Wow! What a miss. Movie critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave Suicide Squad a mere 26 percent rating, while audiences rated it a 74 percent on the same site. Most importantly, the film exploded at the box office with $135 million on its opening domestic weekend.
You would think it is humiliating to harangue a film then to see it soar at the box office. It seems that many film critics just don't understand or appreciate films with mass appeal. More on that later.
Suicide Squad exhibited all the signs of a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. It had a unique concept (i.e. what happens in a post-Superman world), an engaging storyline that has worked well in the past (i.e. criminals are recruited by the government to destroy a great evil), unique and well-defined characters with intense emotional needs (e.g. Deadshot craves love and respect from his daughter, while crazy Harley Quinn is humanized by her love with the equally insane Joker), well-defined character goals (i.e. win or die), a popular cast with sex appeal (e.g. Will Smith, Margot Robbie), an artful and believable world with edgy humor and comic book violence, and an alignment with several trends (i.e. the sustained audience interest in superhero franchises, the growing appeal of characters with sarcastic, edgy personas, and audience contemporary affection for multi-dimensional, sympathetic villains).
And because Suicide Squad was rated PG-13, the studio doubled the potential size of its audience by taking a juvenile, comic book idea and making it edgy enough for adults, too. If it had used an abundance of bloodshed and foul language, like that used in the film Kick-Ass which netted an R rating, it would have greatly diminished Suicide Squad's potential. PG-13 was a smart move.
That's a win, win, win for Suicide Squad in today's entertainment environment in which 5 percent of films account for nearly all studio profits. Plus Suicide Squad has added money-making potential in downstream venues, sequels, and merchandise sales. Is the film flawless? No, but audiences, who vote with their dollars more than critics do, clearly demonstrated that the film's strengths overwhelmed any weaknesses.
So what's the deal with critics? While some claim that the critics have a built-in bias against DC Comics in favor of Marvel, there's a deeper issue, I suspect. Many critics simply either do not understand or fully appreciate the appeal of contemporary blockbusters. Yes, sometimes the critics' opinions do reflect audience tastes. That happened this year with five of the biggest blockbusters thus far, each of which did over $300 million domestically (i.e. Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, The Jungle Book, and Zootopia). Critics of Rotten Tomatoes gave them a rating of 94 percent, 90 percent, 84 percent, 94 percent, and 98 percent, respectively.
But there are many mismatches. Batman v Superman had a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 27 percent, whereas domestic box office was $330 million. I had my own issues with the storyline, but the concept of Batman battling Superman clearly overwhelmed the negatives in the minds of audiences everywhere. Critics gave The Angry Birds Movie a mere 43 percent rating whereas it did $107 million domestically and $238 million foreign for a total of $345 million worldwide.
So what are the kinds of films that critics tend to like? If you take the top 100 films at the box office thus far this year and compare No. 1 through No. 25 as a group to those numbering No. 76 to No. 100, an interesting relationship emerges. The top 25 box office films as of August 5th (Suicide Squad excluded) have an average Rotten Tomatoes critic rating of 58.5 percent and a domestic box office of between $63 million and $471 million. But the 25 films at the bottom of the list have a higher Rotten Tomatoes rating of 68.5 percent even though their domestic box office is a paltry $3 million to $9 million.
Clearly, many critics prefer niche, actor-driven films over big, crowd-pleasing blockbusters. This is not all that new. They are captivated by social and political concepts such as Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next ($3.8 million domestic B.O./79 percent Rotten Tomatoes critic rating), famous producers selling ideas about Hollywood itself such as Woody Allen's Cafe Society ($5.5 million domestic B.O./70 percent critic rating), and beloved actors in quirky roles such as Colin Farrell in The Lobster ($8.9 million domestic B.O./90 percent critic rating) and Sally Field in Hello, My Name is Doris ($14.4 million domestic B.O./83 percent critic rating).
With an affinity for smaller films, many critics seem to begin a review by looking for what's working well. But with big films supported by big budgets, it seems that many critics begin by looking for what's not working well. They tend to find what they are looking for.
What can we learn from this? Most critics are dreadfully terrible barometers of mass audience tastes, and thus they are bad predictors of box office results (I've been guilty of this, too). While consumers with narrow tastes might align well with certain critics' tastes, the masses are best off ignoring critics' opinions completely. And that when critics' opinions do not align with box office results for big films, it's often not the case that critics are bias against a particular franchise. Rather, it's probably the case that many are bias against blockbusters in general. That has always struck me as odd, especially since if it were not for blockbusters, the entire entertainment industry would collapse, little or no money would be available to fund small independent films, and most critics would be out of a job alongside studio executives.
Critics need to show a little more respect for Suicide Squad.