One audience reviewer deemed the movie “a complete disaster.” Another was “tired of all this SJW nonsense,” using the abbreviation for “social justice warrior,” a pejorative term for progressives. Yet another groused that Brie Larson, the movie’s star, “says I shouldn’t see the movie anyway.”
“Captain Marvel” had not even been released yet — its opening day was a month away — but that did not stop negative remarks from piling up against the film and Larson.
Much as Facebook and Twitter have had to grapple with false stories aimed at inciting violence or disrupting elections, movie review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb are often besieged by users trying to manipulate a film’s box office success.
Despite the trolls’ concerted efforts, “Captain Marvel” slayed during its opening weekend, but not before Rotten Tomatoes — an influential site where a bad audience score can damage a film’s prospects — made major changes to its rules. Most critically, it eliminated prerelease audience reviews. It also stopped displaying the percentage of moviegoers who say they “want to see” a film in favor of using the raw number of people. And it removed the “not interested” button.
“We’re doing it to more accurately and authentically represent the voice of fans,” the site said, “while protecting our data and public forums from bad actors.”
The backlash against “Captain Marvel” resulted from a collision of two major forces. One was the popularity of websites that at their best democratize the reviewing of movies, restaurants and businesses, and at their worst can be weaponized for score-settling or political grudges.
The other was the growing movement in Hollywood toward broader gender and racial representation in film roles, production jobs and the industry in general.
“Captain Marvel” is among the few superhero films to star a woman, but a bigger trigger factor for the film’s haters appeared to be Larson’s outspokenness about the lack of diversity in movies and news media coverage of films.
Before the film’s release, Larson told “Entertainment Tonight” that she had spoken with Marvel about making the film “a big feminist movie.” In another interview, she said that after noticing that most of her interviewers in the past had been white and male, she vowed to seek out more underrepresented journalists, including Keah Brown, who is black and disabled, and who profiled her for Marie Claire.
Larson, who won the best-actress Oscar in 2016 for her performance in “Room,” had previously lashed out against the homogeneity of professional film critics. “I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about ‘A Wrinkle in Time,'” she said during a speech last summer. “It wasn’t made for him.”
This all provided fodder to trolls, and weeks ahead of “Captain Marvel"'s release, the percentage of Rotten Tomatoes users who registered that they wanted to see it plummeted to 27 percent. On Feb. 25, Rotten Tomatoes implemented the changes, and the “want to see” score disappeared. Since the film’s nationwide release Friday, the audience score has rebounded to a better-but-still-not-great 63 percent, the lowest for any movie in the Marvel franchise. For a while, the score had been below 60 percent, signified by a tipped-over bucket of popcorn, the symbol for a film that might be one to skip.
The site’s “Tomatometer,” which analyzes the ratings from film critics, is at a “certified fresh” 79 percent, slightly below the average for Marvel movies. It is impossible to say whether the website’s changes helped the film, but it made $456 million during its opening weekend, trouncing projections.
A representative for Larson declined to comment, and publicists at Disney, which owns Marvel Studios, did not reply to emails Tuesday.
The film’s opponents also swarmed YouTube; video rants with titles like “Brie Larson Is Ruining Marvel” often appeared at the top of searches for her name. But a day before the film’s release, a change in the search results pushed those videos beneath others from established sources like Jimmy Kimmel, “Today” and Wired.
A YouTube representative said the reason was an algorithm change made last summer that reclassifies trending search topics as news. The site, which is owned by Google, took the action as part of its effort to combat fictitious content and ensure that reliable information was highlighted.
“Captain Marvel” detractors also flocked to IMDb, though a representative from that site said no one was available to comment, and would only provide a link to the site’s ratings and comments policy, which states that users are not allowed to rate a film before its release.
The new Marvel movie is not the first film to come under attack for a perceived feminist or politically correct underpinning. The all-female remake of “Ghostbusters,” “Black Panther” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which had a diverse cast, all found themselves in the cross hairs of armchair critics, some aligned with alt-right groups.
Some sites pushed back. Last year, Rotten Tomatoes said it would delete comments posted from members of the Facebook group “Down With Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and Its Fanboys” if they contained hate speech. The group had posted an event called. “Give Black Panther a Rotten Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.” Facebook then deactivated the group (it has since been revived by someone claiming to be anti-troll), which had also claimed responsibility for torpedoing audience scores for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
That a movie starring Larson spurred Rotten Tomatoes into taking a bolder step was no coincidence.
When Larson spoke out last summer against the dominance of white male critics, she cited findings by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which is run out of the University of Southern California and had singled out Rotten Tomatoes for having 3.5 men to every female critic reviewing the top films of 2017.
In her speech, Larson also revealed that the Sundance and Toronto film festivals had each pledged to set aside one-fifth of their press passes for use by diverse journalists, including women and people of color.
Two and a half months later, Rotten Tomatoes threw in with Larson’s cause, and revamped its criteria for critics, focusing more on individual qualifications than the brand and reach of a publication, to include hundreds of reviewers from underrepresented groups in its Tomatometer score (a representative said the change had been in development for more than a year). It also pledged $100,000 to various film festivals working to diversify their press corps, in part by helping cover freelancers’ travel and lodging costs.
A representative for Rotten Tomatoes, Dana Benson, said the change to its audience score had been in the works for a while, but that the attacks on “Captain Marvel” prompted them to roll it out earlier than planned.
“We’re very dedicated to making criticism more inclusive,” Benson said. “All the thought and care that went into the Tomatometer, we are expanding that to the audience score.”
Rotten Tomatoes said future changes could include having “verified” reviewers, like the ones who post on Amazon after purchasing a product. Those could come from people who bought tickets through the movie ticket website Fandango, which owns Rotten Tomatoes.
There was, not unexpectedly, a flip side to the attacks on “Captain Marvel” — people rushing to its defense, whether they had seen the movie or not.
“There are a large group of people that are only down-voting this movie because they somehow feel threatened by it,” one fan wrote on Rotten Tomatoes.
Another wrote, “Imagine being so insecure, you cry about a movie with a girl as the hero.”
And over on IMDb, one wrote: “I do agree that this isn’t marvel’s best movie, but it was a fun and enjoyable ride. I’m sure director and co. were hyper aware of the backlash they were facing and some of the moments seemed like tongue-in-cheek middle fingers to all the hate.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.