Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Interpreting the Batman v Superman Reviews

Reviews for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice have been mixed thus far (that's right, mixed not negative -- see below). Here are three ways that one can go about making sense of the reviews without losing hope for the movie.

Option 1. Reject Rotten Tomatoes by remembering that it is a pretty terrible system for any movies that are not critical darlings or critical bombs.

Rotten Tomatoes uses a binary classification system of "rotten" and "fresh," with one of these two options assigned to every single review that comes in. So a movie with all 10/10 ratings will be 100% but a movie with all 6/10 ratings will also be 100% fresh. This system does a good job on the easy task of identifying top-rated movies, because nearly all the reviews will be 7 or higher and this will be represented by a 90+ "fresh" percentage. Similarly, it does well for critically derided movies.

But it does not do a good job for movies that fall anywhere along the middle spectrum. More valuable in these cases is the "average rating" which is printed on the Rotten Tomatoes page, albeit in much smaller text than the freshness score (and the average rating doesn't show up in the thumbnail graphics). Even better would be an average rating with a standard deviation to distinguish between, for example, a solidly average movie that receives all 5/10's and a divisive movie that receives equal numbers of 2/10's and 8/10's.

In the case of Batman v Superman, the "freshness" score is currently 33% (based on 129 reviews). People are freaking out because this seems similar to terrible movies like Transformers 4 (18%) or Fantastic Four (9%). But the average is 5.2/10 -- i.e., moderate, not terrible. Lots of the reviews in the Rotten Tomatoes system are very near the 60% threshold and so are counting as "rotten" when really they are moderate or mixed. The binary system is not a good one in this case.

Metacritic is one alternative that includes a "mixed" category in between "positive" and "negative." This is important because 29 (out of 47) reviews for BvS are mixed, 9 are positive, and 9 are negative. This reveals that BvS is a solid case of mixed or average reception, not a critical bomb. Another alternative, Critics Choice, currently shows BvS at 67/100. So above average without being a critical hit.

Rotten Tomatoes can also be argued against on principle, not statistics. Joe Hill argues that conglomerating reviews doesn't make sense because you are just lumping together lots of different perspectives and opinions and pretending that you can "average" them. Instead, you should find reviewers who have insights or tastes that resonate with you and rely on those instead of a pseudo-meaningful numerical score.

Option 2. Look at the SOURCES OF THE REVIEWS on Rotten Tomatoes to see who liked the movie and who did not.

This option involves more work than simply taking the "freshness" score as gospel or simply rejecting Rotten Tomatoes altogether. But I think the work reveals something important.

Here are the scores for Batman v Superman from sites that I follow that focus specifically on superheroes and comic book media:
First of all, note that they're not giving it 10/10's like many fans are. I'm not saying that BvS is a critical masterpiece. But, with the exception of Comic Book Resources, these comic-book-friendly sites all gave solidly favorable reviews.

Now, here are reviews from sites I know about that focus on movies and film:
This crowd seems to be solidly in the middle, with a mode and median of 6/10, 3 reviews above that, and 3 below. There aren't any perfect scores but there is a "D" from Collider. So overall this is mixed, but it's actually on the above-average side of mixed.

Lastly, let's consider the general sites that cover much more than just movies (many of these don't give numerical scores, so I've interpreted the tone of their review and included a brief excerpt):
  • USA Today: POSITIVE, 3/4 "BvS will please those either waiting for the two main players to lock horns on a movie screen, or those who've just been pining for Wonder Woman forever."
  • Entertainment Weekly: MIXED, C+ "It's another numbing smash-and-bash orgy of CGI mayhem with an ending that leaves the door open wide enough to justify the next 10 installments. Is it too late to demand a rematch?"
  • Time: MIXED, "As superhero spectacles go, Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a grand one, with a mondo-operatic climax and a final shot infused with quivering, exhilarating molecules of grace. It's also not much fun."
  • People: MIXED, "If Justice, with its sluggish script, isn't quite the jaw-dropping eye-popper it should be, that's okay. The cast is unimpeachable."
  • Us Weekly: NEGATIVE, 2/4 "A popcorn film - and this is a popcorn film - should never feel like Sunday night homework."
  • The New Republic: NEGATIVE, "Filled with scenes of gloomy characters confronting their demons or wrestling with insipid moral quandaries, this joyless slog isn't a superhero film so much as it is an excruciating therapy session with huge explosions and guys in capes"
  • Daily Beast: NEGATIVE, "Watching Batman and Superman rage at each other like little boys makes for a pretty tedious two and a half hours."
  • Uproxx: NEGATIVE, 4/10 "There is no fun in this movie."
Ah ha! This is where the primary negativity comes, according to my review of the reviews. There is only one truly positive review in the bunch, a few mixed, and 50% solidly negative.

Overall, then, we know Batman v Superman is getting mixed reviews, but more specifically, it is praised by comic book movie fans, fairly well received on movie sites, and not very well received in the general press. What this type of breakdown will mean for box office is another story... but we have one more possible response to the reviews.

Option 3. Look at the actual CONTENT OF THE REVIEWS and realize that some people are much more attuned to nuance than others and some had expectations that did not align with what the movie was.

I saw a few very positive reviews that delved into the serious philosophical questions taken up in Batman v Superman and also mapped out the deep psychological issues traversed by the characters throughout the movie. They laid out these deeper themes and subjects of the movie in great detail, matching what I had come to expect from what I'd seen in the trailers, what I'd heard from the filmmakers, and what they were building on from Man of Steel. Therefore, I was surprised to see several reviews that said things like the movie is all action, no substance, or that the characters made no sense, or that it was just one fight and then a bigger fight.

I do not think this is just a matter of opinion. Opinion would be disliking the style, the design, or the decisions about how to represent or interpret the theme. But I think that it is a fact that there is depth and philosophical threads throughout Batman v Superman. Even though I haven't seen the movie yet, I am confident in this fact because the filmmakers purposefully put them there and people can spot them and describe them in great detail. How, then, do we explain the "no substance" reviewers? My guess is that they simply missed the deeper meanings or were not watching for them.

Here are some examples to support my point. Mark Hughes wrote a highly positive review of BvS for Forbes. An excerpt follows:
The heart of the film is the parallel track of Superman’s and Batman’s narrative arcs. Each of them is facing a crisis of faith and conscience, which in turn clouds their perception of one another. Superman sees people calling him a threat, a menace, and questioning his every intervention, while Batman’s actions are almost applauded and his interventions are often welcomed by the police. He is frustrated by the contradiction between public reactions to him helping poor and underprivileged citizens in parts of the world that are often ignored, while Batman gets a free pass for vigilante actions mostly in poorer neighborhoods that are forgotten and ignored. Finally, Superman comes to realize even his best intentions have unexpected consequences, and how being a symbol of hope and goodness is difficult in a world used to being skeptical of hope and goodness. ... Superman represents to Batman all of his own personal failures, and is a literal manifestation of the ultimate threat to human life that Batman cannot stop. (Mark Hughes, Forbes)
The review has other instances of detailed insight like this, exploring the themes (without spoiling the plot). Contrast that with Alonso Duralde of The Wrap who said, "That face-off between two comics legends becomes but one in a series of big things bashing into other big things, which is what Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer mistake for storytelling." He seems to have missed all of the thematic content. Kristy Puchko from Comic Book Resources (the one comic-book-focused site above that was negative) also seems to be clueless: "Alexander 'Lex' Luthor super-hates Superman too, but the actual reason is all kinds of unclear... Overambitious and overlong, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice aims to tell a collection of stories instead of focusing on one." She misses deep psychological motivations that others were impressed by, and she doesn't seem to recognize the thematic threads that tie together the "collection of stories." Differing opinions would be to say that you did not like the content of the stories or the way they were told, but it can be factually argued that the seemingly disparate stories are actually part of one thematic narrative.

The Us Weekly review said that viewing the Battle of Metropolis from the point-of-view of Bruce Wayne would be "the first and last time you will be able to follow the inner workings of a convoluted screenplay." I'm sure that reviewer had difficulty following it, but she should give us more credit.

A few reviews even go so far as to say that Batman is mad at Superman because Wayne Financial was toppled and that this is a silly reason to fight. (The Daily Beast actually said they were fighting "for no reason at all.") This is a huge oversimplification of all the levels of tension between Batman and Superman -- emotional (anger and vengeance), psychological (feeling powerless and grieving over yet another loss), and philosophical (how does one address supreme power, and what is the nature of justice?).

Here's Mark Hughes again: "the themes are all about the battle between gods and mortals, as mortals seek not only to bring the gods down to 'our level,' but — and this is really the secret truth of it all — to lift themselves up from mortal status and become godlike by striking down the gods."

Finally, in looking at the content of the reviews, it is also clear that some people were judging it based on what they expect from a superhero movie, rather than what this movie actually was. Lots of reviews, such as Uproxx, IGN, Newsday, and Empire, criticized BvS for not being "fun" or for lacking humor. Many talked about it being depressing. And Jim Vejvoda (IGN) said it was "more engaging on a cerebral level than as a fanboy-friendly adrenaline rush," and he said this in a negative way, with the message being that a fanboy-friendly adrenaline rush would have been better than something cerebral. (Maybe Warner Brothers was right to be worried that the movie was too smart for its own good.) But these should not have been treated as critiques, lowering the rating of the movie. Rather, these should have simply been clarifications of what type of movie BvS is. If it did not intend to be fun or funny, but instead intended to show rich action against a deep philosophical backdrop of what it means to be a hero and accept one's powers and one's limits, then it should be judged on those grounds.

If Zoolander 2 is unfunny, then by all means lower its rating. But if BvS is unfunny, that's because it wasn't trying to be funny. A rigorous and reputable critic should be reviewing it based on its own merits, not in comparison to other superhero movies or other blockbusters that have entirely different aims.


  1. Excellent commentary Sam! You summarized in a very thoughtful and reasoned article everything I've been wanting to say! --Tim

    1. Suicide Squadcast, I like your Podcasts, will you make an episode addressing the harsh criticisms of BvS? I'll like to know your thoughts.

    2. Our top priority will be to review this film this Friday after both of us have seen it. I do plan to touch on the negative reviews.

    3. Thanks for the support. I love your Squadcast, especially the recent Man of Steel review.

  2. This is the same bullshit the critics pulled with MOS. Every movie does not have to be "fun" and full of jokes every two seconds.

  3. Replies
    1. That's definitely an option, but not until after we see it. The scary thing about this situation is that people may use the RT "freshness" to jump right to your option #4, and that is a very flawed move.

    2. Well then maybe it should be rephrased as

      #4 Accept the possibility that it's a bad movie.

      Since most movies with 32% on RT are bad movies. And this movie is getting a ton of scathing reviews.

    3. I certainly accept the possibility that it's a bad movie. But as my post argues, saying it's getting "a ton of scathing reviews" makes it seem like a critical bomb when it is very clearly critically mixed or divisive, not a bomb. Even on RT, it's average is 5.1 (universally bad movies are below average). And on metacritic, there are 10 positive reviews and 10 negative reviews... 30 mixed. I think "a ton of scathing reviews" should mean mostly negative reviews.

  4. I sat down and read some of the rotten reviews and you're right on the money that those reviewers had quite a bit of good things to say about BvS instead of being thoroughly negative. It's unfortunate that fence-sitters will end up skipping this flick due to RT's faulty meter because there are a bunch of "rotten" movies that I adored that I would've ended up skipping if I had a "certified fresh" or bust attitude.

    1. Seriously, since when did RT became the All-Judger of a film's quality? Oh wait, it always praises the MCU so I guess that makes it infallible and something that only states facts, right?

      Seriously, this film will make banks and will show everyone that the audience loves it and the majority doesn't really listens to critics. The success will happen, the hard part is waiting.

  5. A very very good article I shared this to my friends on FB to any fence sitters that might be thinking of skipping the movie to at least give it a chance so they can have their own opinion of the movie instead of listening to someone else's cause they disliked it

  6. A very very good article I shared this to my friends on FB to any fence sitters that might be thinking of skipping the movie to at least give it a chance so they can have their own opinion of the movie instead of listening to someone else's cause they disliked it

  7. I didn't read the reviews. I simply went to see the movie and fell in love with it. That's all.