There’s no shortage of web articles written to inform me which film critic ruined the perfect score that Get Out once held on Rotten Tomatoes. It was the contrarian Armond White, who described Jordan Peele’s directorial debut as “an attenuated comedy sketch in which serious concerns are debased.” Given White’s reputation for critical dissent, it’s not especially remarkable that he would pan Get Out—which now holds a 99 percent “fresh” rating—or that White’s putdowns might inspire a few headlines. What’s remarkable is the obsession with White’s influence on the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score, a simple but potent reduction of a movie’s esteem among critics from all corners of the web, from The New Yorker to Cairo 360.
Since the release of Get Out a year ago, the mainstream litigation of Rotten Tomatoes scores has becoming deceptively common. In December, several websites reported the demise of Lady Bird’s “perfect” score, ruined by the blogger Cole Smithey, who admittedly cast his B-minus review to the heap in order to challenge “a perfect score that people were using to trumpet ‘Lady Bird’ as the all-time best reviewed movie on RT.” News websites covered the demise of the movie’s perfect “fresh” rating, which Smithey “ruined,” as a minor catastrophe for good taste. Writing for Quartz, the reporter Ashley Rodriguez described Rotten Tomatoes as a system that flattens all nuance and encourages trolling. The site’s “percentage score simply shows the overall share of critics who submitted positive reviews,” Rodriguez observed. “So when Smithey marked his rather neutral review as Rotten, that was the end of Lady Bird’s perfect run.”
Let’s put aside the minor question of whether the Rotten Tomatoes system falters in comparison to Metacritic’s. The larger concern is that these scores have taken on such news-making credibility, and that these scores—especially perfect “fresh” ratings—have taken on a quasi-political importance. Among reactionary trolls, such as the hordes who antagonized Ghostbusters and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rotten Tomatoes has become a tool to spite unconventional, progressive influence in popular filmmaking. And among the progressives themselves, who now find themselves on the defensive against the reactionary trolls, Rotten Tomatoes is a tool to protect acclaimed films, such as Lady Bird, from even marginal dissent. “The film still has 100% based on reviews from top critics on the site,” Rodriguez noted. Among Rotten Tomatoes obsessives, the margins for dissent are so small that even the tiniest backlash to a popular comic book movie or a critically acclaimed indie provokes some measure of irritation.
Ironically, critics—the stars of Rotten Tomatoes—are the biggest losers in the website’s outsized influence. The Ringer’s editor-in-chief, Sean Fennessey, has written about the influence of Rotten Tomatoes scores among the moviegoing public, which necessarily makes the website a crucial consideration among studio marketing teams, too. But Rotten Tomatoes is a burden and disservice among critics, who don’t really write reviews as flat, binary assessments, even when they’re scoring films on a traditional stars system. The critic’s purpose coincides with the design of Rotten Tomatoes insofar as they both mean to relate whether consumers should bother seeing a given movie.
But where the critic additionally means to relate all sorts of ideas about the movie, and its actors, and its director, and its studio, et al., Rotten Tomatoes simply moves on to the process of aggregation, stripping the criticism for spare parts. In many cases, the website decides which excerpts are representative of the critic’s overall assessment of a movie, and the website determines whether readers should consider the review positive (“fresh”) or negative (“rotten”). (Critics also have the option of making the designation themselves, as Smithey himself did.) Lost in the quantified consensus is the critic’s taste, ideas, reservations, and intentions. Without these context clues, the Rotten Tomatoes reader is left to regard film criticism as a zero-sum endeavor. Hence, the urge to cite Rotten Tomatoes scores as proof that critics are bluntly for or against a particular film.
Despite unrelenting consternation about perfect “fresh” scores and critic-vs.-audience discrepancies, Rotten Tomatoes has maintained the basic score structure that encourages such jockeying. Upon the release of Black Panther just a couple of weeks ago, there was a rush of headlines singling out Ed Power’s three-star review—“a stodgy tale of internecine feuding”—for ruining the film’s otherwise perfect score; despite the review’s overall friendliness and Power’s receptiveness to the movie’s importance among black audiences. If you read Power’s review, you’d know he’s mostly grousing about the film’s second half, and that he’s hardly recommending against seeing Black Panther. But if you read just the “rotten” excerpt in the Top Critics section of Rotten Tomatoes, you’d think Power was panning the movie with unconditionally: as he writes (of the film), “That’s a shame.”
Rotten Tomatoes isn’t the only review aggregator in town. Letterboxd users, including prominent critics, upload film reviews and assign scores on a five-star scale. IMDb tracks user review scores for movies. Alternatively, Cinemascore prioritizes audience acclaim and surveys moviegoers directly. More broadly, Metacritic tracks critic and user reviews of movies as well as TV shows, albums, and video games. But among review aggregation sites, Rotten Tomatoes is the premier critical battleground, and it’s the only such website that regularly inspires showdowns over the margins of critical consensus. And no media other than film seems to hinge so critically on the calculus of a single website.
Rotten Tomatoes launched in 1998, but it’s been such a hotbed for score-settling only since the July 2012 release of The Dark Knight Rises. Four years earlier, the website hyped Christopher Nolan’s previous Batman flick, The Dark Knight, as a potential “masterpiece” based on early, pre-release reviews, and so the website cemented its status as the terminal checkpoint for a movie’s critical regard. “It’s probably safe to say that The Dark Knight Rises is the most anticipated film of the year,” Rotten Tomatoes editor-in-chief Matt Atchity wrote. “And my staff and I knew full well that when the first negative review came in, the reviewer would get pasted in the comments. That dubious honor goes to Marshall Fine.” Writing for his personal website, Fine panned Nolan’s “weakest” Batman movie as a “lumpish, tedious film,” thus scuttling the perfect score that other critics had briefly afforded the film before its release. On Rotten Tomatoes, Nolan fans flooded the comments section with hate speech as Fine’s website crashed. “Rumors of the death of my website have been greatly exaggerated,” Fine later told IndieWire. But as writer Matt Singer noted, the reactions to Fine’s “other negative reviews had serious and potentially permanent implications for Rotten Tomatoes.” Six years later, it seems the critical implications are permanent and provocative by design.
The Dark Knight Rises predates Gamergate by two years. But the urge to overwhelmingly defend Nolan’s movie from critics prefigured much of the online troll movement’s obsession with enforcing critical consensus about commercial artwork through score-policing and harassment. Six years after the release of The Dark Knight Rises, websites have adopted fandom’s Rotten Tomatoes obsession as a mainstream concern, calling various factions to war over perfect scores of the year’s most captivating films.
The headlines and the stories may seem benign in many cases—the real fight over Get Out is unfolding among Oscar voters, not on Rotten Tomatoes—but the urge to police these scores, and to subject perfect scores to martial law, suggests a manner of rigidness and polarization that obviates the real work of criticism and serves only the worst excesses of fandom. The Tomatometer may loosely measure consensus, but it can hardly relay the nuances that fandom, criticism, and the movies themselves contain. If Rotten Tomatoes trains moviegoers, and then even news editors, to look past all these nuances for the sake of snap judgments, then depressed interest in, say, The Dark Tower isn’t the worst outcome. The real shame is the abbreviated conversation.