him murdering fewer people. And I liked that the film, in contrast to some of the recent Marvel movies like “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and “Ant-Man,” had a distinct point of view and something to say about superheroes, even if I mostly found that point of view repellent.
And then I came home and sought out the negative reviews I’d been avoiding until I saw it. And I sought out the most positive reviews too. And I looked for what my favorite critics wrote about the movie (mixed takes by two of my top ones, Bilge Ebiri and Mark Harris, made for particularly interesting reading). Sometimes you overlook something, or sometimes it’s worth looking at a movie from a different perspective (particularly, it should be said, if that perspective is from a different race or gender to the white men that make up the bulk of the filmmaking profession). And sometimes your opinion hasn’t settled yet.
Critics and audiences each can and should be wrong. If you’re not changing your mind often, you’re not growing as a watcher of films. You’re just retreating into dogma, and dogma is boring for everybody else. Sometimes we see a great film on the wrong day, or a bad one on the right one (I saw "Elizabethtown" while I was falling in love for the first time, and walked out convinced I’d seen a masterpiece —go figure), or a filmmaker is ahead of their time, or an acclaimed master gets a soft pass for a lesser work.
We’ve all had that moment of returning to a film and realizing that we’ve overpraised or underpraised it, or something in between (it happens to me at least once at every film festival I go to). Famously, “Bonnie & Clyde” only began to take off when Joe Morgenstern retracted his original Newsweek pan and re-reviewed it with a rave the following week, convincing both fellow critics and audience members to give a film they’d dismissed a second look. It’s one of the reasons critics are valuable, and also one of the reasons that you shouldn’t take their word as gospel.
The Rotten Tomatoes score is never the last word on a movie. The history books have proven critics wrong numerous times —“Night Of The Hunter,” “Predator,” “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," and "Heavens Gate" are among the films whose reputations were initially tarnished by mostly negative notices, but which were restored over time. Conversely, critics have often proved more receptive to a now-classic film than audiences — think of “Blade Runner,” among many others.
Professional moviegoers or otherwise: we’re all fallible, and our opinions aren’t set in stone, but shift and change over time. They can even be contradictory. And in a world where reviews are grouped into "fresh" or "rotten" and measured in percentages or star ratings or grades, that can be frustrating. But it makes life much more interesting. Critics’ jobs aren’t (as Guillermo Del Toro tweeted today) to predict or even align with box office grosses, but to start or continue conversations about art.
**Spoilers ahead** Ultimately, Batman and Superman put aside their differences. In a totally ridiculous moment, Bruce Wayne discovers that both of their mothers are called Martha and spares his extraterrestrial frenemy. If he’d worked this out earlier, if he’d remembered that there was a man behind the costume and had a little empathy, it would have spared a certain amount of bruising and property damage for everybody. Even in the baffling choice of execution, it’s a pretty good metaphor for the ways that critics and moviegoers should behave towards each other.