As Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice turns the corner into its second weekend, it faces the question of how much more money it can make. In spite of some pretty terrible reviews, the movie set box office records in its opening weekend — and its record-breaking haul has set up a tantalizing narrative: a clash between fans and critics, with the movie's success serving as an indication that critics don't matter and a sign of fans sticking it to the proverbial man.
While that's entertaining, that storyline is not based in truth.
Popularity has nothing to do with quality. There are plenty of movies, like Michael Bay's Transformers franchise, that haul in mountains of money but are still pretty awful. I don't think Batman v Superman is Michael Bay-level bad, nor do I think the piles of money it's earned so far necessarily prove critics were wrong about its many plot holes, the flaws in its editing, or director Zack Snyder's shortcomings.
But what's fascinated me about the collective response to Batman v Superman is how deeply invested fans have become in its success — and just how far fans will go to convince themselves that critics have unfairly targeted their movie for doom.
Some fans of Batman v Superman believe Marvel paid journalists to write bad reviews
Batman v Superman is a DC Comics/Warner Bros. property, and the best conspiracy theory currently floating around online is that film critics were paid by Marvel, the biggest company in comics, to trash the movie. If you look at the comments accompanying certain reviews or survey fans' posts about Batman v Superman on social media, you'll find many fans who wholeheartedly believe this is the case.
What's the going rate for a bad review? What, exactly, does Marvel stand to gain from Batman v Superman getting a poor review? Doesn't Marvel have anything better to do? The conspiracy theorists don't answer any of these questions.
The strangest element of their argument is that Marvel could somehow benefit from a Warner Bros. movie getting a bad review. So what if people didn't like Batman v Superman — why would that stop people from going to see Marvel's Captain America: Civil War when it comes out in May? Suggesting that one film affects the other is completely incorrect and disconnected from how the movie business works.
Plus, there have been several instances where Marvel and Warner Bros. competed with dueling superhero movies — like in 2008, with Iron Man and The Dark Knight, and in 2012, with The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises — and both movies received good reviews and performed well at the box office. Specifically, in 2012 The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises earned the top two domestic grosses of the year.
You could even make the argument that a Marvel movie benefits more when Warner Bros. releases a good movie in the same year, because of the success both companies had in 2012.
And before the idea of a Marvel bias starts creeping in, just go have a look at the positive critical reviews for DC/Warner Bros. movies like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Superman Returns.
Batman v Superman conspiracy theories miss what criticism is about
Linking critics to box office figures is inevitable. And, yes, a scathing review could be construed as a critic saying a film isn't worth people's time. That's perhaps why Snyder and the cast of Batman v Superman have been propping up defenses that the movie is a "comic book" or "audience" movie that's made for "fans," as if critics were incapable of understanding it.
But thinking about critics and audiences as two mutually exclusive groups shortchanges both, and ultimately cheapens the movie. It perpetuates the idea that superhero movies can't please both fans and critics — something that may have been true at some point in the past. But thanks to works like Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise or The Avengers or Fox's new X-Men reboot trilogy, we know that superhero films are capable of garnering critical praise and appealing to (and cashing in with) fans.
And that's the problem with looking at reviews solely as recommendations of whether a film is worthwhile.
New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote a great essay on criticism earlier this year. In it, he makes a point about the great democratization of the internet and how the playing field of cultural and artistic criticism has been leveled, because anyone can write a review of anything and you are under no obligation to listen to anyone because they work at a certain place. He also makes a great point about what cultural criticism is:
It is an endless conversation, rather than a series of pronouncements. It is the debate that begins when you walk out of the theater or the museum, either with your friends or in the private chat room of your own head. It’s not me telling you what to think; it’s you and me talking.
While critical reviews of Batman v Superman may chastise the movie, they're also debates. Debates about Snyder's filmmaking abilities, Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill's acting chops, the lines that Gal Gadot didn't get to say, the weird scenes given to Amy Adams, and the construction of the film's plot and many plot holes.
And disagreement isn't unwelcome.
"Because we have the ability to recognize and respond to the creativity of others, we are all, at least potentially, critics, too," Scott writes. "This means, above all, that our job is to think."
This weekend, people will buy tickets to see Batman v. Superman, and pundits will try to determine whether the movie's poor reviews have affected its box office tally. No doubt some fans will cling to the idea that critics had it out for "their" movie. But writing off all criticism of Batman v Superman shortchanges the creative effort behind the film — by implying that its director, producers, and actors deserve a special kind of treatment, and suggesting that the film doesn't need to appeal to anyone except die-hard comic fans.
What many people have failed to realize is that the consequence of simply dismissing the criticism of Batman v Superman is that, rather than drawing any meaningful conclusions, they're blindly liking or hating the movie without any effort to figure out why.