In Suicide Squad, the latest moldering brick in DC Comics’ attempt to build a Marvel-style cinematic universe, the world’s worst criminals band together to stop an all-powerful sorceress from destroying the Earth. The movie’s fans have joined forces to combat an even greater threat: film critics.
Pop into the comments section of any of Suicide Squad’s largely negative reviews, and you’ll find fans—or whatever the proper term is for people who are already in love with a movie they haven’t yet seen—raging against out-of-touch reviewers and their purported anti–comic book bias. Hit up the Twitter accounts of critics who’ve panned it (note: do not actually do this), and the attacks get more personal, ranging from accusations that Marvel has the entire criticism industry on its payroll to sexist epithets and death threats. After the first round of reviews, one Suicide Squad partisan started a petition to shut down the aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, where the movie currently has a “fresh” rating of only 29 percent, just above the 27 percent for DC’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. According to the Twitter account Crush the Tomato, what’s at stake is nothing less than “a battle for the soul of movies.”
There’s a solid argument to be made that aggregation sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have had a negative effect on film criticism. (Slate’s Matthew Dessem makes it here.) By logging each review as a simple up-or-down vote, Rotten Tomatoes “fresh” rating obliterates the nuances of a thoughtful piece of criticism, and its elevation of an aggregate score over individual voices camouflages and institutionalizes the biases of an industry dominated by white male critics. But you’d expect that bias to work in favor of a movie like Suicide Squad, which vigorously panders to a teenage white boy’s idea of what’s “edgy.” Thirty years ago, fans could credibly claim that mainstream media was ignorant of comic-book culture, but in a post–Dark Knight world, it’s clear that all but the stuffiest of critics can find worth in a story about good guys in capes.
Fans who attack Rotten Tomatoes aren’t disagreeing with individual reviews. They can’t, since they haven’t actually seen the movie yet, although that didn’t stop them loading up the film’s IMDb page with 10-out-of-10 user ratings weeks before its release. (Not surprisingly, the exact opposite happened to the female-fronted Ghostbusters reboot.) What they’re railing against is the collection of data that contradicts what they already know, despite the lack of any evidence, to be true: Suicide Squad is an awesome movie, and anyone who says otherwise is, to use the preferred term, “bias.”
To put it another way: The system is rigged. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts, but in the cultural arena as in the political world, it’s increasingly easy to inhabit a closed system where truth and facts need never come into direct contact. These systems develop their own vocabularies and their own articles of faith—Marvel pays critics to pan DC movies; Islam is an ideology, not a religion—and the absence of supporting evidence is proof of the conspiracy’s breadth. Never mind that, if anything, Rotten Tomatoes actually underrepresents the critical antipathy for Suicide Squad, since a grudging mixed review is as “fresh” as a rave; forget that the people who claim that critics have it in for Suicide Squad said the same thing about the negative reviews for Batman v Superman, only to grow quiet when they finally saw the movie and it turned out to be as bad as they said; don’t dwell on the fact that Suicide Squad, like BvS, will probably make hundreds of millions of dollars even if everyone hates it. What they’re mad about is not a negative bias but the lack of a favorable one: Suicide Squad, the refrain goes, was made for “the fans,” and they’re the only ones whose opinion matters. Should you point out that there’s something a little messed up about Harley Quinn being an abuse victim who’s in love with her abuser, or that it would be nice if the movies’ first Latino superhero weren’t a tattooed gang member with domestic violence issues, and you’ll be accused, if you’re lucky, of not “getting it.” (No word yet on whether “getting it” means being cool with cut-to-shreds scenes drowned out by thuddingly obvious music cues in an attempt to disguise the fact that your movie’s been sewn together from spare parts.)
There are innumerable places on the web for fans with a pre-existing love of the comic books to talk to each other about Suicide Squad, but that’s not good enough: The “Crush the Tomato” faction wants to live in a world where other opinions don’t exist, or at least they don’t have to hear about them. They’ve inherited a once-marginalized subculture’s grudges despite the fact that most of them aren’t old enough to remember a time when comics were “just for kids.” It doesn’t matter that they effectively control the culture: Any threat to their dominance, be it a negative Suicide Squad review or a female Ghostbuster, has to be met with maximum force, repelled like an unwanted invader. It’s not that the system is rigged: It’s that it isn’t rigged for them.