Destroy All Monsters: World War C (Critics vs. Celebrities)

Matt Brown, Columnist

I'll be the first to go to the mat saying that The Lone Ranger didn't get a fair shake in a lot of circles. I can do that because I'm in one of those circles, and not standing in the other kind. The other kind of circle, being composed of the people who actually make these movies, is the one that is never supposed to take issue with how the media paints their property.

But that's just what Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp - partners to the last - did last week, when they complained loudly and often about how the critical drubbing The Lone Ranger received was directly responsible for that film's financial failure.

There are two absurdities at play, right off the bat. The first is that Hammer and Depp spouted off in this fashion in the midst of media interviews for The Lone Ranger, conducted overseas where the film had yet to open; i.e. some members of the media asked them why they thought it had underperformed at the box office, and the movie stars fell for the bait. They answered honestly, at least in terms of what their opinions would be. What would you expect them to say? "We made a colossal turkey of a movie because we're bad at making movies and no one should go see this movie, ever, Mr. Media Coverage Person." Two men rode into that valley, and based on Depp and Hammer's responses, Tonto had to dig two graves.

Absurdity 2, the obvious one: "The Media" that Depp and Hammer are complaining about is, of course, "The Media" that creates The Lone Ranger. Sure, it's Yahoo vs. Disney in this case, but when you're dealing with Yahoo vs. Disney in a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate prize fight, does anyone really care who wins?

Armie Hammer's contention, which held that film critics as a whole were gunning for The Lone Ranger since its production troubles began many years ago, is easy enough to sniff out for its appeal. "The Media" (there they are again) make it easy to believe that they're laying in wait for movies like The Lone Ranger or John Carter or World War Z, because they do such a thorough and ultimately pointless job of cataloguing those films' budget overruns and internecine creative disputes in the years and months leading up to their release.

lone-ranger-poster-uk-01.jpgHammer's error in logic, of course, is in assuming that "The Media" is a hive mind, wherein the same people tracking The Lone Ranger's production problems are scribbling out all the reviews that earned it its 29% on the Tomatometer. (For this, the Tomatometer itself is more than 29% responsible. Aggregators of any stripe have only fueled the ludicrous notion that every group - film critics, the audience, Republicans - are a hive mind.)

For me, even funnier than Depp and Hammer's faux pas was "The Media's" response to it. Film critics across North America took to their Twitter accounts to snark and mope and "how dare they" about the Ranger team's presumptions, doth-protesting so much that they nearly proved Hammer's point for him.

To assert that no professional film critic would ever pre-judge a film may be a fiction, but it's a noble fiction to uphold, and quite necessary to the profession. To go on to assert, as many critics did, that their reviews were wholly divorced from The Lone Ranger's box office performance, however, was foot-shooting of an order almost equal to Depp and Hammer's. Leaving aside the fact that any film critic making such an assertion is essentially waving the white flag of his or her own irrelevance, it calls into question just exactly what a film reviewer thinks their reviews are for. If a one-star review on the front page of the Friday Arts section isn't, at least in part, intended to warn audiences that The Lone Ranger isn't very good and that they should therefore stay away, why is it there at all?

There's a difference between film criticism and film reviews anyway, and it is film reviews that the Tomatometer tends to capture: those first-blush, yay-or-nay, thumbs-up-or-down judgments on whether or not a film is worth an audience's time and money. We might circle back to these films later to conduct some genuine criticism, by which every art form thrives, and analyze why a film is doing what it's doing, and how it's doing it. The latter type wouldn't much bother itself with whether or not a film is "good," because that sort of thing doesn't matter much.

The former kind, though - the reviews - are the canaries in the coal mine of filmgoing, and the film critics are the birds who have to go see Movie 43 and drop dead on our behalf. I don't know why any critic would bother to pre-judge a film, except that of course they do, on account of how they're human beings like the rest of us, and don't exist in a vacuum. They go into films excited, or filled with dread, or (most often) filled with a sense of utter tedium. That they have tools to assess and iterate what they actually see in the film on that day doesn't make them any less subject to all the things that impact one's viewing of a motion picture, every single time.


world-war-z-poster-chinese.jpgMeanwhile, World War Z walked quietly over the half-billion-dollar mark, neatly putting paid everyone's assertions of the importance of film reviews and the notion of pre-judgment altogether.

While Depp and Hammer were arguing with film critics, who doubtless consider their jobs important while simultaneously averring that they weren't responsible for The Lone Ranger's downfall, a movie that had spelled disaster so completely prior to its release that its tombstone had already been engraved, quietly walked away with the bank - because box office power is so much more alchemical than anyone in the Ranger argument seems to understand, anyway.

George Clooney had something to say on that subject, last week, after a hedge fund manager criticized Sony's box office performance in the second quarter (using, as Clooney pointed out, an extremely small, and extremely biased, sample of evidence). Clooney mentioned that the people who make movies (perhaps excepting Depp and Hammer) understand that the movie business is a long game. No, the movies don't all hit, and no, you don't ever really know which ones will hit, and which ones won't - but you keep playing on a variety of properties, and reap the rewards.

If film critics were as powerful as the Ranger team claims, they'd be the richest people on the planet, and the rest of us could all go home, because movies would never suck, and they'd all make a billion dollars. In the meantime, I like that Armie Hammer: he's got a big career ahead of him, or at least, that's what I'm assuming in advance.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.

Around the Internet:
  • TheGhostOfGriffinMill

    Nobody sets out to make a dog of a film, and I fully believe that is true in the case of TLR as well. That said, they made a not-great movie: the tone was all over the place and done in a genre that, frankly, is as alien to little boys as is the concept of "Cowboys and Indians". And if a Western's a hard enough sell in the US, I'm guessing it can't be a slam-dunk overseas. (I personally LOVE westerns, but think there isn't a lot of oxygen left in features for them)

    My son wanted to see LONE RANGER based on the marketing pitch of "same team as POTC" he heard in the trailers -- big, big PIRATES/Depp fan, this kid. Friends of mine -- from the STUDIO! -- suggested it might be a bad idea and that I see it first as it might be a little too violent. Understatement.

    The film was WAY too violent for the primary targets which -- based on the ad buys and promotional tie-ins -- was clearly 8-to-15 year olds. While many films veer to PG-13 for marketing purposes (teens don't want to see PG films), the violence was intense, maybe even enough for an R. My guess: the lack of blood in the takes gave the MPAA enough of a fig leaf to push it through at PG-13 but parents aren't stupid and no one should be that surprised it ground to a quick halt.

  • arturo

    The worst cinematic crime that a director can do, is to bore the audience, now visually and technically The Lone Ranger was impressive with a couple of cool action scenes, however the rest of the movie was boring and that is Gore Verbinski fault, the same thing happened with the 3rd Pirates film...

  • Nearly 9 years ago, a 22 year old film fan started a blog and made his first post a rant about how he did not like film reviews and vowed NEVER to write them himself.

    Looking back today, that first post I made (which you can read at http://www.skonmovies.com/2004... ) was a bit on the immature side and I did eventually start to write reviews for my blog.

    I've come to respect film criticism a lot more as I've grown older, though I still understand the huge dislike for film reviews.

    Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer are just the latest to criticize the critics so to speak and the championship for critic-hating still goes to Kevin Smith.

    Smith, who dropped out of film school because he found the theory boring and wanted to go straight to making movies, has made it no secret over the years that he considers film critics to be nothing but awful people, who see films for free, only to trash them afterwards.

    It was just over a year ago when Smith went on a 9 minute rant at ComicCon (http://youtu.be/jYaIMyEoqic ), where he said that people can write anything they want about his films, as long as they pay to see it, and that critics should just go and actually make films, rather than say what other filmmakers have done wrong.

    Even though I still consider myself a fan of Smith, despite the fact that he's now an anti-mainstream cartoon pothead, I do take issue with his hated of film critics (and film studies in general), especially his assumption that they would rather be filmmakers themselves.

    Using my own film education as an example, I went to York University, where they have two film degrees - a BFA focusing on production and a BA focusing on theory and criticism. I was in the BA program and indeed many of my classmates were merely wannabe filmmakers, who didn't make the cut for the limited space in the production program. However, I was among the few in the program that truly found a passion for film theory and criticism and I couldn't care less that I wasn't actually making films. In fact, went I did end up learning film production for a continuing education certificate at Ryerson, I found that I had no real passion for it at all and I was quite glad when it was over.

    In just under a decade, I've gone from being a passionate hater of film reviews to a developing critic in my own right. I've come to understand that reviews are merely a single person's opinion of a film and that they shouldn't stop you from seeing (and possibly enjoying) a film. Even though the professional film critic is a dying breed (with most newspapers assigning film reviews to generic entertainment reporters), talking about films is still just as important as watching them and I really hope celebrities stop taking these opinions so personally.

  • Monsiuer Hulot

    I don't think it's that far of a stretch to consider "The Media" as a hive mind. In fact, I'm almost positive that's the case. There might be a few drones that think independently/offer an original/interesting take on film/film criticism (that's why I frequent TWITCH), but............. How do you account for the associated press?

  • I'm not sure what you mean by the question about the Associated Press. It's pretty simple ... AP (and other similar wire services like CP, Reuters, etc) produce content for syndication in smaller markets or places where people want to cover a particular issue but don't have the resources to hire their own stringer. Anybody can license content from the wire services, but it's still individual journalists doing their work and - in the case of criticism - offering their own opinions about their subjects. It's still just some person out there somewhere saying what they think.

  • Monsiuer Hulot

    It may be true that some dude on either of the coasts is expressing his own opinion, but when that same exact story/take is distributed through the TVs/newspapers/radios/web of every household in the country.........I see that as "The Media" functioning as a hive mind. I would guess that many households more than likely won't take the time/energy to seek out a counter argument to what they have fed to them. Also, whether it is "news" or film reviews, I don't believe for a second that the majority of contributors aren't influenced......well.....by the majority of contributors. When almost everyone stands up and says, "'Citizen Kane' is the best movie ever!".....you're not going to have a whole lot of film critics raise their voices to object or offer a counter-point. Maybe a few. The very idea that there are movies, such as "Citizen Kane", which are hailed universally as undisputed masterpieces, goes to show that at least a portion of film critic community functions as a hive mind. Not everyone from Gen X/Y/Millenials(?) were born watching "Citizen Kane"......they were into film, did their research, and picked up on that popular opinion. You would have to seek out the film, watch it, understand the controversy behind the film and how the film employed nearly every cinematic technique available......to come to that conclusion. Sure it's a good film.......put 20 people who love films, but know nothing about the legacy of "Kane", into a theater screening "Kane"......I seriously doubt if one of them walks out saying, "Well, I'll be. That was the greatest movie ever made."

    I'm not necessarily speaking to the critics who make up this site, or other outlets that appeal to a niche market of film geeks......from what I can tell there are about a million fluff-reviewers/critics out there in media land, who basically (or literally) read cue cards containing their "opinions"........and that is what much of the public sees/hears/reads.

  • I'm not sure what other 'take' you would expect on a story about someone seeing the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

    I hear what you're saying but I don't necessarily buy it. You hear people into the 'indie' scene railing all the time about how people are just sheep being led by popular opinion but I think the reality is that most of the things that are mainstream popular are mainstream popular because lots and lots of people like them. The Transformers movies make bags and bags of money because millions and millions of people really like them, not because of some media hive mind. That's just how it is. It's not that people don't know any better, or aren't exposed to other things or are being manipulated by the media. It's that these really are, for the most part, the opinions and tastes of the majority of people.

  • Monsiuer Hulot

    The German public weren't being manipulated by the Nazi party, their opinions and taste just leaned towards violent bigotry.

    I hope all this back-and-forth doesn't seem antagonistic......I just honestly enjoy discussing/arguing out the topic at hand.

  • Oh, don't play the Nazi card. That's the tired retreat of people who have run out of actual points. It's reductive in the extreme and an incredibly false parallel. And I honestly think it does you a disservice, because you have much better points to make than this.

    (Says the guy who is half from a German-Jewish family and whose grandfather on that side was involved with the SS and who, therefore, has some pretty firm opinions on the subject.)

  • Monsiuer Hulot

    I know, right........it's way past played out (and so is saying, "Oh, don't go there"), but that doesn't negate the fact that it IS an excellent example of popular opinion engulfing an entire country.......in which propaganda played a huge part. I mean, Leni Riefenstahl might have something to say about "marketing" and media manipulation.

  • It's not nearly as clean an example as you're presenting it as being for the simple reason that the Nazi values did NOT engulf the entire country and aren't why Hitler got to power in the first place. It's a radical over-simplification and distortion of what actually happened that ignores the fact that a) not all Germans were Nazis and b) there were active protest movements within the country. Hitler didn't get to power on the back of his racial beliefs, he got there on economic policy that got the country back on its feet after WWI. He built highways. He founded Volkswagen. Stuff like that. The race stuff and the propaganda around it was not at all why the vast majority of Germans put him in power and that same majority didn't realize the implications of what they had done until it was too late and he was so firmly entrenched that he couldn't be stopped internally.

    Nazi racial beliefs absolutely never engulfed the entire country, nor even a majority. They were held by a small but powerful minority who enforced them on their own population by force and the threat of the secret police, not by propaganda. So the whole comparison completely falls apart before you've even gotten started.

    Though, that said, yes, Leni knew a thing or two.

  • Monsiuer Hulot

    From the very start there was no question of what Hitler's ideology was. He was screaming it to anyone that would listen.....and used race as an excuse for Germany's economic downfall. But all of this is a history lesson that neither one of us needs.........saying that it engulfed the entire country is a bit hyperbolic, but......once again lets not be naive.....when your country is quickly becoming a major world power, why let a silly thing like human decency get in the way...........none of this is addressing the topic at hand.

    If propaganda did not have any effect on the popularity of the Nazi party, why did they make such a concerted effort to employ and develop their propaganda tactics.....as if it were a science. It is said that Hitler and Goebbels met almost every day to discuss their propaganda tactics. I can't even imagine the Nazi party without thinking about their use of symbolism, rhetoric, and nationalistic "pride". To discredit propaganda/media manipulation as an ineffective tool, which of course is never used to win over the hearts and minds of the masses, is to fall prey to it.

  • marshy00

    How incredibly apt that the comment thread of an article about THE LONE RANGER has so spectacularly...derailed.

  • Monsiuer Hulot
  • Your point? People like funny stories and people thinking they see Jesus is food, and it's funny. There's only so many ways to tell those stories and what that edit DOESN'T say is the span of time represented, i.e. it's presenting stories that were on tv over a span of years and acting as though these all happened at once. Not the case, just as it's not the case that's there's no master controller telling all these people to report the stories or how to do it. It's as simple as a producer saying "We're two minutes short on the serious news today, what's out there that's a little bit goofy?"

  • Monsiuer Hulot

    There may not be a "master controller" (speaking of "Citizen Kane"), but there are many master controllers....pushing whatever it is their particular agenda might be. Explain away FOX News and Rupert Murdoch......and yes, unfortunately a good many Americans watch in an-tici-pation......and live and breathe by it.

    You might say the proliferation of mystical Jesus sightings on local news are just silly, funny stories, told to kill time. They are. But they also just might be a subtle way of inserting a little bit of religion into the daily broadcast. Note the number of FOX affiliates in that video.

    As you've noted above, we aren't all zombies led by popular opinion.....but to say that no one is doesn't make sense.....and to dismiss the influence the media, and their message, has in each and every one of our lives....whether we choose to vehemently oppose it or except it as gospel truth...I feel is naive. It's everywhere you turn. Everyday more and more so. I would argue that is how things become "popular". That dude with "popular" taste in film, didn't decide he was so in love with the "Transformers" franchise, until it was pumped into the various facets of his media-sphere 100 times a day. And his friends' media-spheres. And his girlfriends' media-sphere. And they're all sharing it on FB....or whatever. The general public don't intellectualize what is being marketed to them. Otherwise, marketing wouldn't work as well as it does. The public just eats it up. "They live. We sleep." While that is pretty black and white......there is some truth in it.

  • There's definitely a narrowing of voices in the media, no doubt. Though that's a function of the economics of the industry and the simple reality that 'news' is now a consumer good driven almost exclusively by ratings and therefore functioning not to challenge people but to give them what they already want. That's a factor everywhere, but in that case the commercial influence doesn't result in manipulation but in appeasement. It's not quite the opposite of propoganda (in which people trumpet a message to try and sway or create opinion) but it's certainly not the same thing, either.

    But if all it took to make something a success was a lot of people saying to go see it, then The Lone Ranger would have been a success. So would The Green Lantern. To say 'This is in the media, therefore this is what people will do' is just fundamentally not the case. It's not as simple as that.

  • jessicapancakes

    You know, I'm just going to come out and say that maybe it was the BLATANT RACISM that bombed your movie, guys. Maybe that's too optimistic.

  • Omar Hauksson

    I for one was surprised that TLR bombed as hard as it did as I thought if people would still shell out cash for a forth and poorly reviewed Pirate movie they would shell out for The Lone Ranger which has most of the creative people behind Pirates. I guess westerns just aren't that exciting to people in the states anymore, no matter how much money you throw at it.

  • Another key thing about being a critic (well, at least this critic) - I don't give a damn about box office receipts, save for how they affect much larger scopes than a particular film (say, keeping a studio afloat, allowing a particular director to work again, etc. I said it about both LONE RANGER and PACIFIC RIM - once the greenlight was made, and the money spent, as a viewer I couldn't care less about their grosses while enjoying the film. As far as I'm concerned, Disney spent $200+ million for my own enjoyment, and I'm pleased with that.

    That said, I did find it instructive to re-read the PIRATES reviews from back in the day - loads pissed on that film (and the subsequent ones even more) using almost the same language. The difference, I believe, is that people were finally ready for another pirate-themed movie after a series of major flops over the decades, but weren't ready for this kind of Western.

    For me, I liked TLR as much, and for much of the same reasons, and I liked PotC. This so-called "flop" affects things in the grand scale as we're unlikely to get many more of these type of extravaganzas moving forward, but, as above, I'll always have had that experience of seeing that train sequence on a large screen, and for that I'm grateful to the guys that had the chutzpah (and possibly hubris) to make the thing for the smallish audience that appreciated it.

  • I want movies that I like to be successful at the box office, simply because I want more movies similar to my own tastes. A movie like Pacific Rim doing poorly or well results in other movies in a similar genre or style. If the latest Godzilla movie wasn't already in production, Pacific's Rim lack of success could have stalled it. Not just say a Pacific Rim sequel or even other Jaeger / Kaiju movies but even whether say studios trust a director like Guillermo del Toro with big budgets.

  • Amen to that. It's the only reason box office really matters.

  • Omar Hauksson

    Yeah I was afraid that Rim's success would greatly affect Godzilla as it's from the same studio. I'm sure that behind the scenes though, the people involved have started to re-think the budget considerably for post production. But I'm hoping the over seas success of it, especially Asia will at least give them the confidence boost needed to make a kick ass Godzilla film.

  • Good points, good points.

    I like how personally people take the budgets on these films. It ain't MY money. Spend three hundred mil on the next PIRATES movie and I'll enjoy spending a measly $20 to see it.

    And I like how personally people take box office grosses, too - like their team is winning/losing the Super Bowl.

    (usual proviso about how I do consider box office important, etc etc., listen to my podcast, try the veal)

  • As one of those dreaded "critics", I do believe we play both prescriptive and descriptive roles, yet usually are most effective in championing films that might slip through the radar (think IN A WORD, opening soon, as a good example of something I'm about to jump up and down about), but can do little to stop people from seeing stuff they'd see normally (ie, this: http://twitchfilm.com/2013/02/...

    I take little credit for the relative failures of AFTER EARTH or THE HOST, two films I despised and help include in the RT metrics, while I had hoped more would go out and see TLR, though, as per this long conversation (http://news.moviefone.ca/2013/..., you have to once again ask "who the fuck wanted a LONE RANGER FILM?!" Answer: I did, along with a (very) few others. I believe, however, that my role is to articulate why (or why not) I took a certain film a certain way, highlighting elements that may not have irked or pleased casual viewers and generally engaging in what amounts to a continuing discourse about the work. Independent of the fact that I'm saving myself from stealing from others, I'm one that always would read "reviews" =after= any screening, believing it a way of engaging with a debate after the fact rather than the simple metric of "should I see this or not". I grant that for those of us blessed with seeing a large number of movies without needing to plan ahead of time, arrange baby sitting, etc., it's far less of an issue of just needing a quick way of knowing whether they should go to film A or B as an excuse to get out of the house and have a good time.

    Mind you, that's what my television gig is for, I guess.

    Still, one thing I would like to highlight is a pretty interesting misperception about those RT rankings you reference - I've run into many people that generally use the percentages as like a grade on an essay, so that "39%" means it's a 4/10 film. Naturally, all it really means is that 40% of critics thing it's "fresh" (worth seeing?), and 60% do not. Some of my fav films tend to split critics quite strongly, and it's really in the details of a given review (or criticism) that one might find the space for a greater conversation. As an aggregation of multiple reviews that allows one to quickly parse a myriad of relevant links, RT is great, and serves an exceptional purpose. As a way of deciding based on the percentage whether you should see a movie or not (without delving into those very links), I think that's unfortunate, exacerbated by those very percentages showing up on related properties like Flixster.

    Still, as the reviewer who single handedly brought LONE RANGER's score above 20% when I clicked "fresh", I'm well aware this is perhaps a losing game, and that RT, among many other similar aggregations, might be further dumbing down what we do.

    Now, as for Depp/Hammer's comments? Frankly, I had skipped them the first time, as I had the outrage from some on Twitter that you documented. Just lucky, I guess.

    Well done sir, nice article.

  • billydaking

    Given the options moviegoers have today to preview a movie they're thinking about seeing (need a trailer, want some behind the scenes footage, a clip or two? To the Internet!), I really question the reach of critics' ability to dissuade a mass exodus from a ticket booth. I did see some of Depp and Hammer's comments, and what it's worth, they seem more irritated with those that spent their reviews roasting the movie over its production issues rather than actually judging the film itself. We've seen that happen with other movies, where the negative buzz over a movie's troubled creation made the movie seem worse than it was upon initial release.

    But critics aren't the only one guilty of that, and that reality has more to do with buzz killing a film's chances at the box office. Moviegoers are an itchy bunch, and aren't going to easily part with their $10 to $12 when they've been feed nothing but bad news for a year or so.

    I'm with you...I saw it, really liked it. When the entire climax broke out the Lone Ranger theme, a big old smile broke across my face. I was entertained, and had the fun I expected, unlike a distressingly large number of recent films (Snow White and the Huntsman, I'm looking at you). It suffers from the same issues as John Carter--a flawed, somewhat bloated film that still manages to be mostly entertaining, derailed by bad news and a massive production cost that made any possible profit a joke to tell the studio heads. People blamed Disney for killing John Carter's chances, but the reality is that they were cutting their losses before the hole got deeper. They probably figured Johnny Depp headlining was a better bet, and they dug in (and down) on The Lone Ranger. Same result.

  • You'll also note that I kind of loved/trumpeted JOHN CARTER as well.

    "Vwirginnnnnnnnia..." = awesome :)

  • Kurt

    IN A WORLD.

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