Three weeks before the release of Captain Marvel, the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page was carpet-bombed with negative user reviews that drove down the movie’s score on the premier website for deciding which movies are worth seeing.
Some cited “comic book movie fatigue” or critiqued early trailers, but others targeted the film’s star, Brie Larson, and its presumed message of female empowerment. Several even implicated violence.
“You could not pay me to see this SJW laden white male hating worthless POS movie,” commented one user. “I am sick of this identity politics taking over pop culture. Brie Larson could get hit by a bus and I would not shed a tear.”
This comment, and others like it, have already been removed by Rotten Tomatoes, which has made a practice of removing offensive user reviews since at least as far back as Marvel’s Black Panther. But the site’s Captain Marvel page remains a battleground in the ongoing online culture war between progressives and conservatives, and the latest example of a growing tactic referred to as “review bombing.”
Captain Marvel won’t be released theatrically until March 8, but users on Rotten Tomatoes, which received 83 million views in January according to industry tracker Comscore, have already added their negative impressions, arguing that the film’s progressive “agenda” is a reason they don’t want to see it.
These impressions are literally some the first things people see when they visit a movie’s index page on Rotten Tomatoes. For every movie, the site measures “Critics’ Scores” — the average of positive/negative reviews written by professional critics at established outlets — and “Audience Scores” with Rotten Tomatoes’ user community. Creating an account on Rotten Tomatoes only takes seconds, faster if you use a Facebook login.
For movies not yet released, such as Captain Marvel, the only metric is Rotten Tomatoes surveying its users if they’re going to see it at all. As of this writing, the audience “score” for Captain Marvel is 53 percent “Want to See.” Had this been the actual audience score, Captain Marvel would be “rotten,” meaning the movie is “bad” in terms of the site’s binary “fresh/rotten” metric.
Co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Captain Marvel is the first film produced by Disney-owned Marvel Studios with a female lead (2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp was a shared bill between Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly). It stars Larson as US Air Force pilot Carol Danvers, who finds herself imbued with cosmic superpowers.
Marvel hasn’t shied away from this (arguably belated) step towards female representation. The trailers for Captain Marvel notably feature clever editing to turn the word “HER” into “A HERO.”
But the review bombing of Captain Marvel truly began after Larson revealed that she’d asked to have a more diverse press room in the publicity tour for Captain Marvel. She told Marie Claire UK:
“About a year ago, I started paying attention to what my press days looked like and the critics reviewing movies, and noticed it appeared to be overwhelmingly white male. So, I spoke to Dr. Stacy Smith at the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, who put together a study to confirm that. Moving forward, I decided to make sure my press days were more inclusive.”
In addition to acting, Larson is an advocate for women’s rights and often uses her large social media following as a platform.
“I’d put it all on the line and be an activist for the rest of my life because it doesn’t feel right to me to be quiet,” Larson told Jane Fonda in a 2017 Q&A with Net-A-Porter.
After presenting Casey Affleck, sued by two women for sexual harassment, with the award for Best Actor at the 2017 Oscars ceremony, she did not applaud him, telling Vanity Fair it “speaks for itself.” The link for Time’s Up is also found in Larson’s Instagram bio.
While Rotten Tomatoes has scrubbed its most incendiary posts left by its users, and will continue to do so in the future, there are still comments that err toward the same language. Writes one user, “Movie looks boring and I’m tired if [sic] the identity politics.”
“Was going to see this, but the trailers were disappointing,” writes another, “And I don’t support anything that tries to weaponize the culture war and cause hatred and division. The MCU is going in a sad direction. Oh well, it was great while it lasted. 10 years is a good run.”
“Looks like their [sic] set to ruin a franchise !!” comments another.
“Once Brie went on an anti-White male tirade I lost interest in this movie. What should I pay to see a woman who hates White man. She can wallow in her own hate filled life.”
“Disney has already killed the Star Wars movie franchise. This looks like it will be the final nail in the MCU coffin. Not interested in seeing another SJW propaganda film.”
“Have no interest in watching movie starring a man hating feminazi.”
This episode of review bombing is indicative of a larger pattern, as seen in major recent productions such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Black Panther, and the BBC’s newest iteration of the sci-fi series Doctor Who, which stars Jodie Whittaker as the long-running franchise’s first female Doctor.
When Marvel’s 2018 blockbuster Black Panther received review bombs from its users, Rotten Tomatoes publicly issued a statement in which the company did “not condone hate speech.”
Rotten Tomatoes told Inverse something similar when 2017’s The Last Jedi also received review bombs.
“Similar to other movie sites, we’re currently experiencing a high volume of fan activity around Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the company said. “We’re closely monitoring all user review activity to make sure it’s valid.”
There is comment moderation on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s more reactive than proactive. Deleting comments only after they’ve been published looks more like a game of hate speech Whac-A-Mole than it does community management. And how sites like Rotten Tomatoes prevent its platforms from being exploited to promote even more dangerous ideas than movie reviews remains to be seen.
Traditionally, male-marketed pop culture narratives in comic books and video games have been criticized by indignant men on the internet since the ‘90s, but it’s picked up in the last five years. The 2014 incident “GamerGate” and 2017’s “Comicsgate” were both episodes of male enthusiasts attempting to keep their spaces just that, while using violent language. It’s also well-documented how GamerGate paved the way for Donald Trump’s election victory.
Audiences look to sites like Rotten Tomatoes to make informed purchasing decisions. Meanwhile, the culture is increasingly becoming more inclusive, and there’s plenty of money to be made on diversity.
But in spaces like Rotten Tomatoes, a major platform where critical nuance is (often helpfully!) distilled into a percentage, hate speech can be masked as something as innocuous as people not interested in a movie.
Captain Marvel will be released in theaters on March 8.