Joker, the backlash, and where does this leave film criticism?

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The hounding of established and emerging film critics for liking or not liking a film is getting worse and has consequences, argues Simon.

Back in a previous job, one of the films I covered was the 2016 take on Ghostbusters. I’d say you remember the one, but, well, y’know. Anyway, I quite enjoyed the film. I gave it three stars, and it’d be fair to say that I got some, er, ‘feedback’.

What stuck with me though was a perfectly reasonable commenter, who argued in a perfectly reasonable way that I would ‘never live that review down’. That I wasn’t just wrong, I was wrong in a way that it would follow me wherever I went. There wasn’t a debate as to do the review itself, rather than my opinion was apparently flat-out incorrect. It was the measured way that I was told this that really soaked in. As if the only way I could continue to have a career was if, what, I changed my mind?

I still quite like that Ghostbusters film, although have no urge to reopen that debate. But I felt then and I feel now that something is being lost. That all of a sudden, having an opinion against the perceived doctrine was becoming a risk. One with consequences, too, as I’m going to explore.

I’ve always felt that the best online debates about films capture the feeling of going to see a movie with a bunch of mates, and then arguing about it afterwards. Yet more than ever, rather than online forums giving us all an opportunity to safely express our views and have a conversation, it’s now an exercise in not straying from the hive mind.

Now I’m old enough and proudly ugly enough to take some of the abuse I took back then. I shouldn’t have had to, but also, I accept that it was lessened by the fact that I was male.

More recently, I’ve been following the Joker debate. Again, you may be familiar with Todd Phillips’ film, starring Joaquin Phoenix. That when it premiered in Venice, it was followed by a lot of rave reviews that – whilst I believe the reviews were entirely honest – had a side effect of establishing the discourse for the film.

One excellent young reviewer whose work I’ve found a joy to read was one of those who more recently reviewed the film. She, in the eyes of some, had committed several crimes. One, she had the temerity to be female. Two, she had the temerity to be under 30. Three, she had the further temerity to have not have read every comic book ever published with the Joker in it. Pretty much nobody else has either, including some of her harshest critics I’d wager, but let’s gloss over that.

Before she put her review live, she was open with the fact that it was causing her anxiety. That because she had pertinent criticisms of the film and didn’t love it, she knew she was letting herself in for an online kicking. It didn’t deter her from posting her review, and all power to her. Yet sadly, her predictions came true. The site that ran said review has had to shut off comments such were the attacks and level of abuse she was receiving. Even then, I’m reading that some commenters found a way to leave messages on other posts.

Her crime? She didn’t love Joker.

I personally think that film criticism has enough problems with the Rotten Tomatoes culture that’s pervading reviewing. That it’s a regular debate point to cite that a film has such and such a score on Rotten Tomatoes as if it’s some factual decree as to how every human being is supposed to feel about the movie in question.

But films aren’t a percentage, amalgamated score, where only one viewpoint has merit.

I have an awful lot of time for the 1992 sci-fi movie Fortress, starring Christopher Lambert (pictured above). I’m willing to concede it’s not Oscar-worthy, but whenever it’s on (which, truthfully, isn’t often), I’m always keen to watch it. I reckon I’d give the film three stars, and would happily defend it. But: what’s this? Its Rotten Tomatoes score is a mere 40%, and thus is must be rubbish and I must be wrong! Isn’t that the set of rules we’re now supposed to play by?

Because what we’re in danger of creating is a generation of critics who either have to be armour plated, or willing to live within a margin of error of that Rotten Tomatoes score. An extreme view? Quite possibly. But where does this lead if things go on unchecked? If someone is willing to put together an intelligent argument for a film, lay out their honest thoughts and reasoning and – crucially – put their real name to it, then I think that’s a good thing.

After all, if I disagree with their review or rating, it doesn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the film in question. Whether or not I liked Joker was in no way influenced by what Empire, the Daily Telegraph, HeyUGuys or the Birmingham Mail thought of it. Likewise, I didn’t make the film. If someone’s constructively taking a film apart, as long as they’re not being shitty to other human beings, that’s part of cinema and criticism. I think it’s pretty clear that Todd Phillips, for one, is aware of that. In this case, he seems to me perfectly capable of voicing his own point of view, and has the platform to do so.

What I do enjoy is going and reading reviews after I’ve seen the film, because oftentimes I’ve found that good film writing points out something in a movie that I missed, or hadn’t appreciated. Likewise, I like a good, constructive debate. I like that natter after the film with a bunch of friendly people.

But I don’t like bullies, and I fear the bullies are making headway. I fear that good critics, good film writers are being hounded for expressing an honest opinion, to the point where we’re there’s a long-term danger of discouraging people from giving said opinion. That fewer reviews will be entirely honest, and instead stick closer to what’s safer. That this isn’t just affecting long established critics, but newcomers finding their way.

Even more than that, I feel that the personal attacks are having an unseen impact on the health of bloody good writers.

It’s the worst facets of fandom, amplified. For depressingly, it’s around big fandoms – Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Ghostbusters – where all of this feels at its most extreme. For those of us who grew up pre-internet when such fandoms were far more niche, and where they brought people together, it’s perhaps even more disappointing that it’s come to this. Yet here we are.

This is not new news, of course. I’m not telling you much you don’t know. But I want to make sure that this site stands side by side with those who are protecting their writers. And I think it’s vital to the future of quality film criticism and writing that constructive voices are heard, and that people feel that can be honest without having to take a torrent of abuse for doing so.

I also think good writers deserve encouragement, whether their opinion is agreed with or not.

In days gone by, the general idea was that you found a few reviewers who roughly reflected in some way your viewpoint on film, and they’d give you a steer, and perhaps some added insight, on movies in their reviews. Truthfully, growing up, I didn’t agree with every review Barry Norman delivered, but I never felt the urge to hurl abuse at him because he didn’t like Back To The Future Part II as much as me. Instead, I listened, was interested in his views, and disagreed. And then I tuned in the following week. Crucially, I learned very early on that it was neither incumbent on me to agree with him, nor incumbent on him to agree with me.

Now? I remember when Mark Kermode wrote an article on his love for the Twilight films. Reading some of the comments he attracted, you’d think he’d gone around to the homes of a subset of fanboys and personally defecated on their pillows.

Below the line abuse is not unique to film, of course. There are other topics that are attracting relatively anonymous commenters who are going after people on a personal level for having a different opinion.

Yet for the here and now, we’re talking about film. And I want, for what it’s worth, to say this. That there’s not supposed to be a hive mind. We’re allowed to like a Marvel film without hating DC. Our entire life isn’t defined by liking a film someone else hates. Our childhood isn’t taken away from us if someone has a differing view on an older movie. That we’re all supposed to be different, to react to things in different ways, and be able to enjoy them nonetheless.

In terms of what I’m going to do about this? Well, appreciating this isn’t (yet) the most comment-dense website, I’ll do my best to ensure the comments here are constructive. That personal attacks will not be tolerated. That you don’t have to agree with me on Fortress to stay here.

But also, if you’re on the receiving end of some of the abuse I’ve described, do know that your opinion matters, is valid, and doesn’t have to adhere to someone else’s idea of what your view should be.

You may love the Joker film. You may hate it. But that’s nobody’s decision but your own, no matter what the internet has to say about it.

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