Movies with a critic-audience split are always fascinating. Reading the commentary about them, you might think it’s a case of snobby film nerds pretentiously disparaging the salt-of-the-earth audiences, or an angry mob of uneducated rabble storming the sacred halls of artistic critique. Naturally, it’s neither of those things. A little analysis quickly reveals what it is about a movie that one group liked more than the other, and the results can guide our choices as storytellers. We’ve already examined movies that critics loved but audiences hated, so today it’s time to look at the opposing extreme, using review scores from Rotten Tomatoes.
Spoiler Notice: Mortal Kombat and Chaos Walking
Audience Score: 86% Critic Score: 54%
The Mortal Kombat franchise has dozens, possibly hundreds of characters introduced across its many games, so it makes total sense that in this latest adaptation, the filmmakers decided to create a new protagonist from scratch. Wait, no, it’s the opposite of that. With a series so full to the brim with flamboyant designs and memorable costumes, why in the Earthrealm would anyone pick Cole “The Blandest Man” Young as a protagonist? Why not Sonya, Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, or any of the other Mortal Kombat characters who could have done the job better?
As for the plot, it’s simple in concept: Cole must join a group of other fighters and defeat the evil Shang Tsung, thus saving the world from a vague conquest. In execution, it’s absolutely bizarre. Shang Tsung doesn’t want to wait for the tournament that normally decides who gets to conquer Earth, so instead, he’s having his guys fight the heroes in one-on-one matches – exactly like a tournament. The character Raiden is a god who can’t interfere even when the bad guys cheat, but he’ll teleport anyone anywhere whenever the good guys ask. Sure.
Why Audiences Love It
Any adaptation of a popular IP is going to benefit from a self-selecting audience, and this movie is no different. People are much more likely to see a Mortal Kombat movie if they’re already fans of the Mortal Kombat games, and those same people are predisposed to like it. That doesn’t guarantee a positive reaction, but it gives the movie a running start.
Perhaps more importantly, the bar for video game tie-in films is very low, and for the Mortal Kombat franchise, the bar has gone through the floor and is somewhere in the subbasement. This movie could have been nothing but two hours of static, and it would still have been a major improvement over previous adaptation attempts. So when viewers sat down to watch and weren’t greeted by the characters riding hamster balls of death, is it any wonder that spirits were high?
Instead, fans got a genuinely great opening followed by a series of entertaining if not well-thought-out fight scenes. The special effects are decent, the actors know how to act, and the dialogue only sounds ridiculous about a third of the time. The film is still a mess, but it’s a mess that appears to have been made with a modicum of care and dedication, which is all that some viewers were looking for.
Why Critics Don’t
A major disconnect between audiences and critics is that critics don’t have the same self-selecting bias that audiences benefit from, at least not to the same degree. While there are certainly critics who specialize in specific genres, or even individual franchises, most watch a wide variety of movies. Those critics aren’t likely to have any existing attachment to the Mortal Kombat games.
This reduces nostalgia’s impact on critical-review scores. Instead of marveling at how far the franchise has come, critics are wondering why Cole is wasting so much time on sparring practice when the real key to unlocking his power is protecting his family. Scorpion’s sudden appearance at the end is more confusing than cool if you aren’t already deeply invested in seeing that character onscreen.
Worse, the movie is filled with moments that actively detract from the story in favor of references to the video games. Characters say things like “fatality” and “get over here” when they have no reason to do so, other than those being recognizable sound bites. The movie randomly switches from cartoonish, consequence-free violence to gory finishing moves because those are in the game, even when they don’t match the film’s tone.
Even so, at 54%, critics didn’t exactly hate Mortal Kombat; they were just lukewarm on it. Plenty of reviews acknowledge the problems and then give the movie a break for being better than what came before. They won’t be nearly so gentle for the other movies on this list.
Audience Score: 76% Critic Score: 28%
In 2016 we finally got a movie set in the Warcraft universe, and for some reason it wasn’t about Arthas becoming the Lich King. I don’t understand. They had one of the best downward arcs in speculative fiction, and instead they decided to tell the story of how orcs showed up in the human world. This obscure yet strangely complicated fragment of Warcraft lore is barely featured in the games, and it’s been retconned to the point that even hardcore fans rarely understand it. What could go wrong?
A lot, it turns out. The story is very difficult to summarize because it has so much going on, but the basic idea is that the orc sorcerer Gul’dan leads his people to invade the human realm, and there’s a political conflict over it. It looks like there might be a chance for peace, but then the plot happens and most of the pro-peace characters are either killed or hardened to violence. There’s also some stuff about evil magic called the fel and a human mage who’s helping Gul’dan for vague reasons, but it mostly gets lost in the noise of orcs and humans beating each other up.
Why Audiences Love It
Like Mortal Kombat before it, Warcraft can be summed up as “pretty good for a video game adaptation.” A whole bunch of audience reviews boil down to that sentiment, and the expectations for such tie-ins were even lower in 2016 than they are now. And while World of Warcraft was well past its peak when the film came out, the sheer number of people who played at one time or another meant there was a huge audience already primed for this film.
As a franchise, Warcraft also has something Mortal Kombat doesn’t: a story. Okay, technically the Mortal Kombat games have stories too, but the number of people who care about them is vanishingly close to zero. In contrast, Warcraft has had a heavy focus on story ever since the Tides of Darkness intro cinematic.* The third game has a complex plot where the formerly evil orcs are shown to be sympathetic and just trying to get by. To this day, millions of people log on to the MMO, and not just for the daily quest grind!
With such a heavy investment in the setting and plot, it’s no surprise that fans would show up for a movie that took both of those things seriously, and that’s clearly what happened here. The movie makes every effort to portray its subject matter with respect and gravitas, even when the writers don’t seem to know what’s happening. And despite all the plot problems, the filmmakers actually do make the orcs look like serious threats. They’re all CGI, but their size and power still feels real.
Why Critics Don’t
For the same reason they didn’t like Mortal Kombat, mostly. If you don’t go in already excited for a Warcraft film, this movie is pretty uninspiring. There are way too many characters, the dialogue constantly bombards us with obscure setting terms, and the acting is often stilted. The human king in particular is so uninspiring that I kept forgetting who he was. The closest thing we have to a protagonist is Lothar, who comes across like an overly stiff Han Solo imitator. I still don’t understand what’s going on with the Guardian and his choices to help the orcs invade.
But Mortal Kombat is confusing too, and it fared much better among critics than Warcraft, so why is that? Because Warcraft commits the only sin worse than being confusing: it’s boring. Long sections go by where the humans talk about orc sightings, and then we cut to later, after the orcs have already taken a firm foothold. Despite all the talk of war, there isn’t that much action in this movie. What action does exist is often hard to follow, as sometimes the orcs have a crushing advantage due to their strength, but other times the human mages can easily carry the day. This is compounded by the characters being mostly flat, leaving critics with nothing to enjoy between fight scenes.
Don’t get me wrong, critics can absolutely fall in love with a boring movie. We saw this with Ad Astra and The Green Knight. But such films have to at least feel like they have something to say, and Warcraft makes no pretensions about that. It’s here for fight scenes and chewing bubblegum, and it’s all out of bubblegum. Unfortunately, it’s mostly out of fight scenes as well.
Audience Score: 71% Critic Score: 21%
A very strange thing happened when I scrolled through in-flight movies during my Thanksgiving trip:* I discovered that early 2021 had seen the release of a big-budget scifi film starring Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, and Mads Mikkelsen. I had never heard of this movie, and after asking around, I could only find one person in my social circles who’d seen it – also on an airplane.
Watching the movie, it’s pretty obvious why they were fine releasing this film with very little marketing in the middle of a pandemic; it’s very bad. It’s got a gendered magic system that the film never explores, Daisy Ridley’s character has some of the most inconsistent characterization I’ve ever seen, and I could never figure out what the villain’s motivation or goals were. It feels less like a coherent plot and more like an improv troupe was given the premise “a future where men’s thoughts are telepathically broadcast but women’s aren’t,” and then they did their best to run with it. Also the movie buries its gays, so that’s not ideal.*
Why Audiences Love It
This movie is based on an existing YA novel,* but I don’t think that has much to do with its relatively high audience score. The book picked up some awards and did fairly well for itself, but it doesn’t appear to have taken the world by storm like Percy Jackson or Six of Crows. I doubt the book’s readership is big enough to explain a score gap this wide.
Instead, I think the explanation lies with a different type of preexisting attachment: to the actors themselves, specifically the leading couple. Holland and Ridley were originally cast back in 2016, when there was only one Star Wars sequel movie, and the MCU’s Spider-Man was nothing more than a cameo in the story of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers’s breakup drama. I’m not sure if Chaos Walking’s producers knew what they had, but it’s safe to say that those two actors got significantly more popular in the next few years. Tom Holland in particular has basically been the internet’s favorite crush since 2017. That’s definitely the sort of thing to inflate movie scores.
It’s also hard to tell how many people actually saw this movie in theaters and how many saw it via streaming. Given how the American theatrical release was in March of 2021, well before most people were vaccinated, anyone who saw it was willing to risk catching and spreading a deadly disease to do so. Maybe that level of recklessness causes a kind of sunk cost fallacy. If you risked death or long-term disability to watch a movie, it had better be a good movie, right?*
Why Critics Don’t
Believe it or not, critics can get attached to actors too. We saw that with The Green Knight, where a number of reviewers mentioned following Dev Patel’s career and were clearly just happy to see him in a movie, any movie. However, Holland and Ridley are primarily known for starring in big Hollywood blockbusters, which isn’t exactly the resume to make critics fall in love with you. Likewise, most film critics probably haven’t read the original book, so they went into this film with even less attachment than in the previous two entries.
Without any existing attachment, the many flaws of this movie are laid bare. Why does Ridley’s first scene show her as a highly skilled astronaut, but in her next scene she’s terrified of everything and barely talks? Why is there a doomsday preacher in the movie, and why does he get unceremoniously killed off near the end? Why is the villain chasing Holland and Ridley in the first place? He mentions not wanting anyone else from Ridley’s ship to land, but it’s not clear why kidnapping her would affect that.
Another common thread among negative reviews is that the movie has an interesting idea with its gendered magic system but never does anything with it. Now, I don’t think that gendered magic systems are a good idea in any circumstances, but the critics are right that Chaos Walking does almost nothing with its premise. All the male characters are constantly broadcasting their thoughts,* and this has exactly two effects on the story. First, it makes Tom Holland’s character even more awkward than normal. Second, characters use their thoughts to create distracting illusions in a handful of scenes.
That’s hardly worth such a major conceit, and critics seem to have judged the movie more harshly for not exploring the concept than they would have if it simply hadn’t existed.
Audience Score: 81% Critic Score: 30%
In this 2018 superhero film, we see the Venom symbiote bond with investigative reporter Eddie Brock so the two of them can team up and save the world. Eventually. First, we need to spend some time watching Eddie go to work, then we need to watch him get fired, then there’s some legwork to get him into the lab where Venom is being stored. But once that’s done, it’s finally time for the symbiote action to begin! Then, they fight a rich bad guy who wants to join humans and symbiotes together for… reasons, presumably? The dialogue mentions living on other planets but not anything about how that is supposed to work.
Why Audiences Love It
By this point, a clear pattern has emerged: Venom is a very popular comic book character, and the bar for a successful Venom movie was set exceptionally low. The last time we saw Venom onscreen, it was when he made Peter Parker do the world’s most awkward dance number in Spider-Man 3. Anything that didn’t involve Eddie developing a sudden love of jazz would have seemed like an improvement.
Likewise, Venom’s audience was self-selecting in two categories: people who like Venom and people who like gross humor. While the PG-13 rating means that the movie has almost no gore, it makes up for it by every single shot being as gross as possible, especially if food is involved. I can tolerate a lot of blood and guts, but watching Eddie eat tater tots isn’t something I’d care to repeat on a full stomach. The trailers made it pretty clear what kind of movie this would be, particularly with the “turd in the wind” line, so viewers who don’t like being grossed out were more likely to stay home.
And for all that, Venom isn’t a terrible movie. The banter between Eddie and his symbiote is legitimately funny, and the action is decent. And while the internet’s crush on Tom Hardy isn’t as strong as its crush on Tom Holland, it’s definitely there.* So that probably helped. Of course, a lot of Eddie’s supposedly endearing behavior would never be tolerated from someone who’s not a white dude, but that’s the case for about 90% of movies, so I can’t ding Venom especially hard for it.
Why Critics Don’t
Unlike audiences, critics can’t be counted on to sort themselves into those with preexisting attachment and those without. When you’re not already chomping at the bit to see a half-decent Venom movie, the flaws pile up fast. The worst one is definitely how long it takes for Eddie and Venom to encounter each other, something that could have been easily fixed with a few simple revisions. Instead, the second half of the movie is badly rushed, and there’s not even time for Venom’s character arc to happen onscreen. He goes from conquering Earth to protecting it, but we only know that because he summarizes his arc in awkward dialogue.
The grossness issue is a little more nuanced. Here, I suspect the critics are reflecting a more general attitude. People who like gross stories are a specialized audience, and Venom’s low reviews give an idea of how much the rest of us would enjoy Tom Hardy chowing down on a still-wriggling lobster. In that regard at least, I suspect the reviewer’s score is fairly accurate.
An odd final note is that reviewers are much more likely to notice that Venom doesn’t actually have much gore. The filmmakers use cutaways, dark lighting, and other tricks to imply there’s gore without ever showing it, which a lot of people won’t be wise to. In their memory, Venom totally bit a bunch of mooks’ heads off. Critics are more versed in the language of filmmaking, and if they were hoping for a properly gory Venom movie, the lack of it would be annoying.
Audience Score: 69% Critic Score: 13%
At 56 points, this martial arts parody has the widest critic-audience split on the list, and also the lowest score overall. At less than 70%, audiences weren’t exactly over the moon for it,* but oh wow did critics hate it. There’s not really a plot to summarize, just a series of varying-quality jokes played over what’s mostly re-edited footage from an older movie.
Why Audiences Love It
Mostly because the jokes worked for them. And it’s true, there are some legitimately funny jokes in this movie. The intentionally bad dubbing is good for a giggle or two, especially for fans of old kung fu movies. I couldn’t help laughing at the beginning, when a lady finds a mysterious baby on the side of the road and then helpfully moves it to the other side of the road.
The more you’re into martial arts and movies about martial arts, the funnier Kung Pow gets. In one scene, a character repeatedly runs toward the camera before being reset to where he started, which is both a joke on reusing footage and about movies without a lot of physical space to film in. A side character is trained incorrectly on purpose, something TV Tropes claims actually happens in real life.* Is that true? I have no idea, but enough people think it is for the joke to be extra funny.
Kung Pow has also become something of a meme since its release in 2002. Highlight reels are a dime a dozen on Youtube, and some jokes get funnier the more they’re repeated. And like with any good meme, part of the appeal is that not everyone gets it. Given the fairly modest ticket sales, we can confidently say that a lot of people don’t get Kung Pow! Enter the Fist.
Why Critics Don’t
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because critics don’t like comedy, martial arts, or martial arts comedy. A quick search of Rotten Tomatoes shows that critics absolutely loved both Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. In fact, critics rated those two masterpieces significantly higher than audiences did. Instead, the critical disdain for Kung Pow can be attributed to three factors.
First and most apparently, a lot of Kung Pow’s jokes are super crass. Just a whole lot of scenes show people getting punched in the balls, reference the fact that poop exists, or feature some other nugget of scatological humor. Critics don’t tend to like crass humor, the same way they didn’t like Venom’s many gross-out moments. Of course, a lot of regular people don’t like crass humor either, but they’re less likely to go watch a movie with gopher-chucks on the poster.
And unlike more highly rated martial arts comedies, Kung Pow does nothing to help anyone who’s not already familiar with the films it’s spoofing. One of the jokes has the characters just staring at each other for several minutes, and it’s pretty baffling if you don’t know the trope of martial artists measuring each other up before a fight. Heck, I’m lost on a lot of these jokes myself. Why does one character make “wee-ohh, wee-ohh” noises? TV Tropes says it’s another dubbing joke, but I don’t get it!
Finally, even when the jokes are good, they’re too looooooooooong. Yes, I get it, he’s fighting a cow; that’s weird and mildly amusing. Why is he still fighting the same cow several minutes later? Please make it stop! Kung Pow is only 81 minutes, but it still feels about 40 minutes longer than it should be. Repetition also drags the humor down. The first bad dubbing joke was funny. The 400th bad dubbing joke? Less so. Of course, you’re a lot less likely to notice these problems when watching a highlight reel, which I think contributes to a more positive rating among fans.
I wrote this article by popular demand from commenters, and I hope you’re all happy because I had to watch some truly mediocre movies to make it happen. At least nothing on this list was as boring as Ad Astra, a movie that exists purely for the purpose of making space exploration seem dull. Maybe next time I’ll make a list of movies that audiences and critics both loved so I at least have a chance of watching something good. I mean, because it would be educational and informative, of course!
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