I left the meeting thrilled. Somehow I, one of many campus worship pastors, had been tasked by the senior pastor to do the research and write the outline for the Easter sermon at all of our campuses. The pastoral team had decided to use the incomprehensibly titled film, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, for the anchoring illustration because another pastor and I had pointed out how the comic book characters have so many parallels to the Gospel and theology. Also the movie was opening on Good Friday. The timing was good. So I did the research: Batman represents man’s works righteousness; Lex Luthor an analog of the Deceiver, Satan; and, the mindless rage monster Doomsday a metaphor for sin. The most profound and least subtle metaphor of all was the Man of Steel himself: Superman, Kal-El, son of Jor-El, sent to Earth as a man, Clark Kent, to be a light in the darkness and save the people from evil. Eventually all metaphors fall apart but we thought it was pretty good.
I had been waiting since childhood to see a movie featuring both Superman and Batman and with the added bonus of it being tied to Easter weekend made my excitement all the more palpable. In preparation for viewing, I read as many spoilers and reviews as I could. A. A. Dowd at the AV Club asked, “Shouldn’t all this geeky property colliding still at least be entertaining? Shouldn’t it play to the cheap seats instead of wallowing in the murk?” Michael Phillips at The Chicago Tribune called it a “near-total drag, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice plays like a loose, unofficial quarter-billion-dollar remake of The Odd Couple, in which Oscar and Felix are literally trying to kill each other.” J. R. Jones at the Chicago Reader said it was “not as bad as Bush V. Gore, but close.”Full of armchair critics with penchants for lazy analysis, The Razzies stunt an audience’s ability to interact with movies instead of doing the good work of a critic.
But hopes are not so easily dashed! After all, isn’t that what Superman’s S-shield stands for in Kryptonian? Hope? (Spoiler alert: Superman’s S-shield stands for hope. Another metaphor! Superman explicitly says that’s what the symbol means in a tonally awkward aside in Man of Steel.) First thing Monday morning I bought a ticket to watch the Super Friends stop the spread of evil in what the trailers promised would be a metaphorically rich film. Two joyless hours later I left the theater agreeing with the critics: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was bad. Very bad. Nominee for the Worst Film of the Year at the 2017 Golden Raspberry Awards bad.
The Golden Raspberry Awards, popularly referred to as The Razzies, was founded in 1981 by a Hollywood publicist, John J. B. Wilson. It started out as a pre-Oscars potluck where Wilson and some friends could mockingly award the worst of cinema from the previous year. The party was meant to be an ironic critique of the often egregious and endlessly self-congratulating Hollywood award season. Within four years of Wilson starting this party it was being featured as part of the actual award cycle by various national news sources. For 37 years now, members of The Golden Raspberry Foundation have cast their ballots for winners of various categories like “Worst Actress,” “Worst Director,” or “Worst Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Property (1997).” An individual can become an esteemed lifetime member of the foundation for a one-time fee of $500 or a first-time fee of $40 with an annual $25 renewal fee. Members of the foundation are not required to be film industry insiders or critics, just people with disposable income wanting to make fun of Rob Schneider. They are also not required to see the films they nominate as the worst.
With The Golden Raspberry Awards now-firmly planted in the awards season, its less than rigorous member standards and the actual content of the awards leave The Razzies open to some sharp critique. Because members don’t actually have to see the films they’re voting on, the winners and nominees tend to be those with previously poor performances. For example, Adam Sandler is a perennial nominee, judged as Razzie-worthy from past films. Basically, The Razzies are awarded with a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel obviousness. Graciously, these easy targets often save indie films that may be under-resourced or passion projects that don’t get legs from the ire of someone with $40 to spare. Robbie Collin’s writes in a 2014 op-ed for The Telegraph (“Why I Hate The Razzies”), “Anyone who believes that [The Lone Ranger and After Earth] are amongst the worst of  simply haven’t seen enough films, or thought enough about what a bad film actually is, to make a worthwhile judgement.”
Rather than showing audiences how to better engage good films by pointing out negative examples, The Razzies encourage mean-spiritedness, thereby obscuring what film can actually reach to or be. The Razzies cheapen rather than enhance the experience of film, like a class clown more interested in stealing attention away from the teacher and those who wish to learn something. Full of armchair critics with penchants for lazy analysis, The Razzies stunt an audience’s ability to interact with movies instead of doing the good work of a critic who “enters a world flooded by mediocrity, suffers its lukewarm waters, and emerges with the pearls for the rest of us,” per Mike Cosper in his article “How to Be a Critic” at The Gospel Coalition.
There’s a truism that nobody sets out to make a bad movie but for myriad reasons bad movies are made. Some are bad because they don’t have resources like time or money to make the best film possible. Others are bad because executives at studios micro-manage scripts and productions. Some films are misguided pet projects of auteurs. But, arguably, the blame for the majority of bad movies lies with the marketplace. Films that won’t make money or sell enough products, regardless of how promising they seem, won’t be invested in. The numbers suggest that the faceless masses actually like bad movies. The six movies nominated for Worst Film this year at The Razzies totaled nearly $1.6B at the box office while the nine movies nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars have made approximately $750M.
All this talk of bad movies, which is just a proxy for bad art, suggests that there is an easy criteria by which cultural elites separate the goats from the sheep. Boring, enigmatic, subtitled to the right, and well lit, easily resolved, happy endings to the left. What makes one film good and another bad? It’s not mass consensus, plenty of people quite liked the dark and gritty Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice despite it being nearly universally panned by critics. Money is no indicator of quality either. I don’t want to pile on Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice but it made almost $873M. Of course, that’s considered a flop by some. How do audiences decide what is good and what is not good? Are we to interact with the art and entertainment we consume with the simple candor of the United States Supreme Court Justice, who, when deciding a case about obscenity, opted to forgo giving criteria in favor of the more honest, “I know it when I see it”?
One of my favorite bands is the Smoking Popes. I was at one of their shows and there was a moment in the song “Pretty Pathetic” when the audience’s singing was so robust the lead singer stepped from the mic and let us have it. I was moved to tears. My wife, however, can’t stand the Smoking Popes. Taste is subjective. What one person likes another person may hate, but our tastes are not innate. Taste is delivered to us by our circumstances and culture, by experts and peers, by private and shared experiences. The real effort is not in deciding if a piece of art is good or bad, which is subjective anyways, but, rather, are our tastes good or bad? Are we engaging well?
Awards shows and critics alike help guide our tastes on a macro-level and teach us how to engage with the media we consume. When The Razzies crown the most obvious candidates with a cynical shallowness, they teach audiences to treat art in the most crass and pragmatic ways. Instead of asking what a film is, what it is saying, what it means, they train us to judge a film on what will get the biggest laugh or most attention. In this paradigm, the art and entertainment we interact with is a bludgeoning tool of our own self-aggrandizement. This makes art propaganda. It puts art in the service of our egos, agendas, and tastes.
Art exists for more than background noise and confirming our biases. What we make and consume can help make the world more as it should be. “I believe creating the ‘world that ought to be’ is a necessary calling for every human being,” Makoto Fujimura says in a 2009 interview with The Higher Calling:
“We don’t create a nice, comfortable place for ourselves. That’s because we feel that struggling through the public sphere and all the pluralistic context that we have to deal with is good for us. Thus, we learn to speak in a language that is not tilted and biased and built on fear of what the other side is doing, but we learn to mediate in our culture on what is true and essential about humanity.”
By its nature, art stands separate from us and what purposes we would have for it. Art, entertainment maybe better put, media, per its Latin roots, stands in the middle between the world and the individual. Fulfilling a priestly duty, the art we consume and make has the ability to reveal the world to us and us to the world. Art taken as it is given can enliven our being in the world. Art has the ability to show us the deep cracks running through existence and point us to a great hope for what the world can become. Media also has the ability to gouge a little bit at our wounds. What we create with our hands and what we consume moves the dial in one direction or the other. We can cut deeper or apply a salve.
I suppose the reason I was so disappointed with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is that it left the world it entered just a little more cracked. In wanting to serve director Zak Snyder’s aesthetic objectives and misguided vision of heroism the film was unnecessarily bleak. The grittiness applied to its convoluted story and its heroes turn Batman into a crusader of vengeance instead of justice, Superman an apathetic alien heroic for self-interested purposes only. Heroism in the world of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a violent burden for joyless, disinterested gods.
At this year’s Golden Raspberry Awards, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and five other movies will compete for Worst Film of the Year. The awards will pull our attention toward what is bad, ugly, and tasteless. In pointing its fingers at what is worst and rousing public ridicule, it will teach us to do the same. Instead of showing how to make the world more beautiful and a better place to live, The Razzies encourage us to simply point and laugh.
But hope is not so easily dashed! We can do so much more than point and laugh. We can create. We can write stories, sing songs, make movies, cook feasts, tell jokes, act, and dance. Our creative endeavors can help make the world a lovely place. Despite deeps canyons of grief and brokenness, there’s grace and glory in the wounds. What we create, our art, our entertain, our media stand in the midst of these cracks and either push us further apart or pull us back together.
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