As The Dark Knight Rises hits theatres this week, critics posting negative reviews of the Batman film have been flooded with a wave of online abuse and threats sent by fans.I find this pretty bizarre, and the story made me wonder... what's going on here?
The final instalment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which officially opens in theatres Friday, is one of the year's most anticipated films.
U.S. online film critic Marshall Fine offered the first negative appraisal of the comic-inspired tale on his site Hollywood & Fine and via the popular movie-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
As expected, fans raised a furor in the comments section. Although most were negative, some commenters went so far as to vow to take down his website, while others threatened violence against him — including beating him into a coma or setting him on fire.
Fine, the critic, may well be right. He is quoted as saying:
This is what they live for, so to have somebody say 'This isn't good,' they take it personally. To them it's a slap in the face. It's not just that I said 'I don't like this movie.' They hear that as 'I don't like this movie and if you do, there's something wrong with you.' They take it personally and they respond emotionally.For so many people, I am what I consume. If you don't like what I buy - the movies I watch, the games I play, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear - you don't like me. Not only don't you like me, you've dissed me, you've put me down.
This thinnest of skins, most fragile of egos, combined with obsessive materialism, is what leads to shootings over a pair of sneakers or drivers running people down over a scratched car - a violent episode erupting over some perceived slight. The glove has been thrown down and you must represent.
Naturally, these outraged fans haven't even seen the movie themselves. Their comical anger mirrors the right-wing protests that inevitably accompany a movie with religious themes. Facts? We don't need no stinking facts! This movie will be great (or offensive) and don't you say otherwise!
Another theme at play, obviously, is troll behaviour, people unleashing their inner nastiness as they hide behind the curtain of online anonymity. The trolls and their vitriol pollute our online interactions like roadside litter on the information highway. We all know about this and deal with it all the time. I wish all the news and information websites would close their interactive features, but that will never happen, as long as clicks sell advertising.
Then there's the anti-intellectual strain of popular culture, on full display in comments on the CBC story (and likely any story on this subject). These folks proclaim a perverse brand of egalitarianism: we all know the same things. "What do critics know? Usually whatever they hate, regular people like!" "Critics are stupid. That is only one man's opinion!"
In a literal sense, of course, that's true: a review is one person's opinion. But the person is - or at least is supposed to be - a student of the genre they're reviewing, someone who spends a huge amount of time learning about and analyzing the art form. A critic is supposed to bring a broader perspective to the table, telling us not just "I like this," but "This is good and here's why, and here are some things it might have done better". They're supposed to offer analysis, place the work in context, measure it against other similar pieces. Although we often disagree with reviews, there are presumably reviewers that we recognize as reliable authorities, whether or not our tastes always jive with theirs.
The anti-critic comments are part of the general rejection of expertise - a denial of the very concept of authority, or at least a misunderstanding of what authority is. (I wrote about this here, in relation to online question-and-answer sites.) Experts exist. There are people who have spent a great deal of their life studying a particular subject, and so, their views on that subject are more informed, and should carry more weight, than the views of someone whose sole knowledge is as a casual, non-critical consumer.
Naturally no opinion is sacrosanct. (Neither is any movie!) Often people with great authority are also highly biased, and are sought out for exactly that reason. We see this all the time in the mainstream media: bank CEOs are asked for their economic prescriptions, former generals are asked if a war is worth fighting. So of course we must question any authority's motives and interests, and never accept a resume in lieu of an argument.
But with all these important caveats, authority and expertise do exist. Bad movies exist, too, but that's another story.