Pity the critic. Once, he bestrode the gulf between artist and audience like a colossus (no, not the big metal guy from Deadpool), raising up and casting down the creators, guiding and shaping a lively discourse among an informed and passionate viewing public for whom it mattered a great deal whether you favored Godard or Truffaut as a director. Some, like Pauline Kael, changed the way movies were talked about — and even made. Some, like Siskel and Ebert, entered the larger cultural lexicon (“thumbs up!”). Some, like your humble correspondent’s predecessor Duncan Shepherd, became regional lightning rods: deep-dive erudition doesn’t always play well in the pages of a free weekly.
How the mighty have fallen. Now, the critic has got to band together with hundreds of his fellows on an aggregator like Rotten Tomatoes just to make himself heard amid the online din. And even there, it’s not his voice that’s heard; just his yea or nay, taken together with every other yea or nay and transmogrified into a numerical percentage indicating approval. Most often, the only time he gets noticed is when he stands apart from the herd — in which case, it is generally assumed that he is standing apart only in order to get noticed, since attention is the internet’s universal currency. In Orson Welles’s pitying terminology: “Poor forked radish.”
Or, more likely, don’t pity the critic. More likely, ignore him. Eight of the top 20 biggest moneymakers of 2017 (so far) received “Rotten” ratings from Rotten Tomatoes, including Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Transformers: The Last Knight, The Mummy, and Fifty Shades Darker. People are gonna see what they want to see, critics be damned.
Which is why it was more than a little risible when, back in late May, some studio people complained that critics had done damage to Johnny Depp’s fifth appearance as Captain Jack Sparrow in Dead Men Tell No Tales. The last installment of the series, 2011’s On Stranger Tides, made nearly $70 million less domestically than 2007’s At World’s End, which in turn made $114 million less than 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest. Clearly, the bloom was off the rose and had been for some time. But that was never the point. The point was that even though On Stranger Tides made only $241 million stateside, it still broke a billion dollars worldwide. And despite a six-year hiatus and and a star whose schtick had worn thin (to say nothing of the highly publicized troubles in his personal life) and a critical drubbing (which is, as it happens, very similar to the one handed On Stranger Tides), it’s still the fifth biggest movie of the year.
Now and then, you’ll hear the director of a bashed blockbuster sniff that he doesn’t make films for the critics, he makes them for the fans. I’d say this is doubly true for the studio behind the director, which is, after all, a business, looking for return on investment. But who exactly are those fans? Studios would be deeply foolish to make big-budget movies primarily for the domestic market. And studios are not deeply foolish, not when it comes to money. Of those top 20 moneymakers for 2017, exactly one has made the majority of its money domestically: The Lego Batman Movie. Fifteen of them have made more than 60% overseas; ten of them over 70%; six of them over 80%. If American audiences are avoiding Hollywood blockbusters, maybe it’s not because they’re in thrall to grumpy critics. Maybe it’s because these movies aren’t made for them, and they know it.