David Ayer’s highly controversial Suicide Squad has been out for more or less a week. Suffice it to say, the film’s already been at the centre of heated debate on nearly every conceivable front, ranging from its presentation of gender issues, to its production problems, right through to its numerous edits. Hell, even its soundtrack has ruffled some feathers. What’s strange is that this summer movie season had already seen its fair share of aggro, owing to both Ghostbusters and Batman V Superman. And then, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the comments section, another high profile film had to come and make people have differences of opinion.
The fallout of all this debate and discussion sure is exhausting. Don’t you just wish that a film’s quality could simply be discerned through a cold and calculated process, that takes away the need for independent thought? Wouldn’t it be easier if you could just put these arguments to bed through the use of some kind of numerical value? A percentage perhaps? I mean, I’m all for opinion and subjectivity, but there must be some way we can just regurgitate stats and figures and use them to make our case for us. Because we all know that facts are vital when it comes to judging the merits of a comic book movie.
Sorry, is my satire too subtle? Would it be better if I were more on the nose? Obviously I’m touching on one of the biggest controversies surrounding Suicide Squad, the issue of Rotten Tomatoes. For those who aren’t quite up to speed, a petition was recently created suggesting that aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes be shut down. Said petition was formulated in response to initial (and indeed subsequent) negative reviews for DC’s supervillian team-up movie, which now holds a 26% approval rate on the site. The gist, from what I can understand, is that critics apparently harbour some kind of innate bias towards DC movies, and will write damning reviews of the films irrespective of their actual quality. The salient issue here being that people may be dissuaded from giving the films a chance, all based on supposedly invalid reviews.
Now, a lot has been written in response to this petition. The majority of the discourse has actually been insultingly condescending, talking about all comic-book fans as if they’re petulant crybabies, based on the actions of a small group. Of course, there is some justification for this. For a start, it is a little ridiculous to posit that critics have some kind of inbuilt negative disposition towards DC (they did like The Dark Knight quite a bit after all). I mean, this may be a wacky notion, but maybe the more recent films just haven’t been that great (I’ve seen them. They aren’t).
Moreover, this petition accumulated a substantial amount of signatures before the film had even gone on wide release. Just like with those who spam IMDB with 10/10 ratings before even seeing a film, these people were so stubbornly refusing to believe that the film might not live up to their own expectations, that they simply that because the trailers were great, it must be too. You don’t need me to explain why that’s a little silly. I mean, I wanted to love this movie as much as anyone, in fact I was hoping it would be one of my favourites of all time, but that didn’t cause me to shoot down reviews of a film I hadn’t even seen yet.
Thirdly, there is the inherent problem that Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t actually publicise any opinion of its own. It’s an aggregate. It just collects together the ratings of ‘certified’ individuals, collates the data, and forms a consensus based on their findings. So attacking Rotten Tomatoes for Suicide Squad’s bad reviews is akin to attacking the symptom of a disease, rather than the cause. RT isn’t your enemy. It’s just the messenger.
So you know, I do get the backlash to the petition. I really do. It was a stupid reaction to legitimate criticism. Still, I do despise the way that certain media outlets have constructed an image of all DC fans as nothing but immature whiners. At the time of writing, the petition has 22,305 supporters signatures, which is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of DC’s overall fanbase. Don’t tar every hopeful fan with the same brush just because some of them didn’t like what you had to say. Indeed, it’s one of those debates where I find that both sides come across as pretentious, nasty and insecure. The ‘fanboys’ can’t handle criticism of the film, whilst the critics can’t handle criticism of their own criticism. I don’t really want to take sides, because everyone just looks bad in my opinion.
Having said that, there is one thing that has annoyed me beyond belief. Why does anyone take Rotten Tomatoes as a site seriously? To me, it’s indicative of what is wrong with how so many people approach film criticism. I can’t count how many times I’ve clicked on a YouTube review or listened to a podcast about a recent film, only to here people spouting percentages at each other as if it means anything. ‘Yes well my film has 88% on this site, whereas yours only has 71%, therefore your’s is just shit!’ Great, that was an enlightening and thought provoking debate.
Of course what these people are really saying is, ‘I have no actual thoughts or original arguments, so instead, here is a mathematical representation of what a particular demographic thinks’. It just results in message boards and comment sections where numbers are hurled around as weapons, like it’s a bloody turn-based RPG.
When I sit down to watch an episode of Movie Fights, I don’t want to hear someone reductively reel off percentages in place of actual debate. I want to hear people justify their opinions. Sure it’s fine to use critics as reference points, or even to get you thinking in different ways, but what the hell is the point in using them as authorities? They’re just people like you! They might have seen a few more films, maybe read a couple of theory books, but their opinion is just as substantial as anyone else’s! So why the fuck is a numerical figure based on their consensus so shitting important!?
It just makes debate so lifeless. Imagine this; you find yourself in conversation with someone who dislikes a film that you happen to admire. For the sake of argument, let’s say that it’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. You love that film. Yes yo do. Now let’s say that you make a compelling point about the film’s cinematography, and how it reflects the thematic content inherent in the narrative. Or maybe you say something about how the characters all undergo subtle arcs and really evolve over the course of the film. It’s a bit of stretch, but let’s run with it. Now, you’ve thought about this for a long time. You’ve studied the film intensely. Considered every frame. Thought about how to best express your opinion. You’ve really put some effort into making your case. You’re ready to debate the hell out of this. And what does the other person come out with? ‘Yeah well it has 12% on Rotten Tomatoes, so obviously the experts disagree’.
Great. Now with this insightful attitude, we can really expand the boundaries of film study! We can open up new avenues for talking about cinema and why we love the things we love. I mean, why the fuck do they even teach film courses anymore? The answers are all online! Why even bother watching films? You can just look up which ones you’re supposed to like on Metacritic.
I’m not saying that Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t have a purpose. It’s fine for gauging the general perception of a film, or maybe for adjusting your expectations for a hyped up release, but it’s not the word of God! Which is what a lot of the Suicide Squad haters seem to take it as. ‘Oh the fanboys just can’t handle that the film is objectively bad’. No. Suicide Squad isn’t objectively anything. It isn’t good. It isn’t bad. It’s just a film.
I don’t even think the scores make much sense half of the time. For a start, it doesn’t take into account how much critics like something, just whether or not they do. So a film that gets 3 stars across the board comes out with a higher rating than something that might have provoked more polarising, and therefore passionate, reactions. For example, Revenge of Sith (you know, the one where Darth Vader yells ‘Noooooo’) has the exact same score as Fight Club. Yeah! Where’s your God now?
Then, there’s the occasions where the distinction between rotten and fresh is just plain confusing. Take a look at this from the Suicide Squad page-
That’s a 3/5 rating! How can that be deemed rotten? Then, just a bit further up we have this:
6/10 and 3/5 are the exact same thing! So how can one be fresh and one be rotten? How can we rely on numbers to communicate evaluations of art!? It’s so arbitrary! This whole process just reeks of people not being able to have confidence in their own opinions. Instead, they feel the need to reduce subjective thought into something quantifiable, that way they can ‘win’ arguments and never have to stop and think ‘why do people not like this film’?
As long as we put so much emphasis on what these aggregate sites say, people will be less willing to challenge the consensus. After all, who’s gonna stand up for The Legend of Tarzan when Rotten Tomatoes tells them that it is mathematically verified as bad. I know the pure existence of these sites isn’t killing film criticism, I’m not crazy. But people do place way too much stock in them. Yes, use them as reference points. The public isn’t made of money, and they should be able to look around for recommendations before spending their cash on a cinema ticket. Equally they should be allowed to check in and see if a film is worth their time before they commit to it. But I just wish everyone would stop taking it so seriously! If you’re gonna tell me that Suicide Squad is shit, or that The Red Balloon is a masterpiece, don’t give me a percentage. Just tell me what why!