Can Opinions Be Wrong?

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by Matt Singer
April 27, 2012 12:50 PM
5 Comments
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"The Avengers."
This seemed like an interesting follow-up to yesterday's discussion about angry fans lashing out at critics who write negative reviews, and a fun question to ponder over the weekend (I think it's fun to ponder about film criticism over the weekend, okay? I'm too pale to go outside!). It's a piece by Darren Mooney of The M0vie Blog about the the nature of subjectivity in film criticism. Here's an excerpt from his essay:

"There are obviously those who will disagree, and who will argue that film is a technical medium that can be measured in mostly objective terms. That various writers, directors and artist have quantifiably measured skills in particular techniques, which might be stacked up against each other to provide definitive and incontrovertible proof of a movie’s worth. While I can respect that to an extent, I think that rigidly adhering to that idea takes the fun out of what is a popular pastime...I’ve always found it interesting that people who are going to see a film anyway react so strongly to negative reviews. Why does it affect their opinion of the film in question? (Especially since, in most cases, they have not seen it yet.) Whether or not they like a work shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of it. Sure, some film writers (such as Armond White or Rex Reed) might make ad hominem attacks on fans, accusing particular movies of being for brain-dead morons or such, but people tend to get more worked up by the idea that “they didn’t like what I liked!”

The way people respond to negative reviews cuts right to the heart of what we were talking about yesterday regarding fans who lash out at film critics for panning "The Avengers." But why do they do it? Why does an Avengers fan care if one critic at one film website lodges a bad review? Out of 51 reviews of "The Avengers" currently aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes, 49 are positive. That puts it on pace to become one of the best reviewed movies of the year, and certainly the best reviewed blockbuster of the year. What's the difference whether it ends up with a 97% or a 98% approval rating? It's not like Amy Nicholson's review of "The Avengers" makes it illegal or impossible for anyone else to enjoy the movie. She's just voicing her opinion. And opinions are hard to get wrong.

It seems to me that critics who stray from the consensus on highly anticipated properties like "The Avengers" are the victims of the way the world of modern film culture operates, which involves months (if not years) of hype. Though I have absolutely no sympathy for anyone who would make cruel, vicious personal attacks against a critic who dislikes something, I can understand a bit of the mentality that might lead someone to do it. Fans have had "Avengers" hype shoved down their throats for the better part of 2 years -- or even longer, if you count the first teases that popped up in the original "Iron Man" all the way back in 2008. If you've read set diaries, watched trailers, bought advance tickets, collected action figures, and blugeoned people with light-up Thor hammers, you've got a lot invested in this thing, literally and figuratively. When fans like that starts screaming at critics like Amy Nicholson, they're not mad at her; they're mad at themselves for possibly having wasted years of their lives on a movie that could turn out to be terrible. And that possibility is terrifying. And what do people do when they're terrified? They lash out.

But back to the question of opinions: can they be wrong? No, but they can be uninformed, and that's what really seems to stick in the craw of some fanboys. If you're going to review "The Avengers," you'd better be an expert on the comics -- or else.  Granted, it's not an entirely unreasonable desire to want a critic to be able to put a film within a larger pop culture context. You wouldn't expect a reporter who covers baseball for ESPN.com to write the site's piece on the first day of the NFL Draft because that's not their area of expertise. But a critic who doesn't know anything about "The Avengers" might be called upon to review the film.  

But what aggressive fans seem to lose sight of in their rush to vilify outsiders (besides the fact that comic book culture used to a welcoming place, as we discussed yesterday) is the fact that not all outlets are geared to the same audience. A comic book website like Newsarama is going to run an "Avengers" movie review dense in "Avengers" mythology, because their clientele want to know how the movie stacks up against the comics. The readers of a daily newspaper like The Kansas City Star could care less about that stuff -- theirs is a general audience, many of whom haven't read "Avengers" comics and maybe haven't even seen the previous films like "Captain America." They just want to know if the movie is fun, interesting, and whether it makes any sense to someone who hasn't read 30 years of serialized fiction. That's why their readership might be better served by a critic who couldn't tell you Hawkeye's other super-hero aliases (Goliath, Ronin, and The Golden Archer, for those keeping score at home).

It's worth remembering that when reading a review. Who is the critic writing for? What is their taste like? Do they make valid points even if we don't agree with them? Most importantly, let's not forget that someone who ridicules a critic for disliking a movie they themselves haven't even seen yet holds the most uninformed opinion of all.

Read more of Darren Mooney's "That's Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man: Movie Criticism and Subjectivity..."

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5 Comments

  • Liam | May 1, 2012 6:17 AMReply

    Great article. Good point, well made...

  • bob hawk | May 1, 2012 12:46 AMReply

    An opinion can be neither right nor wrong -- it's just an opinion. Critical analyses that consider aspects of craft can be somewhat "right" or "wrong" on a very mundane and elementary level, but really begin to lose credibility as "truth" when dealing with the "art" of filmmaking, and especially with works attempting to push the envelope or deconstruct. The bottom line is that I do not use reviews as consumer guides. I enjoy critical writing as a conversation -- after I've seen the work in question -- with someone who I've grown to respect. I certainly don't always agree with them, but they are catalysts -- stimulating and challenging me, and provoking further thought. Funny, but when I began to think of those critics that I've most enjoyed reading, the majority were or are published in The Village Voice. In film: Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, J Hoberman, Amy Taubin, Manohla Dargis (since way before she wrote for the NYTimes), Stanley Kauffmann, Dwight Macdonald (although he could be absolutely infuriating), and Pauline Kael (until she became a diarrhetic caricature of herself toward the end; but she's still a joy to read). In theater: the only one living today, the VV's Michael Feingold; the New Yorker's John Lahr is losing it (IMHO). In the past there was Walter Kerr, Brooks Atkinson and, again, Kauffmann. P.S. I never considered Jonas Mekas to be a critic, but rather a passionately articulate and opinionated aficionado -- not to mention a practitioner (filmmaker, curator/archivist, exhibitor) to this day. When he wrote for the Voice he was like the first blogger, if you will, before there were blogs.

  • Brett G. | April 30, 2012 11:06 PMReply

    I think a good critic can adequately articulate both their viewpoint and their background if it's necessary. If a critic isn't at all a comic book fan, I think that'd be worth noting in their review, if only to give readers a perspective on where they're coming from. I mean, if part of the appeal of The Avengers is seeing something you'd dreamed of since being a comic book fan, that doesn't apply to the guy who's never picked up a book. And I would guess that a bunch of people seeing The Avengers will be in that same boat and wouldn't mind reading a view coming from a background that's on a similar wavelength.

    And vice versa--as a comic book fan, I'm very interested to see how The Avengers plays for non-fans.

  • Jason | April 27, 2012 3:24 PMReply

    Pretty easy to understand really.
    Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one....sometimes they smell like shit and sometimes they smell like roses, all depends on what your perception of smelling the roses is.
    All that matters is... 'Do YOU like it??' ...if so great, if not great.

  • Corey Atad | April 27, 2012 1:07 PMReply

    You're right on about opinions being uninformed, but I think there's a difference between an opinion being informed by outside source materials like comic books and opinions being informed by a knowledge and technical understanding of cinema. If The Avengers is only made for the fans of the comic then what's the point? Is it nice when a critic has read Avengers comics and can bring that knowledge and perspective to their review? Sure, but it doesn't necessarily make their opinion more valid.

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