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Film Critics v Fans: The Fallout From Suicide Squad

Picture of Cassam Looch
Film Editor
Updated: 5 August 2016
Suicide Squad is the latest in a growing number of films that has pitted critics against fans. Early word-of-mouth and reviews attacking Warner Bros.’ new tentpole blockbuster has led to petitions demanding the shutting down of review-aggregating websites such as Rotten Tomatoes. But are journos out of touch with the wider public, or is there something more serious going on in the world of film journalism?

By now you’ll have probably read the overwhelmingly damning reviews of Suicide Squad. Billed as the film that would resurrect the faltering DC Comics’ cinema universe – following the negative reactions to the spring’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – director David Ayer’s take on comic book supervillains has been hammered by the critics.

Following a slew of reviews at precisely 5pm Tuesday, when the embargo on the film was lifted by the studio, fans have been reacting angrily to the professionals’ opinions.

One outcome was a petition to shut down reviews aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, a protest that accrued almost 17,000 signatures before the creator of the petition withdrew his call to action.

It’s the latest example of critics finding themselves out of sync with fans. Earlier this year, Sony’s Ghostbusters reboot garnered middling praise in movie publications, even though fans were furious with the film itself as well as reviewers who liked the movie. The toxic reaction to the new Ghostbusters took many observers by surprise, but the ‘critics vs fans’ division has been building for many years.

When Captain America: Civil War was released in April this year, Marvel was accused of “buying” positive reviews, a ridiculous claim that has since been widely debunked. Most fans remain convinced, however, that something more sinister is going on behind the scenes. So just what is happening?

Battle lines are drawn. Captain America (Marvel/Disney)
Battle lines are drawn in Captain America | © Marvel/Disney

For critics, embargoes and last-minute press screenings prior to a film’s release will always set alarm bells ringing. Suicide Squad was held back from most critics until the evening before it opened, though select reviews had already been widely shared online. These early opinions will have come from journalists who covered the various premieres of the movie or those who interviewed the talent at junkets. The studios usually, although not always, require that any journalist who is allowed to speak to the stars has seen the movie in question beforehand.

An even smaller group of elite critics, at least in the UK, are those who write for national publications. They too will also have seen the film at earlier screenings and it is the reviews from these outlets that usually appear first.

Each film has its own screening schedule. There are long-lead, multimedia, ‘special presentations’, family galas, and a raft of other titles given to the different types of press previews. As a rule of thumb, though, the earlier the screening, the more confident the studio is in its product. Cinema exhibitors (the people who decide what will show at your local theatre) and censors (who hand out the all-important film certifications) also see movies early.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Karen Fukuhara, Jai Corntney, Margot Robbie, Laura Whitmore, Jared Leto, Will Smith, Cara Delevingne, Joel Kinnaman, David Ayer and Jay Hernandez attend the European Premiere of 'Suicide Squad' at London's Leicester Square. 3 August 2016
The movie’s cast attend the European premiere of ‘Suicide Squad’ at London’s Leicester Square, 3 August 2016 | © Warner Bros.

There are exceptions to this rule. Horror films tend not to be screened at all. The Twilight sequels were also released with very limited pre-release previews since conventional wisdom dictates that these genre films are virtually critic-proof. Fans will see them regardless of what journalists think of them.

Critics and fans alike have been excited about Suicide Squad for over a year. Not only was there an early trailer to dissect after San Diego’s Comic-Con in 2015, but there has also been considerable hype about every major star cast in the project since the film was announced. The reviewers and writers that covered these previous announcements are among those now critiquing it. For obvious reasons, studios need film journalists to talk about their work.

It’s an even more pressing necessity for smaller films. With so many titles released every year from all corners of the globe, and commercial clout still in the hands of the big studios, getting eyes on more independent projects is a difficult task.

Ghostbusters (Sony)
Ghostbusters | © Sony

Most critics will readily admit that they want to get the word out about great films and are generally loathe to dismiss releases they don’t like. But fans have become increasingly convinced that the opposite is true. The schism between critics and the public has always existed but has become more vitriolic with the advancement of the Internet.

With an ever-burgeoning number of superhero films released each year, the feud between readers of Marvel and DC Comics has made them extra sensitive to critical slights on their favourites. Woe betide the reviewer who shows bias toward movies from the opposition’s camp!

For studios, navigating these choppy waters has become fraught with all kinds of danger. Getting the “right” reaction to advance previews of a great film is not an exact science: Too early and excitement dies down before the general release of a movie, too late and they run the risk of limited awareness for a film potentially harming box-office returns.

And that is, after all, the bottom line. Even if Suicide Squad is the turkey some claim it to be, fans can turn it into a success by buying tickets. Let’s not forget those cinemagoers who avoid all reviews, couldn’t care less about online opinions, and just take a punt on whatever takes their fancy on a Saturday night.

Suicide Squad is on general release now