In terms of film-going, alienation can be a pleasurable experience. Admittedly, when it comes to genre properties I am rarely out of my depth. Like many filmgoers, I live and breathe nerd culture and thus feel comfortably immersed within the adaptations of these properties. Last week I attended a pre-screening of Duncan Jones’s Warcraft, and twenty minutes in I came to an awesome realization: I am fucking out of my depth. Sure I knew the fantasy genre, but Warcraft, with its hundreds of names, cities, creatures, and backstories, was a mystery to me. In those first 20 minutes, I realized I knew nothing. Even though some of the imagery was familiar, Warcraft was hurling me into a universe I had no grasp on. I was lost, and because of that, I provided myself with the opportunity to buy into this world Jones created, to hang on to every word of dialogue, to try to remember names and places, mumbo-jumbo they may be. I could tell you that I completely understood every plot point when I left the film, that I went home and read up on the Easter Eggs, and purchased a couple Warcraft games, but that would be a lie. My lack of interest in ironing out these plot points or purchasing related-media isn’t because Jones made a poor film. Duncan Jones made a film so insular to Warcraft and table-top gaming fans that I can hardly believe it got made. He made something for himself and for millions of fans who, given this past weekend’s box office take, seem to reside primarily in China. I allowed myself to find pleasure in a film that didn’t cater to my knowledge base, a film that alienated me despite my genre leanings, a film that most certainly wasn’t made for me but could enchant me regardless, because it reminded me of my own ignorance.
There’s a belief within our media consumership that access equates ownership. If we can see a movie, then that movie is in its very nature for us. We, on our comfortable couch cushions or theater seats with arm rests that never cooperate the way we want them to, sit like some wide and diverse pantheon waiting to judge that which is delivered to us. A film’s crew, actors, screenwriters, and directors are each subject to the praise and criticism that comes with any offering. We, as audience, and critics by our very nature of being audience members, have the power to accept these offerings and raise them to new heights or to decimate them entirely if they should seem unworthy of our expectations. This year, more notably than any other, movies have become seen not as a gift but as something we’re owed, products that must meet our demands and not those of the filmmaker. Our judgment, which is always defined by the most popular critical reaction, tends to vacillate wildly between the extremes of the greatest and the worst. The fallout from this judgment has created a divide. Despite what some bloggers would have us believe, this divide isn’t between fans and critics. The divide lies between those who would come down from their pedestal and meet a film on its own terms, and those who refuse to do anything but sit and let a film happen to them, expecting it to meet them on their preconceived terms. There’s a divide within the audience, the viewing body that contains fan, critic, and average moviegoer alike. We’ve seen a slew of movies this year that haven’t been easy on audience expectations: The Witch, Hardcore Henry, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Nice Guys, X-Men: Apocalypse, and, most recently, Warcraft. Each of these films have faced the fallout of their decision to buck the current trends and suffered either financially or critically. Yet these films, in this writer’s opinion, stand as some of the most exciting films of the year because they challenge the presupposed notions of the specific nature of their respective genres and the timeliness of current trends. These films ask something of us, to shift our role as critics and engage differently, and will leave behind those who refuse.
When it comes to criticism this year, two quotes have stuck out to me more than any other. After the controversy surrounding Captain America’s HYDRA ties in the character’s most recent run, Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort told Newsarama, “Not every story is for every reader.” Earlier this year, Director Zack Snyder appeared on the Hall of Justice podcast, and while discussing the controversy surrounding Man of Steel, he offered this further controversial nugget: “If you’re a comic fan, you know that I didn’t change Superman. If you know the true canon, you know that I didn’t change Superman.” Brevoort’s statement didn’t quell the controversy with the issue’s writer Nick Spencer receiving death threats, and Zack Snyder further enraged his detractors, leading many to dismiss Batman v Superman prior to its release. Notice how neither quote forbids the viewer from disliking the product. It merely makes statements related to those products while still allowing criticism. These two quotes, one dismissed as if apropos to nothing, and the other adding fuel to an already raging bonfire, have stuck with me. Gatekeeping is what many called Snyder’s statement, a means of protecting himself from supposedly valid criticism by appealing to the “true fan” and thus insinuating that those who did not agree with his take were not true fans. Brevoort’s comments viewed in the same regard can be seen as a way of gatekeeping readers who have been fans of Captain America for years. Yes, the worst offense in our pop-culture driven sphere is to deny trophies to everyone, to suggest that some are less qualified and willing than others to appreciate a certain product, and more outrageous is the notion that it may be because of their knowledge or lack thereof of that particular property. But Brevoort and Snyder raise an important point: Gates do exist. Yet we feel threatened by this very idea. Being outside of a gate doesn’t make us dumb (which we’re all so afraid of publicly being), but simply means that this specific film has exclusivity interests and will appeal to a certain person, or those with a certain background that they bring with them to the film. This gate isn’t something confined to blockbusters either. Independent film is filled with examples that cater towards a certain demographic. (Is there anything more alienating to the average viewer than a mumble-core film?) Every time we watch a film that focuses on areas outside our race, religion, gender, sexuality, or culture we are faced with a gate. Yet, in this era of inclusivity and social justice, we’re more willing to accept those gates and ask to be invited in, than for those of our popcorn movies perhaps because we don’t expect movies riddled with explosions, costumes, and made up languages to offer us any sort of challenge. But challenge they do.
“Everyone’s a critic” is a quote that has become increasingly true since the dawn and proliferation of social media. Yet to criticize also means opening oneself up to criticism, to allow your ego to get battered and bruised. But many of us neo-critics and bloggers come from a generation where we got congratulated for trying, where everyone is told they earned those consolation prizes, and that yes, our opinion matters on every subject just as much as anyone else’s, ignorance be damned. This has resulted in a “chicken or the egg” scenario wherein film criticism and films have become increasingly invested in audience (self) ego stroking and a fear to upset the status quo. Make something for everyone, toe the line, and provide them the simplest tools with which to interact with it, and send it up to them instead of making them work for it and you’ve got a majority of cookie-cutter reactions that essentially all say the same thing. A number of films this year have been criticized for being self-serious, with Batman v Superman and Warcraft being the most prominent examples. Yet, why shouldn’t the films commit to their identities and treat them with importance? From a modern film criticism standpoint the answer is easy: If we can watch a film that winks and nods at us, slaps us on the back for catching basic references, then there’s little work that has to be put into it. Even those audience members unfamiliar with the property can rest assured in the fact that’s all a joke, and there’s a list of reference points to keep them from ever feeling lost, upset, or alienated. “We’re all in on it!” these movies yell, and we laugh and smile because movies are a communal experience where everyone can be someone, and you’re no one if you don’t leave feeling smart. These types of films are everybody films, made for you, for me, for the woman down the street and the guy who cuts her grass, all equal in the darkened theater where faces and races don’t matter. These films assure the audience that the gate is very much open and inside are all the familiar things you know. We throw around phrases like the “Star Wars of our generation” or “this could be the next Star Wars” but we don’t really want that. We want Star Wars period. It’s so easy to forget how unfamiliar George Lucas’s 1977 film was before it became a pop culture lynchpin. But there will never be another Star Wars because audiences and critics have changed and we can only define the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. We want the comfort and familiarity of feeling in-the-know before the film can even get a running start. We want our knowledge base to feel validated and feel threatened when it isn’t.
We know fantasy through Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones, but Warcraft isn’t like any of those popular franchises, so what is it? Well surely if it doesn’t fit within our limited range of the genre then it’s a bad movie, no, an awful movie, no, one of the worst movies of all time. We know the modern superhero movie is defined by the parameters of the MCU and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, but Batman v Superman doesn’t wink at us, or congratulate us on our most basic knowledge of these characters, or redefine the superhero film through “realism.” Furthermore it doesn’t even stick to the surface examples of our most popular characters, and digs deep into comic backlogs offering references inscrutable for the average viewer and challenging the comic fan by saying “you don’t really know these characters you thought you knew at all.” Or for a non-blockbuster example take The Witch. This film isn’t scary by the standards of Blumhouse jump-scare scary, and it isn’t consistently gory like the Saw franchise, and thus for many it cannot be horrific, because what does that claim of being a horror-fan mean if we can’t see the value in this celebrated horror film. Movies shape our identities and feed into the identities we’ve already established. For a movie to put up a gate is to seemingly separate part of the self from the viewer and deny them that expert status that carries so much weight in the world of social media.
Going back to that earlier statement: “Gates exist” and the only ones truly keeping us out are ourselves. Not every movie is made for every viewer and our access may be limited, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy them and meet them on the level of engagement they require of us. Sometimes we have to climb those gates and let ourselves in in order to enjoy a film instead of expecting everything to be ready-made and welcoming for us and the overnight travel bags containing our egos. But more important is the fact that we can not enjoy these films without them being bad, awful, worst movies ever. We can say, “I didn’t enjoy this movie but I can see where it works for those the film is meant for.” There’s no failure in recognizing that just because a movie doesn’t operate within the confines we know the movie isn’t a failure. Sure there are awful movies and there are great movies, but most fall somewhere in between and can be worthwhile experiences if we just consider our position outside of or within the gates.
If everyone’s a critic then we have a responsibility to the future of film to look at what each film asks of us, to recognize our own lack of knowledge not as a threat but as an invitation we can either except or decline. The propagation of Internet criticism has led to audience members who also serve as critics to think of ourselves as judges delivering a verdict, telling the larger population what they should think. But that isn’t the goal. The goal of film criticism should be to provide a window in which to see a certain perspective, and we must allow ourselves to admit lack of knowledge when it calls for it. Currently, many windows in film criticism are smeared with a layer of bullshit, one that has led critics to condemn and celebrate films before they are even released, all in the service of that mighty goal of saying, “I was right! By George, I was right!” Films don’t owe their existence to our validation, nor do they owe us the cementation of our specific identities. Some films are made for fans, and some films require that fandom to contain a little something extra: a willingness to admit ignorance and rise to meet the challenge. Brevoort was right. Snyder was right. The gates are up and if we stop trying to tear them down we can get better films and better critics because of it. There’s no shame in being outside and looking in, and in fact, some of our best film criticism has stemmed from it. And Warcraft, whatever it may be, should be seen not as a threat or a failure but with a critical awareness in mind that can leave you pleasantly surprised by how little you know, by how little all of us know.
Featured Image: Warner Brothers/Universal Pictures