To: Stephanie Zacharek
From: Alan Scherstuhl

Agreed on all of that. It seems like, once in a while, an argument has to be made for criticism itself. Now, if you don't mind me acting like the NRA, I'm about to change the subject and blame video games. Some of that comic-book film audience seems to take the reviews personally, like the guys--yes, I'll stereotype and say "guys"--who monitor the Tomatometer before a Batman movie comes out, ready to denounce the first negative review as heretical.

I suspect this has something to do with the only other reviews in our media culture read by millions: the reviews of new video games, which certainly have a crossover audience with those Batman fans. The reviews of major new games on the major websites are always wildly enthusiastic, entirely entranced with the newest and most technologically advanced iteration of each franchise. There's always a numeric score, a 4 out of 5 or a 95 percent, and for years that score was arrived at by crunching together the scores of the game's individual elements: graphics, sound, the fluidity of the controls, and the like.

Zacharek and Scherstuhl.
Zacharek and Scherstuhl.


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While there are smart outliers, this consumer-guide, product-oriented Stereo Review-style approach has created among many fans a sense of the reviews as somehow objective, the product of provable math rather than subjective aesthetic responses. That's especially true when the review scores are collected together at Metacritic. There, as at Rotten Tomatoes, the reviewer whose stubborn personal review goes against the mathematical tide is something like a global-warming skeptic--not just wrong, but willfully so, maybe in denial or actually being paid off.

All of this is a longwinded way to say that, to the video game nation, what you and I see as serious problems with Iron Man 3 might instead just be minor bugs. Reviewed as game, the movie excels in almost all its key categories:

Action: There are more Iron Men suits than all other Iron Man movies combined! 10/10

Fun: Robert Downey Jr. calls that kid a pussy! 10/10

Suspense: The magma-people keep reaching for his heart! Also, that fight in the bar is super tense! 10/10

FX: Clang clang boom boom! That house takes forever to get nuked, and it looks absolutely photo-real! 10/10

Character: Tony Stark goes through the same stuff he always does. 7/10

Add those up to 47, convert to a percentile and we have 94, and now we all know Iron Man 3 is a solid A, despite its relentlessness, its plotholes, its familiarity, its elevation of shtick over feeling. (And I mostly liked the movie!)

This, to me, is why reviewers like you remain so vital, Stephanie. This is an old fight, of course. Does it seem to you a losing one?

To: Alan Scherstuhl
From: Stephanie Zacharek

Words like "consumer-guide" and "product-oriented" hit like the buzzers and bells in a pinball machine (to the extent that those even exist in our cultural consciousness anymore). Some moviegoers do seem to believe that film criticism should serve that purpose.

I know some very smart, discriminating, engaged movie people--and even some filmmakers--who love video games, and I don't think the two passions necessarily cancel each other out. I don't play video games at all, but I remember watching a friend play a new one, and he pointed out some really inventive use of perspective, and explained certain kinds of video-game logic, where if you do X, then Y will probably happen, but you may get Z, and then what? Admittedly, he was probably trying to justify how excited he was at having a new game to monkey around with. Even so, I'm kind of intrigued by the idea of writing about video games as you'd write about movies or music--about making an argument or sharpening a point of view in a shaped piece of writing. The New York Times does this pretty well.

But as you've alluded, that kind of video-game-style coverage isn't the norm. Plus, no one could ever convince me that the world of video games is as rich as the world of movies. I'm cautious about trying to see a specific film "from the other side"--in other words, to study the reasons other people love, say, The Dark Knight, and I don't, as if I were Margaret Mead studying a strange tribe or something. But you're onto something with your Iron Man 3 breakdown. Of course, subconsciously, we all have our little checklists. My husband took his dad to see Blue Velvet when it came out and afterward wasn't quite sure if he liked it, so he asked him outright. His dad's face lit up: "It's got violence, it's got romance, it's got really sick sex! What's not to love?" Sometimes an internal checklist can help you define what you respond to in a movie.

But by breaking down the components of Iron Man 3's thrills, you really touched on something: A movie can have a whole bunch of desirable qualities--and I think Iron Man 3 does have some pretty cool stuff in it, like that army of flying Iron Men--but do they connect in a way that's emotionally meaningful or affecting, beyond being really cool? Or maybe "being really cool" is enough? But, see, that's a response to comic-book movies that I really don't understand. When a friend saw The Avengers, he tried to explain to me why he loved it so much: "These are characters I've loved since I was four years old, and there they were, all onscreen together, in a way that felt real and true." I totally understand having that kind of connection with characters--why wouldn't we respond to superheroes? There's something inherently compelling about these people who can pull off amazing feats and yet have their limitations, their neuroses, their really bad moods, just like us.

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Rather surprised your own Michael Atkinson is not included in this discussion, inasmuch as he wrote (for me) the definitive screed on his blog Zero for Conduct  against superheroic filmmaking in 2008:

"Superheroes are, essentially by definition, idiotic confections intended for children, and the fact that I can’t escape them as an adult so far this millennium makes my blood’s gotten to the point that superheroes comprise the substantial percentage of movie options we have now, in one form or another, and to avoid them as a grown-up you’d have to avoid cinema"

Et, you may be certain, cetera:


THANK YOU. This zeroes in on what I think film criticism must be and on what so many people wrongfully believe it is. 


Great article. I love the give-and-take between two film critics who are trying to stay true to themselves while considering movie-goers expectations and desires respectfully.

For years I've been arguing with people who say "I didn't really like 'Jurassic Park'; the story was too incredible" or "Independence Day" was just so over-the-top unbelievable and, oh, by the way, all the computer virus references in the movie are totally wrong!"

I always had the same response: "What do you expect from a movie about "ALIENS attacking the Earth?' It's just a big comic-book up on the screen."

For too long I've run into people and read reviews that take great pride in their ability to trash a movie based on their own subjective expectations by pointing out the plot in "X-files" is not believable  Oh, really? Wow, you're so deep.  While I do expect a film review to be objective and subjective at the same time (I can dream, can't I?) I also think that look for deep subtext in the Simpsons or Iron Man 3 is missing the point.

It's a big giant comic book up there on the screen. You either like comic book stories or you don't. 

Just like you either like historical fantasy pieces like Game of Thrones or you don't. Don't waste my time quibbling about how something isn't "real enough".


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