The watchful protectors
In the forward to his new book Better Living Through Criticism, the critic A.O. Scott imagines a conversation with a hypothetical interlocutor who asks: “Would it be accurate to say that you wrote this whole book to settle a score with Samuel L. Jackson?” “Not exactly,” Scott replies. The story, in case you’ve forgotten, is that after reading Scott’s negative review of The Avengers, Jackson tweeted that it was time to find the New York Times critic a job “he can actually do.” As Scott recounts:
Scores of his followers heeded his call, not by demanding that my editors fire me but, in the best Twitter tradition, by retweeting Jackson’s outburst and adding their own vivid suggestions about what I was qualified to do with myself. The more coherent tweets expressed familiar, you might even say canonical, anticritical sentiments: that I had no capacity for joy; that I wanted to ruin everyone else’s fun; that I was a hater, a square, and a snob; even—and this was kind of a new one—that the nerdy kid in middle school who everybody picked on because he didn’t like comic books had grown up to be me.
Before long, it all blew over, although not before briefly turning Scott into “both a hissable villain and a make-believe martyr for a noble and much-maligned cause.” And while he says that he didn’t write his book solely as a rebuttal to Jackson, he implies that the kerfuffle raised a valuable question: what, exactly, is the function of a critic these days?
It’s an issue that seems worth revisiting after this weekend, when a movie openly inspired by the success of The Avengers rode a tide of fan excitement to a record opening, despite a significantly less positive response from critics. (Deadline quotes an unnamed studio executive: “I don’t think anyone read the reviews!”) By some measures, it’s the biggest opening in history for a movie that received such a negative critical reaction, and if anything, the disconnect between critical and popular reaction is even more striking this time around. But it doesn’t seem to have resulted in the kind of war of words that blindsided Scott four years ago. Part of this might be due to the fact that fans seem much more mixed on the movie itself, or that the critical consensus was uniform enough that no single naysayer stood out. You could even argue—as somebody inevitably does whenever a critically panned movie becomes a big financial success—that the critical reaction is irrelevant for this kind of blockbuster. To some extent, you’d be right: the only tentpole series that seems vulnerable to reviews is the Bond franchise, which skews older, and for the most part, the moviegoers who lined up to see Dawn of Justice were taking something other than the opinions of professional critics into account. This isn’t a superpower on the movie’s part: it simply reflects a different set of concerns. And you might reasonably ask whether this kind of movie has rendered the role of a professional critic obsolete.
But I would argue that such critics are more important than ever, and for reasons that have a lot to do with the “soulless corporate spectacle” that Scott decried in The Avengers. I’ve noted here before that the individual installments in such franchises aren’t designed to stand on their own: when you’ve got ten more sequels on the release schedule, it’s hard to tell a self-contained, satisfying story, and even harder to change the status quo. (As Joss Whedon said in an interview with Mental Floss: “You’re living in franchise world—not just Marvel, but in most big films—where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant.”) You could be cynical and say that no particular film can be allowed to interfere with the larger synergies at stake, or, if you’re in a slightly more generous mood, you could note that this approach is perfectly consistent with the way in which superhero stories have always been told. For the most part, no one issue of Batman is meant to stand as a definitive statement: it’s a narrative that unfolds month by month, year by year, and the character of Batman himself is far more important than any specific adventure. Sustaining that situation for decades on end involves a lot of artistic compromises, as we see in the endless reboots, resets, spinoffs, and alternate universes that the comic book companies use to keep their continuities under control. Like a soap opera, a superhero comic has to create the illusion of forward momentum while remaining more or less in the same place. It’s no surprise that comic book movies would employ the same strategy, which also implies that we need to start judging them by the right set of standards.
But you could say much the same thing about a professional critic. What A.O. Scott says about any one movie may not have an impact on what the overall population of moviegoers—even the ones who read the New York Times—will pay to see, and a long string of reviews quickly blurs together. But a critic who writes thoughtfully about the movies from week to week is gradually building up a narrative, or at least a voice, that isn’t too far removed from what we find in the comics. Critics are usually more concerned with meeting that day’s deadline than with adding another brick to their life’s work, but when I think of Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael, it’s sort of how I think of Batman: it’s an image or an attitude created by its ongoing interactions with the minds of its readers. (Reading Roger Ebert’s memoirs is like revisiting a superhero’s origin story: it’s interesting, but it only incidentally touches the reasons that Ebert continues to mean so much to me.) The career of a working critic these days naturally unfolds in parallel with the franchise movies that will dominate studio filmmaking for the foreseeable future, and if the Justice League series will be defined by our engagement with it for years to come, a critic whose impact is meted out over the same stretch of time is better equipped to talk about it than almost anyone else—as long as he or she approaches it as a dialogue that never ends. If franchises are fated to last forever, we need critics who can stick around long enough to see larger patterns, to keep the conversation going, and to offer some perspective to balance out the hype. These are the critics we deserve. And they’re the ones we need right now.