A new DC movie is out this week, and you know what that means: time for lots of angry lectures on the proper performance of film criticism, from a whole lot of people with the Justice League poster as their Twitter header photo. The briefest possible background: beginning with 2013’s lackluster Man of Steel and continuing through last year’s execrable Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, the folks at Warner Brothers and DC have been attempting to build their own version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while the grosses have been at least comparable, the critical reception has not. In light of that reception, a movement has sprouted on social media, Reddit, 4chan, etc., in which these DC superfans accuse critics and “haters” of bias against the DC films, and because down is up and black is white with these people, that talk is roaring anew because the new DCEU entry, Wonder Woman, is getting… good reviews. Reread that line if you need to.
The trouble, it seems, for these fans (fan, don’t forget, is an abbreviation of fanatic, just thought I’d mention that) is that it’s not good enough merely to praise Wonder Woman; one must also resist the temptation to compare the previous films in the franchise unfavorably, lest we kill their buzz. They feel very strongly about this! But it’s not just the top-volume fealty and fidelity to a (massively) financially successful slab of capital-P Product from a giant multinational conglomerate that renders this crusade peculiar. (Seriously, these films gross huge amounts of money, and they’re making many more of them. You fucking won. Enjoy it!) It’s the particular tone these fans adopt about the people who write about film, and the way in which they should write about it. We are, we’re told, not reviewing these films “objectively,” but are instead merely validating our loathsome biases. As critic Edwin Davies put it, “How long until people unironically start saying this is about ethics in film journalism?”
But even taking these people at face value is an exercise in bad faith. Beyond the implicit sexism (witness the DC fan account that’s calling out critics and bloggers for “throwing shade” at the DCEU — half of whom are women, not exactly a percentage reflected in the profession in general) and the tin-foil hat conspiracies (they still think Disney pays critics to write good reviews of Marvel movies and bad reviews of DC’s) is, indeed, an “ethics”-style call for “objectivity” in criticism — as if the two concepts weren’t directly contradictory. I’m well aware there’s no more tired writer’s trope than trotting out a literal dictionary definition, but here ya go: “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.” Criticism, on the other hand, is subjective, the exact opposite of that concept, specifically rooted in personal feelings, interpretations, and, yes, prejudice.
No one disregards their responses to the earlier films in a franchise when considering new ones, nor should they. No one’s movie-going experience exists in a vacuum, and if it did, that’d make for some very dry reading. A good critic brings everything they’ve seen, read, heard, and experienced into their analysis; hell, I’m reading a book of Charley Taylor’s criticism right now which, while appraising Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown and Coffy, brings in Scarface, Carmen Jones, Lady Sings the Blues, Jackie Brown, the 2010 movie Night Catches Us, the pre-code Barbara Stanwyk movie Night Nurse, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Pauline Kael, a Gayle Pemberton essay, a Martha Southgate novel, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and a promotional interview Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer did for The Help. All of them relate, and all of them further his thesis. And they’re not in there because he sought them all out in the process of writing about a couple of old Pam Grier movies; they’re there because those are the works he’s consumed over the years, and he writes in a style where everything is on the table. The idea of a critic limiting their analysis to preserve the feelings of whiny fans is the height of absurdity (especially in a case like Wonder Woman, a film that shines more brightly because of the poor quality of its predecessors). It’s an overused quote, but it keeps being relevant: Robert Warshow once wrote, “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is a man.” So no, “objectivity” in criticism isn’t a thing; stop asking for it.
And it’s not a serious request anyway. When it comes to this particular, inexplicable subset of film fandom, there’s no real concern about degrees of subjectivity. “Bias!” (or, more accurately, “so bias,” i.e., “Critics are so bias against DC”) has become the go-to response for any negative opinion of the DC oeuvre thus far; it is to this audience as “fake news!” is to Donald Trump and his equally devoted diehards. Both terms are being ignorantly redefined, each a real thing turned into a knee-jerk response to something the user doesn’t want to hear or know; just as “fake news” is an accurate description of sites established, during the election cycle and after, to provide false information and political propaganda to an audience eager for confirmation and disinterested in legitimate sources, “bias” is an accurate description of how news outlets purporting to report objectively use prejudicial language and story selection to slant their coverage’s perspective. (Y’know, the kind of thing Fox News does.)
So what, exactly, would an “objective review” look like? It wouldn’t look like a review at all. It’d look like a synopsis, production notes, hell, a press release announcing start of production; “this is a thing that exists, and it features these people, and here is what it’s about.” So where do these readers get that idea that such a thing even exists? Well here, I’m afraid, is where we all bear the burden of some responsibility. Because an “objective review” might seem like the logical endgame to the current iteration of online film media, which feeds this audience months, even years, of fawning coverage unadorned by criticism, judgment, or even cynicism — page after page of date announcements, title announcements, cast announcements, set visits, concept drawings, character posters, motion posters, final posters, teasers, trailers, teaser trailers, trailer teasers, frame-by-frame trailer “analysis,” multi-hour trailer podcast discussion, and on and on and on. And in the belt-tightening environment of modern digital journalism (particularly post-Facebook algorithm adjustment), bare-minimum staffing means the same bylines often appear on both the missives of breathless anticipation and the subsequent negative review. And yes, that goes for this site too.
That’s the business, circa 2017. People are more interested that a thing is coming than whether it’s any good, and the comparative numbers for trailer post to film review are staggering; to pick an obvious and recent example from our site, the first trailer news post for T2 Trainspotting bested the traffic for that film’s review by a factor of four. Publishers have to act accordingly to keep the lights on, and if I have to write the occasional “here are three 15-second commercials for a commercial” post to earn the leeway to write something like this or this or this, it’s a trade I’ll take. But as long as this industry continues to provide months of unblinking enthusiasm and de facto unpaid advertising for these behemoth franchise films – and as long as that’s what readers choose to reward with their clicks and eyeballs – we probably shouldn’t be surprised when their fans continue to demand that “objectivity” right up through the release date.