Captain Marvel is almost out. I have my tickets ready to go, but not until a week after release because of other weekend obligations. So in the meantime I get to watch the internet boil as dueling narratives and reviews compete for clicks.
This is on top of the fact that Rotten Tomatoes had to change their site so that users couldn’t rate films before they were out anymore. Why? Because they were bombarded by agenda-driven anti-feminists who launched coordinated efforts to drive the score down in order to “prove” this film was bad and should fail. Toxic fans did the same thing to Black Panther, and efforts to make the Ghostbusters: Answer the Call trailer the most downvoted one in YouTube history are already famous.
Review bombing is a common tactic for a certain breed of usually white, usually straight , and usually male user. Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight showed how men with apparently nothing better to do will happily spend time going through IMDB and downvoting women-led franchises. You can look at the one-star reviews of Doctor Who Series 11 at Amazon to see pretty quickly that the majority are driven mostly by anger of Jodie Whittaker being the first woman to take on the role over any quality of the actual season or disc.
Most of these examples, especially Rotten Tomatoes, show a large gap between audience scores and those of professional reviewers. That tends to fuel a certain truism that I hate, which is that reviewers and audiences exist in separate worlds. Every time I see someone disappointed because a movie or TV show is getting bad reviews you can count on someone else jumping in to remind them not to trust reviewers. After all, didn’t they all hate Citizen Kane, which went on to be regarded as one of the best movies ever? Conversely, fans with axes to grind such as with Captain Marvel or Doctor Who love to use low user scores as “evidence” the “real fans” hate something while the out-of-touch SJW elites loved it.
We need to recognize that gaming user-generated review systems is a habitual practice and treat them as suspect. No matter how many Facebook groups or Reddit threads actively encourage the attack on these systems, we have a bad habit of pretending these are real feelings rather than artificial manipulations. That’s why reading critics is so important.
The problem is that we have reduced everything down to a bloody number. That’s an insane way to choose what to experience. The score is not important. It really isn’t, and I absolutely refuse to ever use one anymore unless directly ordered to by an editor. If a number was all that was needed, what would even be the point of writing a review?
I have two film critics I follow religiously: our own Pete Vonder Haar and Alan Cerny. I do that because they don’t just tell me if they liked a film, but why. They’ll go into depth, especially Pete who has daughters just slightly older than mine and who I can count on to tell me if a movie is a good family outing.
Or take my favorite video game reviewer, Jim Sterling. It’s largely because of him I went back and took a second look at The Council after writing it off. He’s the one who pointed out its similarity to old White Wolf RPGs that I had missed. That’s what a reviewer should do. They should be observant enough to catch what you might miss and articulate enough to explain it.
This doesn’t mean I will always agree with them. Sometimes what a reviewer considers a negative is actually a positive for me. To use Sterling again, I know from long watching of his videos his thoughts on games like Tacoma and Virginia. Having experienced his body of work I can take what I like from his insights and adjust for where his opinions differ from mine to answer the question: “Would I like this game?”
It’s not enough to say a reviewer hated it. This requires reading comprehension beyond looking at a two-digit number. Did they say this horror movie was too short on the gore? Maybe you don’t like gore and that’s a plus. Maybe you’re like me and calling something plodding, existentially dreadful, and slow is exactly what I want to hear!
You can’t know that unless you read criticism and actually digest it. When a big movie comes out there are hundreds of takes and no real truth beyond what you grok from them. There is no objectively bad or good. My favorite film of all time is With Honors, and though it’s a minor cult classic now it is mostly a forgotten meh film of no consequences. I love the 2014 Thief game to the point my wife bought me a book of the concept art for Christmas. Its meta critic score is in the 60s, which is considered by Gamers with a capital G to be bad. I can hear people tear it apart, agree with their points, and still find more joy than pain in it.
Puritanical fandom is so exhausting. It’s all about whether a piece of work is damned or saved by its rank in things. Cults of broken people sit behind their computers waging war on superhero flicks as if culture itself hangs in the balance. It’s like living in the plot of The Fountainhead.
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Critics get to where they are through hard work and love of what they do. If you write for a major outlet like Houston Press it’s because you’ve proven yourself able to have a coherent, worthwhile, original thought on something. Those positions can and are taken away for bad behavior. IGN had a scandal last year when a reviewer was shown to be a plagiarist. I was once interrogated because a local film producer accused me of making up reviews without seeing the movie. The integrity of critical outlets is very important to those of us who produce it, something that is sorely lacking with your average online user who just wants to make a number go up or down.
We need critical thought. We need examination. You shouldn’t come away from an experience just looking to justify the money you spent as “good” or “bad.” I hated The Crimes of Grindelwald and even Ralph Breaks the Internet, but I am still glad I saw them because I have a lot of thoughts those movies sparked about art and cinema. People don’t trash big films in major outlets out of spite most of the time. They look to see what that film says and try to expand the discussion. These aren’t sports teams and it isn’t a zero sum game. That’s why a well-crafted review read by an open-minded reader is so much more than a stupid out-of-ten score from a public partially made up of angry mobs with zero interest in actually thinking about the thing they’re angry about.
As I finished writing this Rotten Tomatoes had the first Captain Marvel reviews aggregated. There are more than 20, but down in the comments, you guessed it. People are screaming that the audience score is what matters. Numbers, not reading. That’s the main reason you should find a critic whose opinion you trust instead of letting a easily-rigged system push an agenda.
One final note. That thing I said about Citizen Kane was a lie. Critics praised the movie when it was released. It was a financial flop, though. Audiences got that one wrong, not the critics. It’s sometimes important to remember that not even the box office numbers are the whole story of a film’s worth or success.