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?
film critics mission is to "try" to put words on emotions and to analyse the techniques used to reach this "ultimate" goal.. It helps some to "understand" why they loved or hated a movie. Or it comfort some when they see that they liked a movie some renowned critic has liked... Facebook syndrome.
tarek on Jun 2, 2016
Good piece, Dan. Critics are not out of touch -- in fact, criticism is more "mainstream" now thanks to the internet. I also grew up watching Siskel & Ebert, and occasionally reading A.O. Scott and Anthony Lane. But that's all I really had access to. Today, there is a wealth of good writing a few clicks or podcasts away. I choose to read this blog and listen to Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo on BBC5 Live. And these two sources inform me about almost every movie that should be on my radar. Kermode is always quick to point out that despite bad reviews for certain movies, they can still make a killing at the box office. So critics are not "out of touch" with the audience. I guess it depends on how you measure success in filmmaking: Box office? Critical acclaim? Rotten Tomatoes? And don't sell yourself short, just because you don't have a journalism degree. Everyone who writes about movies is a critic.
peekytoe on Jun 2, 2016
This is EXACTLY what I've been telling people for years now. Modern Day audiences think movies are either crap, or "the best ever." There is no in-between, and there ALWAYS should be. MOST films are not "the best ever." Doesn't make them bad films. Just not AS good.
dangeer on Jun 2, 2016
But then, on what standard would you qualify a movie as "bad" or "good" ? Tricky question...
tarek on Jun 2, 2016
It is a tricky question, and in the end it's up to the viewer like Dan said in the article. It's subjective, and it has to work - for YOU. If it didn't work AT ALL, then it's probably bad. But if there were some aspects that DID work for you, and others that didn't, well then it's probably not a perfect film, but perhaps average or better than average. If it mostly worked, save for a few minor quibbles, then chances are there's nothing truly "wrong" with it, or at least not enough to say it's a "bad" movie. If it satisfied you on every level, then it's great or "perfect" for YOU (even though a "perfect" film doesn't really exist, I think). For me personally, a film first must be judged on its OWN merits, before comparing it to other films. So if it's a part of a series, then the question should be how well does the film works on its own, had the other films not come before it. Then, it needs to be assessed how it measures up to the others in the series. I think that really creates a balanced critique, to view it from a couple different perspectives.
dangeer on Jun 3, 2016
I agree 100% with what you've said. But I want to ask you a candid question I have asked many times, that's never found an answer: What is art?
tarek on Jun 2, 2016
I always laugh when you have to over qualify people's posts as "intelligent" or "well written". You are hands down the most intellectual insecure person here.
Bob on Jun 3, 2016
Bob on Jun 3, 2016
Excellent post. Those are hands down the best 3 sentences I've read today. Well written and full of genuine conviction. I salute you and your thought provoking contributions to this site. Bo
Bob on Jun 3, 2016
Good job Bob. I award you the medal of sarcasthma. Cough, cough.
tarek on Jun 3, 2016
I completely agree. Was BvS the epic it should have been, not even close, but it wasn't the steaming pile it was made out to be either. Sure, Snyder completely missed the core element of what sets these two comic powerhouses apart and the story was weak, but there were some decent parts. Affleck was great as Batman and Jeremy Irons is the best Alfred period. Critics of late seem to have regressed into a gaggle of hate machines, openly panning nearly everything that comes down the pipe for even the slightest issues. Take the Warcraft movie for example. The "professional" critics have largely panned the movie, each one parroting the last. Some even criticized the movie WITHOUT EVEN SEEING IT, siting other critics opinions rather than actually taking the time to find out for themselves. Meanwhile, the majority of actual film-goers have been mostly positive, siting it as an enjoyable though not perfect by any stretch. In the end, the best critic is yourself. Film history is chocked full of legendary films that were considered horrible by critics.
Rob on Jun 2, 2016
Well said. I agree. In this internet era, I visit 3-5 'geeky' sites for SF/Fantasy/Comic book/etc films to get the 'critical' opinions, and weigh what their consensus is. Then I look at RT vs Flickster, and yes, I'm noticing an increasingly amusing difference between two. I have found that if the 'geeky' sites pan a movie, I seldom enjoy it if I view it. Conversely, if those sites like a movie, I have seldom been disappointed in seeing a "good" movie. For the "serious" films, I tend to look at various critics, RT & Flickster. But mostly - how interesting the film looks/the star of it in the first place.
VAharleywitch on Jun 2, 2016
Good read. I still enjoy the anticipation of reading reviews prior to the films release to build the excitement though with some you have to skim to avoid the spoilery specifics but gain the overall impressions of the reviewer. I always thought it would be helpful if each reviewer indicated their top 3 films to allow the reader to validate whether the thoughts were relatable to their own tastes.
Payne by name on Jun 3, 2016
My love of films grew tremendously by reading and watching Ebert. A good critic will teach you about film-making and what makes a good film from a mediocre one. And in the case of Ebert, what makes a good writer, too. Two of the best purchases any movie lover can make are Casablanca and Citizen Kane, with Roger's commentary. It will make you see those movies, and movies in general with new eyes...that's what good criticism in all the arts can do. And remember, as Roger was fond of saying "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it". Or something like that...
kitano0 on Jun 3, 2016
Well written, and indeed allot of critics can't place them selfes in the average moviegoer. I like to be entertained and not to be teached about life, and that doesnt mean i don't like intellectual movies because i do. I liked BvS, i thought it was well paced, and with good introduction of the new characters the DC universe. The biggest flaw was the adversary, it totally sucked and comes no where near general zod in man of Steel. Yesterday i did see captain America, but same problem like with BvS. You know they aren't going to kill each other, so the build up is going nowhere, but the action sequences are from a high level and entertaining. ps Everyone liked the new spiderman, i thought it was a big disappointment and especially the childish one liners in action scene was very annoying...
ari smulders on Jun 3, 2016
That wasn't even the point of Civil War...it was all about the development.
Bob on Jun 3, 2016
The childish one liners are part of the character. People were happy because we finally have a Peter Parker who acts like Peter Parker.
John P. Hatchell on Jun 3, 2016
Yes i know, but i am no spiderman fan so for me it felt out placed..
ari smulders on Jun 3, 2016
Bob on Jun 3, 2016
The internet has exposed us all to many critics that we otherwise would never had read in the past. The upshot of this is that we can now instantly critique the critics, either directly and publically, or quietly and privately. For me it has now got to the point that I can guess if I will like a film or not, by who has reviewed it. As an example, if Armond White hates a movie, it's a safe bet that I'm going to like it. This man is the poster boy for intellectual snobbery and hidden meanings that only he can see. One only has to read his review of Toy Story 3.
MAWG on Jun 3, 2016
When I went to see "Her" based on critical love, that was the end of relying on film reviews. It was and is the worst film I have seen in 1000's. Btw, Batman V Superman was very entertaining, and great in IMAX.
Wayne on Jun 4, 2016
"Is film criticism relevant to you?" No, it never was.
Randa Hafza on Jun 5, 2016
Critics are just out of touch nowadays. When critics bash a movie like Warcraft because "it takes itself too seriously despite being a fantasy movie" and "lacks humor and fun" and "looks like a mobile phone game ad", then cleary those people have absolutely no clue what they're talking about and have completely lost all connections with the preseny world
Ahmad Sammy Khedr on Jun 5, 2016
Very good piece Dan !
Manu Delpech on Jun 6, 2016
I believe, nowadays, everyone caring and watching movies is or wants to be a film critic. If not professionally, then in some other form. Yeah, internet culture and culture of commenting, stating opinions might influence film criticism, but that's just unavoidable. I agree with the author about informative part of film criticism but I would also add that everybody is informative for everyone these days. In other words, film criticism is informing but it also has been the one that is informed. That means that film critic today does not realize that should his readers learn from him he should also learn also others. I'm not sure film critics realize that, but I believe some of them are always trying ...
shiboleth on Jun 6, 2016
I think the issue is that there is a disconnect between a movie people have fun at and an objectivly good film. Transformers can be FUN but it is not a GOOD movie in terms of story, acting, ect.. People walk out talking about the jokes and explosions, having a good time, they are not thinking that the plot was more holey that the swiss cheese, the actors were stiff, bad blocking or any of that stuff. SO they walk out see a review for Transformers @ 50% on RT or what ever and they say, "I had fun, I thought it was good". Good for them that doesnt make it an objectively good film.
Higgens on Jun 6, 2016
But if critics can't give me a hint weather I'll enjoy it, they are little use to me.
John Stovall on Mar 7, 2017
Good article now we have you tube and the many reviewers not really critics but reactors and fans and i rely on them to give a more accurate evaluation.
Isoron on Aug 6, 2016
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