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.)
- THE ORDINARY WORLD.
- THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.
- REFUSAL OF THE CALL.
- MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.
- CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.
- TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.
- THE ORDEAL.
- THE REWARD.
- THE ROAD BACK.
- THE RESURRECTION.
- RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
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