It’s time to put Hollywood’s favorite response to criticism out to pasture.
The actor Finn Jones has been having a rough time of it online of late, giving forth to a wave of pieces (a sampling of which can be found here) taking him to task for a) the assertion that the makers of the Netflix show Iron Fist made the show “for the fans” instead of “critics,” and b) some unseemly whining about accusations that he, a privileged white person, benefits from white privilege. Since there are far better people than me to read on the subject of white male privilege – being, myself, part of the problem here rather than the solution – I’ll stay in the Film School Rejects lane and talk about this business of false dichotomies between fans and critics, because while not as big a problem as racism, sexism, or classism, it still needs addressing.
To begin, there is no actual opposition between a “critic” and a “fan.” No one emerges from the womb with press credentials sighing about meretriciousness. (If that’s what the crying is all about, they need to be more articulate.) Everyone who loves movies starts on that path by watching a movie and loving it. People who become professional critics obviously spend a lot of time thinking about why they love movies, but they’re not the only people who do. Even people who fancy themselves wholly inclusive, fans to the bone, who live by the principle that you should only love movies and never nitpick the smallest detail – this is verging on straw man territory, I’m aware, but bear with me – have some movies they like and some they don’t, or under duress can and will admit that movie A is better made, more meaningful (in whatever way), or more essential (again, define that as you like) than movie B. Standards vary. We each have our own. But we all have them.
To bring things back to The Agony of the Iron Fist, and to engage in the rare broad generalization that happens to be true, the only time people trot out the “we didn’t make this for the critics, man, this one’s for the real fans” bullshit is when they make something that sucks. Critics are not goblins with notepads slithering around leeching the joy out of life. They were, and often still are, fans. And unanimous critical praise or disdain is not the result of a committee meeting, it’s the result of individual people sitting alone in the dark making up their own minds. Sure, they talk about the movie afterward, but it’s not to form a party line intended to execute an agenda, it’s to clarify their own thoughts. The misplaced over-reliance on Rotten Tomatoes scores to determine critical unity is another factor leading to a misunderstanding of critical unanimity. Not all the positive reviews for a movie are the same. My three-star review of Split, for example, is not necessarily the same as yours; I thought the concluding act was horseshit but I enjoyed it anyway and thought McAvoy and Taylor-Joy were terrific, whereas perhaps (hypothetical) you thought it took its sweet time to build to a wholly satisfying conclusion and thought McAvoy was too over the top but that Taylor-Joy anchored the film. The star rating is the same, the reasoning is quite different.
But the really offensive thing about the “this one’s for the fans” formulation is that, given that the thing is critically derided and therefore probably actually is bad, it’s a shitty way to think about your (different hypothetical you than before; stay nimble) fans. The “fans” in this scenario are a bunch of idiots who lap up whatever they’re given: “Oh, yeah, all we have to do is slap a brand name on some piece of shit and they’ll come waddling into the sun in full cosplay, sobbing with gratitude at our beneficence.” No, they’re human beings. Kind and generous of heart, bursting with sincere love, trusting. Shitting on them by assuming they’ll watch whatever cynical glop is put in front of them would be an insult on neutral terms, more so against someone who only wants to experience joy.
So, what’s the point? The point is this: some actors don’t extemporize well, artists as a whole need to be less defensive about criticism, critics need to operate in good faith, fans should be treated like adults, and there should be peace on Earth but there’s not. We all need to be our best selves, be open to learning new things, never assume we know everything, impart what we do know in terms we would not be insulted to hear from someone else, and not give in to frustration. Locally, as far as the subject under discussion, think of criticism and fandom not as opposing entities, but as understanding and love. These are universals, and vital.