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How Rotten Tomatoes became the scapegoat for frustrated ‘Suicide Squad’ fans

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “Suicide Squad.” (Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & DC Comics)

The critics are wrong about “Suicide Squad,” according to an online eruption from the DC Universe’s fandom. The small but loud revolt against critical opinion demanded the closure of Rotten Tomatoes, where “Suicide Squad’s” aggregate rating among critics is hovering at about 30 percent. The negative reviews are “unjust,” the fan uprising said. The film has not yet opened in theaters.

It’s an odd target for a campaign that aims to democratize the critical analysis of films, since that’s basically what Rotten Tomatoes was founded to do in the first place. Rotten Tomatoes is a website that aggregates and evaluates the reviews of critics who work for publications across the globe. Their film ratings — expressed as a percentage — are meant to provide an overall look at how the film is faring in the opinions of those critics. And yet, for those signing the petition demanding Rotten Tomatoes’s closure, the site was the easiest target to pick as a stand-in for the entire idea of a critic’s value.

“Critics always give The DC Extended Universe movies unjust Bad Reviews,” the petition’s call to arms read. Its founder, Abdullah Coldwater of Alexandria, Egypt, later clarified that he didn’t think his petition would actually shut down Rotten Tomatoes but would instead “deliver a message to the critics that there is a lot of people disagree with their reviews.”

Review: “Suicide Squad” is perfect for 2016. Which means it’s absolutely terrible.

In just a few hours, the petition became the target of widespread ridicule. It appears that a good portion of the 17,000 people who signed it did so to make fun of the petition in the comments. Several signers used their comment box to gleefully point out that Rotten Tomatoes, supposedly the epicenter of an unfair, anti-DC campaign among critics, has links to Warner Bros., DC Entertainment’s parent company.

Eventually, Coldwater announced that he was withdrawing the petition, saying that he initially made it to “gather dc fans to express our anger just for fun,” but found that “the only thing that it does is spreading a speech of hate and online fighting among the supporters and objectors.”

The anti-Rotten Tomatoes campaign doesn’t seem like it ever really caught on, at least as anything other than this week’s viral story about someone who is wrong on the Internet. But there are real debates happening about the role of critics in an online world, and they aren’t going to go away.

While it would be tempting to frame this debate as the difference between the true fan and outsider perspectives on “Suicide Squad,” that’s not really correct. Fans can and do watch movies and TV shows in their own fandom critically, with great sophistication and diversity of opinion; outsiders can be charmed by “bad” movies that manage to show them something they like.

Opinion: Forget the critics: 7 reasons “Suicide Squad” is undeniably awesome if you’re a fanboy

Pinning a fandom litmus test on whether one likes a clearly troubled film just because it exists seems like a bad idea and does a disservice to the diversity of opinion within fandoms. The critics who are calling out “Suicide Squad” for failing to live up to its promising early promotion aren’t doing it to punish fans. They’re doing it because, in their opinions, the film doesn’t work.

In the dominant narrative of the “Suicide Squad” revolt and others like it, “the critics” as a group are cast as antagonists, particularly when the films in their fandom review poorly. DC’s fandom has been particularly aggressive about this, and not just about “Suicide Squad.” When “Batman v Superman‘s” reviews were so terrible that it spawned the Sad Ben Affleck meme, some fans accused critics of taking payments from Disney (who owns rival Marvel) to skew their reviews. The conspiracy theory flourished, without evidence, among another small-but-loud subset of DC fans who preferred to believe that their widely anticipated film was being set up for failure in the box office by a nefarious plot, rather than on its own flawed merits.

Warner Bros. looked to "Suicide Squad" to boost its comic book brand for 2016 after the disappointing performance of "Batman v Superman." (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Sometimes, the tension is a little more nuanced. Many players of the “Warcraft” game series were disappointed when the film based on its mythology fared poorly among critics, precisely because there was a sense that director Duncan Jones really cared about the game and wanted to do right by its fans. The fans I spoke with when “Warcraft” was released said the film succeeded as fan service to a great degree, something that’s hard to do well for a community as dedicated theirs. But for many of those critics who set out to evaluate the film as a story told to an audience beyond the game’s core community of players, “Warcraft” failed. Depending on your perspective, “Warcraft” may have been a remarkable achievement, or a film of no value at all.

For his part, “Suicide Squad” director David Ayer has responded to the panning of his film by implying that he didn’t make the film for the critics.

Sure, fine. The fans who think the critics are out to get them will appreciate it, as will Warner Bros., which has encouraged DC fans to dismiss film critics as disconnected from film audiences in the recent past.

In the end, it won’t be hard to see how differently fans treat “Suicide Squad” once it’s actually out in theaters. As it does for every movie in its database, Rotten Tomatoes will list an “audience score” right alongside the film’s critical rating.

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