Any time I publish a harsh pan of a movie, as I did with
, folks pop up on Twitter and Facebook and in the comments on the piece itself to insist that they'll see the movie anyway, and that audiences will make up their own minds, independent of critical judgement. (One charmer popped up to declare that he was discounting all reviews of
by women because they must be motivated by our jealousy about Margot Robbie, which is his prerogative, no matter how silly.) More recently, a conspiracy theory has cropped up among fans of DC movies that Marvel is paying off critics to kill DC's nascent, troubled cinematic universe.
If these reactions manage to rise to the level of making me feel a little sad, it's not because they make me feel irrelevant or powerless. Instead, it's that these responses fundamentally misunderstand what criticism is supposed to do.
I'm not a Hollywood industry kingmaker, no matter how often I may tell showrunners and movie writers that they really ought to check out Tamora Pierce's works for a possible adaptation. I'm not working for The Post, the publication that's home to the greatest political reporting in the country, because my career goal is to make some franchises happen and destroy others. If I wanted to get involved on that sort of granular level, I'd be in Los Angeles, doing something very different with my life.
In fact, though I've written such pieces in the past, I can't really think of any occasion now in which I'd actually urge audiences to actively avoid a film, television show or novel, on the basis of content. I might do something different with a work that was produced under conditions so unethical or dangerous that I don't think they should be supported at any level, though in general I tend to prefer offsetting the purchase price of a work with a donation to an organisation that works on the relevant issues.
Instead, though I may not say this explicitly in any reviews I write, I would always rather you go see a movie, be it outstanding or embarrassing or even downright inexplicable, so we can have a real dialogue about it. When I criticise something as angrily as I did
, my goal is not to divert your ticket money elsewhere, but to provoke you.
If you're a DC fan, my point in expressing frustration with the muddiness of the action sequences in recent DC movies is not to say that your love for Batman or Superman is mistaken, but to point out what I can see happening in Marvel's fight scenes that isn't visible through the artificial rain and muck that have come to be a definitive part of DC's style. If you loved Harley Quinn and feel uncomfortable with the reaction I had to her in Suicide Squad, my goal is not to persuade you that the character is irredeemable, but to describe what this particular film did with her and to her, and to explain how I read the text.
You may disagree with me; I'm sure many of you probably do, violently. But if you had a different reaction than I did, that doesn't mean I'm wrong. And my dislike isn't proof that you're wrong either. Responses to art aren't something we win. There isn't an objective truth out there to be discerned.
Instead, we'd all be a lot happier if we were able to talk about the why of what we feel when we see a piece of art. If you loved Margot Robbie's performance as Harley Quinn, tell me what made it work for you; if it was the expression on her face after she recalls the moment of her transformation, I'll probably even agree with you. If there was a story beat I missed while taking notes that explained why Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) was recruiting a bunch of supervillains despite knowing that there were potential heroes such as the Flash and Aquaman out there, please let me know; I don't want one of the more interesting anti-heroes we've seen in a comic-book movie to date to feel like she's doing something pointless. If Jared Leto's riff on the Joker touched something in you that Heath Ledger's interpretation didn't reach, I want to hear that, too.
I guarantee you, however angry you might feel at a critic who hated something you adored, you'll feel better if you can explain why you loved what you loved, instead of hoping that we'll sign off on your feelings. One of my favorite things about being a critic is seeing a well-composed shot, a well-delivered line, or even what an actor does with the corner of their eyes or mouth, and knowing that I'll be able to point to it and explain to you all what that moment did for me.
That's not a skill that critics alone possess, nor do we intend to. It's a tool set that's available to everyone. Criticism is an invitation to an argument, not the end of the conversation.