The verdict is in on Justice League, the latest cinematic superhero romp that brings together the stable of DC Comics characters together for the first time on the big screen.
The film has been reviewed by scores of critics, ranging from the New York Times (Justice League, Better Than the Last One! ), to Vanity Fair (Justice League Is a Big, Ugly Mess) to the United Kingdom’s Telegraph (DC’s superhero embarrassment is beyond saving).
All told, the film had been received positively by only 39 percent of critics as of 11 a.m. PT on Monday. This is 21 percent below the official “certified fresh” threshold, which means that the Justice League title will appear on the site next to a blotchy green icon announcing its rottenness for all the world to see.
That number comes courtesy of RottenTomatoes.com, the film review aggregator that can make or break a film. The producers of Justice League knew that, which is why they took the unprecedented step of withholding the all-important “Tomatometer” score until the day the movie officially hit theaters on Thursday, November 16.
And even then, the number, along with links to the reviews, didn’t show up on the site until a few hours before the movie opened in theaters.
What’s going on?
Rotten Tomatoes is a rotten aggregator, at least when it bows to corporate pressure
Well, it’s not too hard to connect the dots. Clearly, Warner Brothers knew that their expensive tentpole movie wasn’t going to earn many raves, so they made sure that Fandango, the company which owns Rotten Tomatoes – and which itself is partially owned by Warner Brothers –kept the score under wraps in order to minimize the damage.
Discontent with the Tomatometer’s influence has been percolating in Hollywood for quite some time. The rating system analyzes movie reviews by critics, assigning a numerical score to each critic’s review.
In October, respected director Martin Scorsese declared that the influential site was “hostile to serious filmmakers” and has “absolutely nothing to do with real film criticism” because it causes people to “rate a picture the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat’s guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports.” Thus, a “filmmaker is reduced to a content manufacturer and the viewer to an unadventurous consumer.”
He’s probably right. Where he’s wrong is in assuming that filmmakers are not content manufacturers and that it’s somehow inappropriate for consumers to look to some kind of shorthand to determine which films are worthy of ten to twelve bucks a head for a night out.
With blockbusters, audience reactions differ from critics’ on Rotten Tomatoes
The really that Scorcese would like to ignore is that aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes actually provide a valuable service that, more often than not, accurately reflects audience reactions.
Although it’s worth noting that in this case, alongside the critic’s Tomatometer reading, the survey of audience responses is very much not in sync with what the critics are saying. Among audience members, 85 percent like Justice League.
Indeed, the movies where the two scores are not in sync tend to be big budget blockbusters like Justice League, which are largely immune to bad reviews.
After all, last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice had a dismal 27 percent Tomatometer rating, although 63 percent of audience members liked it. The movie went on to make a whopping $872 million in worldwide box office receipts.
Given that Justice League is almost certain to bring in the bucks regardless of how widely it is panned, why would Warner Brothers take the ethically dodgy step of muzzling Rotten Tomatoes?
There doesn’t seem to be any other answer other than “because they can.” Serious filmmaking aside, when a content manufacturer can control how their content is criticized, that ought to be disturbing to any consumer, unadventurous or otherwise.
(Official Justice League promotional photo.)