It’s Not Them, It’s You: Suicide Squad & The False Idol of Aggregate Scores

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The reviews for Suicide Squad haven’t quite been the raves DC were undoubtedly hoping for in the wake of their saga establishing mega-blockbuster Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice under-performing with critics and audiences (as incredulous as it is to call a film disappointing for not breaking the $1bn barrier). So far, the critical word has been primarily negative, with notable exceptions, although box office predictions for opening weekend remain strong. If you’re planning on seeing the film – like me – then the chances are those reviews aren’t going to sway your decision much one way or the other.

And yet the backlash to these reviews has once again reared its ugly head, appearing as if on time in the mere days since the embargo was lifted. The usual suspects are here: The conspiratorial accusations that critics are in the payroll of Marvel to keep DC down (if only critics could hope for such secure salaries in this market); the cries that critics just don’t get it or aren’t true fans of the comics or are too snobby to understand the appeal of superhero fare; the insistence that critics just hate all movies; and my personal favourite, that geek culture is a marginalized system trodden down by the intellectual elite. If any of these things were true, of course, Suicide Squad wouldn’t be on track to make the money that it is, and many of the world’s problems would be dealt with much quicker!

The favoured target of such vitriol remains aggregate sites, notably Rotten Tomatoes, which is now the subject of a petition to be shut down in the aftermath of bad Suicide Squad reviews. The creator of the petition, which currently has more than 5000 signatures (Lord help us all), says he knows the site won’t be shut down but hopes they have sent a message to critics as “a way to express our anger.” I’m not sure if these people are aware that Warner Brothers used to own the site before it was sold to Fandango – an issue with its own possible conflicts of interest in terms of representing critical views honestly while prioritizing selling tickets to those films – but even if they did, one cannot avoid the sheer idiocy of these efforts and the total non-message it sends.

Rotten Tomatoes is an imperfect system: It’s a collection of reviews for certified critics, ranging from the well-known media sources to specialist websites and so on, which are allotted a Fresh or Rotten rating depending on what often seems like a series of arbitrary rules, and the resulting aggregate score gives readers a chance to see a general critical consensus on the film of their choice. Metacritic operates on similar lines, albeit with a less binary result, and it’s that binary Love/Hate element that seems to rankle so many fans and lead to more tinhat adjacent theories.

The issue, of course, is that the petition and supporters of it fundamentally misunderstand what Rotten Tomatoes does: They aggregate reviews, they don’t write them. You can quibble about certain ratings and the ways some are decided to be fresh or rotten, but to point the finger at the messenger when the message itself is impossible to misinterpret suggests an eagerness for a scapegoat more than a real desire to critically engage. Something similar happened with the much discussed Ghostbusters reboot and the misogynistic hate group lies insisting its mixed to positive reviews were part of a feminist conspiracy (once again – if only we had that power).

The opponents of Rotten Tomatoes and the negative Suicide Squad reviews are an oddly contradictory bunch: They insist they don’t care about the reviews yet go out of their way to try to discredit them. They dismiss accusations that they require validation yet cry conspiracy when denied it. I’m reminded of the continuing discussion around whether video games are art: There’s a real desire to have the merits of art attributed to games, yet an equally zealous need to shield it from the critical and academic analysis that comes with it. Art can and should be criticized, and it doesn’t devalue it to do so. Indeed, it only enriches the experience.

Of course, I’m not sure these people understand that shutting down an aggregate site will improve the situation in DC’s troubled waters. Even if you shut down Rotten Tomatoes, those critics’ reviews would still exist and people would still read them. It may require a bit more Googling than usual – the handiness of all the reviews linked on one page is the best feature of the site for me – but people who want to read those reviews will still be able to do so. There are people who use the site as a metric for what they pay to see at the cinema but with something like a Summer tentpole superhero blockbuster, the chances are they’ve already made up their minds.

No, this isn’t about the evils of critics or their shadowy conspiracy against the underdogs of a multibillion dollar corporation: This is about the anger over not having your hobbies validated by a seemingly authoritative source.

I’m not wild about Rotten Tomatoes being given such status, based seemingly on nothing but assumptions, but not because I think they’re out to get certain movies. To quote Film School Rejects’ wonderful piece on the issues with the site, “Rotten Tomatoes does is sever the content from that verdict. We shouldn’t be surprised that such a tendency invites thoughtless conversation.” Time will tell how Suicide Squad performs in the larger scale of things, and how that’ll effect DC’s slate for the coming years, but for now, rolling one’s eyes at this unfolding lunacy may be the internet’s great uniting force since Tom Hiddleston put on that I Heart TS tank-top. Enjoy these pleasures while you can.


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