You’re Using Rotten Tomatoes Wrong
Another blockbuster movie has had its premiere, the critics have spoken, and, like clockwork, the discussions of Rotten Tomatoes and review aggregate sites have started afresh. It seems like we have the same talk every single time, but as the atmosphere of online geek culture and critical discourse becomes ever more toxic, it’s a necessary part of the conversation. The Summer season has now begun - although it seems to get earlier each year - and three films have fallen under the gaze of the industry regarding how they’re perceived by critics: Baywatch, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Wonder Woman. The meat of the discussion remains the same - the value and necessity of such aggregate scores, whether they benefit or diminish criticism as a whole, why we put so much focus on them - but now, things are more tense than usual.
The Summer bloc of major film releases has been tough for many studios. Starting from April, the most anticipated and expensive spectacles failed to meet lofty expectations: Ghost in the Shell couldn’t rise above mediocre reviews and the backlash to its whitewashing; Alien Covenant looks unlikely to break $100m domestically, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword stands as the flop of the season, likely to lose Warner Bros. around $150m. Outside of Marvel’s continued dominance with Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, it’s safe to say the big studios are on edge, which may be why the disappointing Memorial Day weekend performances of Baywatch and the 5th Pirates of the Caribbean film sent their respective distributors into a bit of a panic. As reported by Deadline, “Insiders… blame Rotten Tomatoes”, and it didn’t take long for The Rock himself to jump on the well-worn bandwagon of slamming critics for failing to see what the real fans could.
For Wonder Woman, the case is a little different. For once, the DC Extended Universe is actually faring well with critics, and the film has by far the highest Rotten Tomatoes score of any film in that train-wreck of a series. That’s not been enough to stop some of the DCU’s more zealous fans from hijacking that arbitrary number to try and prove some kind of point, following on from misguided displays of brand loyalty including compiling an oddly female-heavy list of critics who had never criticised the DC movies for “reference”. The same fans who insisted the low aggregate scores of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were a conspiracy pushed by big Marvel money were now scrambling to establish that same system as the arbiter of blockbuster dominance.
The faults of the aggregate system are numerous: With Rotten Tomatoes, the false binary of rotten/fresh for every review seems to change its rules depending on the critic or film - why is a B- fresh for one film and rotten the next? So much worth is placed on that number and how it ranks above or below similar movies. It’s an easily abused system too, and one that often feels dictated by the whims of an unknown power. On top of that, it’s also just an incredibly dull way to consume criticism.
That’s not to say there is no value in a site like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. Such sites can provide a handy, overview, albeit a very generalised one, of critical response, and it acts as a convenient one-stop page for checking out an array of reviews from across the spectrum. Sadly, that spectrum remains mostly white and male, and many users don’t seem to read the reviews themselves, preferring to focus on whether that tiny blurb is accompanied by a tomato or a splat. The words themselves become useless; they are mere decoration for the yes/no question of whether a film is any good.
I’ve been in this writing game for a while now, and every time a major studio tent-pole like a DC or Marvel movie comes out, I start to see the same arguments take place, and the same accusations lobbied at me through my Twitter mentions. Every negative opinion is proof of an agenda, another notch on the bedpost that reveals our ceaseless hatred of fun. Disliking one $200m superhero smash-up was proof that we were in the tank for the other $200m superhero smash-up. Us darn feminists just wanted to ruin the careers of those scrappy underdogs at Warner Bros. All of this was evidenced in the almighty Rotten Tomatoes score, irrefutable proof of the critical conspiracy. Never mind that none of us have any control over the scores set to those reviews, and some critics even received death threats over such things: This was our big bad weapon and we were using it to destroy Hollywood.
It’s too easy to use critics as scapegoats for the problems with the industry. Check out any piece of pop culture featuring a critic character, perpetually portrayed as the harbingers of misery and malice, failed artists bereft of true creativity, reviewing spitefully just because they can - All About Eve, Ratatouille, Birdman. The only critic I’ve ever seen in a film buck that trend was Michael Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds, and things still don’t end well for him. Critics became the enemy, part of the growing liberal agenda trying to take over the geek world with our social justice warriors and destructing review scores. That may seem over-dramatic, but when you do this for a living (or even just blog in your own free time), you quickly see the ways in which your voice is dismissed and how much of that malice is rooted in falsehoods about so-called objectivity.
For many of these fans, there’s a perceived objectivity to the aggregate average. Words will lie but numbers don’t. A few pull-quotes from assorted reviews may not intrigue viewers to see your film, but sticking the Rotten Tomatoes score on screen asserts a kind of dominance. This may be a benefit of some kind for a film like Wonder Woman, which has become an unlikely 9-figure underdog with so much riding on its shoulders. After all, the first woman-led superhero movie since Elektra couldn’t just be good; it had to be better than everything else just to compete with the boys. That makes it all the harder to look at from a critical stance, as its goodness is so quickly forced into a mere number. Anyone making that number lower becomes a worthy target.
Critics do wield some kind of influence, but when it comes to films of this magnitude, we’re essentially window-dressing to the review-proof behemoths. Something like Baywatch or the 5th Pirates movie can be swayed by reviews, but in all likelihood, the interest of those potential viewers was decided upon the trailers and how much you like the actors involved. A bad review may make you second guess, but if you’re set on seeing Zac Efron shirtless for a couple of hours, your money is already spent.
In reality, the panic over aggregate scores from the zealous fanbase has more to do with the kudos they evoke. It’s proof that your favourite thing is better than everyone else’s favourite thing, no questions asked; or, if it doesn’t work out that way, it’s evidence that the “real fans” get what those ivory tower dwelling intelligentsias never will. Critics never get to be fans to this crowd. Hell, most of the time, we barely get to be people. Rotten Tomatoes is a handy, if frequently misused, tool that could use a little refinement. Use it as a reference point, not as a deciding factor. It’s not an oppressive tool of the critical coven. Believe me, if we critics actually did have the power to destroy movies, do you think we’d have allowed a 5th Transformers movie?
My advice to studios: Don’t blame Rotten Tomatoes, or critics for bad movies: Blame the bad movies.
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