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A Critical Failure? Contrasting Critics and Audiences

Siddharth Pillai reflects on the split between audience and critics after Venom

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When the much-anticipated Venom had its review embargo lifted just a few days before its release in early October, fans were disappointed to hear critics dismiss it as an unsurprisingly bland, throwaway film. Or were they? Against all odds, the poorly received Tom Hardy spectacle actually achieved a massive opening weekend of over $80 million, breaking the record for the month of October. And despite only having a critic score of 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, Venom was much better reviewed by the general public, with it currently holding an audience score of 88%. So why is there such a disparity between critics’ and audience’s tastes? Does it make critic reviews unreliable? Should we turn to audience reviews instead?

When most people think of film critics, they think of pretentious, old white men who give scathing reviews to any film that isn’t a drama. And in many ways, this stereotype is true. Dramas tend to do much better with critics than any other genre of film, with seven of the past ten Best Picture Oscar winners being partly or wholly dramas. This can give them a head start with audiences too, whilst comedies, horror/thrillers and fantasy films are left trailing behind. To understand why this happens, we have to look deeper into the nature of the film critic. Critics are highly trained professionals who have studied film for years, and so, like most aspects of culture, have developed their own tastes and opinions about different types of films. Since it is essentially their job to watch movies and review them, they study all their aspects, including the script, score, cinematography and much more. They take everything into consideration in their reviews. Film studies is fundamentally a form of literary criticism and art theory, and so it comes with a set of disciplines that are to be followed.

‘there are some definite characteristics of critic reviews that need to be acknowledged by the film journalism industry as admittedly selective, but this should not result in an outright disapproval of them’

The average moviegoer, on the other hand, simply wishes to be entertained. Unlike critics, they view films as spectacles – something to enjoy and pass the time. Since they aren’t required to study all aspects of them and review it afterwards, there is no standardised audience ‘culture’ – everyone has their personal preferences. Many members of the general public may simply watch a movie if an actor they like is in it, and not even consider anything else about it, which is something the nature of being a critic prevents. To a Marvel fan, a standalone Venom movie itself would be enough reason to go see it, due to the popularity of the character in the comic books and large fanbase. Critics, on the other hand, usually disregard ‘hype’ for a certain aspect of a film, whether it’s about a popular anti-hero or stars Tom Hardy, and instead do a comprehensive assessment of it as a whole. But despite the all-inclusive nature of their reviewing process, what critics like is usually determined by set disciplines, making films that do well critically a very exclusive club. This isn’t to say that critics always hate what audiences love. In many cases both parties like or dislike the same films and live in harmony. Sometimes critics may positively review a film that audiences found poor, such as 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which had the biggest Rotten Tomatoes critic-audience split (93% critics vs 56% audience).

In any case, there are some definite characteristics of critic reviews that need to be acknowledged by the film journalism industry as admittedly selective, but this should not result in an outright disapproval of them. Critics, despite their tendency to favour more high-brow films over others, should ultimately be respected for their ability to look at all the diverse elements of films and summarise them into concise reviews. But due to the very subjective nature of films and people’s different tastes, audience reviews are just as important to consider before deciding whether or not to watch a film.

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