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Marshall Fine On the Reaction to His 'Dark Knight Rises' Review: "It's Part of the Job."

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by Matt Singer
July 17, 2012 9:59 AM
30 Comments
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"The Dark Knight Rises."
"The Dark Knight Rises."

"It's not like I dismissed the thing. Certainly I've been tougher on other movies. Go back and read my reviews of the 'Transformers' movies, or 'G.I. Joe,' or a couple of other movies that I really, really hated. This was, I thought, a reasoned disappointed reaction to a movie."

That's how film critic Marshall Fine saw his negative review of "The Dark Knight Rises." The legions of comic book fans on Rotten Tomatoes saw it differently, unleashing their rage in a spew of hateful and even threatening comments and flooding Fine's site, Hollywood and Fine, with so much traffic that they repeatedly crashed its servers. Fine told me he followed the reaction for an hour or so, until he thought "Well what's the next guy going to say that's different than what the last guy said?" and then went on to other things. He only heard about the extreme degree of outrage when a friend passed along my report on the incident. A short while later, we had the following phone conversation about the infamous review and the even-more-infamous response.

Fine's site is back up now ("Rumors of the death of my website have been greatly exaggerated," he chuckled), but the reaction to his and other negative reviews had serious and potentially permanent implications for Rotten Tomatoes; in response to the intensity (and, frankly, insanity) of some of the Bat-fans' comments, the site has temporarily suspended all commenting on "Dark Knight Rises" reviews. 

Throughout our chat, Fine remained impressively even-tempered about his hot-tempered critics. Though he admitted he hadn't read all the comments (like maybe not the one where the guy fantasized about beating him into a coma with "a thick rubber hose"), he didn't really consider them threats. When I said I thought some crossed the line between hyperbole and objectionable hate speech, he told me that hearing from readers, even angry ones, "is just part of the job."

Sometimes, I guess, that part of the job is more pleasant than others. Here's our conversation.

You've been a critic for a long time. Have you ever gotten a reaction like this to something you'd written?

I was once fired for writing a negative review. If you look on my website, you'll find a two-part piece I wrote about Anita Bryant when the film "Milk" came out, because I was fired for panning an Anita Bryant concert during that era when the gay rights issue was in the air. This is 1977: I was working at paper in Jackson, Mississippi. She played the Mississippi State Fair and I wrote a review where I panned it and said it was inappropriate in a forum like this to be proselytizing for Christianity, and the paper was inundated with phone calls and letters. I sat there that day and just took phone calls from people with thick Southern accents telling me I was headed for hell. But that's thirty-something years ago. I've never really dealt with it it in the Internet age.

That incident involved religion, always a controversial subject. Now the thing that generates that level of controversy is Batman. It's as if Batman is almost a religion to some people.

Well, I guess you could make the argument that at this point it is. The true believers were all at Comic-Con last weekend. What's amazing to me -- and sort of amusing to me -- is that all of these comments are coming from people who haven't seen the movie.

Sure. Well, like you said, they're true believers.

They probably haven't even read my review, because my site went down so quickly.

When you filed the piece, did you expect this kind of reaction?

No, I really did not expect this level of response. I knew it would probably be controversial just because I was the first negative one, and the first person to burst that 100% bubble always comes in for some negative response, but it was like a tsunami.

Do you think Rotten Tomatoes needs to change their commenting system? Since your review was posted, they've suspended all commenting on "Dark Knight Rises" reviews and are seriously considering a new system that doesn't allow for anonymity.

It's interesting. When I worked for newspapers, whenever there was a negative letter to the editor about something I had written, I never responded because I felt like I've had the chance to express my opinion and here's their chance to do that. Having said that, anonymity really offers a kind of freedom that's easily abused.

Rotten Tomatoes is not my site. On my site I do go through and approve or not approve the comments people make. If someone's just spouting obscenities, I'm not going to approve it. If they're calling me an idiot, I'll put that on, that's their opinion. It doesn't hurt my feelings. Like you said, I've been doing this a long time. You have to have a thick skin if you're going to be offering your opinion out to the public.

So the comments don't really even upset you. It's the audience having their say. But there's a point, maybe, where it crosses a line.

I guess to me it crosses a line if someone shows up on my front step. Otherwise everyone's entitled to their opinion. People have strong feelings about this stuff. Is it unfortunate that this is the way people express themselves? Well, yeah, I think it's a measure of how powerless people feel in this society in general. Here's their chance to get their rocks off at someone they don't know. Is it any worse than calling up the White House and leaving an obscene message? I certainly don't put myself on the same level as President Obama, but it's the same sort of response.

As I look back on it, I have to assume there's this huge cadre of fanboys who are just dying to see this movie. And not having the opportunity to do that until Thursday night or Friday, they're scouring the Internet for anything that will tell them something about it.

Do you have any idea how many hits the review got?

I don't, because the site crashed so quickly. It obviously got more traffic than I usually get. What impressed me was how many people look at Rotten Tomatoes and were just waiting for those "Dark Knight Rises" reviews to show up. Because literally within the first five minutes of posting my review on Rotten Tomatoes, there were 25 comments. It blew my mind.

To me, it's just a movie. Tomorrow I'll review another movie. And the next day I'll review another, and the day after that I'll review another. To me, it's one in a list of hundreds of movies I'll review this year. It doesn't mean much more or less than any of the others, but people have strong feelings about it, probably stronger feelings that I did. As a critic, you don't play favorites. You're in it for the long game. The year isn't about this one movie. This is one movie in a year full of movies. But to these people, this is the highpoint of their year.

Right, this is the only movie.

At least until the next superhero movie comes along.

Well if you review that one, and it's a negative review, hopefully you won't be the first critic to publish.

[laughs] Well certainly I'm going to think twice in the future about being the first one out of the box with a negative review of something like this. It's not going to keep me from writing a negative review. But I may think twice about being the first one.

Not just in this case but in general, has any reader feedback ever swayed your mind about something you've written?

No, I don't think so. Again, to do this job you have to have strong opinions and you really can't second guess yourself. Occasionally, I have in the past looked at a movie that I hadn't liked years earlier and though "Oh, y'know, maybe I didn't give that movie as much credit as I should have." But for the most part when I go back and look at movies that I gave good reviews or bad reviews to, I usually think my initial reaction was the right one.

So we shouldn't expect another review of "The Dark Knight Rises" anytime soon.

No, though I have to admit I'm tempted to watch the first two movies and then go see this one again just to sort of clarify it in my mind and write something further about it. But, on the other hand, that may just be asking for trouble. [laughs]

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30 Comments

  • Brendan | July 23, 2012 10:39 AMReply

    I think the issue some reasonable people have (including myself) is that these critics are just trying to dredge up exposure by being contrarians.

  • Nick | July 21, 2012 8:08 AMReply

    I've already seen the film at a press screening - so don't make an assumption that you know more than rest of us, or that your view is a particularly discerning one.

  • Malkavian | July 19, 2012 11:46 AMReply

    Let me start this off by saying, no I am not a Twi-hard or whatever they call themselves, but an objective observer and female.What is really funny is this is the same reactions that Twilight fans had. What do you mean all critics don't love this movie? HOW DARE THEY! Guys, I hate to break it to you, but this is the male version of Twilight. How may of you have relentlessly trashed Twilight and made comments about the psycho Twilight fans and thier love of the movie and how terrible it was, according to you? Well, the shoe is on the other foot now and it is quite amusing actually, because it is the mirror image. Not all people like these type of movies, I personnally thought the last one was kind of boring, except for Heath and this is coming from someone who loves Christian Bale. Just did not do it for me, sorry. I'm sure I will get blasted now, because I dare to say I did not like it that much, but that is reality. Funny how it is so funny to make fun of the movie and the fans are so delusional when you are talking about a female oriented franchise such as Twilight but, if a critic doesn't like the movie of the franchise you like, then its not funny anymore.

  • Pratik | July 19, 2012 3:18 AMReply

    ‎"The Dark Knight didn't RISE" upto it's expectations....a bit slow n nothing great except for Anne Hathaway....overall could watch it once....but "Bane is in Vain"

  • Randy Bumgarden | July 18, 2012 3:37 AMReply

    Well, firstly he knew what reaction he was going to get were it to be negative and secondly, the way he wrote the review targeted fans by suggesting that they weren't intellectual and quite possibly stupid (or too young to read/be bothered to read). Putting spoilers in the review wasn't exactly wise either. There's one thing offering an opinion, there's another actively trying to stir up a hornets nest.

  • Gene in L.A. | July 17, 2012 7:30 PMReply

    Maybe the problem IS that the movie isn't out yet. Reading a review of a movie that's not out is very apt to be disappointing. I sometimes think there should be a moratorium on reviews until the premiere. I know, it's all about publicity. Get that review out there so the crowds will come in here and spend and spend and spend. I purposely refrain from reading about movies until I see them. Maybe the fanboys should do the same.

  • Nihar | July 17, 2012 7:18 PMReply

    He just got what he wanted.
    Undeserving Attention.

    This guy deliberately badmouthed the movie in order to treat his Attention deficit Disorder.
    And Boy he got way more than he could handle.

  • Antonio | July 17, 2012 10:10 PM

    Or maybe, you know, he just didn't like the movie...

    A terrifying concept, I know.

  • David Parker | July 17, 2012 6:39 PMReply

    Sorry, not all of us are buying the argument that Christopher Nolan is such a fantastic filmmaker. He puts out a slick product wrapped up with a ribbon of intellectual hokum that the fans eat up. Makes them feel special and intelligent. Whatever...

  • Jeff | July 17, 2012 4:07 PMReply

    Well said, MSZ. Professional film critics watch and write about several movies each week. The fact that this movie has a man dressed as a bat does not make it better or different than any of the others. It's not deserving of any sort of special consideration or reverence. The fact that a talented director like Chris Nolan made it makes it something especially interesting to look forward to, but I felt the same way this year about the new movies by the Dardennes, Wes Anderson, Whit Stillman, Richard Linklater, Terence Davies, and Frederick Wiseman. The kids (let's be honest) who decide the movie is awesome before they see it, and treat it like it is "above" other movies, probably haven't seen a whole lot of cinema in their lives and clearly lack any sort of perspective or reason.

  • Lou | July 18, 2012 1:38 PM

    JAMES CAMERON'S MOM: Please do something about your son. He needs help.

  • James Cameron's Mom | July 17, 2012 9:17 PM

    I love me my Batman movies, but this goosestepping attack on divergent opinions is pathetic. "James Cameron," thanks for being the arbiter of who is allowed to have an opinion. How about you stay in the movie theater, with your "real movies" and the rest of your sweaty, mouth breathing brethren - and the rest of us can carry on and have full lives that involve an exchange of ideas and actual sunlight? Please. Thank you.

  • James Cameron | July 17, 2012 7:58 PM

    Stick to your indie crap, loser. Not even 5 people go to see the shit most of the directors you listed make. And yes, this movie has a man dressed up as a bat, and it makes people take it seriously. That alone is a feat. Like I said, stick to your indie crap and keep away from real movies. Please. Thank you.

  • Jack Shrout | July 17, 2012 6:21 PM

    I completely agree. Look, I love Nolan's Batman trilogy and I think he's got a lot of promise as a director, but this cult-like following he has is staggering. He knows how to frame a shot well and he knows how to structure a story well, but his films lack emotional depth and resonance. When was the last time you walked out of one of his films going, "That really hit me right here" . . . yeah, you never do.

    These people that worship Nolan probably don't know too much about Martin Scorsese, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Francis Coppola, Sergio Leone, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, John Ford, John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, and other true, legendary auteurs of the genre.

  • ashok | July 17, 2012 3:56 PMReply

    Unrelated to the TDKR fiasco, I can't have too much respect for an arts critic who treats the job in such a blase fashion - 'it's just another movie' 'you're in it for the long game' 'you don't play favorites'. Yes, you do. The whole point of good arts criticism is to be passionate about the arts and to advocate or pan or (as in most cases) analyze work that lies somewhere in between but to care enough to do it. A critic who talks about his job like a burned-out assembly line worker probably shouldn't be a critic.

    Also, I do wish that people wouldn't tar the whole fan culture community with the same 'pimply basement dweller' brush. The idiots who trolled Fine's RT thread are a very vocal minority. Some of us can actually hold down a job and a social life AND like comics

  • Walter Bishop's Older Brother | July 18, 2012 12:58 AM

    Amen, Ashok. I love Ebert; this guy, however, needs to sit down and rest. Then retire.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | July 17, 2012 3:44 PMReply

    I've known Marshall for years. He really means it when he says this is just another movie. He panned it because be didn't like it. The insistence that he can't possibly be sincere in not liking the film is such a tired argument. He saw it. He panned it. Later this week he'll see some other movie, and maybe he'll like it and maybe he won't.

    I think what really chaps the hide of a lot of "commenters" (screechers) is that Marshall doesn't think this film is special because it has Batman in it, or that it deserves a more careful, meek or
    "respectful" response than he usually gives in his reviews. Basically he has committed blasphemy.

  • Walter Bishop's Older Brother | July 18, 2012 1:03 AM

    umm, see my comment above. I don't see much respect (need?) for critics these days. Any one w a fast internet connection, Netflix, and a library card seems to qualify for "critic-hood", and seem genuinely upset when others don't genuflect. Critics have diminished purpose in the age of info-overload. And they seem genuinely upset about it. hmm

  • Screecher | July 17, 2012 6:02 PM

    But it has Batman in it!

  • Pete | July 17, 2012 1:47 PMReply

    Way to give this guy the attention he was so deliberately seeking.

    { Right, this is the only movie.

    At least until the next superhero movie comes along.}

    Until the next superhero movie comes along? In general, superhero movies are terribly made films. The reason why people are eager about The Dark Knight Rises is because there is real talent behind the film; Christopher Nolan and crew are Oscar caliber filmmakers. This is not just another superhero movie.

    This guy is clearly jaded by his profession, is probably on the decline, and just needed some attention. That's why he didn't just write a 'negative' review, but a scathing and insulting one. This guy is far from a professional and should be treated as such.

  • Pete's mom | July 17, 2012 9:22 PM

    Or maybe you need to stop injecting a rationale into his review. Is your own opinion of a movie ( that you have seen yet) so necessary to your own identity, that it must be validated with 100% universal praise?

  • Fanboys are so lame | July 17, 2012 6:21 PM

    Or maybe it's because fanboys need to stop caring so much about fandoms, disengage completely, and join the real world - the one where a movie is nothing more than a movie.

  • Darius | July 17, 2012 1:46 PMReply

    Good for him, I am so tired of these hollywood studios releasing NOTHING but comicbook movies in last 2-3 years, it's getting sad really... Spiderman 23435, Batman 234, give me an original story, instead of this cookie-cutter good vs evil BS... and actually new Bat flick so far has 2 bad reviews.. Maybe it's just a BAD movie people chill the hell out...

  • Paul | July 17, 2012 12:59 PMReply

    15 minutes of fame and that´s it.

  • donna m | July 17, 2012 12:48 PMReply

    I think he knew exactly what he was doing and got the desired reult. Have not seen the movie and some of the fanboy comments stepped over the line but comparing this movie to Transformers was asking for trouble. I also have to take issue with his comment about it just being a movie and him reviewing another one then another one. Movies should mean far more to someone who reviews them. They need to love certain movies and love what they do and that needs to be reflected in their reviews. Someone who just looks at it as a regular job needs to find another job and let someone with a genuine passion for movies take their place.

  • Wes | July 17, 2012 6:03 PM

    Assertions without argument. It is *just* a movie. Why does it have to be more than that in order to review it?

  • Matt | July 17, 2012 11:57 AMReply

    I dunno. Have you read his review? The whole thing reads like he's purposefully stirring the pot just to get a response. He likens it to movies he knows fans hate and are trashy. He dismisses it so casually from his golden critic throne or whatever, knowing what he's evoking.

    This line: "No, I really did not expect this level of response. I knew it would probably be controversial just because I was the first negative one, and the first person to burst that 100% bubble always comes in for some negative response, but it was like a tsunami" comes off to me as contradictory and silly.

    And I haven't seen the movie yet, so who knows, he might have a few points. (Nolan is far from a perfect filmmaker.) But he knew what he was doing.

  • Fanboys are so lame | July 17, 2012 6:23 PM

    Or maybe here's the thing: he's telling the truth about his opinion, and your widdle feewings are hurt because he didn't go out of his way to make it all about you.

    That breeze you feel? Isn't the universe revolving around you, fanboys. You're being taken for a ride by corporate entities that misuse the emotions you should be feeling ONLY towards actual living beings and emptying your wallets.

  • Dean | July 17, 2012 11:48 AMReply

    Poor bloke - fanaticism at its most lethal.

  • Ria | July 18, 2012 8:39 PM

    I must be one of the few people who has no desire to see this movie and the only one who has not seen the Avengers. I quite agree with the poster who said the movies that have been shown recently are all - sequels to something that made money, reinventions of tired action movies, comic-book movies, movies derived from fairy tales. Good lord, there is nothing original being offered anymore. I'd jsut stick to reading books, thank you very much.

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