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Marshall Fine On the Reaction to His ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Review: “It’s Part of the Job.”

Marshall Fine On the Reaction to His 'Dark Knight Rises' Review: "It's Part of the Job."

“It’s not like I dismissed the thing. Certainly I’ve been tougher on other movies. Go back and read my reviews of the ‘Transformers’ movies, or ‘G.I. Joe,’ or a couple of other movies that I really, really hated. This was, I thought, a reasoned disappointed reaction to a movie.”

That’s how film critic Marshall Fine saw his negative review of “The Dark Knight Rises.” The legions of comic book fans on Rotten Tomatoes saw it differently, unleashing their rage in a spew of hateful and even threatening comments and flooding Fine’s site, Hollywood and Fine, with so much traffic that they repeatedly crashed its servers. Fine told me he followed the reaction for an hour or so, until he thought “Well what’s the next guy going to say that’s different than what the last guy said?” and then went on to other things. He only heard about the extreme degree of outrage when a friend passed along my report on the incident. A short while later, we had the following phone conversation about the infamous review and the even-more-infamous response.

Fine’s site is back up now (“Rumors of the death of my website have been greatly exaggerated,” he chuckled), but the reaction to his and other negative reviews had serious and potentially permanent implications for Rotten Tomatoes; in response to the intensity (and, frankly, insanity) of some of the Bat-fans’ comments, the site has temporarily suspended all commenting on “Dark Knight Rises” reviews. 

Throughout our chat, Fine remained impressively even-tempered about his hot-tempered critics. Though he admitted he hadn’t read all the comments (like maybe not the one where the guy fantasized about beating him into a coma with “a thick rubber hose”), he didn’t really consider them threats. When I said I thought some crossed the line between hyperbole and objectionable hate speech, he told me that hearing from readers, even angry ones, “is just part of the job.”

Sometimes, I guess, that part of the job is more pleasant than others. Here’s our conversation.

You’ve been a critic for a long time. Have you ever gotten a reaction like this to something you’d written?

I was once fired for writing a negative review. If you look on my website, you’ll find a two-part piece I wrote about Anita Bryant when the film “Milk” came out, because I was fired for panning an Anita Bryant concert during that era when the gay rights issue was in the air. This is 1977: I was working at paper in Jackson, Mississippi. She played the Mississippi State Fair and I wrote a review where I panned it and said it was inappropriate in a forum like this to be proselytizing for Christianity, and the paper was inundated with phone calls and letters. I sat there that day and just took phone calls from people with thick Southern accents telling me I was headed for hell. But that’s thirty-something years ago. I’ve never really dealt with it it in the Internet age.

That incident involved religion, always a controversial subject. Now the thing that generates that level of controversy is Batman. It’s as if Batman is almost a religion to some people.

Well, I guess you could make the argument that at this point it is. The true believers were all at Comic-Con last weekend. What’s amazing to me — and sort of amusing to me — is that all of these comments are coming from people who haven’t seen the movie.

Sure. Well, like you said, they’re true believers.

They probably haven’t even read my review, because my site went down so quickly.

When you filed the piece, did you expect this kind of reaction?

No, I really did not expect this level of response. I knew it would probably be controversial just because I was the first negative one, and the first person to burst that 100% bubble always comes in for some negative response, but it was like a tsunami.

Do you think Rotten Tomatoes needs to change their commenting system? Since your review was posted, they’ve suspended all commenting on “Dark Knight Rises” reviews and are seriously considering a new system that doesn’t allow for anonymity.

It’s interesting. When I worked for newspapers, whenever there was a negative letter to the editor about something I had written, I never responded because I felt like I’ve had the chance to express my opinion and here’s their chance to do that. Having said that, anonymity really offers a kind of freedom that’s easily abused.

Rotten Tomatoes is not my site. On my site I do go through and approve or not approve the comments people make. If someone’s just spouting obscenities, I’m not going to approve it. If they’re calling me an idiot, I’ll put that on, that’s their opinion. It doesn’t hurt my feelings. Like you said, I’ve been doing this a long time. You have to have a thick skin if you’re going to be offering your opinion out to the public.

So the comments don’t really even upset you. It’s the audience having their say. But there’s a point, maybe, where it crosses a line.

I guess to me it crosses a line if someone shows up on my front step. Otherwise everyone’s entitled to their opinion. People have strong feelings about this stuff. Is it unfortunate that this is the way people express themselves? Well, yeah, I think it’s a measure of how powerless people feel in this society in general. Here’s their chance to get their rocks off at someone they don’t know. Is it any worse than calling up the White House and leaving an obscene message? I certainly don’t put myself on the same level as President Obama, but it’s the same sort of response.

As I look back on it, I have to assume there’s this huge cadre of fanboys who are just dying to see this movie. And not having the opportunity to do that until Thursday night or Friday, they’re scouring the Internet for anything that will tell them something about it.

Do you have any idea how many hits the review got?

I don’t, because the site crashed so quickly. It obviously got more traffic than I usually get. What impressed me was how many people look at Rotten Tomatoes and were just waiting for those “Dark Knight Rises” reviews to show up. Because literally within the first five minutes of posting my review on Rotten Tomatoes, there were 25 comments. It blew my mind.

To me, it’s just a movie. Tomorrow I’ll review another movie. And the next day I’ll review another, and the day after that I’ll review another. To me, it’s one in a list of hundreds of movies I’ll review this year. It doesn’t mean much more or less than any of the others, but people have strong feelings about it, probably stronger feelings that I did. As a critic, you don’t play favorites. You’re in it for the long game. The year isn’t about this one movie. This is one movie in a year full of movies. But to these people, this is the highpoint of their year.

Right, this is the only movie.

At least until the next superhero movie comes along.

Well if you review that one, and it’s a negative review, hopefully you won’t be the first critic to publish.

[laughs] Well certainly I’m going to think twice in the future about being the first one out of the box with a negative review of something like this. It’s not going to keep me from writing a negative review. But I may think twice about being the first one.

Not just in this case but in general, has any reader feedback ever swayed your mind about something you’ve written?

No, I don’t think so. Again, to do this job you have to have strong opinions and you really can’t second guess yourself. Occasionally, I have in the past looked at a movie that I hadn’t liked years earlier and though “Oh, y’know, maybe I didn’t give that movie as much credit as I should have.” But for the most part when I go back and look at movies that I gave good reviews or bad reviews to, I usually think my initial reaction was the right one.

So we shouldn’t expect another review of “The Dark Knight Rises” anytime soon.

No, though I have to admit I’m tempted to watch the first two movies and then go see this one again just to sort of clarify it in my mind and write something further about it. But, on the other hand, that may just be asking for trouble. [laughs]

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