The responsibility of critics

Do critics and reviewers have a responsibility to review the material objectively?


It is human nature to have an opinion about things, even before you know much about the thing. We call it prejudice, and leaving aside the negative connotations of racisim or sexism or what-have-you-ism, it is a practice that we all, to greater or lesser extents, perform. We judge books by their covers, we buy products based on packaging or word-of-mouth hearsay, we immediately run out to see movies starring our favorite actors or directed by our favorite directors. I am not faulting people for doing this. But I am asking, do critics (in particular, movie critics) have a responsibility on a professional level to either review the source material objectively or, if they find they are unable, to simply not review it at all?

By way of example, the Green Lantern movie opened this weekend here in the US. I haven’t bothered to look at the weekend takes to see how well it did, but judging by the number of theaters it was playing in at the cinema we went to and how crowded the 9 AM showing was, I assume it did at least alright business. This despite having gotten an abysmal 26% on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, I didn’t read ALL of the reviews (there are 180 professional reviews as of the time of this writing), but I did read a few. In particular, I read Maryann Johanson’s review at http:\\

Continue, but be warned. Here there be spoilers. Yar.

Now, I have been going to Maryann’s site for years and have learned that there are some movies she simply will not review objectively. Often because she dislikes one of the actors or the director, or the subject matter. She is a an unapologetic feminist, which I support, but she also tends to let her social agenda color her reviews. So, like any other critic out there, one needs to be able to ‘read’ her and decide whether to discount or embrace her review depending on certain hot buttons she has. Fair enough.

Her review of the Green Lantern, however, brings up an excellent example of what I’m talking about here. In her review, she talks about how Carol Ferris, Blake Lively’s character, is a hotshot positive image for powerful women right up until the point where she becomes a typical damsel in distress needing Ryan Reynolds’ Hal Jordan to rescue her.

Spoiler alert:

Yes, there is a moment where Carol, a non-powered person in a movie about super heroes, is knocked unconscious and telekinetically held suspended off the ground by the villain. This lasts for a few moments. The second her feet touch the ground and Hal tells her to stay in hiding while he deals with the big bad? She nods, and promptly runs off to remote launch fighter jet missiles at the big bad. And while it is reeling from this, she runs across the room, in harm’s way, grabs Hal’s power ring and throws it to him.

This is not the actions of a damsel in distress who needs rescuing. I’m not sure what she was supposed to do, challenge the city-sized space monster that devours entire planets to a fist fight? I have to wonder if Maryann even watched the same movie the rest of us did?

So here we have an example of how a person’s personal issues not just color the review of the movie but in fact cause them to say things about the movie that cannot, if we are being honest, be said to be accurate. Yes, Carol needed Hal’s help… to reach the ground. She’s not a superhero, she cannot simply overcome telekinesis by dint of being a tough girl in a man’s world. But once she reached the ground, SHE saved HAL. And yet, if you read only her review of the movie and had any pro-strong woman leanings (as I do), you would likely have refused to see the movie on those grounds.

The movie had plenty of other flaws, mostly because it was trying to be faithful to the source material which was first published during the Silver Age of comics, when things like goofy color-based themes were common. (Note, I am not including the Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott in this because his ring and lantern worked on utterly different principals and the movie is quite clearly going with the Clarke’s Law advanced technology interpretation rather than Scott’s pure magic one). So yes, you had laughably absurd concepts like the ‘green power of Will’ and the ‘yellow power of Fear’ but once you got past those and suspended your disbelief just a little, it was a mindlessly entertaining popcorn movie full of things that blow up real good.

So back to my original point. Do critics and reviewers owe their readers an attempt at impartial, objective reviews? The problem is, of course, that reviews are almost intrinsically ‘did I like it?’ in nature. At least for things like movies, tv shows, music, etc. You wouldn’t expect to read a review of the new BMW that amounted to “I didn’t like it because I can’t stand the color blue on cars so you shouldn’t buy this,” but at the same time, vehicles have objective things you can review: speed, torque, fuel efficiency, handling, etc. Entertainment lacks such objective points to review on, so to a large extent every review HAS to be a matter of opinion.  So in that regard, it would seem like the answer is no, critics do not owe their audience any attempt at objective reviewing.

But then again, what happens in situations like the one I have described above, when a reviewer’s personal bias causes them to give reviews that are not only negative, but flat-out inaccurate in some details, details that might cause a person to fail to see a movie they might otherwise have enjoyed? Even aggregate compilations like Rotten Tomatoes are no guarantee of ‘evening the playing field’. As I said earlier, out of 180 professional reviews, Green Lantern has a 26% Rotten rating. However out of just under 73,000 audience ratings, it has a far more acceptable (although still not great) rating of 61%, enough that if those reviews were counted towards the official tally, it would have gotten a Fresh rating.

So what do we think? Do reviewers have a responsibility as professionals to at least ATTEMPT to review a movie impartially, putting aside their own prejudices, and if they cannot do so should they simply not review that movie and instead turn towards a different one? Or is it up to us, the consumers, to sift through each review and try to see if we think the critic in question is being fair or allowing their own feelings about outside topics to color the review? And mind you, it can go both ways. While I have chosen for this essay to concentrate on a negative review, I have seen reviews glowingly positive about bad movies simply because the critic liked some message they perceived in the work, or because they simply really LOVE this or that director or writer or actor.




Filed under Down With The Sickness - Rants, Moving Pictures - Movies and TV

2 responses to “The responsibility of critics

  1. You raise an interesting point. Can you really be objective when it comes to reviewing entertainment (movies, books, etc)? True, there should be some objective material. Bad acting is bad acting, but one moviegoer might still enjoy the movie while another thinks it’s horrible. Also, critics or reviews tend to become experts of a sort on the things they review, so they might better understand what makes a good whatever. For instance, I’m sure an art critic would be better able to point out a valuable painting than I would.

    I think critics should try to have a certain amount of objectivity, or at least understand how their biases affect their judgments, be it for good or bad. To give an example, I review video games. Recently I’ve been playing Final Fantasy 13, & it’s the first Final Fantasy game I’ve ever played. Because of that, I think I would be better at objectively deciding if it was a good game, whereas a fan of the series might be more concerned with whether it’s a good Final Fantasy game.

    Personally I think it’s best to take all reviews with a grain of salt. Listen to their reasons, of course, but understand what ways your own opinions may differ.

  2. BabylonMike

    I agree that bias is unavoidable. Not everyone liked Plan Nine from Outer Space.
    However, I would argue that critics should attempt to use nebulous terms such as “I didn’t like” or “it felt to me as if” rather than making concrete statements that are inaccurate.

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