Why Online Film Criticism and Audiences Are Growing Further Apart
by Dan Marcus
June 2, 2016
"Is film criticism still relevant?" That is a question I have been hearing a lot lately. Conversely, I think the more important question is, "Is film criticism relevant to you?" In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I don't consider myself to be a film critic. I don't have a journalism degree. However, I don't hate film criticism. As a matter of fact, some of my favorite writers are critics. I grew up reading the reviews of Roger Ebert, Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott. When I was younger, I wanted to grow up and become a critic. As an adult, it feels like that dream has changed and the significance of film criticism isn't quite what it was. As of late, I have noticed a strange disparity among casual moviegoers and online film criticism when it comes to some major films this past year. This isn't some new trend that only started in 2016 (see this article or this one); it is something I believe has been happening for some time. If the rocky relationship between critics and audiences is a marriage, I think it's safe to say some audiences have filed for divorce.
So, how relevant are film critics in today's internet/social media age? One could argue they are still very relevant, depending on who you ask. Let's look at some of the biggest blockbusters so far this year. I was most intrigued by the response to Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film that has had a very polarizing reception among critics and general audiences alike. Within days of release, the meme "Sad Affleck" (after star Ben Affleck's reaction to a question regarding how he felt about the film's poor reviews) went viral and the film was bludgeoned to death with a critical wrecking ball days before it even opened in cinemas. If we're going by the Rotten Tomatoes score, for example, the rating for that film sits at a staggeringly low 27%. That is lower than the superhero film Daredevil, also starring Ben Affleck. That one was considered a huge disappointment by fans and critics alike and is one of the weaker entries in the superhero genre. Is Batman v Superman really that bad? Does it deserve that kind of critical thrashing?
I would say no. The film is a bit of a mess – the script is tremendously under-cooked, the story is overstuffed with far too many characters and plot-lines that it can't adequately juggle – but it is nowhere near the critical disaster that is Daredevil. Despite not being the biggest fan of the film, even I could appreciate the film's ambitious narrative that explored the notion of gods as all-powerful myths and the role superheroes have in our modern society. So why were critics so harsh on the film? The term "superhero fatigue" has been thrown about a lot during the last couple months, but I want to examine a different topic altogether: I think most critics are facing superhero saturation.
There will be many that will contest "saturation" is just another word for "fatigue", but I beg to differ. The very definition of fatigue refers to a symptom one experiences involving feeling lethargic, exhausted and tired. I don't think we've quite reached that level of fatigue with superhero films. For the most part, given the opening weekend of Batman v Superman and even Captain America: Civil War (which both smashed box office records), audiences are still very excited and hungry for these superhero tales. So I don't think fatigue is the right word to describe what some critics and audiences are possibly feeling right now.
I think saturation, a term that is used to describe "the supplying of a market with as much of a product as it will absorb", is far more appropriate. In 2016 alone, we will have at least five major superhero films that have taken over cinema screens, soda cans, storefronts and every other possible screen imaginable. In the last sixteen years since the superhero boom began with Blade and X-Men, we have had at least 23 superhero films in total. Just like the Western or the summer blockbuster that was born in the late 70's with Jaws and Star Wars, audiences have not grown weary, but spoiled. We want something more from our cinematic superhero offerings. We want every new superhero movie to be The Dark Knight or The Avengers (or better) and quite frankly, that absolutism has already started to taint viewer perception.
Suddenly, it's not okay if your film is "good" or even sometimes "great". It has to be the best ever.
I can't even begin to describe how many times I have been attacked online because I don't love something. I have also noticed a trend where suddenly what came before just isn't good enough anymore. Suddenly, I get attacked online for liking the Batman series by Christopher Nolan, because suddenly they are not true Batman films. I have had friends remove me from social media because I have been critical of Batman v Superman. I have had friends viciously attack me online simply because I enjoy the Bryan Singer X-Men films. Absolutism has not only bled into all forms of media, but it has also started to bleed info fandom and how we perceive and react to films and entertainment. I've been in debates with friends who literally cannot comprehend how I can be critical of something, but still be a fan of it. If you've ever seen the film Scanners, you know the iconic image of a news reporter and his head exploding. As of late, it's like cranial explosions everywhere whenever I am discussing anything film-related. Especially if that film has a devoted fandom.
I don't blame film critics for this. I don't even blame the fans. I blame a wave of internet culture that has no "in-between" when it comes to the enjoyment or displeasure of something. Film critics themselves are being blamed for having an intelligent, informed decision about something. Even Roger Ebert himself – which some consider to be one of the best film critics we've ever had – talked about the possible death of film criticism back in 2008 (ironically, the same year The Dark Knight opened). Ebert argued, "It is not about the disappearance of film critics. We are the canaries," he says. "The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think." The last statement is the most telling. Film criticism should and has always been about encouraging debate, conversation and intelligent discussion.
Whenever I would read a Roger Ebert review, what always struck me is how divisive Ebert could be as a reviewer. He would give a film three stars, but if you read his actual review it seemed like he rather disliked the film. A lot of the time his "rating" would not always line up with his actual thoughts on the movie, and that is because Ebert never let absolutism win. He was always very critical of any movie he saw. He was passionate when he liked something and sometimes he was even more passionate when he didn't like something. He always wanted something to be good, but also understood if something wasn't perfect.
As a contemporary culture that deals in absolutes, we can still learn a lot from Roger Ebert even today.
When I was younger, before I could hop onto Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, I would wait patiently every Saturday to watch At the Movies. I remember waiting for the program to start, tingling with anticipation. Would Roger Ebert like the movie I was most looking forward to that weekend? It was if his opinion validated my interest in a movie. If he liked it, I felt relieved. If he didn't, however, I felt disappointed. I would slump into sadness, my anticipation evaporating like air leaving a popped balloon. At a certain point, though, I started realizing I didn't need Ebert's opinion to justify my interest in or excitement for a film. He liked many films I disliked and I liked many films he hated. As I got older, I stopped depending on Ebert to determine if I should anticipate a film or not. I was going to look forward and enjoy that film no matter what. It wasn't until somewhat recently that I realized Ebert probably would have wanted that.
Here's the truth: you will likely never completely agree with a film critic in the same way I never completely agreed with Ebert. And you know what? That is okay. This past weekend, I went to the cinemas and enjoyed X-Men: Apocalypse, despite almost every noted critic bashing it and calling it the nadir of the series. "To hell with the critics", I thought. "I am going to try and enjoy the movie anyway" - and I did, though not in spite of critics. I still read every review and to be honest I understand where a lot of them are coming from. I think it harkens back to my original point about "superhero saturation". Marvel & DC are flooding the market with superheroes and thanks to some true knockouts, our expectations have changed.
However, not every superhero movie is going to be as good as Captain America: Civil War or Days of Future Past, if we're talking about the X-Men series. We shouldn't overreact if an event film doesn't blow us away – it is simply just not possible that every event film will. It doesn't make it the worst film ever. There is an ability to dislike something without resorting to absolutes. It is okay to like something, but not love it. That doesn't mean you hate it; it doesn't mean you necessarily love it, either. It is also okay if you don't agree with critics. They are not there to sway you, but to inform you. So be informed.
Like every great art form, movies are subjective - and so are opinions. No matter if they are coming from someone with a journalism degree or someone like me, who is just a nerdy guy who grew up reading (and watching) Roger Ebert reviews and wanted to become someone like that one day. The world is a very big place and it is full of people that will not always agree. Embrace that. Encourage discussion and debate. I don't think Roger Ebert would have liked X-Men: Apocalypse, but I am almost 100% confident he would have had some damn compelling reasons why. Film criticism is not objective. It is another form of opinion, one that is just informed. Are you required to listen to it? No. Should you? Well, that is entirely up to you.
Do you think internet absolutism has taken over? Or are critics truly out of touch nowadays?