The Criticspiracy Theorists Are Out Ahead of Batman v Superman

Ben Affleck as Batman

The beautiful thing about fandom is that it’s often so passionate.

The ugly thing about fandom is that it’s often so passionate.

These two statements are not mutually exclusive. Both are true in their own way. The truth is that Fandom + Internet = a lot of things, some of them fun (like cosplay photos and memes) and some are ugly. An example of the latter has come to light over the course of the last week as critics begin to screen and react to Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The word of the week is “prejudge,” as critics are being accused of prejudging the film and hardcore fans have taken to Twitter to prejudge prominent critics. It has led to statements such as this:

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And this:

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There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s make something clear up front: there’s a big difference between criticizing someone and accusing them of corruption. To say that Disney is paying critics to actively spread bad word of mouth is by very definition, slander. A critic saying that they don’t like Batman v Superman is simply that critic using their professional forum to express an opinion.

If we’re honest, this really isn’t about slander or the conspiracy theories being concocted in the Twitter mentions of critics across the web, it’s about respect. Die hard fans of DC Comics, especially characters like Batman and Superman, are wounded by what they perceive to be a lack of respect for their favorite properties. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, for all its bluster, was met with a 56% score on Rotten Tomatoes. 128 of the 289 critics reviewing it viewed it, at the very least, to be a below average film. Fans took this as a personal slight, especially in the wake of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe garnering overwhelming praise from critics. Every single film, from Iron Man to Ant Man, has been rated Fresh by critics. This combination of trends has been like fuel to a fire that has long burned within the annals of comic fandom. While many mainstream comic fans have no problem jumping from DC to Marvel and elsewhere, there will always be a subset of fans obsessed with a rivalry between comics’ two largest brands. The great rivalry remains and these Rotten Tomatoes scores have become the measuring stick for critical corruption.

With this in mind, let’s lay out some facts about critics and their relationship to movies:

  1. Critics do not care about Rotten Tomatoes scores. There may be exceptions to this, but they are extremely rare (and easy to spot). A good critic doesn’t think about RT scores when writing a review, they are simply engaged with the film and concerned with representing their own experience.
  2. Studios don’t pay critics for reviews. This may come as a shock to many, but studios don’t care that much about Rotten Tomatoes scores. They love to include a “Certified Fresh” in their marketing from time to time and if you write a positive review, you may see a studio using a quote for marketing, but there’s no grand conspiracy to rig the Rotten Tomatoes scores. This is true for a number of reasons: the risk of being embarrassingly outed as trying to influence critics is far too great and frankly, it’s not worth the money. In the decade that I’ve been working in this business, not once have I seen money change hands for a positive review.
  3. Access should not be conflated with payment. Just because you see pictures of your favorite movie bloggers on the set of Captain America: Civil War, that doesn’t mean they are in the pocket of Disney and Marvel. Set visits, junkets, interview, advance screenings are all part of the job. And for the most part, critics are adults. For every conspiracy theory about critics being in the pocket of the studio, there are plenty of examples of bloggers visiting a set or junket, then disliking the movie.
  4. Critics genuinely want to like movies. Sometimes to a fault. When sitting down to watch a new movie, especially one that is a popular property, I always start from a place of wanting to enjoy a movie. I know this to be true about the majority of my colleagues, as well.

This last point is perhaps the most important. No one is actively trying to lampoon Batman v Superman. In fact, we’d all rather it be a good movie worthy of discussion. What you see is a lot of hedging – based on previous experiences with Zack Snyder movies and all of the facts we’ve been able to absorb thus far (like Snyder wanting to stuff the thing with villains). That hedging doesn’t mean that critics are prejudging, it’s an honest assessment of what we know thus far. When it comes time to sit down and watch the movie, that stuff goes out the window. The movie is the movie. And all the conspiracies, the marketing, the history and the baggage get thrown out. This is the way I approach reviewing films and I know the same is true with plenty of other critics.

Next: Why Rotten Tomatoes is Bad for Film Criticism

What we need is some mutual respect. As a critic, I can respect that there are fans out there who may disagree with whatever I write, good or bad. That’s fine. You get to like the movies you like. But that respect should work the other way, too. I’m not trying to hurt your feelings with my review of Batman v Superman. In fact, at this very moment, I don’t know what I’ll be doing with my Batman v Superman review, as I don’t see the movie until tomorrow. But in the event that it skews negative, don’t take it so personally. Disagree and discuss all you like, but let’s not treat each other like there are back-alley agendas at play. No one should be taking a Rotten Tomatoes score that seriously. Because that Rotten Tomatoes score doesn’t define your relationship to the movie.

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