When Batman V. Superman pulls in a Tomatometer score just four points above, say, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, you know someone at Warner Bros. is having a bad day.
Much to the chagrin of the producers, director, and actors responsible for bring the latest superhero epic-and the intended springboard for an expanded cinematic franchise from DC Comics-the vast majority of critics pulverized the film into a pulp before it had even hit its official release date.
Honestly, I'm not sure which was more painful: watching Superman get pounded on by the Dark Knight or watching the negative reviews pile up on Rotten Tomatoes.
But then equally painful was watching how the producers, director, and actors responded to the onslaught. Especially when it comes to a big tentpole film-and Batman V. Superman is about as big as tentpole films get-these people have been well-trained to put forward a unified front against whatever bad reviews or scathing interview questions may be hurled their way. In this regard, they held their ground quite well, but not without a lot of squirming.
Yes, I have seen the movie and could write for the length of this piece on the merits of their arguments against the negative reviews they've received. However, because this is a blog about, among other things, the always fascinating world of reviews, I'm going to take this story from the point of view of a company responding to poor product reviews.
Yes, I know, this is a movie we're talking about here, not a cable provider or a home security installer. But the reactions Warner Bros. and the team behind Batman V. Superman have exhibited toward the press have been remarkably similar to those we see between certain companies and those customers who choose to leave negative reviews about them. This makes this situation the perfect opportunity to illustrate the different ways companies react to negative reviews and why they work or not.
When the first negative reviews about Batman V. Superman surfaced, the film's director, Zack Snyder, gave this response during an interview with Yahoo:
"I'm a comic book guy and I made the movie based as much as I could on that aesthetic. And so I don't know how else to do it 100 percent, so it is what it is."
This quote is pretty much a shrug, a half-hearted attempt to rebut the bad reviews without actually calling them false. Unfortunately, aside from getting a 17% on the informativeness scale, it's just a masked way of telling reviewers, "I gave it the ol' college try. If you didn't like it, I'm not sure what to tell you."
While this semi-works in the world of feature films, where questions about audience bias and artistry can often protect filmmakers from having to fully answer for their work, it doesn't fly when it comes to reviews for regular products and services. Shockingly, this doesn't stop companies from issuing these kinds of responses to negative reviews.
Even worse than Reaction #1 is the tendency of companies to try to fight back at negative reviews. In the case of Batman V. Superman, Snyder and his cast took time during their media interviews to discredit or disprove the negative reviews.
Snyder led the charge with this rebuke to those who thought the movie was too serious and dark:
"I would go back to the Dark Knight argument and say, 'Is that a bad thing? What does that mean?' By the way, the most serious movies I've made in the past always have irony in them... It's still a guy in a red and blue suit fighting a guy in a black suit. I mean, they're in costumes. The movie is fun, and Batman fights Superman. If you can't have fun there, then something's kind of wrong with you."
This response was a thinly veiled way of saying, "If you thought the movie was too serious, than you're just not a fun person."
Next, Superman actor Henry Cavill and Lois Lane actress Amy Adams pulled the old "critics-are-just-a-bunch-of-out-of-touch-artsy-fartsy-snobs" card. Said Cavill:
"The interesting thing is that we get the critics who have their personal opinions. And the thing about personal opinions is that they always come from a place, and there's a preconceived idea which you have to get past a critic before you start writing your article or your review, and that affects everything."
And then this blurb from Adams:
"I know that Zack [Snyder] doesn't make the movies, or none of us, are making the movies for the critics. You can't go into it with that perspective. I know we really hope the fans like it and so far the reaction has been really positive on that front. If you're interested in a film you should see it and form your own opinion rather than just going on the word of somebody [else]."
What I find most intriguing about these quotes is the implication that reviewers aren't like other filmgoers, that this should give pause to other moviegoers. But if you really think about it, in the context of consumer reviews, film critics are actually more like mavens or super-influencers. They actually use the product more than anyone else, and people inherently turn to them to determine the quality of a movie before shelling out $10 on a ticket.
This approach of attacking the negative review-or the reviewer behind it-doesn't work in other situations and it doesn't work here. Especially when the reviewer has an army of followers.
If you've seen this video-and by now, who hasn't?-you know that Ben Affleck's silence, probably meant to avoid saying anything damaging or hurtful to the interviewer, only opened new opportunities for the movie's critics and Internet jokesters to damage the film's reputation. Affleck tries to hold his tongue, he doesn't do such a great job of hiding his immense frustration, someone adds in a little melancholy Simon & Garfunkel, and you have a viral sensation that only makes the world a little more painful for everyone involved with Batman V. Superman.
In the wider world of consumer reviews, this happens all the time. And every time, it's regarded as a sign of disinterest from the company-a company who is probably, like Affleck, trying to just play it cool in the face of some negative reviews. Customer experience guru Jay Baer explains:
"People just complain to the wind, and they are met with silence. And unfortunately, a lack of response is a response-and it says, 'I don't care about you very much.'"
You see this response frequently with general consumer reviews. You see it with dating sites like eHarmony or Match.com. Someone complains in a review that the service is just too expensive for the limited number of actually dateable candidates that show up. When the company responds, they say something like, "We're sorry that you aren't seeing results with our service. We go to great lengths to blah, blah, blah. We recommend that you blah, blah, blah."
With films, this response is quite common. Directors will come out after a film has been released and say, "I'm sorry you didn't enjoy your movie experience," and then follow that with, "But it could've been due to factors X, Y, and Z."
In either case, it has the same effect: "Sorry, but it's not us, it's you."
This is best practice with consumer reviews in general, but not so much in Hollywood.
You won't hear Snyder or anyone else associated with Batman V. Superman follow this strategy, not during the the film's initial run and not without getting themselves blacklisted. But you do often see this from filmmakers who left films under less-than-desirable circumstances.
One recent example of this was Josh Trank's tell-all regarding the behind-the-scenes snafu that turned last summer's Fantastic Four into a non-starter. Just as the film was getting ready to hit theaters, he tweeted:
"A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would've received great reviews. You'll probably never see it. That's reality though."
It was at least an apology, but from a director who was in no position to make things better. By then, he'd already burned his bridges with the studio.
Interestingly, perhaps in a bid to restore faith in his movie, Snyder has begun talking in interviews about his director's cut, which will tie up some loose ends and fill out some of the characters and moments in the film that felt lacking. It's probably as close to an apology and restitution as critics and fans are going to get from Snyder and the Batman V. Superman team.