Monday, March 28, 2016

In Light of "Superman vs: Batman" - What is the Point of Film Criticism?


Batman ponders the Super Package


Although perhaps less so every year in a world of constantly sub-divided attention, movies and television are the modern cultural touchstones.  More than news, political figures or even war, there's nothing like a $400 million dollar movie to get everyone around the world doing the same thing on a Saturday.  International dominance of American cinema means that films transcend boundaries and political ideologies as Hollywood carefully crafts non-political films with standard "good v evil" tropes, without ever casting a particular point of view, aside from "evil menace" as the bad guy.

We aren't all just film viewers, we are all film reviewers.  We see a film, we consider that film against other films, source material and our particular perspective.  Sometimes we write that thought down.  The job requires no credentialing, and while some people are paid to look at movies, sum them up and say a few words about the relative merit of a film, others do this endlessly, fruitlessly on their own (cough), but it is something we all do mentally.  We are all ready to write a column for the local paper.  We all have the best, most nuanced of opinions.

Most of what you see in the press I think of as "reviewers" more than "critics".  Somehow, someway, those folks parlayed an interest in going to a bunch of movies every week into a job where they then must writer 1000 words about that movie.  A review contains a synopsis, who stars in a movie, and some sort of opinion about the movie.  Some make it colorful - and in this era of  anyone with a keyboard having the ability to publish, you gotta write some colorful stuff to get clicks.

How to separate a critic from a reviewer?

Well, a reviewer is a person with a local newspaper column or a website.  It's me.  It's you.  Your aunt who posts things to facebook.

There are two definitions of critic, I think.


One is the high-brow person in tweed you think of as the arbiter and taste-maker reviewer.  They wax poetic about the grandeur or failure of a film's components from acting, to story, to directing to the overall gestalt.  There's something grand in this notion - but outside of plays on New York and in the high-brow world of opera, etc... it seems that movies don't really feel the impact of "critics" in 2016, unless you start talking about Oscar bait films or the refined, eclectic tastes of the art-house cinema goer in their beret (I assume).

The work of the second type of critic - and I wish Alistair and Nathan were here to help me through this - is to disassemble a film and look at the components through their particular lens.  Their job is not to say a movie is "fun for the whole family" or "a hot mess".  It's not even, really, to say if a film is good or bad - but, oh god, the judgi-ness.  The role of the critic is to consider what the film is saying with its messaging, examine the context of the messaging and comment upon what the film says textually and metatextually.

I'm aware that there are specific schools of thought that one can bring to a film to consider it's intent, it's reference, it's execution.  Criticism can come from philosophical leanings.  It's no secret that during my period of attendance, the UT Austin film department was steeped in Marxist film criticism (which is the "ducks in a barrel" mode of criticism, in my opinion, and works great.  In theory.).  Feminist film criticism is the word of the day in pop culture and its seeped into reviews in a way that I find alternately pleasing and "oh, you're so young..." when I read so many reviews online.

At times, both forms of criticism are ill-informed or agenda-driven horse hockey.  And that is unfortunate.  The particular agenda/ axe-to-grind of a critic can seize hold of the discussion, manipulating author's intent, or making incongruous suppositions or reading meaning where none is to be found (something we were told was impossible in my own Narrative Strategies class in college, as the meaning is - we were told - from the beholder's eye.  Which is both truth and giving humanity a lot of credit).

But, the job of the critic is not to confirm your suspicion that Fast and the Furious kicks ass.  It's too look at the forces that created Fast and the Furious and what those messages say about the film, the culture around the audience.

Most of the best of what you see out there is a mix of film criticism and review, as the expectation in a newspaper or online, seems to be to inform the potential purchaser of a ticket whether or not this movie will be worthy of their dollars.   Sometimes I enjoy a good, indepth take on a movie, even a movie I don't like.  It makes for some good reading.  But a lot of movie reviews are quickly jotted off opinions by folks whose livelihoods depend on them seeing everything, a prospect which chills me to my very core.

That care review of film, endlessly examining the workings, seeking novelty while asking for adherence to some basic formality, can and should give a deep-dive perspective on a film.  Sometimes it will lead them to coming to a conclusion other than the initial reaction (even I do this mid-write-up all the time), or gravely unpopular opinions defending work considered bad to mediocre by the wider population and even their fellow film community voices.

And it can be a delight watching a smart person defend a very bad movie as a very good movie, or at least as having merit.

We're in an oddball era of film review, of personalities and voices clamoring for hits or attention in discussing film.  There are the reviewers of varying caliber across the Rotten Tomatoes field of play with a spectrum of viewpoints.  The aggregate score is, to me, a bit fascinating as a predictor less of whether a movie will be my cup of tea (that's what trailers are for), but whether the movie holds together as an agony indicator.  "Does it hurt your brain to watch this movie?"

Some of the voices are critics, most are reviewers.  In the post AICN era, and in the rise of sites like Birth.Movies.Death that understand genre film, we're seeing some interesting voices coming out of the wood work.  The era of the staid academic as arbiter of taste is now ashes.  Even Ebert wasn't playing that game in his final decade.

We have such a strange relationship with reviews and that RT score.

As twitter lights up with calls to "ignore the critics, Superman vs. Batman is awesome!", the first thing we do when we don't want to see a movie and feel the need to explain why we're making the smart decision to point to the critical consensus via that RT score.

I get the confusion and cognitive dissonance that comes with seeing a movie, actually enjoying it, and then seeing the critics clearly having a field day shaming your new favorite movie.  I unashamedly, unironically like John Carter, a movie hovering at 51% at RT.  Still, a better score than anything Superman vs. Batman has seen since the reviews came gushing out, covered in bile and tears (at 30% as of this writing.  Clearly it's critical dog-pile-palooza for this movie).

Of course, we can't really listen to Amy Adams when she tells us to ignore the critics and come out and see the movie.*  Amy Adams likely has points on the gross, and she stands to make a lot of money if you come out to see the thing.

You make a convincing argument for yourself, Ms. Adams.  I'll just send you $5 in an envelope.

The problem is:  We certainly can't pay that much attention to what a 22-year-old guy in a Batman t-shirt who just spent 120 hours of his life dedicated to a Batman video game has to say on the issue.

Look, I get anticipation and how it impacts how you see something.  I really do.  I've talked about my Phantom Menace denial so many times, it's exhausted as a cautionary tale.  But, goddammit, I saw that thing 5 times before I realized, on viewing #6 "oh, dear God, this movie is terrible.  People are... right about this thing."

What I'd argue is that anticipation is fun, but it can also lead to some less than critical reads of a movie.  If you have any access to social media, you're spending your days wading through myopic, fact-bending illogic from all sides.  That's what us apes do to make sense of the world and not sink into a pit of crippling disappointment and despair.

Whether someone anticipated Superman v. Batman because, for whatever reason, that concept was the single greatest idea WB could commit to film to sate their eyeballs, I can't say.  Or if the hundred million dollars spent making sure a certain demographic honestly believed this movie was some sort of cultural event, I kind of can say.**  That grown-assed adults - absolutely the target demo for this movie - care about seeing Superman and Batman hit each other just makes me want to sit on a curb somewhere and watch traffic for a while.

The thing about critics is: they aren't invested in those movies, for good or ill.  It can be maddening to read a poor review and realize, part way down, that Owen Glieberman was never going to give this movie a fair shake, because he fundamentally cannot see sci-fi, fantasy or superheroes as a legitimate way to convey a story (I am sure, Birdman aside).  He doesn't want to see those movies.  He's going to ding it just for the fact that thing exists.

You can absolutely argue that something is not for folks who don't particularly want to see it - that's just logic.  But you can't argue that they don't know how a movie is supposed to work.

What's harder to argue with are the genre film sites with a bit of gravitas who had a bad time of it.  Birth.Movies.Death.  i09.  Or more standard outlets that put a nerd or three on staff.

And, hey, sometimes those opinions don't matter.  So, yes, when you run up against a wall of bad reviews, what is the question you ask yourself?  Do I care what these people whom I do not know think about this movie?  That's absurd.  You liked this movie that has just been brutalized by near anyone with a keyboard.

I want to put two possibilities on the table regarding how and why a movie with nigh-universally terrible reviews made a boat load of money.

1)  We're all brainless zombies when it comes to overwhelming messaging and ad campaigns.  Ie: In the case of Batman v. Superman,  you knew it was supposed to be terrible movie making, you'd been a bit stupified by the events of Man of Steel, but you somehow could not stop yourself to the point of driving in a car to a movie theater to see Batman be Batman.

It's a little creepy, isn't it?

2)  It's also entirely possible you have terrible taste and/ or really enjoy bright and flashing lights.

You certainly aren't alone in this regard.  Lots and lots of people feel this way.  Certainly you can point to the near incomprehensible success of the Transformers franchise.  Someone out there really likes this dumb, occasionally racist, certainly crude and poorly conceived and executed - junk.  Hell, every time one of these things comes out, I have five people making excuses to me about why they're going back in ("it's a new movie!  The TV told me to see it!  I don't care if licking coolant is bad for me, it's minty!") even as they tell me "oh, yeah, the last four were awful."

But, forget all that.

In an era of mass media and endless selection and a working democracy, reviewers and critics provide a valuable service, and that's something we can largely agree upon or RT and Metacritic would have long since faltered.  Whether we're discussing the quality of acting, camerawork, audio, and especially narrative, we require voices of reason, whether in chorus with popular opinion or in dissent.  We should welcome those voices and not necessarily give in to our inner bloviating Trump and start angrily tweeting at opinions contrary to our own.

We stand something to gain and little to lose by playing mental chess with those critics and reviewers - who may not be right or fair in their assessment - who may have an agenda, but are articulating something, and if we can get our head around it, how can that be a bad thing?

Pretty clearly, the box office has sort of spoken.  The movie made a ton of money its first weekend.  And, yeah, it saw a precipitous fall-off from Friday to Sunday.  No matter what, you are more than welcome to tell me to go to hell.  You're welcome to like whatever you want to.  But it's possible you like garbage.  It's okay - I sometimes watch Antiques Roadshow which is basically hoarder porn.

I didn't see the movie.  I've seen a handful of Zack Snyder movies, three of which were comic book adaptations, two of which seemed to miss the point of the source material and one which was just... well... a bit much, even based on a Frank Miller guttural scream of a comic.  And, I saw his Dawn of the Dead reboot, and that wasn't a patch on the original, either.   I think that's plenty.   I don't think he gets either character or story, and his action sequences seem like pieces of film just taped together in no particular order.  And, of course, his take on Superman is a 16-year-old's power fantasy, not that of either a child or adult.

Now, I may not be a master debater of film, nor the world's finest critic, but I'm happy to chat it up with anyone who wants to say I "don't get" comics, Batman or Superman and that's why I didn't want to see this movie.


Late Edit:  Randy informs me that Slate, a publication I don't read, has a similar article up.  This one may be easier to read/ more fun/ something or other.



*look, I'll do Amy Adams a solid about almost anything, but she's going to have to forego the $0.01 she might make off my ticket.

** Y'all showed up, didn't you?  I can't really overstate how weird it is that a certain demographic is somehow invested in all of this - angrily so - when the comics are moving, like 70,000 units a month on a good month featuring the exact same characters.   All the rage at critical disagreement about the movie tells me there's some damn successful marketing going on there.

12 comments:

Marshall Preddy said...

This Superman, Cavil, just looks mirthless. It's impossible to imagine him smiling. I don't know what the point of capital C criticism is, but I know this looks like no fun at all.

JaredMithrandir said...

My feelings toward a film have never been more conflicted then with Batman V Superman, there are countless things about it I love that exceeded my expectations. But many things about ti I hate.

But my complaints are all ones as a fan of the source material, not on how it stands as a film of it's genre. IN this genre I care not about plot holes, even if it's a seemingly "gritty" film that is at face value "taking itself way to seriously".

What discredits any potential for you to change my opinion that critical reception is meaningless, (since this is probably the first time I've disliked in any way a films I wanted to like that the critics slammed. And the only film I have ever truly hated is one the critics loved, Superman Returns). If your going a long with the whole Phantom Menace was undeniably bad nonsense.

I didn't go into the Phantom menace with expectation, I went in as a non or at best casual SW fan thinking at least it'll have cool music that won't waste my time. That movie made me a SW fan. And I've seen well beyond 6 times now and each time I notice new things to cherish about it. It means everything to me that ANH means to people like you.

And it actually got better reviews when it first came out then the OT did.

Gerry Lopez said...

That balance of applying different critical lenses without getting lost in mental masturbation is hard to get to. I had a professor that used to use to talk about finding the tension in the text and subtext rather than X = whatever. But that's all besides the point, I guess.

Ryan Steans said...

@Jared - Well, whether you liked it or not isn't really the point. I mean, it is - but I'm more interested in where the gap is between what audiences do and why and critical response to a film. I'm more concerned with the role of the critic in modern times when there's greater access to both content and critical review and the gulf between those things. That "the critics don't know what they're talking about" or "don't get Batman" is a form of response, but so is a studied breakdown of a film as a film, not as a reflection of what is and is not in the comics.

I was a grown adult when Star Wars I came out with high expectations. I'd grown up on Star Wars. I was high on Star Wars. The sight of a lightsaber in a movie worked well for me. But once I put my "how does this work as a movie" hat on, it began to falter. And, once I did that, it was difficult to go back.

Ryan Steans said...

@gerry - yeah. Well, I'm not a marxist, so the Marxist school of training my UT profs were prone to sometimes felt like sandpaper on my nerves. I know of which you speak. At some point i was just making up crazy things to say in class to see if my prof (a phd student) would take the bait. Still, I do feel like I learned how to critically view a film, even if I didn't agree with their viewpoint or conclusions. It's the process that I appreciated.

Gerry Lopez said...

Best exercise on this sort of thing was to use different critical theories on the same passage (I was an English major). It really helped to get perspective. But yeah people tend to pick one lense and apply it to everything like some secret decoder ring which is ludicrous.

Ryan Steans said...

Film was weird. You can tell it's this sort of made-up field pulling political, social and other fields in, but in this sort of ham-handed way that felt like borrowing of something they kinda/sorta understood. I always assumed the English faculty would have had a more polished way of dealing with reading a text since the focus of the department wouldn't be so fragmented. Maybe not.

Ryan Steans said...

@Jared - by the way, from a personal perspective, I quite agree that missing components of a comic or character is a reason to be critical of a translation to film. While I can easily recognize that there will always be compromise of some sort, moving too far from the intention can make the experience - uh - unpleasant? Awful? Sometimes the changes are fine and work. Other times, it seems the producers didn't understand the material or were simply hellbent on making something totally different. And, in some cases, say the 1950 film "Gun Crazy", there's maybe one plot element left and the title (but the movie is better than the source material, so you just try to rationalize that they're two different things with a business relationship).

But, yeah, it can drive you mad.

For good or ill, the reviewers and critics don't have to take that source material into account, but we do, if we know it. It's impossible to not have that perspective. Thus, you get sites like Birth.Movies.Death. where the writers generally have some familiarity with the genre source material.

J.S. said...

I think that comic book movies have their own special weirdness. People wouldn't have such strong feelings about them if everyone didn't have such strongly held convictions, going in, about what the movie was supposed to be. If this was a movie about two characters that had been newly designed from whole cloth, people would just shrug and walk away from it and chalk it up as a bad movie. Failed superhero movies with established characters create a sense of betrayal. Which creates its own unusual dynamic within the realm of criticism and review. Personally, I'm not that invested. I tend to be happy when these movies work, but move on to the next thing when they don't. I guess the big fear is that directors like Zack Snyder will permanently damage these characters. But history has a long arc...

JaredMithrandir said...

None of the Star Wars films are ones that hold up under scrutiny. Their Trashy pulp novels and that's what they are supposed to be. If they ever stopped being that and became artsy films with not plot holes then I wouldn't like them.

Ryan Steans said...

@Jared - I can't argue with that. It's a fascinating mix of myth and metaphor and Buck Rogers and comics and WWII fighter movies. But, I think we can agree, it works. Imperfectly, by the seat of its pants, but there's something there in the filmmaking that certainly blows right past any checklist of critical criteria you could cook up. I will point out, at least Star Wars Episode, back when it was just Star Wars, was nominated for Best Picture. Which is kind of amazing. And it was put in the LOC film archive and, of course, made the late 90's AFI 100 Years 100 Films. So, it was doing something right.

Ryan Steans said...

@jason - you know, it's funny. There's no doubt that studios are paying far more attention to the details of books aimed at young audiences as they adapt them. Harry Potter and Hunger Games reportedly both adhere very closely to the source material. What's interesting is that DC Entertainment's president, Diane Nelson, moved to DCE after her success translating Harry Potter to movies for WB. So, I don't think she's trying not to please comics fans - I think she's being told what comics fans are into from folks using blunt instruments to communicate the ideas, and misunderstanding what worked about the Nolan movies (which are, like, basically kinda/ sorta Batman).

I'm a bit more inclined to believe that if there's a long arc to this, and maybe there is, WB's approach is going to take a very, very long time to work its way back, or we're going to need as abrupt and successful a change as we saw between "Batman & Robin" and "Batman Begins". Only, you know, with someone willing to spread some cheer. It's possible that can happen, even inside this same franchise with this same actor and a different director and screenwriter, but... yeah, it's gonna take WB accepting some major, major change. And unless there's a complete drop off at the box office this week, I'm not sure that's possible.