What Is a Movie Critic's Job in the Summer of Comic Books? A Discussion

What Is a Movie Critic's Job in the Summer of Comic Books? A Discussion

Stephanie Zacharek is the new chief film critic at the Village Voice. Alan Scherstuhl is the Voice's film editor. Sometimes they gab about how the review-sausage gets made.

To: Stephanie Zacharek
From: Alan Scherstuhl

Hi, Stephanie, welcome again to the Voice!

Like you, I found myself worn out by Iron Man 3, especially the long, kabooming climax. And, like you, I found myself wishing that Robert Downey Jr. had something deeper to play, and that the character had more surprises left in him. The Bruce-Wayne-meets-Groucho routine is still plenty charming, but the moments meant to seem new, here--his panic attacks, for example--felt willed by the script rather than as if they were rising out of this particular character having this particular adventure.

That said, as far as blockbuster filmmaking goes, Iron Man 3 strikes me as witty and surprising in its particulars even as it's durably conventional in much of its shape. And, more importantly, I found myself thinking again and again that it is exactly what its target audience hopes it will be. It's not a comic-book movie; it's a stack-of-comic-books movie, a year's worth of Iron Man issues packed into just over two hours. Its density--that exhausting moreness you single out in your review--might be what the Marvel movie faithful are looking for.

When reviewing a film like this, what is the critic's responsibility to the audience to whom the movie is aimed--especially if the critic is outside that audience? (Remember all those male critics refusing even to engage with the Sex and the City movies, as if the fantasy those films peddled is somehow more repugnant than the violence of the latest boys-only action thriller?) In a case like this, is there any point in dropping in a line like "Of course, if this is the kind of thing that you like, you are probably going to like it just fine"?

To: Alan Scherstuhl
From: Stephanie Zacharek

Hi, Alan--I like your "stack of comic books" metaphor, and I think it's apt. Whether you or I like Iron Man 3 or not, Marvel seems to believe it's serving its audience by giving viewers more of just about everything, in bodacious quantities.

But I wonder if there's an inherent problem in the idea of a studio "serving" its audience, as opposed to, you know, just making a movie. To me, Iron Man 3 seems less like a movie that sprang from an interesting director's vision--and Shane Black is a pretty interesting director, if Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is any indication--than a piece of entertainment constructed from a bunch of test-marketed, tried-and-true components: The angst of the central character, who's really just a fallible human being but who has been forced into the role of the superhero; the "girl character" who's been passive in the past but is now allowed to have some muscle and kick some butt; the multiple climaxes piled one atop the other.

Here's the thing, though. Time and again, as a critic reviewing comic-book movies, I've been assailed as "not the target audience." And I'm never quite sure what that means. That I'm a woman? (Guilty as charged.) That I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool comic-book person? (I enjoy some comic books--I'm very visually attuned, so beautiful or arresting drawings appeal to me--but no, I don't have boxes of them in storage.) And so I think, wait--these movies are designed to have mass appeal, but as a critic who takes a great deal of pleasure in seeing and reviewing mass-market pictures (among other things), should I be expected to step aside and leave comic-book-movie-reviewing to the specialists? That's bizarre. There's also an element of "Step aside, little lady ..." but let's not even go there.

I have loved some movies based on comic books--the Hellboy pictures, Thor, the first Iron Man, the latest Spider-Man (mostly), a reasonable percentage of the X-Men movies. There are others I don't respond to--Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, The Avengers. But a survey of my likes and dislikes is beside the point. The only reality is that I can't look at movies with anyone else's eyes but my own. I've seen other critics deal with this problem by saying things like, "Fans of the genre will certainly enjoy watching Robert Downey Jr. suffer his existential angst inside his metal suit." But to me, that's incredibly condescending to the reading audience. It's a case of a critic saying, "I didn't particularly like this, but you people in the cheap seats probably will." Do people want to be talked to that way? I sure don't. My job isn't to predict what moviegoers will like; it's to be as open as possible to what's in front of me, and to assess it from my own frame of reference. Anything else is just dishonest.

One thing that troubles me is the prevailing notion that if a critic doesn't like a particular movie, he or she is just out to destroy or negate the experience for the audience. But you can't write an honest--or even a readable!--piece of criticism if you're stopping every other sentence to soothe a reader's potential hurt feelings. Own your pleasure in a movie, no matter what any critic says. Reading is active, not passive, and so is moviegoing. If you love Iron Man 3, love it with all your heart. Don't let my own misgivings about it ruin your day--and allow that I'm not here to hold your hand.

To: Stephanie Zacharek
From: Alan Scherstuhl

Agreed on all of that. It seems like, once in a while, an argument has to be made for criticism itself. Now, if you don't mind me acting like the NRA, I'm about to change the subject and blame video games. Some of that comic-book film audience seems to take the reviews personally, like the guys--yes, I'll stereotype and say "guys"--who monitor the Tomatometer before a Batman movie comes out, ready to denounce the first negative review as heretical.

I suspect this has something to do with the only other reviews in our media culture read by millions: the reviews of new video games, which certainly have a crossover audience with those Batman fans. The reviews of major new games on the major websites are always wildly enthusiastic, entirely entranced with the newest and most technologically advanced iteration of each franchise. There's always a numeric score, a 4 out of 5 or a 95 percent, and for years that score was arrived at by crunching together the scores of the game's individual elements: graphics, sound, the fluidity of the controls, and the like.

While there are smart outliers, this consumer-guide, product-oriented Stereo Review-style approach has created among many fans a sense of the reviews as somehow objective, the product of provable math rather than subjective aesthetic responses. That's especially true when the review scores are collected together at Metacritic. There, as at Rotten Tomatoes, the reviewer whose stubborn personal review goes against the mathematical tide is something like a global-warming skeptic--not just wrong, but willfully so, maybe in denial or actually being paid off.

All of this is a longwinded way to say that, to the video game nation, what you and I see as serious problems with Iron Man 3 might instead just be minor bugs. Reviewed as game, the movie excels in almost all its key categories:

Action: There are more Iron Men suits than all other Iron Man movies combined! 10/10

Fun: Robert Downey Jr. calls that kid a pussy! 10/10

Suspense: The magma-people keep reaching for his heart! Also, that fight in the bar is super tense! 10/10

FX: Clang clang boom boom! That house takes forever to get nuked, and it looks absolutely photo-real! 10/10

Character: Tony Stark goes through the same stuff he always does. 7/10

Add those up to 47, convert to a percentile and we have 94, and now we all know Iron Man 3 is a solid A, despite its relentlessness, its plotholes, its familiarity, its elevation of shtick over feeling. (And I mostly liked the movie!)

This, to me, is why reviewers like you remain so vital, Stephanie. This is an old fight, of course. Does it seem to you a losing one?

To: Alan Scherstuhl
From: Stephanie Zacharek

Words like "consumer-guide" and "product-oriented" hit like the buzzers and bells in a pinball machine (to the extent that those even exist in our cultural consciousness anymore). Some moviegoers do seem to believe that film criticism should serve that purpose.

I know some very smart, discriminating, engaged movie people--and even some filmmakers--who love video games, and I don't think the two passions necessarily cancel each other out. I don't play video games at all, but I remember watching a friend play a new one, and he pointed out some really inventive use of perspective, and explained certain kinds of video-game logic, where if you do X, then Y will probably happen, but you may get Z, and then what? Admittedly, he was probably trying to justify how excited he was at having a new game to monkey around with. Even so, I'm kind of intrigued by the idea of writing about video games as you'd write about movies or music--about making an argument or sharpening a point of view in a shaped piece of writing. The New York Times does this pretty well.

But as you've alluded, that kind of video-game-style coverage isn't the norm. Plus, no one could ever convince me that the world of video games is as rich as the world of movies. I'm cautious about trying to see a specific film "from the other side"--in other words, to study the reasons other people love, say, The Dark Knight, and I don't, as if I were Margaret Mead studying a strange tribe or something. But you're onto something with your Iron Man 3 breakdown. Of course, subconsciously, we all have our little checklists. My husband took his dad to see Blue Velvet when it came out and afterward wasn't quite sure if he liked it, so he asked him outright. His dad's face lit up: "It's got violence, it's got romance, it's got really sick sex! What's not to love?" Sometimes an internal checklist can help you define what you respond to in a movie.

But by breaking down the components of Iron Man 3's thrills, you really touched on something: A movie can have a whole bunch of desirable qualities--and I think Iron Man 3 does have some pretty cool stuff in it, like that army of flying Iron Men--but do they connect in a way that's emotionally meaningful or affecting, beyond being really cool? Or maybe "being really cool" is enough? But, see, that's a response to comic-book movies that I really don't understand. When a friend saw The Avengers, he tried to explain to me why he loved it so much: "These are characters I've loved since I was four years old, and there they were, all onscreen together, in a way that felt real and true." I totally understand having that kind of connection with characters--why wouldn't we respond to superheroes? There's something inherently compelling about these people who can pull off amazing feats and yet have their limitations, their neuroses, their really bad moods, just like us.

I think there are a lot of people out there who wish I would stop reviewing comic-book movies! But I'm not going to stop, because I still believe in the possibilities of the genre, though I admit that I'm more interested in depth of character than in plain old coolness (though I do love a good Batmobile). There's also this idea that the big summer blockbusters are critic-proof, meaning that they don't need critics to sell tickets. Well, of course they don't. But no movie is critic-proof in the sense that it can't be somehow illuminated, or opened out, by a writer. Getting people to read it? That part is harder, but I'm not ready to give up yet. And I'm not even Wonder Woman.

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