“Batman v Superman” and the Problem with Contemporary Film Criticism
Believe it or not, there was a time when film critics did not push contentious cynicism onto their readers. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, there were many critics who sought to simply inform their readers about a given film. Examples include Bosley Crowther at the New York Times, Edwin Schallert at the Los Angeles Times, and Mae Tinee, which was a pen name for all critics at the Chicago Tribune into the 1960s. These critics did not put their personal opinion on a pedestal quite like the critics of today. Instead, they answered the primary question: will audiences like the film and/or does it connect with the current culture in a useful way?
Looking at the mainstream reviews of Batman v Superman today, it’s clear that many were eager to trash the latest installment of the popular superhero genre. As of this writing, 29% of critics hated the film while 73% of audiences enjoyed it (according to Rotten Tomatoes). Such a divide is not entirely uncommon, which reminds us of one thing: critics no longer review films by assessing potential public interest. Today’s critics review films for themselves and use their platform to tell us their personal grievances by glossing over the fundamental elements of filmmaking that should be the foundation of a review. Instead of film critics we get self-appointed cultural gatekeepers. It has gotten to the point where The Hollywood Reporter is trying to tell Zack Snyder how to make a film (doesn't this seem petty for an established trade publication?)
My goal here is less to defend Batman v Superman (I don't hate it, but will admit it has its problems) and more to discuss issues with film criticism that have been glaringly obvious with the release of Batman v Superman.
While Batman v Superman is a soaring financial success, critics have chastised the film of being inconsistent, trite, and overly serious (overly serious is what DC does best). However, many of them do not cite a familiarity with the materials that have influenced Batman v Superman. I don’t mean that anyone who hasn’t read the work of Frank Miller or Dan Jurgens (among others) simply didn’t get the film. My point is that many critics are not looking at a film to see if it will appease audiences and instead use their entire word count on over explaining their personal discontent. Very few critics noted how a film about two major superhero figures battling it out could connect with a widely divided United States in 2016. No familiarity with comics necessary for that analysis. Making such a cultural connection in a review can add useful depth to a writer's commentary.
Superhero films are not for everyone, so critics shouldn’t condescend to the massive fan base that supports the genre. This isn’t to say that critics shouldn’t criticize. Instead, they should look for what that audience might appreciate and incorporate that into their writing as well. It’s easy to respond to much of the Batman v Superman critical grumbling by saying “I’m sorry Zack Snyder didn’t make the film you would have made.” Too many critics alienate themselves through pretentious and self-important commentary that could instead be constructive criticism used to increase discussion (not squelch it). For an example of a straightforward review that piques reader curiosity, see Kenneth Turan's piece on Batman v Superman in the Los Angeles Times. In addition, contrarian critic Armond White's review is well-reasoned and gives us much to discuss.
Movies are often divisive. Critics, film historians, and general audiences don't always see eye to eye - that's nothing new. Even some of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films were blasted upon release only to find appreciation later through the writing and research of film historians like Robin Wood and filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich. However, anyone who has read film columns of the early twentieth century will see that that a traditional film review (which was more of a film preview) has turned into a different type of critical essay. Today's critics no longer see criticism as an honest means to judge the merits of a film and instead use their review to spout hashtag-ready snark.
How did such a misappropriation of critical commentary come about?
Enter the late Pauline Kael, who was influenced by critics like James Agee and was widely known for popularizing the eloquent verbal beat down in prominent publications. While an excellent writer, problems with Kael's work have been widely documented (without proof she once claimed Orson Welles didn't co-write Citizen Kane). With Kael’s influence, film criticism eventually moved from insightful commentary to pretentious intellectualism coupled with literary elitism that masqueraded as film criticism. A film column need not be the same as an op-ed piece on world affairs. While Kael may be fun to read, her attitude towards criticism has had a harmful impact on those who have followed her lead, with critics acting more like political pundits than film reviewers.
Sonny Bunch at The Washington Post has also noted Kael's influence on the evolution of film criticism that morphed into presumptuous superiority over filmmakers. Bunch makes the case, however, that most critics are still more interested in adding to a conversation rather than stopping a potential box-office success.
"Speaking only for myself, and perhaps rather presumptuously (I’m a part-time amateur, at best), this is why I don’t think it’s enough to say whether a film like “Batman v Superman” is “good” or “bad,” whether you “should see it” or “stay at home.” It’s why, instead, I tried to discuss it within the context of the rest of Zack Snyder’s work and examine what worked and what didn’t and why. I didn’t expend 2,000 words on the film because I’m interested in saving you $15 (plus concessions); I’m interested in having a discussion and furthering our understanding."
The best critics understand this. However, many of the loudest voices in mainstream publications and Hollywood trade press have forgotten this purpose as of late.
A good response to this issue can be found in film historian David Bordwell’s 2011 essay “Academics vs. Critics.” Understandably, Bordwell sides with academics in the sense that they postpone evaluation to ask broader questions about a film’s role in society. Bordwell argues that what’s missing from both academic and journalistic criticism is a “strong and explicit explanations contoured to matters of filmmakers’ creative choices.” According to Bordwell, the basic difference between critics and academics can be found in their questioning:
Critic: “What distinctive qualities of this film can I detect, and how do they enhance our sense of its value?”
Academic: “What aspects of the film are illuminated by my theoretical frame of reference?”
Bordwell’s answer to the divide between critics and theory-driven academics is what he calls middle-level researchers: writers who pose their questions and present their research in a more accessible manner. Many film scholars (including myself) have utliized this approach. Cinema academics like Thomas Doherty, Steven Ross, Thomas Schatz, Scott Higgins (who Bordwell mentions), Drew Casper, Cynthia Miller, Jeanine Basinger, and many others have made film history and appreciation accessible to the masses. In addition, film critics and journalists such as Mark Harris, Patrick McGilligan, and Scott Eyman have incorporated excellent research into their work (even though they aren't academics by trade they've proven their reliability by using primary sources).
Of course, a direct comparison between critics and academics is not entirely fair. Many critics have tight deadlines between when they watch a film, write a review, and submit for publication. On the other hand, academics have the freedom to watch a film multiple times before writing. I come to this debate as someone who has enjoyed reading and writing film criticism and now enjoys reading and writing cultural film history. With this dual perspective, I argue that what is most important are the questions we are asking before we write. Critics should consider who they are writing for and why. Sometimes it feels like critics write only to impress other critics, which is a problem previously monopolized by academics (see Steven Ross' essay on unnecessary jargon in film studies published in Cinema Journal).
Certainly many scholars still write only for other academics (a dated and elitist approach) while others utilize academic standards for their research and manage to write for a mass audience. This is why Bordwell’s “middle-level research” approach can benefit both critics and academics. Be aware of why you are writing, who you are writing for, and what you want people to gain from your work. Do some research, find out why someone may be interested in a certain film, genre, setting, character, place in time, and so on. Don’t simply watch a film and go directly to the word processor. Find something to add to the discussion besides a knee-jerk reaction. If the only thing you share is your initial opinion, well, you probably know how that saying goes.
Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin Colleges. His new book, From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros., will be out in October.