Over the past few weeks, I have heard the phrase ‘The critics got it wrong’ repeated a lot. This is not a new turn of events for anyone working as a critic or cultural writer right now. Frankly, if we all got a dollar every time someone told us that, none of us would have to worry about the pivot to video frenzy ever again. But there’s something about the past month or so where that obvious insult has been used and something just hasn’t sat right with me.
The first instance came when Bohemian Rhapsody opened to a rapturous commercial response despite many highly negative reviews. I myself have not been quiet in my distaste for the film, both from a technical and ethical standpoint, even if I never actually published a review of it. That hasn’t stopped plenty of people from flooding my Twitter mentions to inform me that my insidious agenda to destroy the movie by voicing my opinion on it failed miserably because they loved the film and so did lots of others, as evidenced by its grosses. I even had one person delight in telling me this when I talked about the Bryan Singer elephant in the room, because the appropriate way to respond to issues of the industry coddling an alleged rapist is to complain that critics were too mean to the Queen movie.
The second round of critic bashing came with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. The usual Johnny Depp fans let themselves be known, but even fellow industry figures were claiming the film’s opening weekend numbers were ‘proof’ the critics got it wrong once again. Our clout was questioned and the narrative of Fans Vs. Critics spun once again. This case proved trickier to tackle given that the film’s grosses have started to decline, it’s opening in China was messy and the film does not look set to meet the success of its predecessor. Yet none of that has been pointed at as proof of the critics’ opinions having any sway. Rather, that is all due to fan backlash. Once again, the boundaries remain sharply defined.
The concept of the critic-proof film is nothing new. The earliest days of Hollywood are defined by big-budget studio spectacles that drove the masses to the cinemas even as the early film critics questioned their artistic merits. In a blockbuster era, the critical force is considered much further in decline. Rotten Tomatoes has become a double-edged sword, cultural journalism has been gutted as its worth is considered lesser in financially troubling times, and the rise of YouTube has seen younger audiences turn to vloggers who reject the critic label. Despite the basic notion of entertainment criticism being, in theory, more democratic than ever thanks to the accessibility offered by streaming services and social media, the critic remains a topic of scorn for so many. We’ve never really shaken off the stereotype of being bitter catty shrews and failed creatives who turned to criticism because we were so crushed by our own artistic failures, thus forcing us to a life of ceaseless cruelty directed at those true geniuses who pour their blood, sweat and tears into their art.
Yet I seldom hear the ‘evil critics’ cry against films that typically benefit the most from strong critical reaction. I never hear people say the new Paul Schrader film is critic-proof, even though he has a decent-sized fan-base and decades of cultural clout on his side. Nobody ever tells me my opinions on Xavier Dolan films are wrong and that he’s immune to anything negative I have to say. The ‘critic-proof’ cry is really the domain of films that are financially too big to fail and these are products with fandoms big enough to drown out any one voice. That doesn’t stop the underdog sensation many of them feel in the face of Big Critics. There are certain films or pieces of pop culture we know will make boatloads of money, even if every critic on this pale blue dot of a planet gave it negative stars and compared it to genocide. Marvel Studios are now at this point in history for the foreseeable future, for example. No amount of bad reviews will stop people from going to see something they already planned on seeing.
The other side of this problem is that the moment that seemingly perfect formula fails, critics are suddenly the problem. The DCEU isn’t making the money it should so, according to the fervent fans, it must be the fault of the critics. Not because they shared their obvious opinions, of course, but because the deliberately set out to sully the good name of a multi-billion dollar corporation. The film wasn’t made for them, after all, it was made for the fans.
This dichotomy overlooks what the objective of criticism actually is. It is certainly a way to engage with customers of a product but it is not an industry weather-vane that dictates the successes and failures of the day. Criticism exists and remains crucial because media literacy matters and art thrives when it has an engaged audience of scholars and experts who can understand the material from a variety of angles and contexts. Theory is important, as is technical knowledge, and there is true value in centring them on our thoughtful consumption of entertainment.
It is not the job of critics to create some sort of shield for entertainment, nor is it the task of any creator to make themselves impervious to those thoughts. It’s easier to dictate notions of ‘critic-proof’ movies and the like because strengthening that non-existent divide between fans and critics is a good way to encourage brand loyalty. The primal thrill that comes with being right when everyone else is wrong can overpower even the most sensible judgments. That’s not to say that, historically speaking, there haven’t been incidents where the general critical consensus did not line up with commercial success and the latter was proven to be right with the passing of time. Blade Runner got mixed reviews when it opened. So did Vertigo. Were the critics wrong? Maybe, but evolving points-of-view shouldn’t be something that’s held against a barely held together collective of opinions. Besides, plenty of terrible movies make billions and we seldom hear people say ‘the audiences got it wrong on that one.’
Critic-proof movies are a thing but it may be something that’s dying off. Not even those invincible franchises are safe from financial disaster these days. The last Star Wars film was a massively costly affair for Disney (I still love Solo), Justice League failed to break even and series like Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean saw their numbers wane. This time last year, it would have been sacrilege to claim a Harry Potter adjacent series could ever flop, but now it seems a likely possibility. The critics weren’t wild about all of these films - although Solo fared much better than is being claimed (I swear I wasn’t the only one who liked it!) - but that can’t explain the downturn. Fatigue plays its part, as does audiences’ own evolving tastes. Occasionally, those things align, but it’s tough to claim this is proof of the waning clout of critics or any film’s invulnerability towards our words. Sometimes, a bad movie is just a bad movie.
Header Image Source: Disney / Pixar