Hello friends. From time to time, the comments section at The A.V. Club doesn't offer enough space for people to vent their frustrations (and occasional pleasure!) with the site. We received the following e-mail recently, which the author also posted in the comment thread on my Crank: High Voltage review. Though it personally accuses me of devaluing the site as a whole, it brings up some interesting points. So below, the letter, and my response to it. I'm not posting this with the hopes that you'll find ammunition to berate either me or the writer, but rather because of those aforementioned points—specifically about the value of letter grades. That said, I understand the basic human need/God-given right to fire e-missiles on message boards, so if you must…
I am writing to complain. I don't usually do this but it makes me so angry and disappointed that I have to say something. I'm pasting the entirety of a post I made in the comments section of the Crank 2 review. I think it should explain my position:
I'm sorry, but sight unseen I can tell you this isn't an A- movie. I have been reading AV Club for my movie reviews EXCLUSIVELY for many years. It's wonderful to have a place to go where you know you will always trust the reviews because after you've seen the movie you find you agree.
But this? This is a slap in the face to everyone who trusts these reviews. We're not all hipsters who read these reviews as an opportunity for "witty" banter in the comments section. I like knowing ahead of time what to expect and whether I should spend my money on the latest dish of crap from Hollywood.
A- from the AV Club means it's one of the best movies you'll ever see. Period. I almost NEVER see an A or A- rating on here and I LIKE IT THAT WAY because there are almost no A or A- movies made. I saw Crank 1 and it was terrible but strangely entertaining. I saw the commercial for this and I'm sure it has the potential to be just as entertaining…but that doesn't make it one of the best movies ever made! I'm sorry but it just doesn't.
Josh Modell, you are devaluing this site. It's sad and it really bothers me. I wouldn't be posting here for everyone to ridicule if it didn't. For shame. :-/
I hope you guys do something about this. I take your reviews very seriously and this is just a slap int he face to loyal readers and to your other reviewers. When Crank 2 can get an A-, what is an A worth? What's a B movie???
Foster City, CA
Thanks for your e-mail (no, really!). I appreciate it, and it asks a lot of questions that we've unsuccessfully tried to answer for readers ever since we started assigning letter grades to reviews. It's an inherently flawed process, and one that we didn't enter into lightly. But let me make a couple of points.
Letter grades are relative, and nowhere on the site (or in our reviewers' minds, I don't think) does an A or A- mean that a movie (or CD or book or videogame) is one of the best ever made. I certainly don't believe that Crank 2 is one of the best movies ever made. But what that A- did signify, and what I think high grades on The A.V. Club generally signify, is success. In my eyes (and in the eyes of Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, who both enjoyed Crank 2), the movie was successful at what it was trying to be: weird, almost parodic, and over-the-top. Those seemed to be its goals, and it delivered. It was certainly never boring or cliched, and much of the time it was actually pretty incredible. For people who like these types of movies (and I can think of very few analogs for this particular movie), Crank 2 was pretty great. So what grade do you give to a movie that you think is highly entertaining and successful but exists in a genre that's not allowed a high grade?
That gets into what I like to think of as "genre profiling." You haven't seen the movie, and yet you know it's not possible that it deserves an A-. To some degree I agree with you: Action movies (even outliers like this one) are, by definition, incapable of being among the greatest films of all time. And that's fine, but it's a bit unfair to ghettoize them so much that an A (or even a B) grade is off the table. It's like deciding that the fat kid in gym class couldn't possibly do better than a B-, and then grading him accordingly. (What if he's a phenomenal goalie?) All of our writers understand—and I think our readers are sharp enough to understand—that Crank 2 isn't even in the same universe of greatness as The Godfather or (insert your all-time fave here).
It's true that A or A- grades in film are pretty rare at The A.V. Club, and I appreciate that that makes them more trustworthy. What I tell the music writers is that if something is getting an A or A-, it should be one of their personal favorites—top 10, if not higher—of the year. Crank 2 could very well end up one of my favorite movies of 2009. (And no, I'm not some sort of action junkie—my faves of last year were Synecdoche NY, Ballast, Snow Angels, Dear Zachary, and Wendy & Lucy, and I think this year's action hit, Taken, is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. It got a C-.)
Perhaps most importantly, though: You're the exact type of reader that we worried about when we instituted letter grades. Even though we do think they're useful, letter grades are absolutely the least important part of a review: There were 400 words before that A- that could have tipped you off that Crank 2 wasn't for you. The letter grade is simply shorthand, and it's a boiling-down of an opinion that, 100% of the time, is more eloquently expressed in the actual review. In other words, letter grades are pretty meaningless—at best, they're a guidepost for further investigation, not the be all-end all of criticism at The A.V. Club. (Or anywhere, I'd hope.)
To claim that this review is "a slap in the face to loyal readers" is both flattering and very, very silly. We trust that our readers understand that reviews are the beginning of a discussion, not the end—and that their opinions are, of course, just as important as ours (or anybody's). It should also be noted that our main reviewers often have wildly different opinions from each other on movies.
Anyway, I'm sorry you were disappointed in the review, and hopefully it won't turn you off The A.V. Club forever. And hopefully this clarified some of our problems with letter grades, too. The easiest thing to do if they bother you that much is to simply pretend they're not there. You still would've read a glowing review of Crank 2 (which I wholeheartedly stand by), but maybe it wouldn't have bothered you quite as much. Or just imagine there was a C- at the end of it!