Pop culture critic John Semley makes a persuasive case for disagreement in his new book, but we don't agree with everything he says
In his Globe And Mail pan of Avengers: Infinity War, critic John Semley wrote that “Marvel Studios films are so bad precisely because they are good.”
Semley, a former NOW staffer and occasional contributor, often sounds like a hater. Knowing him personally, I’m aware that he wears that title like a badge of honour and he just wrote a book about it, Hater: On The Virtues Of Utter Disagreeability (Viking).
In it, Semley lays out arguments as to why good, healthy and informed hating is vital, especially when so much of today’s film critics are too timid to run counter to popular thought – or, you know, screw up the ranking on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer. And his book goes a long way toward explaining why it’s so important to hand Avengers: Infinity War, and other popular entertainment like it, a rotten tomato: Humanity is at stake.
Back to that big, bloated, sporadically witty and competently galvanizing Hollywood blockbuster – and other “good but bad” superhero movies. Semley explains in his review how even when Marvel movies are at their best, “Their impact on the motion-picture arts amounts to a net negative.”
I agree with him, and this won’t be the first time, because ultimately Marvel movies are corporate products that satisfy demands they helped create in the first place, and rarely reach beyond that. They’re so competent at meeting their own synergistic narrative and revenue targets that most reviewers, despite holding reservations, ultimately recommend such products.
Those critics’ reviews may not say, “Hey, you should go see this movie,” but by writing about Avengers: Infinity War with just enough satisfaction, they were able to nudge Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer score to 84 per cent. In Hater, Semley notes the review aggregation site has set a new goal post for agreeability in film criticism.
Mediocre movies can score high on Rotten Tomatoes because not enough reviewers take issue with them, and then a studio can turn around and play up that score in marketing. As movies like Infinity War go on to earn USD $2 billion at the global box office, agreeability continues to be what mainstream Hollywood strives for, rendering critics and audiences as an indiscriminate mass that attends movies they’ve been preprogrammed to like.
Semley’s pan joined “rotten” reviews by critics I make a point to read (like Justin Chang, A.O. Scott, Stephanie Zacharek and NOW’s Norm Wilner) because they regularly probe whether a film succeeds beyond its corporate mandate. If they’re haters, it’s because they’re questioning why they should find mere competence agreeable.
But Hater isn’t just about Rotten Tomatoes and the dulling of film criticism, and it is certainly not about condoning trolls and hate groups. Instead, it’s a reminder that contrarian opinions can motivate us to think about what we’re consuming and what we’re taking for granted.
Semley scours history and the current online environment to make sustained arguments about how not just Rotten Tomatoes’ but also Facebook’s algorithm fosters agreeability to dangerous results. He points out how left-wing and right-wing can live in bubbles, because algorithms make sure those groups only see things they’re socialized to find agreeable. Our subsequent inability to understand opposing views is what leads to vast divisions… and political opportunists like Trump.
Yes, this book is about Semley’s distaste for Avengers (among so many other corn-fed entertainments), but it’s also about why challenging agreeability is progressive. Hater has worthy social and political dimensions, framed by Semley’s own experience as a critic in today’s hostile environment toward that profession.
In one section, the author sits down with famed film-critic-contrarian-turned-
“They get into criticism to promote Hollywood,” White tells Semley, “to get screeners, to get free movies. But after you see the movie, what do you do? Do you perform as a critic? Or do you perform as a fan?”
Democratization of film criticism via the internet has increased supply – anyone with a domain name can publish opinions – but it has also has diminished demand. The value placed on reviews has been reduced to that of an Instagram story – so-and-so saw this movie so you should, too.
I should point out that film criticism didn’t begin as a means to say thumbs up or thumbs down. Early criticism grappled with ideas, structure and aesthetics, and stirred conversations.
In today’s publication cycle, that sounds a lot like the thing we groaningly call the “think piece,” which is now used to comment on anything and everything, deservedly or not, because we’re all so desperate for clicks. Often, think pieces are lazily slapped together without grappling with aesthetics or structure while posing entire arguments about how progressive/diverse/feminist/
While I agree with Semley’s exasperation at what the current critical ecosystem has become, I can’t quite share the tone he has when admonishing writers who attempt to apply critical arguments toward mainstream pop culture. Perhaps that’s because I’m one of those writers making a living off of that very thing.
He borrows the term “poptimism” from the New York Times’ Saul Austerlitz, which is the rush to apply critical writing, or “think pieces,” to pop music.
Semley asks whether poptimism is merely “the validation of middle-brow, deep-fried chocolate broccoli taste.” I laughed hard at that analogy, but it left me depressed.
I have to defend the cause from Semley’s dismissal because what else can critics do with an education in criticism? Not that there are many of us. Semley is alumnus from the same grad school in cinema studies as me and fellow Toronto critics Adam Nayman (Cinema Scope, The Ringer), Kiva Reardon (cléo), Mallory Andrews (cléo), Chelsea Phillips-Carr (CinemaScope) and Alicia Fletcher (Cinema Scope, Hollywood Suite).
We’d all love to (and some of us do) find the print space, budget and audience to get truly critical with movies that build analysis into the experience, like Phantom Thread (how did you miss that?) or Burning (go now!) or Transit (also, now!). Unfortunately the masses are more willing to read long takes on Marvel and the like.
But Semley knows better than to wholesale dismiss the potential value in that. Early French critics developed what we know today as the “auteur theory” when they discovered the sustained artistry in John Ford’s westerns and Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers, the Marvels of their time.
We all want to find similar artistry in today’s Hollywood movies, and we’re still trying to convince audiences to care about such things.