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PRINT EDITION
Squashing the Tomatometer
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In this excerpt from John Semley's Hater, the Globe contributor dissects the modern practice of ascribing numbers and scores to film criticism, fusing consensus and commerce and fuelling a less nuanced age of critique
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By JOHN SEMLEY
  
  

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Saturday, October 20, 2018 – Page R11

Sometime in 2017, I remember seeing a commercial for the superhero blockbuster Spider-Man: Homecoming, which was either the seventh or 308th Spider-Man movie made in my lifetime.

In this ad, the lithesome wallcrawler scales the side of a New York skyscraper, which is digitally embossed with the film's aggregated critical rating, calculated by the website Rotten Tomatoes.

When I was kid, movies were pushed, in part, by pullquotes of critical enthusiasm, even if it was just Peter Travers from Rolling Stone comparing one or another thrill-a-minute spectacle to a "roller coaster ride." At the very least, you could count on a movie being endorsed by an agreeably upturned thumb.

So what is the problem with this, one might reasonably wonder. Surely a weighted score based on a broad sampling of reviews from established, and at least semi-professionalized, film critics is a fair way of determining a given film's quality. Right?

As is often the case with questions having obvious-seeming answers, the response is both "yes" and "no." Firstly, some might reasonably respond that judging the artistic merit of something based on percentage score and the presence of some conspicuously branded juicy vine fruit constitutes an affront to criticism itself. Instead of thoughtful argumentation or engaged conversation, instead of thinking and, in turn, encouraging readers to think, criticism in the age of Big Data has mutated into a consumer scorecard. And while consumer scorecards are all well and good, if you want to know whether to buy an LCD or LED TV, or are curious about which model of SUV won't roll over and kill your whole family, the point of what we call art is that it stands outside of (if not in opposition to) such crassly consumerist concerns. That you can, as of this writing, buy tickets to major North American chain cinemas via the Rotten Tomatoes website further entwines the often-entwined bedfellows of art and commerce. Any daylight between consensus and commerce has been effectively blotted out.

Consensus criticism - or aggregated "metacriticism" - doesn't stand as a mark of quality. It stands as a mark of sufficient quality. It can't tell you if a film is good, only if it's good enough.

The ascendancy of consensus-ascriticism has bred even more curious consequences. Some people take a Tomatometer rating as holy writ. These people tend to be predisposed to like a film because they have a vested interest in the filmmaker, the star(s) or, most typically, the franchise. With only slight disparagement, I'll call these people "fans." Fan, from fanatic, means (per Merriam-Webster) "a person who is extremely enthusiastic about and devoted to some interest or activity" or, even more on point, "a person exhibiting excessive enthusiasm and intense uncritical devotion" (emphasis my own). As the recent history of Rotten Tomatoes has shown, there are few fan cultures whose devotion is as intense and blindly uncritical as superhero blockbuster fans.

There are likely no fans more fanatical or maniacally uncritical than Batman fans. In the summer of 2012, many moviegoers eagerly awaited The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final film in director Christopher Nolan's rebooted Batman trilogy. The anticipation around The Dark Knight Rises had reached such a spiked pitch that diehard Bat-fans began hectoring critics who dared to give the film negative reviews, thereby "ruining" the film's score. It got so bad that Rotten Tomatoes suspended its system of anonymous user comments.

A similar kerfuffle erupted in early 2018, on the cusp of Marvel Studios' Black Panther. The hype around Black Panther was comparable to that surrounding The Dark Knight Rises, albeit for different reasons. As the first major Marvel Studios superhero blockbuster featuring a black superhero - but not, as was commonly misreported, the first black superhero movie - the stakes surrounding Black Panther were high.

And so were the expectations.

The film was emerging into a culture in which issues of diversity and representation in Hollywood (both on-screen and behind the cameras) were front of mind, accelerated by cultural movements/hashtags such as #OscarsSoWhite, #BlackLivesMatter, and #TimesUp.

As happened with The Dark Knight Rises, this hype fueled a toxic fervor. The first less-thansterling review of Black Panther reached the Tomatometer courtesy of Irish Independent critic Ed Power. (This is another weird result of Rotten Tomatoes: it draws attention to otherwise below-theradar scribes writing, for example, for Irish daily newspapers.)

And people weren't having it.

Power's review had punctured the film's coveted one hundred percent Rotten Tomatoes score, kicking off a predictable tempestin-a-teapot Twitter storm. Power was accused of trolling - the practice of being nasty for the purpose of goading, or merely for the sake of nastiness itself (more on this later) - or of merely trying to differentiate himself from the wash of positive early reviews.

The electrifying energy and amplified aspirations attributed to Black Panther established a kind of preconsensus. And this time it was less about the character, the property, or the franchise itself. It was about the hyped-up hopes that the film might singlehandedly reshape the way black talent (and black faces) are prefigured in American pop culture.

Yet, in another case of Rotten Tomatoes's formula feeling arbitrary, and a bit confused, this critic had filed a largely positive review, grading the film a three out of a possible five stars. It's not even that Ed Power didn't like Black Panther, but that he didn't like it enough. And in this particular case, "enough" meant unqualifiedly, without reservation, with the frenzy, excessive enthusiasm, and intense uncritical devotion of the fan. Critical dissent is drubbed even when it's not actually that dissenting.

Acolytes subservient to the cult of the Tomatometer wield their own weaponized rotten fruit against those who perform the public service of wielding rotten fruit of their own. It's like those splattery scenes from La Tomatina of Bunol, the annual Valencian festival during which people purchase tickets for the privilege of hurling tomatoes at one another, just for kicks. Yes, tomatoes are fun to throw - for protest, for constructive criticism, for the exhilarating thrill of a splat. But they're now being thrown en masse, in all directions, in chaos that actually enforces consensus over criticism. Once again, we find ourselves facing another substitution. Judgment, and especially the breathless rush to judgment, has supplanted evaluation, thoughtfulness, discernment, taste - the very stuff of criticism itself.

To wield a rotten tomato comes with a certain power. To paraphrase the guiding ethos of one of those countless SpiderMan movies: With great power comes great responsibility. Or at least, you know, some responsibility.

Adapted from Hater (Viking) by John Semley, available Tuesday.

Associated Graphic

Negative reviews - and in some cases, even simply critical ones - of blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises, above, and Black Panther, below, have been met with backlash from fans, as websites such as Rotten Tomatoes prioritize a numeric value, to be diminished or maintained, over thoughtful analysis.


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