Film and TV

How to define a movie critic's job in the summer of comic books

To: Stephanie Zacharek
From: Alan Scherstuhl

Hi, Stephanie, welcome again to the Voice!

Like you, I found myself worn out by Iron Man 3, especially the long, kabooming climax. And, like you, I found myself wishing that Robert Downey Jr. had something deeper to play, and that the character had more surprises left in him. The Bruce-Wayne-meets-Groucho routine is still plenty charming, but the moments meant to seem new here -- his panic attacks, for example -- felt willed by the script rather than as if they were rising out of this particular character having this particular adventure.

That said, as far as blockbuster filmmaking goes, Iron Man 3 strikes me as witty and surprising in its particulars even as it's durably conventional in much of its shape. And, more important, I found myself thinking again and again that it is exactly what its target audience hopes it will be. It's not a comic-book movie; it's a stack-of-comic-books movie, a year's worth of Iron Man issues packed into just over two hours. Its density -- that exhausting moreness you single out in your review -- might be what the Marvel movie faithful are looking for.

When reviewing a film like this, what is the critic's responsibility to the audience to whom the movie is aimed--especially if the critic is outside that audience? (Remember all those male critics refusing even to engage with the Sex and the City movies, as if the fantasy those films peddled is somehow more repugnant than the violence of the latest boys-only action thriller?) In a case like this, is there any point in dropping in a line like "Of course, if this is the kind of thing that you like, you are probably going to like it just fine"?

To: Alan Scherstuhl
From: Stephanie Zacharek

Hi, Alan -- I like your "stack of comic books" metaphor, and I think it's apt. Whether you or I like Iron Man 3 or not, Marvel seems to believe it's serving its audience by giving viewers more of just about everything, in bodacious quantities.

But I wonder if there's an inherent problem in the idea of a studio "serving" its audience, as opposed to, you know, just making a movie. To me, Iron Man 3 seems less like a movie that sprang from an interesting director's vision -- and Shane Black is a pretty interesting director, if Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is any indication -- than a piece of entertainment constructed from a bunch of test-marketed, tried-and-true components: the angst of the central character, who's really just a fallible human being but who has been forced into the role of the superhero; the "girl character" who's been passive in the past but is now allowed to have some muscle and kick some butt; the multiple climaxes piled one atop the other.

Here's the thing, though. Time and again, as a critic reviewing comic-book movies, I've been assailed as "not the target audience." And I'm never quite sure what that means. That I'm a woman? (Guilty as charged.) That I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool comic-book person? (I enjoy some comic books -- I'm very visually attuned, so beautiful or arresting drawings appeal to me -- but, no, I don't have boxes of them in storage.) And so I think, wait -- these movies are designed to have mass appeal, but as a critic who takes a great deal of pleasure in seeing and reviewing mass-market pictures (among other things), should I be expected to step aside and leave comic-book-movie reviewing to the specialists? That's bizarre. There's also an element of "Step aside, little lady..." but let's not even go there.

I have loved some movies based on comic books -- the Hellboy pictures, Thor, the first Iron Man, the latest Spider-Man (mostly), a reasonable percentage of the X-Men movies. There are others I don't respond to -- Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, The Avengers. But a survey of my likes and dislikes is beside the point. The only reality is that I can't look at movies with anyone else's eyes but my own. I've seen other critics deal with this problem by saying things like, "Fans of the genre will certainly enjoy watching Robert Downey Jr. suffer his existential angst inside his metal suit." But to me, that's incredibly condescending to the reading audience. It's a case of a critic saying, "I didn't particularly like this, but you people in the cheap seats probably will." Do people want to be talked to that way? I sure don't. My job isn't to predict what movie-goers will like; it's to be as open as possible to what's in front of me, and to assess it from my own frame of reference. Anything else is just dishonest.

One thing that troubles me is the prevailing notion that if a critic doesn't like a particular movie, he or she is just out to destroy or negate the experience for the audience. But you can't write an honest -- or even a readable! -- piece of criticism if you're stopping every other sentence to soothe a reader's potential hurt feelings. Own your pleasure in a movie, no matter what any critic says. Reading is active, not passive, and so is movie-going. If you love Iron Man 3, love it with all your heart. Don't let my own misgivings about it ruin your day -- and allow that I'm not here to hold your hand.

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl
Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.