Joker just became the highest-grossing R-rated movie in history after earning rave reviews and audience acclaim, but that may not be readily apparent from a glance at its score on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie currently stands at 69% and recently lost its "verified fresh" status due to a handful of additional negative reviews bumping it out of the verified fresh qualification standards.
Rotten Tomatoes originated as a way for audiences to find all reviews and opinions on a given movie in a single location, including a quick reference Tomatometer indicating a movie's general favorable vs unfavorable split with a single percentage score and associated "fresh" or "rotten" label. The site's popularity quickly made it a nearly monolithic resource for moviegoers and the coveted red tomato of a "fresh" score, or the even better "verified fresh" status was quickly embraced by movie marketing desiring to convince audiences that everyone else loved the movie, so they should too.
Unfortunately, the Tomatometer also obfuscates a lot of nuance in movie reviews, taking hundreds of words of text and associated 4-star, 5-star, out-of-ten, or letter grade given to a movie and erasing all context in a combined ranking. Not only does this hide the more complex views reviewers have about a given movie, but also misrepresents true review scores, and Joker, ironically, proves just how broken the system is.
Joker is Very Well Reviewed
Despite some pre-release controversy, Joker's Venice Film Festival premiere was met with near-unanimous praise. Critics were raving and the movie even brought home the "Golden Lion," Venice's award for best film. The praise would continue through to the Toronto International Film Festival where it was met with a slightly less unanimous, but still highly positive reception.
It wasn't until the lull between film festivals and Joker's October 4th wide release that the negative buzz started to build, primarily from people who had yet to see the film. Fears of the movie inspiring violent acts from "incels" spread as news of police presence at screenings and even a notice to the national guard began to spread. While this particular complaint didn't seem to be a concern with festival critics, it started popping up more and more with more mainstream reviews.
However, despite the growing buzz of controversy, Joker maintains an average review score of 7.24/10 on Rotten Tomatoes. For comparison, here's some other comic book movies in the same ballpark:
- Shazam!'s - 7.29,
- Deadpool - 7.01,
- Deadpool 2 - 7.04,
- Captain Marvel - 6.8,
- X-Men: First Class - 7.37
- Thor: Ragnarok - 7.57
It's also higher than last year's best picture winner, Green Book at 7.23. The odd thing is, those movies all have significantly higher Tomatometer scores than Joker.
- Shazam! - 91%,
- Deadpool - 84%,
- Deadpool 2 - 83%
- Captain Marvel - 78%
- X-Men: First Class - 86%
- Thor: Ragnarok - 93%
Even within those examples, there's a wide variance in score, but the drop all the way to 69% for Joker is by far the most drastic.
Why Joker's Tomatometer is so Low
To understand the discrepancy between Joker's average review score compared to its Tomatometer score or the relationship between other movies' average score and their Tomatometer, it's important to first revisit the purpose of Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten Tomatoes is not a tool designed to measure a movie's quality. Rotten Tomatoes is designed to measure consensus. Simply put, the Tomatometer indicates how much agreement there is over a movie being a thumbs up or thumbs down, not the enthusiasm of the thumbs.
This is a somewhat useful metric for many casual moviegoers who don't go to the movies often and don't take the time to find or follow reviewers they trust. If most approved critics like a movie, it earns a "fresh" rank, but if most reviewers dislike a movie, it receives a "rotten" rank. There's a couple of problems with this system. First, there's poor communication of the fact that this is what the Tomatometer means. Since review scores are already generally provided on a 5 or 10-star basis, most people assume the Tomatometer is the same thing as the average review score. Second, the scoring totally obfuscates any nuance in the actual reviews. A movie with 99 6/10 "fresh" reviews and one 6/10 "rotten" review (reviewers have the option specify if their 6/10 is fresh or rotten) will have an identical score to a movie with 99 10/10 reviews and one 1/10 review. Both movies will be 99% fresh even though one movie clearly has a far more positive response.
In the case of the Joker, there's a number of 10/10 and 9/10 reviews, giving it a high average review score, but it drew enough negative reactions to tank the Tomatometer compared to other movies with a similar average. Some could argue the Tomatometer is doing exactly what it's designed to do in this case, differentiating between more divisive films like Joker and crowd-pleasers like Thor: Ragnarok, but when the presentation of - and discussion around - the scores makes no effort to differentiate between a movie's quality and how widely appreciated it is, the original intent of the Tomatometer is arbitrary.
Joker Reveals How Rotten Tomatoes Rewards Mediocre, Safe Movies
While Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer and the true critical evaluation of a movie are often in alignment for movies where the critics themselves are generally in alignment, divisive or polarizing movies have always been unfairly knocked by the Rotten Tomatoes system. There's always been hypothetical examples of a movie that could get very high marks from a number of critics yet still get a low score from the Tomatometer, but that kind of split in Rotten Tomatoes scores is often between the audience rating and the critical rating, it doesn't throw off the Tomatometer in the same spectacular fashion as Joker.
Comparing to a recent movie like Captain Marvel (which had its own share of Rotten Tomatoes controversy) shows where the scoring system truly breaks down. Joker stands at 69% from 500 reviews with a 7.26 average, while Captain Marvel stands at 78% from 497 reviews with a 6.8 average. This divergence is fascinating in and of itself, but a look at the score from strictly "top critics" is even more revealing. Joker was reviewed by 51 of Rotten Tomatoes "Top Critics" with an average of 6.67, while Captain Marvel's 49 Top Critic reviews landed it a 6.2, yet Joker's Top Critic Tomatometer is a very rotten 45%, while Captain Marvel's is a fresh 61%.
In this particular case, Metacritic, while it faces a very similar issue with its scoring system, provides a more granular breakdown of its scores, which could help understand why the numbers behave in such a counter-intuitive way. Obviously this isn't the same data as Rotten Tomatoes, but it's not a stretch to presume some consistency between scores reviewers submit to both aggregators. In Metacritic's system, Joker and Captain Marvel both have 32 positive reviews, the difference is Joker's non-positive reactions are broken down as 15 "mixed" reviews and 11 negative reviews, whereas Captain Marvel has 23 mixed reviews and only 1 negative.
Digging deeper, Joker's 32 positive reviews are comprised of eight reviews hitting a perfect 100 score, four reviews at 90, five more at 88, two at 83, four at 80, one at 78, three at 75, one at 70, one at 67, and three at 63 for an average of 84.
Comparatively, Captain Marvel's 32 positive reviews include three at 90, one at 89, two at 88, one at 83, five at 80, one at 78, eight at 75, five at 70, two at 67, and four at 63 for an average of 76.
When it comes to mixed reviews, Joker's has 15, comprised of two at 60, one at 58, one at 55, eight at 50, one at 45, and two at 40 for an average of 50.5.
Captain Marvel has 23 mixed reviews with 13 at 60, eight at 50, one at 42, and one at 40 for an average of 54.8.
Joker's 11 negative reviews come from two at 38, six at 30, and three at 20 for an average of 28.7.
Captain Marvel has one negative review at 38 (with the same average, obviously).
Getting out of the nitty-gritty of the numbers, what we have here is a situation where Joker's positive reviews were far more positive than Captain Marvel's (including many perfect scores), but its mixed and negative reviews were decidedly more negative.
Not to pick on Captain Marvel, we also gave it a positive review and it saw its fair share of box office receipts, but breaking down the actual review data shows a drastically different picture than the singular aggregate review score. It may be useful for some moviegoers to know a movie like Captain Marvel is a safer or generally more appealing movie, but that score also hides the fact that Joker has numerous reviewers giving it a perfect score. The information is obviously available, but it takes more digging than most people are interested in doing.
The unfortunate impact is Rotten Tomatoes and other review aggregators regularly give major boosts to movies where reviewers generally lean in a more positive direction, but few people react negatively, by presenting them as having a higher score than movies that were genuinely reviewed better, yet elicited more negative responses.
At the end of the day, everyone has unique tastes, and that includes movie critics, so the notion of taking all those disparate opinions on a movie, distilling it down into a simple thumbs up/down, then aggregating that into an average approval rating and expecting it to be applicable to individual audience members seems very backward. As always, audiences are better off finding a particular reviewer or outlet they tend to agree with and trusting in their reviews, or even better, take a "risk" and go see a movie with an exciting premise, cool marketing, or an actor or director you like and form your own opinion.