Reactions to the massive box office haul for “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” included a rather lazy old canard – namely, the notion that the Dark Knight and Man of Steel had overcome the slings and arrows of puny critics in the movie’s march toward stratospheric profits.
While that might look true on its face, given the largely negative reviews and the better-than-anticipated opening (revised to $166 million in the U.S.), it ignores the relationship between blockbuster “tentpole” releases and reviewers, while mischaracterizing the role that critics play in terms of steering people away from, or toward, certain kinds of movies.
Simply put, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the opening-weekend audience for this DC Comics adaptation, “Star Wars” or any one of Marvel’s major releases being dissuaded from going to such a film based on reviews. The whole point is to see and experience the project for oneself and draw one’s own conclusions. But the fact that filmgoers dutifully plunked down their money doesn’t necessarily mean that they wholeheartedly or universally enjoyed the experience.
It’s also hardly a novelty for the critical consensus to clash with quadrants of such a franchise’s fan base, precisely because most critics don’t come to these projects with a strong rooting interest in whether they’re good or not. One can appreciate the efficiency of “Transformers” or “The Fast and the Furious” movies as money-making apparatus without validating them as great art. Indeed, even “The Force Awakens” almost surely benefited from lowered expectations thanks to the second trilogy.
For critics, the goal isn’t to “kill” bad movies; rather, it’s to provide an honest opinion, not only to help those waffling to decide whether a movie sounds like it’s for them (again, “wafflers” not being a major part of the opening-weekend crowd), but also to offer thoughts to consider either before or after seeing the film. The one imperative is to approach the material in context, which is where some critics falter, if only by betraying their ennui regarding the prospect of watching another movie with a numeral (Roman or otherwise) in the title.
Many fans are especially using criticism as an adjunct to the moviegoing experience, as opposed to a sort-of Consumer Reports guide, with regard to television, which doesn’t require a trip to the local multiplex or anteing up for a babysitter. These days, it’s not uncommon for Web traffic to surge after a series makes its debut, with people avoiding reviews until after they’ve watched, then surfing around for more information – often to find opinions that will reinforce their own. (In that regard, the comments sections on entertainment sites share something in common with political ones.)
Admittedly, many critics don’t come to something like “Batman v Superman” steeped in comic-book lore, with a detailed appreciation of Cyborg or knowledge of Wonder Woman’s origins, which this latest incarnation of the character mostly omitted. But they do understand, subjectively, whether a story feels coherent to them, as well as when action sequences are exhilarating or merely exhausting – or, as Variety’s review astutely observed, a bit of both.
From this perspective, the critical response to “Batman v Superman” is hardly surprising, and represents a separate issue from just how strong the want-to-see factor was. It’s worth noting, too, that in terms of box office, reviews are just a fragment of a media ecosystem that otherwise salivates over such properties, helping stoke excitement with what might be subtitled “The Fawn of Journalism,” well aware that the built-in audience for such fare brings ratings and traffic in its wake.
The main element that distinguishes this latest movie from others within the genre, it could be argued, is that Warner Bros. was in such a hurry to establish a multi-character franchise that it essentially skipped several steps – in Marvel terms, jumping ahead to “The Avengers,” without bothering to release “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “Captain America” first.
Nevertheless, the idea of the press being disconnected from the public is very much in the ether right now, perhaps especially in pondering Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which has produced a raft of analysis over how the punditocracy could have missed the anger into which the mogul has tapped. It’s similarly juicy to posit that egg-headed critics are out of touch with the masses, turning up their noses at blockbusters while showering praise on art-house confections.
While there’s a foundation of truth in that, it’s a wildly simplistic take on the evolving media swamp in which critics operate, and the diverse ways in which readers make use of the commentary that they provide. So while it might make for catchy headlines and amusing viral videos about Ben Affleck being subjected to another critical drubbing, when it comes to “‘Batman v Superman’ Versus the Critics,” frankly, that’s just another sequel, and not an especially original one at that.