Critics and audiences often disagree. It’s not serious.
Of all the things to be sucked into the vortex of an endless culture war, one of the strangest is the insistence that the gap between critic scores and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes is either a vast conspiracy, a sign of just how disconnected the so-called elites are from the salty masses of the Earth.
Sometimes this is presented as a political or ideological conspiracy; in this reading, Todd Phillips Joker, a film championed by more conservative audiences, was hammered by Rotten Tomatoes’ “Top Critics” for a low 49% freshness, while audiences praised it with an 88% freshness score. How this effect is supposed to explain the surprisingly similar scores for the global warming parabola Don’t look up (46% of top critics and 78% of audiences) is unclear.
Sometimes it’s presented as a fandom conspiracy, that the critics are harsher on a movie like, say, black adam because it’s a DC Comics movie and not a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie and the critics were paid by the Mouse House to give Marvel movies better scores than DC movies. Hence the 59 point gap Between black adam‘s score with top critics and audiences. As a critic who regularly finds himself in the minority on DC and Marvel films, I can assure you that is not the case; Marvel simply makes movies that are more conducive to the Rotten Tomatoes thumbs-up/thumbs-down binary system.
Sometimes this is presented as an international conspiracy, as when Rian Johnson suggested Russian bots had waged war with The Last Jedi, helping to secure that film’s disastrous new 42% audience rating. (Spoiler: that’s not what happened at all.)
And sometimes that translates to… anything. To suggest that “Rotten Tomatoes is actually fabricating fake reviews for the Woman King movie in order to give it a higher rating” makes no sense; RT does not benefit from a film’s audience score. Now maybe the studio astroturfed the audience score, but even then I’d be a bit surprised: to manipulate the verified audience score, you’d have to a.) buy at least 2,500 tickets, then b.) pay 2,500 people to fill new reviews. Possible, I guess – and, frankly, not a terrible outlay in advertising dollars – but it seems more likely that a film that received a rare A-plus CinemaScore simply performed well with opening weekend audiences. (I could venture to guess why the author of this thread believes Top Gun: Maverick got 99% public fee and doubts The female king could have accomplished the same thing and why this thread has gone viral among conservative readers, but I wouldn’t want to make reckless claims without proof.)
So what is the real reason for the gap between audiences and critics? Simply put, it’s that audiences tend to be easier to please because they simply seek out movies to entertain themselves while critics try to judge them artistically. In his new book, Status and cultureone of the things W. David Marx discusses is how art is acclaimed like art. “Invention requires ‘responding’ to the works of previous artists,” Marx writes. Thus, the creation of photography led artists to try to “solve” the problem of a new form capable of capturing perfect representations of reality; hence the rise of cubism and abstract art. “There may be an infinite number of potential problems in art, but to achieve artist status, artists must solve the agreed problems of the current moment,” he writes.
Another way of saying this is that reviewers are looking for something “interesting”; the audience is simply looking to be “entertained”. Sometimes these ideals converge, as they did with Top Gun: Maverick, a movie that solves the problem of flat, weightless CGI action by reminding people what it’s like to really shoot gees and also kept audiences entertained. Most of the time they don’t.
And it’s good ! Not everything has to be part of the kulturkampf.
Thank you for reading this newsletter, even if it reaches you a day late. If you’re not yet a paying member of Bulwark+, be sure to sign up to get access to bonus episodes of Across the Movie Aisle. This week we discussed the Netflix Original Athenaone of the best films of the year.
For what it’s worth, I’m in the critical minority as far as I’ve found black adam both interesting and entertaining. The film’s politics are compelling and slippery, something you don’t usually see in a film of this genre.
Speaking of politics, Dwayne Johnson told Jake Tapper he did not rule out a run for political office in the future. I’m still not quite sure the Reagan/Schwarzenegger path for him is there – Reagan had been the head of SAG in his thirties and was a traveling columnist and speaker in his forties; Schwarzenegger married into a political family and was frequently involved in nonpartisan political programs like the presidential fitness program, but I don’t think it would be crazy to see him ever run for governor.
At the Washington Post this week, I written about the tendency of modern horror films to focus on the idea of ”trauma”. That horror movies are about trauma is kind of a joke at this point, but I think the new Halloween movies and Smile have some interesting things to say on the subject! (This link should get you past WaPo’s paywall.)
On Through the movie aislewe discussed Kanye West’s desire to buy Parler and reviewed Lena Dunham’s Catherine, called Birdy.
CNN’s Frank Pallotta returned to The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood to reminisce over the past few months in the showbiz business.
One thing Frank and I discussed was the fact that horror continues to perform better than almost anything else, at least in terms of ROI, and Terrifying 2 continues its formidable run at the box office this week with a nearly $2.3 million weekend. That’s more than double what the picture did last weekend. It’s a true indie hit of the genre that we don’t see too often.
Director Todd Field is back for the first time in 16 years with his new film Tar; to prepare for it, I suggest watching his critically acclaimed 2001 film, In the bedroom. It’s a film that’s both interesting and entertaining, to use an expression from above. Although probably a little dark for some.