Published: The Daily Dot (August 16, 2016)
It’s a strange feeling, having written one of the few positive articles about Suicide Squad.
If the Internet community can learn anything from “Suicide Squad,” it is that online culture breeds a specific kind of overly-informed and excessively quantifying approach to the art of criticism. This has become apparent in several ways just with the Internet’s response to “Suicide Squad,” although it can also be traced to our own creative tendencies as writers and our access to unprecedented quantities of information about the filmmaking process itself. While this allows for a richer discussion about popular entertainment like movies, it can also result in a form of mass groupthink. When we start to view something inherently subjective and personal, like artistic taste, through a mindset that instinctively defers to so-called experts, we risk forfeiting our own judgment as independent individuals.
This is where the implicit logic behind RottenTomatoes is, for lack of a better word, problematic. By compiling a sampling of movie critics’ opinions and reducing them to a single numeric rating–as well as applying definitive labels of judgment like “fresh” or “rotten”–the website makes art seem like a science. Not only are the movies themselves quantified, but the nuances of each individual criticism are similarly stifled. There is no room for ambiguity, for breaking down a movie by its elements and describing which ones work and which ones don’t. Every criticism is summed up as either “fresh” or “rotten” and the movie is valued accordingly.
The critics themselves aren’t blameless here. One is reminded of the wise words from Anton Ego, a food critic from the 2007 film Ratoutille, who observed “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” It’s hard to avoid the sense that many critics, when devoting their best and most caustic prose for an unpopular film, sense an opportunity to sharpen their claws and go for the jugular.
“Got me a sewer to crawl back into,” writes Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, quoting one the movie’s antiheroes before adding: “[H]e’s got nothing on the movie, which was in the sewer all along.” Christopher Orr of The Atlantic harps on the popular claim that the story is a mess, describing it as “lazy to the point of professional negligence.” The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane was only a little kinder: “The worst of the worst? Maybe not. But it’s a dead end for kids.” The Daily Dot’s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw wrote that “[t]hey should have just stuck with a team of Navy SEALs and an emergency line to Batman.”
Did these critics see the same movie that I did? The story was hardly a masterpiece, but neither were the cluttered narratives in The Avengers: Age of Ultron or Captain America: Civil War, both of which fared much better with critics. Suicide Squad had fun and interesting characters, a punk tone that worked for its material, and a story which cleverly subverted our understanding of the roles of heroes and antiheroes (including, appropriately enough, authority figures like the government). It wasn’t perfect, or even the best superhero film of the year (a distinction that belongs with Deadpool), but it packs thorough entertainment. The film’s tremendous social media buzz and two-week box office dominance likewise suggests that it has resonated with American audiences.
The internet does more than provide critics with a forum encouraging our inner Anton Egos. We don’t just critique our popular culture products online; we actively investigate their behind-the-scenes details, with an avidity that sometime shames our coverage of more substantive issues. Thanks to outstanding reporting like that at the Hollywood Reporter and Midnight’s Edge, we know that the production behind Suicide Squad was immensely troubled. Producers who were concerned that the film would underperform–and knew that the fate of the DC Cinematic Universe largely depended on that not happening–made drastic cuts before it was released. Humorous moments were added, scenes were reorganized, and an overall air of desperation began to permeate the project.
This seemed like a movie destined to fail, a fact not lost on some of the more self-aware online critics (even as they panned it themselves).
Even those who didn’t mention the film’s troubled past or tremendous strategic importance, though, were almost certainly aware of it. This is the Catch-22 of film analysis that those who criticize the critics often fail to appreciate: If you go into a movie with a completely fresh perspective, you may lack important information that can help you better understand why that particular finished product is appearing on your screen. Too much information, on the other hand, can also slant one’s perspective, if for no other reason than it becomes difficult to divorce genuine attempts at art from knowledge of the sausage-factory commercialism that produces them.
From the critics who are overly influenced by bloodlust and information oversaturation to sites like RottenTomatoes which reduce all opinions to statistics, the Internet has created a perfect storm of conditions to bury movies like Suicide Squad under an avalanche of negative press.
This brings us back to the RottenTomatoes controversy. Critics aggregated at RottenTomatoes have largely panned the film (its current standing there is 27%), prompting some overzealous fans to demand that the site be shut down. Contrary to their shrill belief in an anti-DC or anti-comic book movie conspiracy (both of which don’t hold up to scrutiny), there is no centralized agenda among the Internet’s intellectual establishment. This is the paranoia that caused online misogynists to see feminist conspiracy behind video game criticism and the Ghostbusters reboot, or call for a boycott of Star Wars: The Force Awakens because it has a black stormtrooper or create a petition to block Ben Affleck from playing the new Batman. That said, while there are no great powers that be which have hidden agendas for beloved pop culture franchises with which fans identify, that doesn’t mean critics can’t succumb to their own flawed human nature. Indeed, they should try to be aware of that possibility.
At the very least, it behooves the critics who roasted the film to keep an open mind about reevaluating their opinions. This shouldn’t just apply to critics and audiences for Suicide Squad, but to all moviegoers and to every film. More and more of us aren’t seeing those movies in a vacuum, but rather while overwhelmed with information that asks us to prejudge a movie or TV show or book or song before experiencing it for ourselves. Total objectivity may not be possible (that’s a debate topic for philosophers), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be aware of these potential biases. The first step toward doing that, though, is recognizing that this tool known as the internet can unduly influence how we think, even as its provides us with unprecedented opportunities for self-expression.