In the Brutal Movie Business, Do Movie Critics Matter?
The trifecta for creators, such as authors and filmmakers, is to earn sizeable audiences, please critics, and produce something that lasts. As an indie author – now having written seven books in my Pastor Stephen Grant novels series – I know firsthand how difficult it can be to achieve one of these goals, never mind all three.
But it’s not just those of us on a limited marketing budget, for example, that face big challenges. As someone who also has written many book and movie reviews over the years, I understand that creators often are at the mercy of reviewers’ interests and preferences, no matter how much critics work to keep such tendencies in check.
But let’s be clear: In terms of this authors/filmmakers trifecta, least important are the views of critics. After all, if one earns notable success with audiences now and in the future, then the critics don’t matter all that much in the end.
Consider the latest entry in the cinematic genre of superheroes – Justice League from Warner Brothers. We’re in the midst of a battle that might be called “Justice League vs. the Critics.”
Following on Man of Steel (2013), Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and Wonder Woman (2017) – each a solid, entertaining film in my view – Justice League ranks as a fine addition (four out of five stars from this moviegoer) to the DC Extended Universe. Yet, on average, movie critics have not exactly been kind to these DC superhero movies.
Heading over to www.rottentomatoes.com for their amalgamations of views from critics and audiences, one discovers that while both reviewers and audiences loved Wonder Woman, critics were poor-to-lukewarm on Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Justice League. At the same time, however, audiences seem to enjoy Justice League and Man of Steel, and generally lean in favor of Batman v. Superman (a good film that was improved in its Blu-ray release)
And then there’s the box office numbers. According to www.boxofficemojo.com, Man of Steel raked in $668 million worldwide, Batman v. Superman $873 million, and Wonder Woman rang up $822 million. And the latest box office numbers on Justice League (through Sunday, November 26, after its November 17 U.S. release) have come in at $483 million. Tally up the eventual box office totals, and revenues on the Blu-ray, DVD and digital front, as well as from related merchandise, and Justice League should be a profitable vehicle despite the considerable production costs in profligate Hollywood.
So, Justice League and the rest of the DC Extended Universe seem to have earned thumbs up from movie audiences much more so than from critics. Why?
Assorted answers are possible, of course. But in my perusal of various reviews, it seems like movie critics have a tough time wrestling with the slightly grittier superhero world served up in DC movies as compared to, for example, Disney’s Marvel Studio movies. Albeit painting with broad strokes, the Marvel movies come across more like older comic books, while the DC films capture a bit more of the darker aspects of more recent books. And that’s fine. In fact, since I appreciate different aspects of those periods, I enjoy having both the Marvel and DC films. But it seems like movie critics have a tougher time with the DC movies – which, of course, is ironic, given that these same critics otherwise tend to heap praise on far darker and downright grim films.
Meanwhile, Marvel so far seems blessed to get both critics and moviegoers onboard. For example, the latest marvel movie, Thor: Ragnarok, released on November 3, has scored big with both critics and audiences, according to RottenTomatoes.com scores, and has achieved a box office tally, so far, of $791 million globally. Yet, this ranked as one of the most uneven movies I’ve ever watched, with some of the humor scoring and other falling flat, and it being much the same with the characters and the story. Were critics generous, again, because of the film’s tone? (One could ask the same of Iron Man 3 (2013), arguably the worst Marvel movie – most of the Marvel films have been quite good – yet it scored well with critics.)
Amidst rumors questioning the future of the DC movies, Warner Brothers would be wise to keep in mind that it’s far better to score with audiences than with critics. After all, there have been plenty of books and movies across time that critics loved, but largely have gone unread or unwatched by most people; and many novels and films that critics were hardly enthusiastic about, but large audiences were willing to shell out their hard-earned money to read or watch. On that last point, consider that critics were largely mixed when Star Wars: A New Hope hit movie theaters in 1977, and have been far from uniform in praising the subsequent Star Wars movies. Yet, the audience and business successes of the Star Wars universe are undeniable, with another film – Star Wars: The Last Jedi – coming courtesy of Disney in December.
Finally, Star Wars throws a spotlight on the last point in the creative industry’s trifecta, i.e., making something that lasts. Star Wars came around in 1977, has had a monumental cultural impact, and shows no signs of faltering. Of course, the DC characters in these new movies – such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Aquaman – were given birth in comic books from the 1930s and 1940s. That’s staying power, to say the least. And it’s my guess that these DC Extended Universe movies released in recent years, with more to come, will be watched and debated over coming decades not simply due to this history, but because these movies both entertain, and speak to bigger, enduring themes, such as courage, love, sacrifice, friendship, and as Superman points out, truth and justice.
Do critics matter? Sure. I greatly appreciate thumbs-up reviews of my books. But it turns out that no matter what the critics like or don’t like, exciting adventures, appealing characters, and great virtues make for solid storytelling and for good business.