Since the dawn of humanity, long before there were even words to describe the two groups, there has been a rift between audiences and critics, a deepening chasm which can never be traversed and can even more rarely be empathized across. Ever since an early hunter elicited cheers from his fellow tribe members by smashing a squirrel with a club only to look over at a fellow hunter smugly critiquing his squirrel-smashing form with an eyebrow raised in a “meh”-shaped arc, the value of work (especially work of a creative nature) has been judged differently by two groups who are looking for very different things. One group is more concerned with the technical aspects of an efficient, artful club swing, while the other is more interested in the finished product of delicious squirrel innards oozing out onto the ground.
Although, to say that critics are only interested in form and technique, while audiences are only looking for flashy spectacle is reductive and somewhat misleading. Most critics and audience members alike fall somewhere in the middle of the technique/spectacle spectrum, even though the two groups do tend to stick closer to their respective side. However, whether or not a movie is “good” is so subjective, it’s difficult to discern whether it’s critics or audiences that truly have the upper hand in determining movie quality. Critics tend to love some unwatchable tripe and regular audience members often seek out well-crafted, nuanced, and even cerebral fare.
Not all audiences are looking for mindless, over-indulgent spectacle all the time, but the overall tendency for some of that explains the success of meaningless explosion movies like the Transformers series, crap movies that pander to a large demographic like the Atlas Shrugged movies, God’s Not Dead, or The Passion of the Christ, and idiotic comedies like the Scary Movie series and Grown Ups 2. Actually, Adam Sandler’s still-kicking career can be chalked up to audiences’ desire for mindless escapism (Punch-Drunk Love‘s still the bomb, though). It can’t be denied that, despite the stuffiness and condescension of some critics’ choices, general audiences can make a financial success out of some absolute, unmitigated McG-style schlock. However, it also can’t go unappreciated that on occasion audiences are able to see something that critics can’t see, as was the case with movies like The Boondock Saints, Fight Club, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Critics can also cuddle up to some boring snoozefests, at times. Despite their training and expertise on what makes a movie good, they sometimes praise movies like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Magic Mike, and Ang Lee’s Hulk. More often than not, though, they catch great movies that go unappreciated by the larger public, movies like Darkman, Killing Them Softly, and Haywire. Like it or not, critics serve a necessary function by understanding and examining film in a way that most people cannot. Sure, movies are subjective, but as students of film, critics can often provide an enlightening take on movies by considering more technical aspects, such as plotting, pacing, writing, character development, and historical and societal context.
Perhaps some of the increasing distrust and disdain for critics can be attributed to, or at least acknowledged as running parallel to, a larger trend of anti-intellectualism in American society. It is absolutely fine to enjoy a movie that might be more generally accepted as “bad.” In the past, it seems that moviegoers were more satisfied in their own experience and didn’t need the approval or agreement of critics to validate their feelings (or, more likely, the distance between moviegoers and critics has recently been shortened by the shrinking ray that is the internet and social media). Currently, it seems as though some moviegoers share a mistaken belief with many in the political realm that their opinion, however uninformed or fallacious, must be accepted as being just as relevant as the opinions of experts who have committed a large amount of time and attention to the mastery of their specific area of expertise, in this case, movies.
The problem with the assertion that everyone’s “truth” is equally valid is that, carried to its logical conclusion, it reduces the whole of reality into an indecipherable muddle of subjectivity. For instance, it is perfectly fine to ignore the wealth of information proving the existence of evolution and to choose to disbelieve it, but to stand in the face of monumental medical and technological achievements and obstinately assert your ignorance by insisting that evolution shouldn’t be taught in schools, is another thing altogether. Obviously, the answer to whether or not a movie is good will rarely be as definite as the existence of evolution, but there is a basis of knowledge that will help in accurately recognizing either one.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a great example of a movie that was truly enjoyed by many fans. It was visually striking at times, some of the performances were intriguing, and it was just cool to finally see Batman and Superman on the big screen together. However (and that’s an enormous however), looking through the most objective lens possible, it’s hard to argue that BvS wasn’t bloated, poorly paced, and aimless at times. That BvS wasn’t a great movie is less of an opinion and more of a demonstrable fact. That’s not to say that anyone is wrong for enjoying the experience of the movie; it’s just that by using any sort of common metrics of movie quality, it’s hard to make a case that it wasn’t lacking.
Perhaps what is needed to smooth the rough edges that sometimes scrape and scratch when critics and audiences rub against one another is some common understanding and perspective. Perhaps audiences should be respectful of the expertise of truly learned critics, even if they don’t share the conclusions drawn by them. And perhaps critics should recognize that just because a movie hits their checklist in the right way doesn’t necessarily make it an exciting or enjoyable film. However, the main thing that should be recognized in order to forge a better relationship between critics and audiences is that everyone makes mistakes and is just wrong sometimes. After all, critics originally panned The Warriors, but have since redeemed themselves by realizing the greatness in the oft-mocked and sorely underrated Sharknado.