Best-Laid Pans: Critic v Critic on “Batman v Superman”

April 5, 2016

by Peter Howell

Batman v Superman

I long ago got used to being told how to do my job as a film critic, which many people assume isn’t work to begin with. “What’s so hard about sitting in the dark and eating popcorn?” goes the standard slag, sometimes said in jest but more often not.

Of course, critics aren’t just sitting there — somebody has to worry about mise-en-scène — and speaking for myself, I rarely eat popcorn. I’d either be dead or weigh 300 lbs. by now if I’d shovelled buttered corn into my mouth for each of the thousands of movies I’ve professionally viewed over the past 20 years. Ignorance of the gig is simply an occupational irritant, not to be taken too seriously.

But you’d expect a fellow movie journalist to have some idea of how critics operate. Which is why I was surprised to read a bizarre putdown by Variety’s Brent Lang, the trade journal’s senior film and media reporter, after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opened last weekend to predictably huge box office and uncommonly harsh critical appraisal (a 29% “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Headlined, “Batman v Superman’ Triumphs: Do Critics Matter at the Box Office?” Lang’s piece read like the kind of snarkery you’d expect from a boastful movie studio (although studios rarely resort to this) or an aggrieved fanboy.

“Instead of serving as box office kryptonite, reviewers watched helplessly as Batman v Superman smashed records, racking up $424.1 million globally and ensuring that the Dark Knight, the Man of Steel and a cornucopia of DC Comics’ spandexed finest will be flooding screens for years to come,” Lang wrote.

A bold question.

Let me get this straight. Despite their best-laid pans, critics “watched helplessly” as a heavily promoted blockbuster containing two of history’s most popular superheroes (three if you include the Wonder Woman cameo) actually did the great business it was engineered to do? Weren’t these the same critics who were supposed to be bribed by studios to write glowing reviews, according to one of the dumber recent conspiracies on the Interwebs?

(If studios ever do start bribing critics, I demand that my share be in unmarked 10s and 20s, delivered in a bowling bag carried by Jeff Bridges in his Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski guise. Either that, or a cool rug that would really tie the room together, man.)

Claiming that critics felt helpless in the face of a multiplex juggernaut suggests that we actually thought we could do something to stop it. Anybody who seriously believes critics have such omnipotent power probably also believes we could solve global warming and bring peace to the Middle East, or at least the Republican Party. Blockbusters rise and fall without much heed to critical sentiment, either yay or nay. Always have, always will. People just want to see men and women in leotards blow stuff up.

To put it in railway terms, most critics I know harbour zero illusions of stopping a speeding blockbuster train, even one loaded with garbage. They might be interested in whether a film exceeds or falls short of expectations, and it’s fun to speculate on awards chances at Oscar time. They might also be pleased if a small deserving indie gem manages to do well, especially if it’s “critically acclaimed.”

But few take a film’s success or failure personally. I’m actually delighted if a lot of people enjoyed Batman v Superman, even though I didn’t, because I never want people to have a bad time at the movies. For most people, a night out at the pictures is an escape from life’s drudgeries. Who would want to deny them that pleasure?

The job of a critic is to express an opinion about a movie, in a manner designed to make people think more deeply about the film in question. Moviegoers are free to accept or reject such advice. The fact that they reject it for a heavily hyped film like Batman v Superman doesn’t make the criticism any less valid or useful. Part of the movie-going fun for many people is to read reviews after seeing a film, to find out how their opinions compared to those of the critics — who are bright if they concur and dumb if they don’t.

There’s a film analogy that comes to mind for how movie critics should approach their work. It’s the scene in The Fugitive where Tommy Lee Jones’ determined lawman Samuel Gerard finally comes face-to-face with Harrison Ford’s elusive prison escapee Richard Kimble, who has been framed and falsely convicted of murder.

“I didn’t kill my wife!” Kimble says.
“I don’t care!” Gerard growls.

Gerard is just doing his duty, tracking down Kimble so a higher level of justice can deal with him. Movie critics require a similar professional relationship with the films they review. They care a lot about the content and look of a film but not much at all whether it makes cash registers go ka-ching. Variety knows this full well.

And speaking of justice, the trade mag and other journals are now reporting a 69% second-weekend drop in box office for Batman v Superman, a larger than expected dip and almost a record-setting one. The Friday-to-Friday cliff dive was even steeper, a whopping 81% lower than the previous week. To be fair, blockbusters always hit hardest coming out of the gate and a box-office decline approaching 60% in the second week isn’t a shocker. The final Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, fell by 72% in its second week and did more than all right in the long run.

But it seems maybe a few people listened to the critics regarding the awfulness of Batman v Superman, and the decidedly mixed word of mouth did some damage, too. I’m not “helplessly” watching these numbers, either — but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to smiling a little at them.