In my previous article, I gave a brief overview on how YouTube has given rise to certain brands of internet criticism, touching on the skit filled angry reviewers of the mid 2000s and the nitpicking, exaggerated shows like Honest Trailers and CinemaSins. The article drew the through line showing how these types of videos help spur the alt right movement online and how they lead to the types of malicious hate and comments directed towards The Last Jedi for its prominent female characters. See that article for more info.
For this piece I wanted to use another case study to highlight this topic. Another large franchise film with prominent female characters; 2019’s Captain Marvel. In the yearlong gap between Infinity War and Endgame, Marvel Studios released two films to bridge the gap, the first of which was Captain Marvel. It was also noteworthy for being Marvel’s first standalone superhero film with a female lead, something that was long overdue. It and Black Panther’s development were being impeded by Marvel Entertainment head Ike Perlmutter and other studio executives who felt like films starring women or Black characters wouldn’t perform well enough at the box office. It took a shakeup in management around 2015 to get the films on track. Regardless, it was long past time for more diversity in these films.
Anticipation was high in the lead up for the film. Carol Danvers was and still is a fan favorite in the world of comics and in the initial announcement for Marvel’s Phase 3 slate, the reveal that the film would focus on Carol was met with thunderous applause. Initial trailers in the wake of Infinity War were also met with excitement, doubled by producer Kevin Feige hyping up Carol Danvers as the most powerful character among the Avengers lineup. As the film’s release drew nearer however, the conversation began to shift.
Before the film released, Rotten Tomatoes had a feature called “want to see”, where users of the website could demonstrate their interest in seeing the movie. The numbers for Captain Marvel were astronomically low, with an abnormal amount of submissions far above the usual Marvel movie, or any movie for that matter. People speculated that these were attempts to “review bomb” and dissuade audiences from seeing it. Rotten Tomatoes soon altered this feature to only show the amount interested instead of a percentage. Sure enough on opening day when user reviews opened up, the film had tens of thousands of negative reviews, more than major blockbusters get in their entire run. Most of these reviews likely came from bots, and almost all of them featured complaints about the movie being “feminist propaganda”.
Sadly, this type of reaction wasn’t all too surprising. YouTube, a breeding ground for alt right internet trolls, was plagued with similar messages all throughout the movie’s marketing campaign. One infamous example was a user editing stills of the film to make Carol Danvers smile, believing that women should “smile and look pretty”. All over YouTube, alt right users were posting lengthy rant videos, claiming the film was part of a “feminist agenda” and making vitriolic comments towards the film’s star Brie Larson. The videos only got more frequent once the film released and much like The Last Jedi, it’s often hard to talk about the film in some online spaces without a horde of alt right trolls launching into rants and personal attacks.
When moving the discussion backwards a couple of years, this type of unbridled bigotry doesn’t seem apparent during the release of Wonder Woman in 2017. There’s sure to be some of this hatred on YouTube but it was never to scale of the Captain Marvel review bombing. There could be several reasons as to why. There’s certainly something to be said about the sort of cult of personality that has formed around DC Comics, though that more applies to Zack Snyder. There have however been examples of many DC fans putting together conspiracy theories that Marvel has paid off critics to bad mouth other superhero properties. Though these have always been a very vocal minority and likely didn’t have much to do with the Captain Marvel discourse.
The simple answer is that Brie Larson was incredibly outspoken during the pre-release phase of the film. In interviews, Larson would often use her platform to speak out against inequality and sexual harassment in the film industry. She became the primary target of attacks from many alt right users, who as I mentioned in the previous piece, almost always harbor a deep resentment towards women. Brie Larson’s outspokenness, coupled with titular character’s stoicness and defiance towards traditional gender roles, infuriated the trolls to no end.
The discussion around the review bombing also got more people talking about the nature of user review websites like Rotten Tomatoes. The video game industry has seen a similar problem with video game reviews, and that is the nature of reviewer scores. Often times people won’t actually read or watch a review, they’ll just skip to end or scour the page to find the numerical score assigned to the movie. This mirrors the discussion surrounding YouTube channels like CinemaSins. The nuance is gone, and all people care about is if something is good or bad. The internet likes to speak in hyperbole. Everything is either the greatest thing since sliced bread or it’s an abomination. Rarely can something just be okay.
It doesn’t help that Rotten Tomatoes’ scoring system is unorthodox and not a very good judge of quality. If a film has a score of 78%, that doesn’t mean that the average review score is 78/100. It simply means that 78% percent of reviewers are in agreement about liking the movie. Those positive reviews could range from liking it a little bit to absolutely loving it. Despite this, people often flock to these scores and make judgments about the movie before actually seeing it for themselves. That’s not to say that these numbers can’t be helpful in giving a vague idea of the film’s reception, they certainly can be. When the reviews are raided by these trolls though, that becomes skewed.
The entire history and festering of the online alt right is too much to cover in just two short articles. Films like Captain Marvel or The Last Jedi are simply some of the most public spaces where these hate groups are making themselves known. This goes beyond whether or not someone thinks Captain Marvel is a good movie or not. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the avenues in which films are discussed, like YouTube and Rotten Tomatoes, are becoming one of the fronts where the alt right is most active. As always, it’s important to take a stand against bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head root it out whenever possible.