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Stupid Questions: Do Critics Really Hate Superhero Movies?

Suicide Squad, this summer’s superhero-fueled Dirty Dozen riff, made a lot of money. A $700 million take on a budget of $175 million? Yeah, that’s a hit.

But money does not a good movie make: don’t forget, Minions is the 11th-highest grossing film of all-time. According to the website Rotten Tomatoes, roughly three out of four Suicide Squad reviews are negative. Most of them are really negative.

So why does a movie like Suicide Squad that’s brutalized by critics still make money? Suicide Squad’s cast and crew have a theory.

Margot Robie, who plays the certifiably insane femme fatale Harley Quinn, doesn’t think that the critics’ opinions matter.

At the end of the day, critical acclaim is really nice, but we made it for the fans. If the fans like it, we did our job.

Suicide Squad director David Ayer goes further, claiming that critics aren’t “real people.”

I made the movie for real people who live in the real world. I made the movie for people who actually love movies and go see movies.

And Cara Delevingne, who plays the villainous Enchantress, cuts right to the chase:

Yeah, the critics have been horrific. They’ve been really, really horrible. I just don’t think they like superhero movies.

But is that true? Or, to ask a stupid question:

Do critics really hate superhero movies?

We can actually answer that question, thanks to Rotten Tomatoes. Remember, Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t produce reviews. It’s a review aggregator. Rotten Tomatoes collects reviews from various sources and analyzes them to come up with a “freshness” rating — basically, how many of a movie’s reviews were positive.

If 60% or more of a given movie’s reviews are positive, then Rotten Tomatoes classifies the movie as classified “Fresh,” implying that it’s good. Otherwise, the movie is “Rotten,” or bad. Remember, Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t take into account how good or how bad a review is. As far as Rotten Tomatoes is concerned, “is it good?” is a yes or no question.

Using Rotten Tomatoes, I (very quickly) compiled a list of the freshness ratings for every superhero movie that’s hit in theaters since 1977. Why 1977? Because that’s when Superman: The Movie, which I consider the first modern superhero film, premiered. I only included movies that, like Suicide Squad, are adaptations of existing comic book properties, and only films that received a theatrical release.

Dolph Lungdren Punisher
The Punisher (1989) was a direct-to-video release. Sorry, Dolph.

Of the 71 superhero movies on my final list, 39 had freshness ratings over 60%. That means that, according to Rotten Tomatoes, film critics think that 54% of the superhero movies released in the past 39 years are”fresh,” or good. If you lower the threshold for a “good” movie to 50% — basically, if a movie has more positive reviews than negative ones — then critics gave 44 out of 71 movies (almost two-thirds of ’em) positive marks.

So, what does that mean?

On the whole, critics tend to like superheroes. According to Rotten Tomatoes, every single movie produced by Marvel Studios (and there have been 13 of ’em since 2008) has a “Fresh” rating — even that Hulk movie that nobody remembers. On Rotten Tomatoes, all three of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films are classified as fresh, as are most of the Spider-Man flicks.

But that’s only half of the story. When director David Ayer says that he made Suicide Squad for “real people,” he’s implying that there’s a difference between critics think and the general movie-going public. We can test that, too. Rotten Tomatoes also lets users submit their own reviews, and tallies these into a separate freshness rating, which is also listed on the site.

As it turns out, fans and critics mostly agree aboutsuperhero movies. Fan and critic reviews agree on whether a movie is “fresh” or “rotten” 83% of the time. Often, when critics and users disagree, the differences are pretty small. For example, 58% of critics liked X-Men: The Last Stand, compared to 62% of fans. By Rotten Tomatoes’ standards, that’s a disagreement. In reality? Eh, not so much.

Ang Lee Hulk
Surprise! Critics liked Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), giving it a 62% “freshness” score. By contrast, fan reviews are only 29% positive.

Now, Rotten Tomatoes isn’t perfect. It’s not clear how the site’s editors decide whether or not a review is positive or negative, and a small group of passionate fans can skew the user ratings pretty heavily in one direction (see this summer’s Ghostbusters remake for a good example).

Still, fans and filmmakers can’t really say that critics have an anti-superhero bias. As a whole, reviewers like superhero movies. Even moreso, their tastes align pretty closely with general movie-going public’s.

Most importantly, however, review scores don’t mean much to a film’s bottom line, at least according to Suicide Squad. And why should they? If you like Suicide Squad, great! You’re entitled to your opinions, just like critics are entitled to theirs. Nobody wants to be disappointed when they go to the movies, and ultimately, only you can decide what you like.

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