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What is the Lesson From Legend of Tarzan and Other Films that Critics Hate and Audiences Love?

ERBDOM, Legend of Tarzan (Movie), Legend of Tarzan Reviews

Legend of Tarzan opened on July 1st to a Rotten Tomatoes Critics rating of 35%, while audiences gave it an A- Cinemascore and an initial audience rating after the first weekend of 74%.  Suicide Squad opened on August 5th to a critics rating of just 26%, and a B+ Cinemascore, and its initial audience rating too is 74%.    The question arises — what is going on to cause such a disparity between audiences and critics?  Is this anything new? Does it matter?

I’ve spent some time trying to fathom what it is in both cases that irked critics but didn’t bother audiences, and I have a theory.  I would state the beginnings of a  theory as follows. Critics of Legend of Tarzan fall into two camps — and to at least some degree, so do critics of Suicide Squad:

  • Show Me Something I’ve Never Seen: Critics, whose job it is to think deeply about film all the time, tend to look for storytelling that is fresh and different and breaks new ground; they react negatively as soon as they sense the familiar.  Audiences, on the other hand, tend to looking for storytelling that is comforting and reassuring, provides a “good ride”, perhaps some escape.  Deep, classical, mythic storytelling structures please audiences but run the risk of “been there, seen that” for critics.
  • Social/Poltical Sensitivity: Critics are immersed in social/political sensitivity, at least in part because their job places them in the role of having a finger on the pulse of all the “isms” that demand attention in our evolved 2016 social context — racism, feminism, etc.  In many cases they represent a hyper-evolved sense of political and social correctness and they automatically inject a layer of this awareness into their criticism.  They really can’t help it – the filter is there, because they spend their intellectual life immersed in the social and cultural conversation.

Are these major observations? Probably not.  But let’s think about what they mean.

The Journey of the Hero

If a being from another world were to ask you, ‘How can I learn what it’s like to be human?’ a good answer would be, ‘Study mythology.’ ”— Joseph Campbell

For much of my lifetime, Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” has provided the outline for stories that satisfy because they answer our deepest need for stories that follow patterns we find meaningful and familiar.  The characters, situations, even (especially) worlds change, but the patterns are familiar. This satisfies.  Here is how Campbell breaks it down (for more, click here.)


I would argue that, for example, Legend of Tarzan follows that hero’s journey pattern reasonably well, and is “satisfying” from an audience perspective because of it.  Yet from the perspective of many of LOT’s many critics, the story’s adherence to the familiar mythic pattern is a liability, not an asset.

Too Familiar — Lack of Freshness

Some examples of critics who gave it a thumb’s down for what could be described as a lack of “freshness”:

The plot of the classic adventure tale has been admirably reconfigured to meet modern sensibilities, but the resulting film is simplistic, condescending, and inert. Richard Brody, New Yorker

The saga doesn’t tell a coherent story so much as juggle tropes, images and archetypes from earlier, more enjoyable adaptations. Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune

… mostly manipulates the Tarzan mythology – or “legend,” if you will – into a summer blockbuster framework, instead of the other way around.  Todd Jorgenson, Cinemalogue

Strangely naive in the way it rewrites history… feels both misguided and slapdash, and the good parts aren’t enough to muddle through this overly complicated and dull-as-dirt story. Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
Social/Political Sensitivity
And then there are the critics who base their thumbs down review on social/political sensitivity issues:
There seems little reason to resurrect Tarzan in 2016; his character, or at least his creator, the turn-of-the-century American schlockmeister Edgar Rice Burroughs, is racist and sexist by any contemporary standard. Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail
But Tarzan is still a story of a white man who has dominion over not just animals but also Africans, and it feels . . . icky.  Molly Eichel, Philadelphia Inquirer
 . . .t is even more retrograde than anything the author invented. It’s as if they went out of their way to avoid any pretense of relevance or significance to modern audiences, and then took a longer detour to be as offensive as possible. MaryAnn Johanson, Flick Filosopher
“The Legend of Tarzan” is sequel, origin story and racially sensitive revisionist history lesson all in one. Peter Debruge, Variety
(To be continued . . . .  meanwhile — interested in hearing comments here and on Facebook.)


  • I would question the idea that fans actually loved BvS or Suicide Squad. B+ or B cinema score really isn’t that great for big budget special effects movies designed to appeal to the broadest audience possible.

    While both films will make a lot of money that’s mainly because these comic films have such huge fan bases. BvS actually under performed based on the popularity of the characters. Christopher Nolan’s last 2 Batman films The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises both passed a billion dollars worldwide back in 2008 and 2012. BvS couldn’t make it $900 million worldwide with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.

    Another reason for the critics harsher scores than audiences is the fact they are not fans of this material. The fans will overlook many of the faults of these movies because they are fans while critics will not. I saw both BvS and Suicide Squad and they are not well done as films. As a fan familiar with this stuff I can overlook many of their faults. Critics will not nor should they. shouldn’t.

    • But that brings up what I think is an important point. Should a film be judged on what it is trying to be? In other words, if a film is made a comic book superhero movie, should a reviewer understand that genre and rate the film on those terms? Or should the reviewer apply some other orientation> Fans, familiar with a genre, may overlook certain things that critics might not overlook. But is a critic right to judge something as a flaw when that something is a convention of the genre of an aspect of the genre that appeals to fans, is accepted by fans as an essential component to the genre, but doesn’t fit the critic’s notion of what the film should do or be? (some other notion, not grounded in the genre…)

  • I would say its a critics job to review how it works as a film not how well it reflects the genre or the source material. What if the source material wasn’t that good to begin with? Comic books with a few minor exceptions are not exactly a highly sophisticated art form and it actually surprises me how many of these films are actually fairly well reviewed.

    • Why can’t a critic do both? I guess I’m weird, I don’t ‘hate’ critics as a group, even when I disagree with them. I like when there’s a critic whose got enough knowledge and writing skills to know the background of a literary based movie, can compare, and still judge the movie as a movie.
      I like having that background info, whether it is regard to the literary basis of a film, or in referencing other movies, etc.
      I don’t need it, but I like it.

      • I agree. I don’t like to bash critics. I do wonder, however, about what the framework for a piece of criticism should be. If a film, for example, is trying to be a summer popcorn adventure movie, is it appropriate to pan it for not achieving on some other level that it may not even be attempting? I think this particularly comes into play when a movie incorporates aspects that are familiar an satisfying to a “regular audience” member, but “I’ve seen this before and it’s not new” to a professional critic. The human response to storytelling takes pleasure in certain patterns being repeated . . . that’s why stories have patterns in the first place . . . .and sometimes I feel that time honored mythic patterns may sometimes get dismissed by critics as too familiar when they’re not too familiar to the audience — and in fact, it is the very familiarity that causes it to resonate within the genre. Oh well . . .

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