Watchmen And The Critical Divide

The reviews are in, and here’s the score. With 40 critical opinions counted, Watchmen currently holds a solid but not spectacular 73% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. If that sounds a little low for a movie faithfully adapted from the greatest comic of all time, then let me take a moment to offer a reason. Look no further than your local newspaper.

Rotten Tomatoes compiles reviews from both print and online critics. Remove the reviews of print critics from the equation, and you’re left with 22 reviews. Without the reviews of print critics, Watchmen would hold a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In fact all but one of the negative reviews currently listed was written by an old media print critic. Is this a case of fanboy blogs run amok, or are the critics of America’s rapidly vanishing print media really that out of touch?

As evidence, let me present Anthony Lane, film critic for the New Yorker. Lane is according to RT, one of their select group of “Top Critics”. Whether this prestigious status has more to do with Lane or the place at which he works is open to interpretation. Lane’s review is one of the negative print reviews I mentioned, and he’s touted as not just a print critic but apparently one of the best and most influential. Here’s the quote he chose to represent his scathing review of Watchmen: “Incoherent, overblown, and grimy with misogyny, Watchmen marks the final demolition of the comic strip, and it leaves you wondering: where did the comedy go?”

Take a moment to let that sink in. Apparently Lane doesn’t understand the difference between a comic and a comic strip. To him Hagar the Horrible and the X-Men are pretty much the same thing. Hold up a Peanuts Calendar and the latest issue of Green Lantern, and he’ll nod his head and say, “oh yes, I read the funnies.” So of course when he hears that someone has made a movie out of a comic, he shows up expecting perfectly framed high comedy. Where are the jokes about Andy Cap’s spousal abuse? When will we get to see Calvin dress up as Spaceman Spiff? Why hasn’t Snoopy fought the Red Baron yet?

Lane’s cinematic tastes lean more towards Brideshead Revisited, a movie he liked so much it further lessoned his enjoyment of Watchmen since for him, Matthew Goode is forever typecast as… whoever it is he played in that movie. I’m pretty sure Anthony Lane is the only one who saw it, yet he assumes the looming specter of Goode’s character in this film no one has ever seen will so overshadow his performance in Watchmen, it’ll render the film unwatchable for all of us. It’s odd actually that Lane liked Brideshead Revisited since it wasn’t a comedy. But maybe he only expects to laugh when watching movies based on comic strips. A proper Sin City adaptation should be hilarious.

Maybe it’s unfair to paint Anthony Lane as the poster child for old media, critical irrelevance. I don’t follow his work regularly. I like most of America, live on the internet. I’m sure his reviews are normally insightful and I feel certain he’s both smarter and better educated than I am. But Lane’s Watchmen review and the other overwhelmingly negative reviews of his print colleagues represent something much larger, something much more looming. Read those old media Watchmen reviews and you’ll see the future, a future without Anthony Lane in it.

They Will Look Up And Shout "Save us!"... And I'll Look Down And Whisper "No."

Look around. Nearly every newspaper in America is on the verge of bankruptcy. There’s more than one reason for their demise, but chief among them is this: People aren’t interested in reading them. Why aren’t they reading? For the very same reason they all turned out to see The Dark Knight last year, while avoiding nearly every movie which old media dominated critical groups championed as the year’s best. Newspapers are out of touch, print critics are out of touch, and while they stick to their guns they’re going down with the ship.

I’m not suggesting that the Anthony Lanes of this world should turn around and praise Watchmen if they truly hate it. If Lane dislikes the movie, then he must give it a negative review. Honesty is the first responsibility of any film critic. Only maybe he’s not the guy we all want reviewing it? Maybe we’d rather have someone who actually understands what a comic is, someone who knows the difference between Family Circus and The Fantastic Four, someone whose knowledge of modern pop culture wasn’t gleaned entirely from the nightly monologues of Jay Leno. I’m not suggesting that the Anthony Lanes must have read Watchmen in order to review it. Far from it. But it might be nice to have someone with at least a minimal understanding of the cultural influences they find themselves standing in the midst of, when reviewing a movie of this one’s significance. Movies, like it are not, are part of the fabric of our shared existence. To the old media’s Anthony Lanes, these things are meaningless. He wants no part of it.

Maybe they don’t teach this stuff in film school, I wouldn’t know since unlike most of the old guard critics you’re likely to encounter, I’m not a failed filmmaker engaged in criticism as a fallback position. They do teach this stuff out here though, in the real world. The real world where people go see movies because they like them. The real world where most old media critics are on their way out, victims of their own irrelevance. Welcome to the internet where you may not always agree with us, but at least you know we’re all standing on the same planet.

Josh Tyler