Critical Thinking vs. Critics (or, Wait, I’m Supposed to Hate This Movie?)

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In the last couple of weeks of school, I had a fanboy argument with a student over who was better: Superman or Batman. I’m a fan of both characters (full disclosure: if there’s a favorite character of mine it’s Robin) but never really felt the need to put one above the other. Maybe it’s because when I started collecting Batman comics in the early 1990s, reading Superman comics seemed natural.

Maybe it’s because I watched the Super Friends as a kid and therefore never thought the characters were in competition with one another. Or maybe it’s because I thought comparing Superman to Batman was like comparing apples to oranges. Anyway, when I expressed my enthusiasm at seeing Man of Steel, the student told me that “Superman is lame” and that Batman’s cooler because you could potentially become Batman. My immediate reply was that I didn’t seem anything lame in a character who flies, has super-strength, and does what he does because it’s the right thing to do and that he was seriously stretching logic if he thought that just because Bruce Wayne was an ordinary human that meant he could one day be Batman.

And so the year ended and yesterday afternoon I sat in a darkened movie theater and watched Man of Steel, the latest Superman movie to hit the screen and the first since Superman Returns in 2006, which, even though it made quite a bit of money, was regarded as a bit of a flop and not enough to get a Superman movie franchise going. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I found myself very caught up in the moment through most of it and thought that if you are going to take a shot at an interpretation of this character in an era of movies like The Dark Knight or The Avengers, this was a pretty good shot. I walked out of the theater feeling really good about what I had seen; moreover, I felt that all the anticipation was completely worth it.

I was further psyched when I got home and saw the cover of the latest Entertainment Weekly, which had a classic Neal Adams-drawn Superman flying off the page and a huge main article/feature on the Man of Steel. I should have known something was up because when I flipped to the movie reviews section and read the review of Man of Steel, I fell victim to the classic EW fake-out: huge hype article for the movie and now we’re going to tear it down. After reading the review and seeing the Rotten Tomatoes rating, for a split second, I felt stupid because I had liked the movie so much. That I didn’t fall in line with what “everyone else” thought about it, to use some junior high cafeteria parlance. I quickly realized that this was more of a reflexive reaction than anything, left over from the days when I would be made fun of for not listening to the right bands, wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt to school, reading comics in study hall, or (God forbid) outwardly professing a love of Star Trek.

Furthermore, I’m nearly 36 now and not almost 16 so things like this should not get to me. Still, I found myself going back over the movie and comparing it to the criticisms of EW‘s critic and wound up reaching three conclusions:

  • It seemed like the critic wasn’t so much writing a review as much as he was filling in “guy critical of super hero movie” Mad Libs 
  • I still really liked this movie
  • I may be too hard on my students’ papers

Where did that third conclusion come from? Well, since you asked, I’ll tell you. My advanced English sophomores are students who are in the very top of their class and often go on to take further advanced-level English after they have me. For many of them that means AP English or perhaps a dual enrollment English course through a local college. So, during the year I offer them a challenge that is on their level. We read a variety of texts from a variety of genres, and instead of multiple choice tests, I assess their knowledge of the literature we’ve read through literary analysis papers. Furthermore, over the course of the year, they work toward their final exam, which is a six-page term paper. My rationale is that they should be able to go into AP English as well as college knowing how to really write a paper, which is something that I only sort of half knew how to do and struggled with my freshman year of college.

When I sit down to grade the class’s papers, I’m looking for I guess what anyone would look for in a paper that is analyzing the literature read: a clear main point that answers the question or questions asked; sufficient evidence from text or texts to support the main point; a clear, appropriate voice and style; and good mechanics. The thing about me is that I’m notoriously tough. An “A” on a paper in my advanced English class is something that is definitely earned, and that first paper of the year is often a shock to the system of my students, many of whom have probably never gotten a “C” or “D” in their lives. It’s a bloodbath and in some cases continues to be a bloodbath throughout the year. Now, before you accuse me of stealing dreams or whatever rhetoric we’re using this week, I’ll say that students are given a rewrite option on papers in my class, even the final exam; and very often I find that by the end of the year many of them have indeed risen to the challenge that I have presented.

Plus, it’s not that I take pleasure in academically beating the crap out of my students; the pleasure comes from the improvement I often see from paper to paper, quarter to quarter, and beginning of the year to the end of the year. But when I sit down to grade those papers, I come in … well, I come in looking for the mistakes. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I don’t want to be that teacher who props up a sense of entitlement and inflates grades and doesn’t actually do a job and … well, you know what I mean.

So, I’m a “tough” grader and go at it with an editor’s eye, crossing things, circling things, and bloodying the page with impunity. Granted, I do the same with my own drafts and have often shown students what it looks like when I red-line my own work (remember the elevator opening in The Shining? It looks like that.), but coming out of this movie and reading the reviews made me wonder if that’s the wrong thing to do. I liked Man of Steel because I found myself in the moment through most of the film. It wasn’t like when I sat through Independence Day back in 1996 and thought, “Are you kidding me with this?!” when they hacked the alien technology using a Mac, or when I managed to survive Batman & Robin in 1998 because my friend Harris and I turned our viewing into our own personal MST3K episode.

And it’s not like I’ve never liked things that “everyone” seems to constantly ridicule–I do a podcast about Robin, after all. But I wonder if the critics writing bad reviews of this movie or others like it go into the theater with their minds already made up, or if they’re mentally completing a checklist. Hence, the Mad Libs crack earlier. I don’t think that this will make me any less tough as a grader. I still have high standards and I will continue to set the high expectations that I’ve set. But I’ll also continue to strive to enjoy my students’ work as it is in the moment, because getting someone, anyone to do that is a sign of a very good job. And I’m grateful for moments and realizations like this because they show me that I need to strive for the balance between being “this teacher” or “that teacher,” to not go too far to the side of toughness but to also not allow any guilt I may feel from doing so to ping-pong me all the way back to the other.

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