A few thoughts on the Wonder Woman 1984 reviewer backlash

Movie reviews
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Reviewers of Wonder Woman 1984 are coming in for criticism it seems for liking the film – a few words on what’s been happening.

A question: why, in theory, do people read film reviews?

It’s something I’ve been pondering over the last day or two following the ongoing release of Patty Jenkins’ new film, Wonder Woman 1984. Around the time that the film was released in the UK two weeks ago, very few people could see it. Now, with the movie in US cinemas and on the HBO Max streaming site, lots more have watched it, and entirely fairly, lots more are having their say.

Unfortunately, a lot more are also having their say about the first collection of reviewers. Not the reviews, but the people who wrote them.

It has not in some cases been very pleasant to watch.

Going back to when the movie first landed, the first collection of reviews were very enthusiastic. Lots of people gave the film very positive write-ups and ratings, and – crucially – backed up their thoughts with reviews that put forward their argument.

Beyond the star ratings, you could see why it was they liked the film.

The next raft of reviews has been a lot less positive, and there’s been a small audience backlash against the movie too. Again, no problems there: if you pay your money and you don’t like the film, then you have absolutely every right to have your say.  I don’t think anyone’s arguing with that.

It’s when the discourse strays away from the film and towards attacking human beings that I struggle.

I know we’re all supposed to accept it as part of the modern world and social media and blah blah blah. But I’ve always felt that’s how the bullies win. When everybody walks on by.

It’s not just the filmmakers either now who are attracting this ire (although you don’t have to look far for recent big movies that have targeted the people who made them). A level of online abuse is now being targeted at people who reviewed Wonder Woman 1984 and really liked the film. I’d like to address that.

It’d be remiss of me not to recognise up front that this is part of an increasingly depressing cycle that’s followed a lot of big blockbuster genre movies in recent times. Films with deep fandoms behind their franchises often have small parts of that fandom that are, let’s say, not entirely keen on change and evolution. That, or are very protective of the franchises to the point of abuse. I’m talking a minority here, and I’m also not talking the positive fandom behind something like the Snyder Cut campaign to be clear. Just it’s best to acknowledge there’s toxicity around some elements of these movies.

In the case of Wonder Woman 1984 reviews, regular as clockwork I’ve seen the argument wheeled out that the only people given early access to the film were comic book sites, who just bigged up the film because they presumably are assumed to big up every comic book movie.


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Let’s deal with that: it just isn’t true. This isn’t a comic book site for a start, and we got early access to the film. It’s also not hard to find many reviews that arrived when the embargo on opinions lifted that were from a broad selection of outlets. There was a spread of voices from day one of reviews going live, and a quick Google search proves this to be the case. Warner Bros, to its credit, tried to get as many reviewers to see the film early as it could, and that was reflected with the range of day one reviews.

Still, I think that overlooks this: why shouldn’t comic book movie sites like comic book movies? If I go to a horror movie website, I’m likely to see reviews that understand and appreciate horror movies in a different way to, say, a national newspaper. That they’re likely to like more of them to. When did that become a problem?

What exactly is the issue with fans of movies reviewing movies. Aren’t we all movie fans? I am. I review movies. What’s wrong with that?

Furthermore, if I review a movie in a genre I really love, that doesn’t guarantee a good review, but it does mean I have some added insight, surely?

Or does that mean I’ve been bought off?

Because that’s the next in the predictable line of attacks. I’m personally long inoculated to the accusation that reviewers have been paid for, but then I’ve been around a while. The idea that movie studios send out review screening invites with a space to leave your Paypal address so they can send you a cheeky tenner if you give the film an extra star.

It must be quite dispiriting to someone starting out, willing to put their name to a review, to be accused of that. Not least when they check their bank balance.

Because bluntly, I know of very few modern film critics who can make a living solely from writing about film. If Disney, Warner Bros and such like are paying people off, then they’re doing it very quietly, and doing it very much on the cheap. The vast majority of movie reviewers you read online can’t afford to do it full time. Spoiler: the pay isn’t great. Instead, they work a different job and make room for their film writing in their spare time. They try and build their writing portfolio up through hard graft, and then having to go to work again in the morning.

As convenient as it is to suggest people like a film because they’ve been paid to do so: I’m not buying it, and I’ve never seen it.

(One aide: I confess, I never think it’s a great look that critics retweet when they’ve been sent something by a PR company, and I’ve seen some pushback against that. But also, I’d suggest retweeting when someone sends you a cake is hardly paying the bills).

Then there’s Rotten Tomatoes, apparently the oracle of what’s good or not. The evidence I’ve seen cited several times that the Wonder Woman 1984 reviews were off is that the first Rotten Tomatoes score was originally really high, and now it’s not so high.

I think the whole influence of Rotten Tomatoes over movie criticism is a much bigger debate than for just this piece, but I nonetheless despair.

I’m not one of these people who has a problem with star ratings and such like. But still: I’m also one of those people who feels that a two-and-a-half-hour movie is far more than a number out of a hundred generated by an algorithm. ‘According to Rotten Tomatoes, it’s rubbish’, I see banded around.

So what? According to you, what’s it like? Isn’t that more important? If you really like a film that scores 54 on Rotten Tomatoes, what would you prefer to do: conform to the hive mind, or express what you think?

Likewise, whilst Rotten Tomatoes is a useful service for bringing a collection of views together, it overlooks the fact that every review for the film in question comes with words as well as a number, or a graphic of some stars.

Isn’t it important to find out why someone feels they way they do, rather than just jumping to their numerical conclusion?

Likewise, shouldn’t we be cherishing those who are willing to go against what a Rotten Tomatoes number says anyway, with all the problems that can be tied up with that?

All of which has been fuel for a fresh attack on film reviewers, and as always, it seems to be younger reviewers (‘what do they know’?!) and those less represented in a still-pretty-male-dominated world of paid movie criticism that are being singled out. From what I can see, if you’re a woman who likes Wonder Woman 1984, then you’d better come out with your armour on, because you seem to have to jump through twice as many hoops to justify your verdict. The same armour that was last required, I’d suggest, when Birds Of Prey was released.

Why is that? How is that right?

Personally, I actively seek out voices different to mine, because I’m more likely to see things I otherwise wouldn’t. It was the writing of Amon Warmann that got me interested in the Barbership films. It was Millicent Thomas who showed me something different in Birds Of Prey. Clarisse Loughrey’s dissection of Tenet found things I didn’t. Charlotte Harrison screamed from the rooftops about Wild Rose, and firmly put it on my to-watch list.

I don’t necessary love all the films I’ve mentioned – far from it, in some cases – but I’ve got something extra by actually reading the reviews, and by listening to people. Shock horror: I don’t always agree with those writers either. But still, I manage to disagree with them without sending they a truckload of abuse on Twitter.

As an aside, I find younger reviewers far more protective of spoilers than some more established names too.

We’re in an era now where film criticism – in fact, pretty much any field of criticism – is far broader. I find that a lot healthier. I also think it’s far easier to find a critic roughly in line with your way of seeing the world.

I never quite had that when I was in my teens. Heck, I loved Barry Norman and the BBC’s Film programme in the 1980s and early 90s, and hung onto many of his words. But our movie tastes were very different. As you get older and you watch more films, sure, that’s going to refine your tastes. But try as I might, I couldn’t find any critic at the end of the 1980s who adored Back To The Future Part II as much as me.

I’d love to have found young critics with a platform back then, with whom I could share my enthusiasm. Instead, I contented myself with Barry being reasonably okay-ish with the film.

Now? It’s far easier to find a critic who better reflects you than it ever was. Film discourse has broadened, and became healthier I’d argue. The same gatekeepers are still there, and a lot of major outlets rely on the same people they have done for a decade plus.

But their power is weakened. Film reviewing is slightly more democratised. Furthermore, if you liked things the old way, then the old way is still there too. Nothing, from what I can see, has been taken away. Instead, more things have been added.

Part and parcel of that is it’s also easier than ever to find someone who doesn’t agree with you. In the social media age, it’s easier than ever to track them down and have your say. And in some cases to potentially do them some damage. That’s what’s happening, and I’ve seen emerging critics coming away from Twitter due to the abuse they’ve received. Abuse for, in this case, really liking a film.

Obviously, it comes gift-wrapped with ‘if they can’t take, they shouldn’t write it’ line. My eyes can’t roll hard enough at that. It’s no problem taking constructive issue with a review – heck, many people welcome a good debate. But it’s the vitriol, the abuse, the name-calling, the just generally being horrible. Why should people have to take that? Why are we expected to walk on by?

Enough of that. This isn’t about engaging with opinions and challenging people. This is about abuse on a base level that a new generation of critics are facing. It stares at them when they turn their social media feed on, with depressing regularity. It’s stopping really good writers from putting their words out there. Imagine those brilliant upcoming voices who are being put off by what they see happening.

I genuinely think the world of movie criticism has come on enormously in the decade or so I’ve been involved with it. I think fandom on the whole is a positive force. I think social media has opened up discourse, debate and communities that I’d have loved when I was younger to be a part of.

But I still can’t answer the question I asked at the start particularly convincingly. Because why do people read film reviews in the first place?

I certainly used to know the answer, but I now fear that for a subset of people with a disproportionately loud voice, it’s to find people they don’t agree with and tell them why they’re wrong and not allowed to hold the opinion they do. To attack. To bully. To impose a viewpoint, and woe betide you if you stray from it. I’m certainly seeing more than I’d like of that with Wonder Woman 1984, that’s gone way beyond the film itself.

Thankfully, for the majority, I’d still like to think people read film reviews to see if a movie is any good. To find out if it’s worth seeing. To see if someone has found something in a film that they haven’t.

I certainly hope the latter’s the case.

I confess I’m really quite worried about the impact of the former.

Certain images: BigStock

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