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FILM

Grade Expectations

Do audiences want to know everything before they see a movie?

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On April 20, Boxoffice magazine published Amy Nicholson's review of the blockbuster film Marvel's The Avengers online. At the time, it was the only review aggregated by rottentomatoes.com that did not bear the site's “fresh” stamp, which indicates an overall positive opinion. And 378 comments later, it's become an object lesson in how much the way we watch movies is a function of what we expect to see in them.

The online commenters sneered and jeered at Nicholson, questioning her credibility and whether the less-than-glowing review was simply a method of trolling to attract views in a sea of otherwise glowing advance praise for The Avengers. But in case there's any confusion about the math, the review was published two full weeks before The Avengers was released in North America on May 4, and even a week before its earlier release in some foreign territories. Virtually no one had actually seen the movie yet, but that didn't stop anyone from having an opinion about whether an unimpressed critic must be incompetent or disingenuous.

The phenomenon was explained largely in “fanboy” terms – namely, that the comic-book audience flexed its muscle at anyone who dared question writer- director Joss Whedon's brilliance. While the level and vehemence of the response may be unique, however, the general nature of the response was not. A group of people had decided in advance that this movie was going to be amazing, based almost entirely on their pre-existing prejudices; any dissent from that perspective surely indicates others not “getting it.”

It's impossible to ignore the indications that, more than anything else, moviegoers build their viewing not around a sense of discovery, but the comfort of seeing what they've already decided they're going to enjoy. While critics moan about trailers and commercials revealing every plot point of an upcoming release, those marketing tools exist because they feed the general public's evident preference that they not be surprised, since apparently an expected mediocrity is preferable to a zigs-when-you-thought-it-would-zag disappointment. The CinemaScore polls of opening-weekend moviegoers consistently find viewers giving movies grades of “B” or higher, indicating that those who are most eager to see a new release right away generally end up satisfied.

This concept was reinforced by a highly publicized August 2011 study from the University of California-San Diego, where researchers looked into the effect on readers of knowing the outcome of a story in advance of reading it. The results indicated that those who knew how the story would end (spoiler alert!) actually ended up enjoying the story more than those who didn't know the ending. These results were quickly extrapolated to movies in a way that made critics cringe: If you want to make people happy, let them know exactly what they're going to get, and give it to 'em.

Critics aren't immune to the same phenomenon: Often tuned in to the marketing machinery of a film much earlier, their anticipation or dread calcifies in a way that necessarily colors their experience.

I copped to my own comic-book geek anticipation, an inherent factor in my enthusiastic reaction to The Avengers, but that doesn't make my experience less legitimate than that of someone who couldn't tell Captain America from Captain Crunch, and thought it was only so-so. Nor does it make the reaction of fans to Twilight or The Hunger Games any more legitimate than those of the uninitiated, except perhaps to the movie studios' accounting departments.

Nobody needs to apologize for an opinion about a movie. It's simply important to understand what it's based on, and how much of the things you love or hate at the movies exist in your head, rather than on the screen.

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