The release of Batman V Superman this past weekend has caused many to wonder whether film critics have any weight on the viewer’s decisions. It’s probably not a new topic of debate, but it gives me the chance of making a brief reflection on the role of the critic.
First things first, let it be known that I bought a ticket for the Zack Snyder movie and went and watched it. I didn’t like it, mainly because I thought it was stupid. But that’s the full extent of my opinion, and whatever else I might have to say about it will be delivered to friends over beers. (I also made a mean tweet about it, but if you don’t want any spoilers, you shouldn’t look at it—no matter how silly the spoiler in question may seem—.)
A recent piece on Variety poses the big question: “Do Critics Matter at the Box Office?” In it, a series of scathing reviews from top critics are gathered, and then pitted against the impressive financial performance of the film’s opening weekend: 6th largest domestic launch of all time and nearly half a billion dollars pocketed in the global market. Not bad. Record-breaking, in fact. What comes next in the article is an interesting consideration from reporter Brent Lang:
The results are a devastating rebuke to the power of mainstream American critics at a time when many newspapers have already outsourced their reviews to wire services and the rise of bloggers has de-professionalized the practice of assessing a film’s attributes and demerits.
It is a known fact that, these days, most consumer choices are driven by the opinions of other consumers, whether regarding cars, restaurants, smartphones, or movies. In this context, everyone is a critic and we are all so 24/7, constantly evaluating our choices and posting them all over the Internet. Which, for professional reviewers of films (or books, stage plays, whatever it is), begs two questions: Are critics necessary? And if they are, what is their role or manner of contribution to the public?
This leads to my (very) personal “critique of the critic.” I will not go as far as Joe Esztherhas does in his Devil’s Guide To Hollywood, where he asserts that critics are bitter because they want the writers’ jobs. He even cites the delightful —even if exceedingly dismissive— line from comedian Dick Shawn: “A critic is someone who comes in after the battle is over and shoots the wounded.” This is, I believe, an unfair disregard for critics. Or, as I will explain, for some of them.
I once heard a film critic define his own work as one of accompanying the viewers and guiding them, not only in their choice —what movie should I watch?— but also in the enjoyment of the chosen movie —how can I best enjoy it?—. His role, he maintained, was to help the viewership enjoy the film to the fullness of its possibilities (based, perhaps, on the larger visual culture and cinema knowledge of the reviewer.) Now, if we take this definition as valid, there is a large number of “acclaimed” critics who decidedly deserve criticism. Here’s my thesis:
In a world where the public is the critic, the critics’ audience must be the public.
My opinion is that the critic should never write for the artist (or creator, be it a writer, producer, or director,) but for the viewer. And even more, the critic should never write for the artist as someone who tells them how to do their job. This is insulting not only for the creative who receives the message, but also for critics themselves, because it places them in the position described by Esztherhas: “I would’ve done it better.” To which creators respond: “Yeah? Show me. Oh, wait…” The critic is not the star and shouldn’t present himself as one. He is, instead, a knowledgeable person providing help with his wisdom. That’s what we usually call a teacher. A scholar. But teachers don’t teach masters.
That’s why I chose this piece from THR as a blatant example of a certain arrogant approach to film criticism: “5 Lessons for Zack Snyder After ‘Batman v Superman.” Seriously? Couldn’t they have been called, at least, suggestions? Did the sub-headline need to read, “friendly advice to help prevent the director from single-handedly destroying the comic book action movie genre”? Isn’t it embarrassing?
So here’s my plead to critics: Write for the viewers and try to help them. And then, respect the viewer’s taste, even if they like Batman V Superman. If Rotten Tomatoes says people like it, it’s fine (it doesn’t mean it is actually good, does it?) Don’t try to elevate yourselves over the “commoners.” Particularly don’t try to humiliate creatives for their work. Because, among other things, they have had the courage to face a life of frustration and rejection. Because getting there is a long journey and a titanic effort. And if you (or I) are reviewing their work, it means they have made it.