Give ‘Em Elle: Creators, Critics, and the Supposed Gulf In Between
Welcome to Give ‘Em Elle, a new weekly column that hopes to bridge the gap between old school comics fandom and the progressive edge of comics culture. This week I’ve been thinking about creators and critics, two groups that are often pitted against one another in the arena of discourse, as though they’re mortal enemies who can never see eye-to-eye, never reconcile.
It was this tweet that got me started thinking about the question. Obviously I can’t claim objectivity in this discussion. I am a critic by occupation and by training, and perhaps by nature. When I say training, I mean that very specifically. I have a Master’s Degree in Film Theory and Criticism. This is not me bragging --- it’s not a particularly prestigious or useful degree. I’m just pointing out that criticism isn’t something I just fell into by accident. Maybe the fact that I mostly write about comics instead of film is kind of an accident, but it’s a happy one, since I’ve loved comics my whole life. But regardless of subject matter, being a critic is something I love, not something I do because I failed at something else.
If I sound defensive, it’s because I so often see critics dismissed and caricatured as bitter, joyless people who want artists to fail. A recent example of this stereotype is in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s superhero-adjacent 2014 film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), in which the theatre critic played by Lindsay Duncan bitterly tells Michael Keaton, “I’m going to kill your play.”
Keaton responds by asking, “What has to happen in a person’s life for them to become a critic?” and then launches into a rant about how the critic only labels things and is unable to recognize the beauty of a flower.
When the movie was released, and many critics questioned the relationship of this scene and character to the behavior of any actual critic who has ever existed, the common response was that the entire movie depicts the world through the eyes of Keaton’s inarguably delusional character, so who knows if the encounter even “really” happened. But whether it depicts objective reality or not, it’s hard not to believe that Iñárritu is expressing some real feelings he has about critics.
Another recent flap about the role of critics began earlier this year when Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice received overwhelmingly negative reviews and had a spectacularly good opening weekend box office. The message trumpeted all across the internet was “Critics don’t matter.” It’s not as if this was the first time a film made money despite critical opinion (witness the entire Transformers franchise), but the anti-critic rhetoric was really stepped up this time around.
“The results are a devastating rebuke to the power of mainstream American critics,” wrote Brent Lang in Variety, regarding the film’s initial financial success.
However, it shouldn’t even need to be said that the role of the critic has never been to convince people not to see movies. I can’t necessarily say the reverse; sometimes a great movie is flying under the radar, and film critics will take it upon themselves to champion it. But trying to shoot down blockbusters has never been a worthwhile or rewarding occupation.
I’m sure there are people writing capsule reviews for print publications and mainstream web sites who are told that their job is to quickly let people know whether or not they should see a movie, and that’s what they do because they’re happy to have a paying job writing about movies. But the role of a critic is bigger, grander, and less cynical than that.
The role of the critic is to bring something to the table. To come at a work of art with knowledge of similar works, and to offer a perspective that enriches and gives context. The role of the critic is never to take something away from someone else’s creation; it’s always to add. That’s not to say there’s no such thing as a negative review; of course there is. But even a negative review should be adding insight about what doesn’t work, or what could have made a project more successful.
And yes, sometimes it falls on the critic to point out problems that some might prefer to ignore. Problems like whitewashing, LGBTQ erasure, or lack of agency for female characters. Sometimes all of these things, in all sorts of combinations. Some works are built on tropes that ought to have been left behind decades ago, and it’s the role of the critic to point that out. But even then, it’s not about hating the work, and certainly not about hating the medium or genre. It’s about wanting things to be better, and working toward a world in which they can be.
And look, I get it. Sometimes, as a fan, you just want to sit back and enjoy the thing you love --- movie or comic book or whatever --- and it can feel like critics want to kill your buzz. We want you to think about the thing you’re consuming, to realize that it might have problems that you’d rather ignore. This is what makes critics so easy to resent. And there’s a place for that mindless enjoyment. I also like to relax in front of whatever dumb show is on TV, or find the worst horror movie on Amazon Prime. Of course, I sometimes find myself engaging with those things critically, but for me that can be part of the fun.
But the point is, critics still have a roll to play in pop culture, even if there might be a time to tune them out. And to be sure, it’s not just about admonishment and dismissal. A critical essay or review can strengthen your appreciation of an already great work. It can show you a side of something you might have missed and deepen your understanding. The work of a great critic can be a thing of beauty in its own right.
I’m not calling myself a great critic, but I aspire to be one. And I find myself baffled when these discussions pop up about “critics vs. creators,” because critics are creators. At its best, criticism is an art in its own right, and this idea that critics “don’t make anything” is frustrating. How can you look at the life of Roger Ebert and say that he didn’t make anything? (Or, for that matter, that the only thing he made was the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?)
I won’t deny that there are critics who sometimes feel bitter. After all, who doesn’t? But it’s time to do away with the notion that bitterness is the origin of criticism. The origin of criticism, if it can be summed up briefly, is in the appreciation of culture and the desire to look deeper. If you’re not interested in what critics have to say, that’s your right (and in my opinion, your loss). But let go of the idea that there’s a war on. If we didn’t love the same stuff you love, we wouldn’t be looking so closely at it.