Let’s talk about the Tomatoes: The problem with aggregate review sites

In recent months, the impact of aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes has been felt significantly in the world of comic book movies. In fact, the initial feedback to Warner Bros. Suicide Squad movie has been so overwhelmingly negative that it actually prompted an online petition to have Rotten Tomatoes shut down.

Is this an overreaction? Almost certainly. However, the worryingly low scores that certain movies seem to be getting – particularly when compared to other movies that are, seemingly, in a lot of ways every bit as flawed – surely means that some sort of dialogue needs to be opened about just how much stock we as moviegoers should be putting in sites like this.

For me, the issue comes not from Rotten Tomatoes as a site per se, but from the increasing practice of reducing criticism to a binary construct: a simple thumbs up or a thumbs down – “rotten” or “fresh” – with absolutely nothing in between. I’ve been reviewing comics and movies for the best part of four years now, and I can emphatically state that there are very few products I’ve reviewed in that time that have been either 100% good or 100% bad. Almost everything has its good points and bad points, and that’s precisely why we write reviews, to provide a balanced breakdown of what works and what doesn’t work for any particular offering,

Sadly, the Rotten Tomatoes format ignores any nuance or “middle ground” by simply slapping a green or red marker on each review and moving on. It also doesn’t help the rising groundswell of ill feeling towards the site that it’s them who effectively decides whether a review is “fresh” or “rotten”, particularly in the absence of a number based review system being used by the critic being assessed (As a side-note, while I’ll concede that slapping numbers or stars onto a review is, in a way, every bit as unhelpful as the Rotten Tomatoes fresh-ometer, it does at least offer up some middle ground between the best and worst movies ever made.)

While the whole “fresh” or “rotten” verdict is fairly obvious for the majority of reviews, it’s also a system which is open to bias, both intentional and inadvertent, and it’s not too far-fetched to assume that, should the first block of reviews for a film be overwhelmingly negative, RT are likely to lump any borderline reviews into the “rotten pile” as well.

It’s easy to draw a line under this entire argument with the caveat of “well, you should just make up your own mind”, and that’s a noble concept, but in an era of increased cinema prices – and particularly in the intensely competitive world of comicbook movies – word of mouth is an absolutely essential component to a film’s success or failure. The fact is, if the average moviegoer is bombarded with “rotten” tomato splats and negative quotes (which completely ignore the frequent offsetting comments about the film’s good points elsewhere in the review), they’re not going to feel confident in laying out a decent chunk of change to go see it in their local cinema. That’s just human nature and is, as such, completely understandable.

So, should Rotten Tomatoes shut up shop as the pitchforks and flaming torches arrive at their door? Absolutely not. The site undoubtedly provides a useful tool for users to see, at a glance, what kind of feedback a movie is getting (while also providing a much-needed traffic stream for those critics who are featured on it). Instead, it’s what we do with this information that needs to change. Rather than simply gauging a movie by the colour of its tomato, actually take the time to read some of the reviews and see what the critics really thought. Also, while it is, as I mentioned above, a fairly glib solution, I’d urge any moviegoers to try and make up their own mind, and not let an incredibly abstract aggregate score on a website derail them from wanting to see a film that they had previously – based on the promotional material, trailers and their own individual preferences – been incredibly excited about.

So, is Suicide Squad “fresh” or “rotten”? Unfortunately, there’s only one way to tell for sure, and that’s by doing exactly what I’m planning on doing tomorrow. Going and seeing it for myself.

Let us know what you think about the whole Rotten Tomatoes situation in the comments, and make sure to check back tomorrow for a spoiler-free review (complete with actual thoughts about what was good and what was bad) of Suicide Squad.

ceejThe writer of this piece was: Craig Neilson-Adams (aka Ceej)
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1 Comment on Let’s talk about the Tomatoes: The problem with aggregate review sites

  1. I certainly don’t think Rotten Tomatoes be silenced over the scores for Suicide Squad. But I think these scores are deeply flawed, and not representative as a whole. Personally I never take any notice of early reviews either for that matter. Always just make up my own mind. I’ve found it all rather dull and predictable that early reviews and tomato scores or whatever have been poor for Suicide Squad, seems the norm for every superhero film now.

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