Online spats errupted after varied reviews were released for Wonder Woman 1984
Only the fourth feature film made so far by director Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman 1984 was keenly anticipated after the success of its predecessor in 2017. With that in mind, fans must have been extremely relieved, if not ecstatic, to see the overwhelmingly positive initial reviews. In fact, Gal Gadot’s second outing as the lasso-wielding Amazonian princess was crowned on Rotten Tomatoes with the online review aggregator’s coveted “Certified Fresh” rating, a title reserved for the most widely praised films with enough positive reviews to earn a “Tomatometer” score of 75% or higher. But then a sudden influx of negative reviews, which incidentally The Indiependent’s Mischa Alexander agreed with, saw a sharp drop in the Tomatometer rating. (And yes, the word “tomatometer” really does sound sillier every time you say it).
It didn’t take long, then, for astute commentators to suggest that Warner Bros. had used their early critic screenings to skew the review aggregators in their favour. Most notably, in the U.S. the studio ensured that the guest lists for early critic screenings were dominated by critics who write for comic book-friendly outlets, and who are more likely to enjoy a superhero flick in the first place.
From there, it was an easy next step to see the critics themselves as the problem. People who write for genre-focused sites, it was implied by some, are too ‘fannish’. They only gave WW84 a good rating because they’re silly fanboys/girls, who can’t think critically about what they’re seeing. If only more real critics from big national publications had been at those early screenings, they seemed to say.
That attitude was encapsulated by freelance critic Charles Bramesco, who wrote that “the key to making sense of this is realizing they show these movies to the fake critics before the real ones”. (He later elaborated that when he said “fake” he meant “sycophantic”, which seemed to extend the former label to any critic who gave the film a positive review.) This was never going to sit well with many of the first wave of critics. Clarisse Loughrey, who reviewed the film for The Independent, lambasted Bramesco for implying that “becoming the chief film critic of a national outlet still doesn’t deem me as “legitimate” in eyes of certain fellow writers.” After some Twitter back-and-forth, Bramesco gifted Loughrey with screenshots of the reviews he deemed purely sycophantic. Loughrey’s four-star review for The Independent, incidentally, was not among them. She asked Bramesco to point out the illegitimate critics; he suggested that one John Nguyen’s review was suspect because Nguyen’s employer goes by the name of Nerd Reactor. Eventually, Loughrey apparently decided that he wasn’t worth her time, and left the conversation.
Regardless of whether you have pledged allegiance to Team Charles or Team Clarisse by this point, let’s return to the essential argument: that critics from comic book-friendly or ‘genre’ sites, having dominated the early screenings, were more likely to enjoy WW84 — hence the “Certified Fresh” rating. It would be impossible to conclusively verify this without investigating all 369 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, working out which ones hail from those early screenings, and combing each website to check where it falls on the spectrum from ‘objective’ to ‘fannish’, so I will leave that attempt to someone who likes sorting data more than I do. However, what even a cursory glance at WW84’s Rotten Tomatoes page reveals, is that to deem every critic who enjoyed it as “fake” is on shaky grounds at best.
So, what makes a fake critic? Some, like Bramesco, might define it as one who writes for a comic book-friendly outlet, instead of a bigger, theoretically more impartial one, like Time Magazine. But the reviews for WW84 don’t show a clean-cut split between sycophantic ‘nerd’ sites and sceptical larger publications. It’s true that CNN disliked it, while the New York Times found it “uninterestingly janky”. But The Observer’s Mark Kermode gave it four stars, while the Washington Post and Associated Press (to name just two) penned reviews that can be summarised as ‘eh… it wasn’t perfect but hey, it’s fun to watch’. Why should praise from the BBC — which proclaimed that “WW84 is one of the most enjoyable blockbusters to be released since 1984” — be ignored in favour of the Wall Street Journal’s scathing critique? And why do either of those critics’ opinions automatically carry more weight than that of writers working for Digital Spy and GameSpot? Not to mention, most ‘serious’ critics would probably dismiss Flickering Myth, a self-proclaimed home of “Geek Culture”. Are its writers suddenly more reputable, now that one of them has branded WW84 “a nightmare of terrible decisions”? The only consistent factor seems to be a disdain for those who enjoyed the film.
In any case, did ‘fannish’ critics bring their personal pro-superhero-blockbuster biases into their viewing experiences? Probably. But if critics didn’t bring their own opinions into their reviews, the results would be incredibly dry, factual and boring. And essentially, that’s all a review is: writing about much you personally loved or loathed something, with some analysis of what you see as the most significant details thrown in for good measure. And speaking of bias, the most interesting thing about skimming WW84’s reviews is the number containing statements like Loughrey’s: “Every brazen beat […] feels like it’s arrived to pulverise this miserable year into dust.” Perhaps the only real bias here was that many were in favour of a positive, hopeful film after a year which so often felt utterly hopeless. Can we really blame any individual critic for that?
As a mark of how ridiculous the climate surrounding WW84 has become, by the way, we should look no further than one Twitter user who held up the Rotten Tomatoes profile of one Bob Chipman — whose employers include Escapist Magazine and Geek — as evidence of how low standards are these days. This was much to the surprise of Chipman himself, who hadn’t even published his own review of the film at that point. Another user replied that the point was that “aggregates’ standards for critical legitimacy are so low that they’d include someone as intellectually lazy and morally myopic as yourself”, although goodness knows what that opinion was based on. (Update: he has. He gave it a decidedly rotten 4/10. So much for sycophantic.)
At the end of the day? Certainly it’s anything but fair for a rich, influential film studio to try and increase their profit margin by choosing whose opinions get published first. But with WW84 readily available on HBO Max, it’s not as if swathes of people were conned into expensive cinema trips. And once the dust settled the film was left with a decidedly middling score of 60%. Which, given the mixed nature of even the “fresh” reviews, sounds perfectly reasonable.
In short, every critic’s perspective is different — and that’s fine. No outlet is without its biases and flaws, and it’s really just an annoying waste of time to call critics you disagree with fake. Especially if their only demonstrable sin is enjoying something that you and the Wall Street Journal bloke didn’t.
Words by Emma Curzon
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