Batman v Superman triumphs: Do critics matter at the box office?
In the days leading up to its release this weekend, major critics tried to outdo each other by cooking up the most devastating ways to dismiss Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as a creatively bankrupt, corporately mandated cash grab searching fruitlessly for a coherent plot.
The New York Times’ A O Scott quipped that getting brained by a porcelain sink was more diverting than Batman v Superman,” the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern branded it “stupendously dispiriting” and Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf hoped that “…audiences will reject Zack Snyder’s lumbering, dead-on-arrival superhero melange”. Instead of serving as box office kryptonite, reviewers watched helplessly as Batman v Superman smashed records, racking up US$424.1 million (S$580.8 million) globally and ensuring that the Dark Knight, the Man of Steel and a cornucopia of DC Comics’ spandexed finest will be flooding screens for years to come. Despite scoring an anaemic 29 per cent “rotten” rating on critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the Warner Bros release scored the fourth-biggest global debut in history and the sixth-biggest domestic launch with US$170.1 million.
“There’s a real disconnect with what some critics wrote and how the fans are enjoying the film,” said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros distribution executive vice president. “It doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s just an enjoyable afternoon at the movies.”
The results are a devastating rebuke to the power of mainstream American critics at a time when many newspapers have already outsourced their reviews to wire services and the rise of bloggers has de-professionalised the practice of assessing a film’s attributes and demerits. In an age of declining newspaper and magazine subscriptions, getting a strong notice from a major reviewer may help smaller films like Spotlight or Brooklyn find success, but it does little for big-budget, special effects-driven spectacles. Featuring iconic characters like Batman, Bond or Iron Man, they arrive with what studios like to call “pre-awareness”.
There may be more to Batman v Superman’s success. In an era of popular discontent, when Donald Trump has amassed political capital by thumbing his nose at the status quo, the pile-up of establishment tastemakers may have even backfired.
“I think some of it was a backlash from the consumers to the critics,” said one exhibition industry executive.
It also is a testament to the enduring power of the Batman and Superman brands — the two title characters are firmly entwined in popular culture, having made their comic-book debuts before America entered World War II and appearing in 15 major films since 1978. The prospect of seeing the two biggest stars in the DC firmament clash on screen was too irresistible for audiences to pass up, regardless of what the Times or the Journal thought.
“Reviews don’t matter,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “The Batsuit and Superman’s cape are made of teflon.”
Nor could critics kill My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. The weekend’s other new release suffered a drubbing and an even worse 24 per cent “rotten” score, and still went on to debut to a solid US$18.1 million.
Given its impressive opening weekend numbers, it seems likely that Batman v Superman will eclipse the US$1 billion mark worldwide, more than justifying the US$250 million that Warner Bros spent to produce the film and the millions more it shelled out in marketing costs.
The drop-off in its second weekend could be steep, however. Batman v Superman is the only one of the top ten domestic debuts not to score a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it something of an outlier. Moreover, although its B CinemaScore signals that audiences like the film more than critics do, it’s not a rousing endorsement. Among films featuring the Caped Crusader or the Man of Steel, only Batman and Robin with a C+ and Superman IV with a C scored worse CinemaScore ratings, and both films fell flat at the box office. If word-of-mouth is tepid, Batman v Superman could end up making a disproportionate amount of its money over its opening weekend.
“Good reviews sustain a film in the lean weeks, in weeks four or five when it’s been out for awhile,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations.
The good news for Warner Bros is that by opening the film in March instead of the summer, the studio largely steered clear of major tentpole movies. The next blockbuster hopeful, Disney’s The Jungle Book, doesn’t hit theatres for two weeks, giving Batman v Superman a long runway to pad its gross unless audiences start agreeing with A O Scott en masse.
Despite the bad notices, the studio appears to be plunging ahead with the creative brain trust behind the DC Comics films. Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder will oversee the next two Justice League movies with scripts by Chris Terrio, the co-writer of the latest superhero mashup. Both men have a track record of success, but going forward they may need to recalibrate their artistic rhythms. Perhaps freed from the awesome task of having to launch a sprawling cinematic universe and set up interconnected sequels and spinoffs in the course of a two and a half hour film, they will be able to find fresh ways to appeal to both fanboys and reviewers.
Then again, at a time when geek culture is dominant, and the influence of film criticism is more diffuse and less relevant, it may not matter.
“Superhero films are bulletproof,” said Bock. “The next Avengers movie could be awful and it will still open to US$200 million. It doesn’t matter what the final product is. People love to go to these films.”