A couple of weeks ago, Brett Ratner (whose company RatPac Entertainment produced the universally loathed Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, as well as being the director of the universally loathed X-Men: The Last Stand) said that “the worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes. I think it’s the destruction of our business. I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v. Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful.”
He’s wrong, obviously. Sure, he’s wrong for the obvious reasons – how is having a review aggregator any worse than ye olden days when you were reliant on the opinions of one or two newspaper critics? If you can blame the Internet for spreading the negative word of mouth from Rotten Tomatoes, couldn’t you also thank them for allowing ‘real fans’ to spread their word of mouth? Was Batman v. Superman really “incredibly successful”? – but he’s also right about some things. The proliferation of online film criticism has certainly diluted the “art” of film criticism (though it’s still very much around). However, this complaint should actually work to his advantage.
But before getting into the why and the how, let’s look at some numbers.
Suicide Squad got a 25% fresh and 4.7/10 average rating, lower than BvS‘ 28% fresh and 4.9/10 average rating. Domestically, Squad made $325 million to BvS‘ $330 million (and nearly $750 million worldwide compared to BvS’ $875 million). No one would have expected the far cheaper to produce and market Suicide Squad, a movie featuring no established characters and plagued by editing issues to come within spitting distance of the film that brought Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman together in live action for the first time. By any metric, Squad (which was also produced by RatPac) was way more successful than anyone thought it would be, and it continues to surpass many of its rivals in home video sales. Also consider, how the second and fourth Transformers movies got lower than a 20% fresh rating and each grossed over $1 billion worldwide.
On the opposite side, good reviews are not at all indicative of a movie’s future performance. Last year’s Star Trek Beyond got 84% fresh and a 6.9/10 average rating, was enjoyed by fans, and grossed less than $350 million worldwide with the fourth installment featuring the Pine cast still up in the air. The 2016 Ghostbusters reboot was also Certified Fresh with a 73% fresh and 6.5/10 average rating yet grossed less than $250 million worldwide with plans for a sequel ostensibly scrapped. (Though when you have a marketing campaign revolving around treating everyone who didn’t like the trailer as a monster, it’s easy to see that 73% as being influenced by outside sources.)
So the numbers clearly aren’t the whole story. While there might be some correlation between critical and commercial success, it’s far from definite. Yet the data, though interesting, is actually besides the point – what Ratner fails to acknowledge is that his movies are preaching to the choir; the critics are the fans.
People who waste their time talking about movies do it because we like talking about movies. People who waste their time reading about movies do it because we like reading about movies. There’s no honor or prestige in film criticism or arguing about movies, it’s simply fun. The Internet has expanded the reach and the definition of the “film critic,” and brands such as Star Wars, Marvel, and DC are our common language. More bandwidth has probably been spilled rambling about Spider-Man: Homecoming than about all of the best picture nominees last year combined, and it makes sense. It’s easier to get involved in a discussion about franchises we grew up with (in one form or another) than it is to come up with article after article about the merits of Moonlight.
Critics/fans are not an especially difficult group to win over. (Consider – a good portion of today’s critics didn’t merely grow up with the Star Wars trilogy, they grew up with the Prequels; that’s their benchmark.) Rotten Tomatoes scores are actually quite lenient towards blockbusters. Who would have thought the Fast and the Furious movies would become critical darlings? We’re comfortable enough with the Marvel Cinematic Universe that even a lacklustre effort like Doctor Strange can get an outstanding 90% fresh and 7.3/10 average rating because it hit a base competence. We’re so wide-eyed over everything Star Wars that the utterly incompetent Rogue One earned a 85% fresh, 7.5/10 average. And Disney isn’t the only studio that benefits from it. Despite its flaws and somewhat muddled storytelling, The Dark Knight Rises got a very respectable 87%, 8/10 average because we felt connected to the world created by Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale. We want to enjoy these films.
With its first three films, the DCEU hasn’t won us over yet. But instead of figuring out why, Ratner seems to be blaming the audience. The same audience that has hope that Wonder Woman will right the ship. The same audience that woos over the Justice League trailer – quips aside, it’s clearly the exact same movie as Batman v. Superman.
Batman v. Superman didn’t fail because critics were mean to it – or because it was too smart for its own good, an excuse they actually tried. It failed because it was self-serious, self-indulgent, and a narrative mess. Try explaining Batman’s animosity towards Superman; now try doing it bringing in the Scoot McNairy’s canceled checks subplot. Try explaining any of Lex’s scheme. Try explaining a Superman who responds to being accused with mass murder with complete apathy followed immediately by bathtub sex.
Maybe the likes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert would recognize the sheer artistry in the evolution of the CGI goblin Doomsday or delve into the rich symbolism of a painting that could be hung in different ways or explore the emotional crux of ‘MARTHA (WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME)’ (which both Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne have had to awkwardly defend). Or maybe they’d recognize the movie for what it was – a genuinely bad, ugly, over-plotted, borderline incoherent movie. Though they’d probably put it into great words.