by Brent Hankins
It's hard to pinpoint precisely when it began to happen, but over the past few years Hollywood has begun spinning a particular narrative whenever a tentpole release doesn't resonate with critics: "we made it for the fans."
This line, peddled extensively in the wake of last year's dual offerings from the DC Extended Universe and numerous times since then, has been seized upon by devotees of a particular franchise to justify their difference of opinion, and paint critics as a curmudgeonly bunch whose primary goal is to denigrate someone else's hard work.
The first problem with this argument comes in its selective application, chiefly when a movie performs well at the box office despite a critical drubbing. Shortly after the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Amy Adams told Yahoo, "None of us are making the movies for the critics, so to speak, you can’t go into it from that perspective... We really hope the fans like it, and so far the reaction’s been really positive on that front."
BAD REVIEWS ≠ BAD BOX OFFICE
This suggests that any film garnering mostly positive reviews was made specifically for critics, and won't connect with fans - but there's no basis for the notion that these two groups are mutually exclusive. For example, this year's Logan received near-universal acclaim from critics (it currently holds a 93% Certified Fresh rating from review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes - more on that later), and was lauded by comic book fans for being the most faithful cinematic rendition of the Wolverine character that we've seen yet.
Speaking with Reuters to promote Suicide Squad, Cara Delevigne lodged a similar complaint. "The critics have been absolutely horrific. They’re really, really horrible. You know, I just don’t think they like superhero movies." But again, this statement is easily refuted with just a few minutes of research: with an average Rotten Tomatoes score of 91% Fresh, Doctor Strange, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming are just three recent examples of superhero movies that were embraced both critically and commercially - and let's not forget what many consider to be the pinnacle of superhero films, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
In both of the above scenarios, the films in question racked up impressive financial numbers despite their poor reviews. It's puzzling, then, when Hollywood also tries to blame disappointing box office performance on negative reviews from critics - another popular version of this argument that seems to defy any sort of logic. When the R-rated reboot of Baywatch opened to a paltry $18 million earlier this year, Dwayne Johnson - the self-proclaimed "franchise Viagra" - Tweeted "Oh boy, critics had their venom & knives ready. Fans LOVE the movie. Huge positive scores. Big disconnect w/ critics & people."
GREAT REVIEWS ≠ GREAT BOX OFFICE
Johnson is correct in that a disconnect seems to exist - after all, why would “fans” flock to the theater for Batman v Superman, which opened to $166 million, but elect to stay home for Baywatch? And what happens when rave reviews don't correlate to strong ticket sales? Even with stellar reviews, positive word-of-mouth and an A- CinemaScore, Blade Runner 2049 only managed to haul in $32 million during its opening weekend - a far cry from its reported production budget of $150 million. So if poor reviews equate to poor performance, shouldn't the opposite hold true?
Not really, because as a recent study has determined, review scores - particularly those aggregated and published by Rotten Tomatoes - have no impact on box office economics. This hasn't stopped the finger-pointing, with Martin Scorsese dismissing the site as "[having] everything to do with the movie business and absolutely nothing to do with either the creation or the intelligent viewing of film," and Brett Ratner predicting it would lead to "the destruction of our industry."
But here's the rub: the same study found a distinct correlation between audience scores and critic scores, "meaning that audiences are becoming expert at smelling a 'bad' movie and staying away." This piece of data contradicts the notion of critics and fans somehow being two separate entities - if a film with mostly negative reviews is received in a similar fashion by audiences, then the problem lies not with the consumers, but with the product they're being fed.
Let's consider the notion that critics actually are the adversary, that their ultimate goal is to inflict hardship and mental anguish on filmmakers and studios by lambasting their latest offerings. Each year, film critics spend hundreds of hours of their lives in movie theaters or in front of television screens - why would they give up so much of their time for a profession (or in many cases, a hobby) they don't actually enjoy? Doesn't that seem overly masochistic?
Trust me, I wish that every moviegoing experience was a positive one, but just because I enjoy film as a general rule doesn't mean that I'm going to enjoy each and every film that I see. Likewise, it's possible for a film to contain a number of elements that I'm a fan of separately, but that doesn't necessarily mean those elements will combine to create a satisfying experience.
And what about the flip side of that coin, the insinuation that your only criteria for gleaning enjoyment from a film should be your personal affinity for a certain actor, director, or character? There are few things I love more than Batman, but my unshakable appreciation for the Caped Crusader didn't lead me to rubber-stamp Batman v Superman with a positive review, because being a fan doesn’t preclude me from acknowledging the flaws in a piece of art. And while I’ve been a vocal fan of Dwayne Johnson for years, you’ll never convince me that Baywatch was little more than a transparent attempt to cash in on name recognition by emulating the formula of the 21 Jump Street reboot.
CRITICS ≠ THE ENEMY
The truth is this: Hollywood is reeling from one of its worst years in recent memory, and they're searching everywhere for a scapegoat when the blame lies mostly at their own feet for churning out mediocre offerings that no longer resonate with moviegoers. But rather than engage in some necessary self-reflection, they're instead trying to create an artificial divide by telling the general populace that movies are being made just for them, and that critics don’t “get it” - except, of course, when the opinions are favorable, at which point these same critics will have their reviews mined for quotes that can be splashed across a poster or inserted into a TV spot.
You can’t have it both ways, Hollywood - film critics can’t be the villain in your narrative one day, when the latest hastily assembled “blockbuster” fails to perform, and then become part of your marketing strategy the next week when you actually release a picture worth the price of admission.
We are not the enemy.