FTA: A Note On Standards In Which I Make Fun of Tom Cruise

Nobody sees films in a vacuum — not even film critics

This column is From The Archive. It was originally published on hallbrothersfilm.com on September 11, 2015. It has been edited from its original version.

I just recently participated in my first ever fantasy football draft. After years of humble observation, invitations to join two separate leagues simultaneously cascaded down on me and I knew that it was finally time to give my budding NFL GM aspirations a workout. So I hunkered down, did some research (read: Googled “how to draft in fantasy football”), and made my picks with the purest of intentions and highest of hopes.

The main conceit of fantasy football is that you are pretty much making a bet on a specific player’s performance in a specific game. You study years of statistics and read as much matchup analysis as you can to make, what ultimately amounts to, an educated guess as to how Player X will do versus Opponent Y in Game Z. The thrill of it all comes from the fact that, as hard as you and others might try, there is no 100% full proof way to predict how a game of football will turn out. Players are human beings after all. Even in the most mismatched games, any player has the potential to do something extraordinary or unprecedented. It doesn’t always feel this way, but it’s true.

Lately my mind has been so wrapped up on whether I should keep Cam Newton on my starting roster or if I should grab Eli Manning and pray he doesn’t throw as many picks as he has the past two years. With all of that going on, I have almost (almost!) missed the sun setting on summer movie season. Yes, it is officially time to say goodbye to those busters of blocks that fill the movie calendar between the months of May and August. Now is the time to say hello to four months worth of films that all have their hands eagerly outstretched, begging Oliver Twist-style for a small little gold statue whose name begins with an “O”.

As I started to form conclusions on what we saw from cinema this summer, my mind wandered back to fantasy football and its reliance on statistics and quantifiable data. Wouldn’t it be nice if movies had such nice, digestible sets of facts and information to help measure their success and overall value? To help predict their performance? I imagine distribution chiefs around the globe nodding vigorously.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “But Peter, you ignorant fool! We do have such data points! Have you forgotten about test screenings, box office results, CinemaScores, and those handy Rotten Tomatoes ratings? I shall now discharge all your words as total fooey of the lowest order and set out forthwith to the nearest cinema where I shall keenly pick out a film to see based on how many stunts I saw Tom Cruise do in the trailer.”

I hear your hurtful words and implore you to keep reading so that I may vindicate my name and reputation! We do have measures for popularity and profitability. That’s easy. But I don’t care much about box office results. Some of the worst films of all time made gobs of money while genuine treasures went mostly unnoticed. What I am constantly after is something much more serious and something that I can never quite fully obtain. What I want is a way of defining a specific film’s genuine, undeniable merit as a work of cinema. But alas, how can something like that be quantified? Can something as lofty as artistic value be boiled down into comparable sets of data, where we could hold one film up to another and uniformly say that this film is more valuable to mankind than this one? The answer is no and to answer why is to open a debate on the objectiveness verse subjective-ness of art in general. I’m not here to do that today. What I will say is that I do believe there is an inherent link between artistic value and time, meaning that no truly great film will reveal itself to be so until decades have passed and the film can be studied in its greater context of cinematic history.

The temptation I, and perhaps all of you, face is that we are so eager to declare a film as “the best” or “the worst” the moment it comes out. Discussions on films these days are so polarized that certain films that fall in the middle of that terrible Best/Worst spectrum are either completely forgotten or over-heralded as greater achievements than perhaps they are. We all have such an immediate desire to understand a film’s place in history that we try and pick out that place before the credits have even finished rolling.

One of the key tools we use to do this is to rely heavily on those pesky Rotten Tomatoes scores. I pick on Tom Cruise because, as of this writing, his latest film, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, is currently rocking a fresh 93% on the popular critic aggregate site. 93 percent! Think about that for a second! Of the 46 films that have been nominated for Best Picture since 2010, Mission Impossible has a better rating than 22 of them and it ties with 7 more. This means, based purely off the number, that the fifth Mission Impossible film is as good or downright better than 63% of this decade’s Best Picture nominees. Who here reading this column actually believes that? Anyone? Anyone? Put your hand down Tom Cruise! You don’t get to vote!

Now I’m sure I’m not the first person to point out the flaw in the RT system that allows stuff like this to happen. I’m not even that mad about it. Mission Impossible was a fun night at the movies and it shouldn’t be dumped on because it wasn’t the second coming of The Godfather. This is exactly one of those middle films that I mentioned earlier that shouldn’t be sainted or crucified, just simply appreciated for what it is and that’s about it. The problem is that not everyone contextualizes a Rotten Tomatoes score when they see it. And how could they when studios have taken to slapping the score on their posters and TV spots. Even Apple’s just-announced Apple TV update has a search feature that can sort, for example, “good” Adam Sandler movies from “bad” ones. Guess what quantifiable metric Siri uses to make that determination.

What all this does is raise a question on expectations and standards when it comes to critics and their reviews. Namely what are the critic’s expectations and what are the standards that have been set by the genre of the film. I imagine a critic gearing up to sit down and watch Mission Impossible. This is a person who watches hundreds of movies a year. They’ve seen it all; from the snootiest of snooty awards bait films to the hackiest of hack cash grab attempts. They’ve seen action movies before. They’ve seen Mission Impossible movies before. They have a list of questions in their head that they’re looking to answer. Will this director keep up the good work? Will this writer redeem himself from his last terrible screenplay? Is this actor really going to pull this role off? Is this installment going to be better than the last one? Whether they consciously choose to or not, this critic sits down in the theater with a set of expectations for what they are about to see. No one watches a movie in a vacuum.

Coinciding with the critic’s expectations is the history of the film’s genre. Action movies will move at a different clip and require about 95% more explosions than a period biopic set in 1800s England. A sequel in a superhero franchise will inherently be judged on how well it builds and improves upon what came before it. This counts double for comic book films these days, what with their interconnected universes and promised “Let Us Join Forces!” mega-movies. The next Captain America film is not simply a sequel to 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but a sequel to every Marvel movie that has come before it. What you expect out of that movie will be so tightly tied to whatever you personally got out of the 256 previous Marvel films.

To prove my point on all of this, let’s look at a case study from the ancient times of 2012. The summer movie season that year looked poised to be one of the best ever thanks to two blue chip franchises delivering long awaited sequels. For Disney/Marvel, this was the summer where all the hints and post-credits sequences that had been building in Marvel films since Sam Jackson appeared at the end of 2008’s Iron Man came to a head with The Avengers. The first film of its kind, this movie teamed up superheroes from no less than four different franchises and put them all in one sensory overloading, CGI extravaganza. For Warner Bros., this was the time for them to release The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to the much-heralded Dark Knight Trilogy by writer/director Christopher Nolan.

The Avengers walked away from that summer with a 92% Rotten Tomatoes score and went on to be, by that metric, the second best reviewed film of the year behind only the year’s eventual Best Picture winner Argo. The Dark Knight Rises came in with a respectable 87%. So if we were making instant judgments, Avengers was the better movie, right? For a lot of people it was and those people aren’t necessarily wrong. But if you mean to tell me that The Dark Knight Rises, the sequel to The Dark Knight — a consensus Top 10 Of The Past Decade film, one of the most egregious Best Picture snubs of ever, and the near unanimously agreed upon title holder of Best Superhero Film Of All Time — came in with the same critical expectations and franchise standards as the film that teamed up the guys from the cinematic staples that were the first Thor and Captain America films, then I, sir, would humbly disagree. Once again, no one sees films in a vacuum and just as one could say that The Avengers was a wholly superior film to The Dark Knight Rises, one could easily argue that The Avengers simply had to clear the not-really-that-high bar set by its predecessors for it to be deemed a success.

I use all this purely as an example and am by no means looking to drudge up a campy debate that mostly ended a long time ago. My point with all of this, especially on the verge of the fall movie season, is to highlight that a film’s merit might not be so tightly tied to those oft-looked at RT scores. The concept that The Dark Knight Rises was judged much more harshly than The Avengers is greatly multiplied when we compare the “Please Just Don’t Suck” expectations put on summer blockbusters to the “You Better Be The Best Movie Of All Time” expectations placed on prestige fall titles. It’s the difference between what you expect out of high school athletes and what you look for in Olympians.

As awards contenders start to dominate multiplexes for the foreseeable future, a lot of eyes will wander towards Rotten Tomatoes scores as an indicator of whether a film is worth any portion of their time. We’re about to be sniffing so much rarified air that if a film posts anything below a 75% we’ll cast it out as a travesty of the medium. My question to you this fall, before you damn a film to the arena of The Unworthy, will simply be this: did that poor film play with the same rules as Tom Cruise and his fresh 93 percent? My second question will be: Seriously! Should I grab Eli or not?

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