In recent years, the war between movie fans and film critics — if, in fact, it is a war — has had its flare-ups. Remember what happened when “The Dark Knight Rises” was about to be released in 2012? It may seem like a tempest in a batcave now, but the collective desire to see that movie struck such a frenzied nerve of anticipation that a handful of critics who gave it negative reviews actually received death threats.
When director Christopher Nolan was asked to comment on the threats during an interview outside the film’s London premiere, he ducked the issue by saying, “I think the fans are very passionate about these characters, the way a lot of people are very passionate.” I’m sure that Nolan wasn’t, in any way, trying to lend passive-aggressive support to violence against critics. But he was clearly bending over backwards to look like he hadn’t turned against his fans — even if a handful of them, for one ugly instant, had become a mob.
With “Suicide Squad,” the pitchforks came out again, only this time the fans wanted to kill the messenger — Rotten Tomatoes, the critical aggregator site that did little more than transmit the information that reviewers didn’t like the film. This was sort of the equivalent of greeting a piece of bad headline news — a terrorist attack, say, or a sudden economic plunge — with cries that The New York Times and CNN should immediately be shut down. On the face of it, it made no sense. Yet it certainly expressed something. In many ways, it was the fans’ high-water mark of Trumpian intolerance (though after Trump’s crack about Hillary and devotees of the Second Amendment, maybe the “Dark Knight Rises” threats were, in hindsight, Trumpian too).
This is the moment when I’m supposed to say something like, “Reviewers have the right — and, in fact, the duty — to voice whatever they think and feel about a movie. If they panned ‘Suicide Squad’…well, deal with it.” I do, in fact, devotedly believe that. But I don’t think it’s necessarily the whole story. It’s worth noting that Christopher Nolan had a point: As indefensible as these threats can be, they actually are a testament to how much passion the movies can still inspire. What follows is my breakdown of how the feud over “Suicide Squad” happened and what it tells us about fans and critics, who (spoiler alert!) actually have more in common than they would like to admit. For if you look closely at this trivial-in-the-scheme-of-things skirmish, you’ll see there are two secrets hidden inside of it: 1) Critics are fans. 2) Fans are critics. Really, can’t we all just get along?
The critics who panned “Suicide Squad” were basically right. In the end, who’s seriously going to hold up this movie as an accomplished pop model of comic-book storytelling? I don’t need to rehash all the criticisms, but as many reviewers pointed out (quite rightly), the premise doesn’t parse: Where the grungy antiheroes of “The Dirty Dozen” were put together to fight the Nazis, the members of the down-and-dirty Suicide Squad are assembled when they barely have a foe, and the foe they wind up having — the Enchantress (and is anyone going to pretend that this swirlingly impersonal CGI demon is an ace villain?) — would never have existed if it hadn’t been for the attempt to assemble the Suicide Squad in the first place.
Plus, there’s way too much conventional slam-bang action noise. If you want to see the difference between a badass comic-book movie that’s well done and one that’s mediocre, just watch “Deadpool” again. There isn’t a moment when the action is less than heightened, spectacular, real-but-unreal (which is to say, amazing), and Ryan Reynolds packs more face-singing cutthroat attitude into a single performance than what is offered by the entire cast of “Suicide Squad.”
The underlying source of the feud: The critics were too hard on “Batman v Superman.” It’s a sign of how dogmatic their hatred really was that simply by saying that, I threaten to make it sound like I’m speaking from a parallel universe. Overnight, it became an article of faith that “Batman v Superman” was a dud, a betrayal, a disaster of solemnly overcooked portentous gloom. Yes, it was a flawed movie, but I’m not alone in thinking that at times there was a thrilling grandeur to it, and it succeeded in the tricky balancing act of turning Superman into a captivatingly ambiguous figure. Henry Cavill came alive as an actor the way he never did in “Man of Steel” — a far more leaden movie that the critics didn’t beat up on nearly as much.
The critics, of course, had a right to pan “Batman v Superman,” but my point is that more than a few of them seemed to be using it as a symbol: Here is everything that is wrong with Hollywood. Occasionally, a big summer movie comes along that is worthy of that level of condemnation: “Battleship” or “John Carter” or “Transformers XXVIII.” Sorry, but “Batman v Superman” was not that movie. And what happened is that the overreaction (at least, in my book) set up a kind of critic-who-cried-wolf situation, making it seem as if the critics now had an agenda. Of course, it’s not as if that justified…
The Marvel conspiracy theory! We now live in an age when the logic of conspiracy has taken over mainstream thinking. The idea is: If you’re not talking about a secret deal that’s being cut, you’re out of the loop. Since Marvel is part of Disney, and Disney is viewed as a mythological brand that still signifies entertainment that’s “nice” rather than “naughty,” the movie rivalry between the Marvel and DC Comics universes has taken on a larger-than-life corporate symbolism: Are you on the side of cool grunge and grit (“Suicide Squad”), or are you on the side of rah-rah uncool boosterism (“Captain America”)? Really, though, why should anyone have to choose between them? (And besides, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was about as dark as comic-book movies get.) Yet critics who panned “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad” right in a row were seen, by some, as puppets on the string of the Marvel machine. Which is — let’s be clear — a loopy idea. But it’s amazing how much cred and steam a notion like that can now gather.
There’s a bit of a PC reaction against Harley Quinn. If you want to know why a movie as mediocre as “Suicide Squad” could sell $135 million worth of tickets in its opening weekend, there are several reasons to look at. One, of course, is Will Smith; he is still a monster movie star. The other is Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn — not because she’s a movie star yet, but because her turn as Harley the wildly grinning baby-doll trash psycho was a super-hook (though maybe for different reasons) for fanboys and fangirls alike. Is she a retrograde character or an empowering one? The answer might be: Both at once. Yet there was a certain moralistic dismissal of Harley in the press, because in all too obvious ways she’s a very retrograde character. She flounces around like a sociopathic pole dancer, she lives in thrall to her even crazier boyfriend, the Joker — and, more than that, her transition from respectable psychiatrist to villain’s moll is never adequately explained, so it seems like the film is endorsing the notion that her former identity was not to be taken seriously. Harley, like everyone else in “Suicide Squad,” could have used a much better back story, yet as a presence, Margot Robbie connects. The character is a novelty precisely because she’s so unapologetically in thrall to things that aren’t good for her.
Even in the eyes of fans: Were the critics really wrong…or is today’s collective trashing tomorrow’s conventional wisdom? Call it “Phantom Menace” syndrome. Moviegoers have always questioned certain critical judgments, but the first time I remember fans rising up as a horde to denounce the critical establishment was when we all gave a withering shrug (at best) to “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.” It’s not just that the disappointment over the bad news was so intense. It’s that fanboys and fangirls went out and saw the movie, over and over again, and convinced themselves that it was great. That is, until they didn’t. “The Phantom Menace” came out 17 years ago, and in that time it has become accepted wisdom — among “Star Wars” fans — that it’s not actually a very good movie. That’s what the J.J. Abrams reboot was all about: Let’s bring “Star Wars” back to what it was…not to what it became in 1999 when George Lucas, steeped in his obsession with visual technology, wound up draining the life from it. In that context, I would also call attention to “The Dark Knight Rises.” Does anyone think it’s a masterpiece on the level of “The Dark Knight”? You could argue that no one ever did. But that’s because the threats and the anger all happened…
Before anyone had seen the movie! Anticipation is one thing, but how can fans claim to be so in love with a film that they haven’t even watched yet? The answer is that the movie is already, in their minds, a religion — and on some level, I can half-admire the passion that erects that kind of pop culture belief system. But how deep is the worship, really, when it has every chance of being undone over time? And when that happens, it will turn out, as it so often has, that…
The fans and the critics are actually on the same side. The whole notion of denouncing “the critics” as a bunch of snooty elitists is rooted in an old stereotype, one that refuses to go away. To wit: Critics are angry, spiteful losers who take out their hidden resentment on movies that everyone besides them loves. I hope this doesn’t sound angry or spiteful, but isn’t it time that we let this cliché go? Take the all-too-relevant issue of critics and comic-book movies. Do we critics reflexively dislike them? No. Do we sometimes dislike them? Yes. Do fans of comic-book movies agree with us? More often than not, I would say…yes. Four years from now, will people be talking about what a kickass movie “Suicide Squad” was? Prediction: Not really. Will they be finding another reason to hate on the critics? Yes. But should they? No. Because even as “the critics” aren’t actually a monolith, “the fans,” too, don’t actually speak in one voice (though they may pretend to). They’re a great many people, and they think a great many different things. Just like critics. So maybe it’s time that we all stopped throwing rotten tomatoes.