“Captain Marvel earns lowest RottenTomatoes score in Marvel Studios history”
For several days, I kept scrolling past that headline on my news feed app SmartNews. I knew it was total bullshit because I’m familiar with the concept of review-bombing. It’s this sad thing online trolls do where they flood RottenTomatoes with terrible audience reviews for usually liberal-leaning movies which haven’t even come out yet. Captain Marvel is just the latest victim. It’s happened to Ghostbusters, The Last Jedi, and Ocean’s 8 in the past. A similar practice happened over at IMDB to Armenian genocide drama The Promise. After Captain Marvel, it was already starting to happen to Star Wars: Episode 9 as well.
But if I didn’t know any of that I’d passively look at that headline and possibly fret over how the next big Marvel movie might not be very good.
That’s what the trolls want. They want to at least plant the seed of doubt in potential ticket buyers while also advancing the message that uppity, so-called “socially progressive” movies are out of step with what real audiences actually want and respond to. Time and time again, the media falls for it hook, line and sinker, perpetuating a false narrative about a giant disconnect between a film’s critical and audience reaction without ever looking into just how easy it is for people to game the RottenTomatoes system.
Lately, they’ve started to wisen up.
Of course, decades of moviegoers disagreeing with Siskel & Ebert or Leonard Maltin or some other prominent critic of the moment tells us film critics are often out of touch with the common man and woman. RT attempts to quantify this commonly understood divide with its RT score and Audience score, but that is a system which is practically engineered to encourage response bias.
It ensures that a movie’s most fervent fans will flood the system to defend and highly rate a possibly fanboy-leaning movie that critics don’t like nearly as much as them. This natural inclination received a strong shot in the arm a couple of years ago due to the online conspiracy theories about critics being paid by Disney to write such scathing reviews of WB/DC’s Batman v Superman.
It was only a matter of time before certain individuals and organizations saw the potential to exploit this system to score PR points against movies and celebrities whose politics they don’t like. Brie Larson, unfortunately, is certainly someone they would want to hurt. She’s a founding member of #TimesUp and has been very vocal about her strong desire to combine the inspirational, female empowerment messaging of Captain Marvel with real life change. Otherwise, the movie doesn’t ultimately mean anything.
One small way she has done that already is to demand more female journalists be included in the press pool covering the movie. TotalFilm, for example, was granted access to Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, and the directors for its recent Captain Marvel cover story, but at the request of Disney, the magazine sent one of its female staffers to conduct the interviews and write the article.
To some, that smacks of reverse sexism and firmly elevates Larson into someone who needs to be taken down a couple of pegs. So you throw a lot of fake news at her. There are more constructive ways to talk about that than simply engaging in a smear campaign against a movie you haven’t even seen. Obviously.
So, whoever wrote that headline I referenced needs to do a better damn job of educating the public, but like the larger problem of fake news, this ultimately falls on the online platforms to actually exert some editorial control. Leaders from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other tech companies have had to stand in front of governments and explain their inaction, laying bare one of the starker truths of being alive in 2019:
So much of our existence is governed by tech companies who view us as profit-generators instead of people. Worse yet, they are all deeply uncomfortable with and in some cases totally unprepared for the social and civic responsibility which has come with creating platforms that connect people all around the world.
That is the larger framework surrounding the RottenTomatoes story. While inarguably lower stakes than the prospect of fake news undermining federal elections, RT has still through its own inaction allowed itself to become yet another easily exploitable tech platform where the highly motivated can go to score political points or just to own the libs. RottenTomatoes needs to do a better job of cutting this kind of thing off at the source.
Thankfully, they finally listened. In a blog update on Monday, the site announced:
We are disabling the comment function prior to a movie’s release date. Unfortunately, we have seen an uptick in non-constructive input, sometimes bordering on trolling, which we believe is a disservice to our general readership. We have decided that turning off this feature for now is the best course of action. Don’t worry though, fans will still get to have their say: Once a movie is released, audiences can leave a user rating and comments as they always have.
As the site is now owned by online ticket service Fandango, there is some speculation they might try to further prevent review-bombing by utilizing that synergy. As Forbes reported, “They are also allegedly going to attempt to fix via authentication of Fandango ticket purchases (so folks who vote on or review a movie have actually purchased a ticket).”
Maybe that’s a step too far. For example, I never buy anything of my tickets through Fandango, and I’ve never participated in any kind of review-bombing campaign. However, because of them would I now be unable to submit an audience review unless I switch over to using Fandango?
That might be why this step is still just being speculated about in the press and not formally discussed by RottenTomatoes yet. However, I applaud them for finally doing something to stop this most predictable act of online sabotage. Maybe this won’t stop the trolls from review-bombing once a movie has actually come out, but it was about time RottenTomatoes at least did something.