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Movies & TV

24th Apr 2019

What do we want from critics, exactly?

Dave Hanratty

Avengers Endgame critics spoilers

Criticism. Gas craic, so it is.

Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way.

This writer considers himself, proudly enough, to be a critic.

There is an argument to be made that the role of the critic means a lot less than it once did, and yet, perversely, it is more relevant than ever.

Language and communication evolves with time, as does how we consume media and present ourselves to the wider world.

Social media has given everyone a voice, and with it a chorus of noise.

Now everyone’s a critic, whether they accept that or not.

This week sees the arrival of Avengers: Endgame, the hotly-anticipated-by-millions culmination of a 20+ series of films that officially kicked off in 2008 when Marvel took a gamble on the box office potential of Iron Man and Hollywood enfant terrible Robert Downey Jr.

It paid off, eventually, to the tune of billions.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a bizarre beast; admirable in its unyielding scope and determination, questionable in its use of A-list acting and directing talent, undeniably successful in realising a vision that may have proven a logistical nightmare for others, and yet curiously generic for much of its 60-hour runtime.

Yes, the bangs are big, the CGI up to standard – if still often shaky – and the narrative possibilities universe-spanning, but there’s a strange coldness to the Marvel conveyor belt, from flat visual tones to unmemorable musical scores to a paint-by-numbers final act that the template religiously rarely, if ever, strays from.

Still, that’s just my opinion. Yours may well be different.

That’s fine. That’s discourse. There’s great nutritional value to debating art, and it doesn’t need to descend into a vicious cut-throat fight to the death, despite what Twitter, Facebook, and below-the-line comment sections serve up on a daily basis.

The professional review – or the semi-professional if you happen to be one of many, many writers who volunteer their services for one reason or another – should carry weight.

Perhaps you have a favourite personality when it comes to the latest in music, movies, video games, sport, et cetera – someone who you either regard as a trusted confidant in advance of spending your time and money, or a voice you want to hear from after the fact.

Which brings us back to Endgame, and with it the complex job faced by critics who had the pleasure of seeing the film a full 38 hours before the general public.

The review embargo for Endgame lifted at 10pm on Tuesday. JOE’s write-up, like many others, took a conscious approach to avoid spoilers.

Spoilers, you see, are bad.

That’s the Russo Brothers, directors of Avengers: Endgame and counterparts Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America: Civil War, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

It isn’t just their job to guide this epic story to a grand, fitting conclusion of temporary sorts, they also must beseech both fans and critics to hold their tongues and not ruin the thing for those who have yet to experience it.

More power to them, even if a previous missive that labelled the Avengers saga as an “unprecedented narrative mosaic” really was the definition of A Bit Much.

The sentiment is noble.

Don’t be the dickhead who goes online and spoils crucial details. This applies to superhero movies, Game of Thrones, and just about everything that isn’t a real-time sporting event.

Social media and websites such as this one do make it tricky if you don’t see the huge pop culture event in the moment. It’s a modern problem. We may do our best to shield your eyes, but it’s also fair enough that we take a deep dive into the latest events from Westeros mere hours after the fact. That’s the gig.

The gig of the critic in these trenchant times is honestly somewhat perilous. Most reviews of Endgame begin with a disclaimer that what follows will contain mild, major or zero spoilers at all.

Some don’t bother with the preamble. Many tread carefully.

Getting into the meat of the copy itself requires discussing plot points, and we’ve now gotten to the stage where highlighting anything beyond what has been glimpsed in a trailer constitutes a filthy spoiler, lined with betrayal.

Irish Times film critic Donald Clarke has suffered the wrath of Marvel and DC stans for some time now, to the point that you suspect he regards the flood with equal parts relish and resignation.

His review of Endgame nods to a crucial component of the movie, confirming a theory that both fans and anyone with a passing knowledge of storytelling had worked out long in advance of the release date.

Choosing to engage, of one’s own volition, with analysis of something that you yourself have yet to experience, should come with a basic degree of common sense. And yet, we rage on.

Clarke’s reference point concerns a plot device that is revealed quite early on in Endgame, though that didn’t spare him a myriad of predictable abuse on Twitter after his review went live.

Cue the critic spending post-midnight hours reasonably defending his position on a case-by-case basis.

The critic doesn’t need to engage, though is free to and often does.

Good work speaks for itself, but a horde of feverishly agitated hardcore disciples losing their shit over spoilers or, God forbid, a review that isn’t terrifically gushing, is now the expected post-script.

It is difficult to know what those with a passionate investment in the big screen adaptation of an intellectual property, spandex tights involved or otherwise, actually want from criticism, should they wish for that at all.

Right now it feels like a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score is the chief goal, a flawed and obnoxious form of validation and vindication that says little while simultaneously speaking at a despairingly high volume.

The toxic side of fandom isn’t exclusive to cinema, nor is it solely generated by punters.

Last week, Lizzo, a hugely promising and multi-talented musician, released her third album, Cuz I Love You, to a wave of critical acclaim.

The praise wasn’t entirely universal, and though the smart money is on Pitchfork, it is unclear just what provoked this reaction on Easter Monday:

A trash take, worsened by a climate in which many journalists, operating in the arts and beyond, are losing jobs en masse across the world.

That’s before you even get to the contorted logic of needing to have direct experience of something in order to assess it. Would it help? Possibly, but there’s no guarantee.

On that score, many of the sports writers you read haven’t excelled at the beautiful game. Some of the pundits who have, however, get paid quite handsomely to demonstrate a lack of charisma, insight, and critical thinking.

Does one need to go 12 rounds with Canelo Álvarez in order to know that the guy is particularly ferocious in the squared circle?

Do the Russo Brothers need to venture to outer space to be able to understand Thanos and his machinations any better?

Credit to Lizzo on two fronts; she would later renege on the hot take – and what is Twitter if not a sea of scalding opinions – and, honestly, she’s entitled to voice that opinion, even if it is a touch myopic.

It’s not a million miles away from the frontman of Fontaines D.C. casually hand-waving away years of Irish musical history and the subsequent backlash that greeted him. Again, you want your larger-than-life figures to piss people off every now and then.

As with that, and with Lizzo, and even with the overwhelming might of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and those who defend it like their own kin, these skirmishes don’t last too long.

Tomorrow brings a new fight. Winners are in short supply, though.

As for the critic in the middle, the truth is rather unsexy. A good critic takes time to meet their subject on its merits, provide context and commentary, and arrive at an informed opinion.

Not everything is a work of art. Some things are rubbish. And yeah, it can be fun to give them a kicking, and sometimes you cross a line. I’ve done it. I’ve learned from it. I’ve tried to do better.

On the other hand, a great many things are critic-proof. That’s cool, too.

You don’t sit back and resent an Ed Sheeran or a Picture This or a Game of Thrones or an Avengers for becoming bulletproof, though you can question their value in an increasingly paranoid culture.

Who watches the watchmen? Who critiques the critics? You do. We all do. And we could all probably do it a bit better.

After all, and no spoilers, but to paraphrase the great Lebowski himself – it is just someone’s, like, opinion, man.

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