Do Film Critics Matter?

Although the world’s attention is still on Marvel’s latest success, Captain America: Civil War, the critics are moving on. 2016’s next superhero film is Fox’s X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest blockbuster in the X-Men franchise. The review embargo has been lifted, and right now the critics are not impressed.Over on Forbes, Scott Mendelson considers X-Men: Apocalypse to be a “franchise-killing disaster”.X-Men fans are now doing the same thing DC fans did when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was released – checking Rotten Tomatoes for the critic score. Here’s what it looks like at the moment:

This doesn't look good...

This doesn’t look good…

Let’s face it, while this isn’t Batman v Superman, it clearly doesn’t look promising.

The critics didn't like it - but the fans...

The critics didn’t like it – but the fans…

Right now, some superhero fans – usually ones who loved Batman v Superman – are loudly arguing that the critics don’t matter. After all, films are made for the public, not for killjoy critics! This is perhaps best represented by the much more positive X-Men: Apocalypse review over at Newsarama, a site which is as interested in comics as it is in movies.
A love letter to the X-Men and a make-good to fans – and yet the critics dislike it. Straight away there’s exactly the same breach in opinion we saw with Batman v Superman.


But we’d be fools to simply dismiss the critics with a wave of our hands. We may disagree with them, but the reality is that they’re the ones who start the discussion. With the advantage of advance viewings, they pronounce judgement on the film before we get a chance to see it. Studios know the power they have – as a result, Warner Bros., less confident in Batman v Superman than Fox is in X-Men: Apocalypse, set a review embargo just days before the film’s worldwide release.
It didn’t work; the debate about Batman v Superman started off with the question, “Is it really that bad?” Fans were – and still are – locked in a defensive mode that bodes ill for the DC Extended Universe. Every bit of news, such as Ben Affleck’s becoming Executive Director of Justice League, is interpreted in the light of Batman v Superman‘s critical failure.

Handle with care!

Handle with care!

Here’s where it gets really interesting. Rotten Tomatoes’ horrifically low critic score for Batman v Superman became the gravitational centre of discussion around the film. The critic score is an aggregate of critical reviews, and so is treated as a measure of critical opinion.
It’s not the first time Rotten Tomatoes has hit controversy with a superhero film. The build-up to The Dark Knight Rises saw the site disable comments after negative (“rotten”) reviews were met with over-the-top fan reaction. In an editorial entitled “This is why we can’t have nice things“, Mark Atchity wrote:

Basically: Worse things happen at sea.

Basically: Worse things happen at sea.

The problem is that Rotten Tomatoes isn’t necessarily a “nice thing”. The site uses an algorithm to convert a review – which usually had a score out of five stars – into a binary measure, “fresh” or “rotten”. But that can’t possibly capture the nuances of the review. Rotten Tomatoes’ algorithm assumes that the star-rating is the most important part of the review, which does a disservice to the careful analysis the best reviewers conduct. Sure, Rotten Tomatoes puts a link in to the actual review, but how many fans actually click through and read those individual reviews? Most people use Rotten Tomatoes to get a quick idea of what the critics think by checking the score and skimming through key sentences, then leave the site.
Worse still, how does the algorithm handle a score of three stars? The majority of reviews for Batman v Superman gave it three stars, and were converted to a ‘rotten’ rating. As a result, the critic score for Batman v Superman was appallingly low. But that was because the site was essentially treating both a score of ‘1’ and of ‘3’ as equivalent – both ratings were turned into ‘rotten’. That’s simply nonsense.Algorithm sites like Rotten Tomatoes are useful tools, but they’ve been elevated to a position they should never have occupied, where they’re actually driving the debate and being treated as authoritative. A better approach for a film fan would be to use Rotten Tomatoes to find a critic whose opinion they tend to agree with, and then follow that critic. You’ll not agree with them on everything, but you’ll get a far more accurate measure than the Tomatometer.

How RT defines the Tomatometer.

How RT defines the Tomatometer.

X-Men: Apocalypse is off to a rocky start, and the discussion’s been kicked off in a pretty negative way. Ultimately, this film looks likely to follow the pattern of Batman v Superman, although in a less extreme way, with fans and critics divided over it. The critical response is important, and it matters, but we as film viewers need to treat that response with a little bit more care than just accepting a “fresh” or “rotten” score on a single aggregate site. Personally, although the final trailer disappointed me, I’m still looking forward to this film; I still think it has real potential.I’ll judge for myself whether or not it fulfils that potential.