The most recent episode of Rotten Tomatoes’ new movie-review series, See It/Skip It, opened not with a rave, nor a thumbs-down, but a semi-apology. “We’ve seen the conversations online about the Justice League Tomatometer,” co-host Jacqueline Coley told her Facebook Watch audience, “and we get it: You guys are passionate about this film. But we hope everyone understands the only thing we’re trying to do is add context and conversation around the Tomatometer, and not just give a number.”
It was an odd, stilted start to what’s supposed to be a breezy movie-chat show (the phrase “context and conversation around the Tomatometer” sounds like something a drunken Babelfish bot might spit out). Yet it was an unavoidable one, given that Rotten Tomatoes, the review-aggregator-slash-Hollywood-agitator, had irked DC fans by withholding its Justice League score until Thursday night’s See It/Skip It premiere—even though a wave of reviews for the film had already been posted online. The move was ostensibly a ploy to get viewers to tune in for the show, yet others saw a greater villainy at work: Was Rotten Tomatoes, which is owned in part by Warner Bros., actually trying to shield the studio from an inevitably bad grade that could help kill its opening weekend?
The See It/Skip It pushback—which involved a lot of Tweet-screaming—was a reminder of just how controversial Justice League had become. Not Last Temptation of Christ-level controversial, mind you; this is a film in which one character sounds like Rockbiter while another sounds like Rockbiter with IBS, and in which everyone says the phrase “Mother Box” very gravely. There’s not much protest-worthy content in Justice League, save for Henry Cavill’s new digitally enhanced, stupor-man smile. But just as Justice League (the movie) brings together a bunch of outsiders for a single cause, Justice League (the event) assembles a raft of heated debate topics—from the vision of Zack Snyder to the power of Rotten Tomatoes to the conspiracy-needling coziness of corporate media—under one garish, hastily CGI’d umbrella. And with Justice League having earned a less-than-expected $96 million in its opening weekend, the lowest ever for a DCEU title, the movie will likely be seen as a Flash-point moment for DC movies as a whole.
First, though, a quick origin story: Justice League is the fourth DC movie to be released by Warner Bros. in just under two years, and a crucial one, as it reunites the company’s key franchise players (Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman) while also introducing a few big-screen up-and-comers (Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg). Such a marvelous team-up collates various storylines while also serving as an excuse to spin off even more solo adventures, which the studio will release every year for the next few years and/or decades, until we finally get to Denis Villeneuve’s four-hour Mxyzptlk: The IMAXyzptlk Experience (slated for spring 2039). With so many characters and plot points to support, Justice isn’t so much a narrative exercise as it is a $300 million infrastructure project.
But there’s another reason for all the pre-release pressure on Justice League: With the exception of this summer’s Wonder Woman, the previous DC entries have all earned disappointingly low scores on Rotten Tomatoes, which in recent years has become the scorn of studio heads and DC-boosters alike. One studio executive told the New York Times that it was his mission to “destroy” RT; Martin Scorsese declared the site had “nothing to do with real film criticism”; and Brett Ratner said this spring that RT was “the worst thing we have in the movie culture.”
Ratner himself would become a quickly vanquished catastrophe a few months later, but his frustration was likely due to the fact that his production company helped finance 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which had been brutally dinged by RT’s critics (its score as of today is a v v disappointing 27 percent). That summer’s Suicide Squad didn’t fare better (it’s now at 26 percent), and even 2013’s slightly well-regarded Man of Steel could only muster a mere 55 percent. All three movies were either directed and/or co-produced by Snyder, the tableau-larding, dudes-and-broods auteur whose work is ferociously debated online; depending upon what time of day it is on Twitter, his movies are regarded as either enthrallingly grown-up, or laughably melodramatic. (Snyder is also credited as director on Justice League, although he stepped away from filming after a family tragedy, and was replaced by Avengers helmer Joss Whedon.)
For some fans, the low scores felt like a referendum not only on Snyder’s work, but the DC Extended Universe franchise as a whole—so much so, a few defenders even began to speculate as to whether Rotten Tomatoes was manipulating the DCEU data (or, at the very least, grading the reviews on a much steeper curve than the Marvel films). Such theories filled message boards and Quora discussions, and there was even a Change.org petition to shut the site down that collected more than 23,000 signatures).
Considering how some DC obsessives have reacted to the films’ bad reviews—there have been death threats in the past—the conspiracy theory is actually a somewhat measured response. Yet there is no damning, X-on-the-bench-style clue-bonanza to pore over here, aside from the reviews themselves. There’s also little in the way of motive: Why would RT want to intentionally and repeatedly crucify a franchise–especially one maintained by Warner Bros., which has held various financial stakes in the company? If RT did hold DC films to a harsher standard than Marvel films, why would movie critics acquiesce to having their opinions misrepresented? And how would the site’s anomalous 92 percent critical score for Wonder Woman play into this supposed RT v DC secret war?
The simple answer to all of these questions is that the DC Extended Universe is, even its better moments, a wobbily constructed franchise-in-flux, and that the critics have responded accordingly. Yet it’s hard not to understand why so many DC fans look at these RT scores and feel as though they’re under attack, as well. In the social-media era, the lines between our personal lives and the pop-cultural ones have been erased, and the heroes we once adored and/or doodled in private have become literal public avatars. DC fans very much do not want these movies to suck, and when their very suckitude becomes a semi-objective truth—something that can be “proven” with a measurement like the Tomatometer—it can become the Mother Box of all insults. Even if the See It/Skip It ratings-ruse wasn’t some Warner Bros.-dictated corporate maneuver (as an RT spokesperson told the Chicago Tribune), dangling the verdict in front of fans, and putting off the inevitable, felt like a misuse of power.
Which may be why, by Monday morning, another Justice League score had begun to draw attention on Rotten Tomatoes: The movie’s audience score, which collected more than 100,000 votes, and is currently standing at 85 percent. Maybe those competing numbers speak to a larger divide, and that the critics who disliked Justice League are simply unaligned with the average moviegoer (a complaint that goes back decades now, and feels as pointless as ever). Perhaps there’s a minor DC-fan counter-rebellion underway, with some users amping up their score a to send RT a message (or to encourage others to see the movie for themselves). Or maybe the future of movie discussion will simply come down to a numbers game, one in which viewers stake out a position, find the stats that seem to back it up, and stick to their own league.