When Did Nerds Become So Intolerant?

Any time a film critic dares to criticize a movie that the general public has already declared a masterpiece, they are insulted, abused, and in some cases, the subject of death threats. What makes fanboys so eager to attack any difference of opinion?

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12 August 2014, 9:10pm

Mercifully, the summer movie carnival is packing up its wanton destruction and parade of barely legal teens and leaving town for another year. What we are left with now is the cinematic equivalent of tepid gruel for every meal. Between August and November, the filmgoing public is treated to a cavalcade of movies that the studios are ambivalent about at best, and completely ashamed of at worst. 

The films released in the next three months surely seemed like a good idea at the time (It's a sequel to a movie that was popular ten years ago! We got Sylvester Stallone! It's based on a TV show from the 1970s! It's very cheap to make and stars Ethan Hawke!), but for one reason or another, it just didn't work out and now the studio wants to release the finished product quietly. These are the kind of films that both critics and moviegoers are comfortable ignoring. That's why I love this time of year the most. It's a welcome respite from the bombastic, ubiquitous advertising hype of the summer. Also, I can comfortably dislike a movie without someone telling me how I didn't "get it" or threaten to murder my first-born son on the eve of a full moon, then force me to drink his blood.

It's become standard practice to flame critics who disagree with the cultural consensus, especially when the movies are genre entertainment based on comic books. The vocal fanboy community has a real knack for coming to agreement on the merits of films, TV shows, etc. relatively quickly. Joss Whedon is a genius. Man of Steel was overrated. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a smart political thriller. The Lost finale was shit. These are cultural truisms, because enough people got together on the internet to form that consensus.

The tendency for group-think has metastasized into an aggressive distrust of alternative opinions. Marshall Fine, a syndicated film critic, was the subject of death threats when he was the first person to publish a negative review of The Dark Knight Rises. David Edelstein of New York magazine was also taken to task for the first negative review of The Dark Knight. With the internet's ability to aggregate everything, we can now follow a movie's critical response in the same way we keep track of medal counts during the Olympics.

It's not just Batman films that inspire aggressive responses though. Out of 280 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes for the Pixar movie Up, only five of them are negative. One of them, from former Salon.com and current Village Voice film critic, Stephanie Zacharek, produced the following screed from a commenter named groanamox:

"Why do I have to read this stupid little shit Stephanie Whatever about what a failure Up is. She spews all over everyone at Pixar except a hired gun, the incredible Incredibles director. Yes, he is brilliant, but so are all of the other folks who put his vision on the screen. If you don't care for this animated feature, there is no need to bring out some phony STANDARD of EXCELLENCE that this know nothing little shit Stephanie has complete knowledge of. She is no where as a critic. The standard does not exist. She is new and is trying to take down a gentle giant Pixar for absolutely no other reason but to show she has clout. She has nothing. No knowledge, no compassion, no nuance. How easy it is to love genius. How difficult to criticize with aplomb to nurture new and talented directors. How I hate the vicious stupidity of shits like Stephanie. Don't publish her anymore. I won't read her."

The "gentle giant" of Pixar is a multi-million dollar company that employs hundreds of people on a 22-acre campus in the San Francisco Bay Area. It's not a person. It's an organization that seeks to profit from the work that they make, not a human being. The Supreme Court finally made it the law of the land with Citizens United, but geeks decided that corporations were people a long time before that.

The "standard of excellence" that this commenter found so false is completely subjective, but that doesn't prevent others like them from damning anyone on the flip side of the critical divide. The very first negative review of Up, from professional contrarian Armond White, was so universally despised that it created its own army of think pieces either supporting his bravery or decrying the sheer temerity required to dislike a movie everyone else already said they thought was a masterpiece. Once the book of public opinion is closed on a movie—which, in today's media environment, takes about five hours after the movie is released—the book is closed.

This phenomenon continues, with Stephanie Zacharek back in the crosshairs of genre film fans. She dared say that Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy "works so hard to advertise its disreputability that it comes off as anything but." Needless to say, her opinion was met with a fair share of vitriol. 

A selection of anger directed toward a movie reviewer who didn't like a comic book movie

It got so bad that another Village Voice writer felt the need to come to Zacharek's defense and call out a specific commenter's sexist, homophobic bon mot, "She's just pissed because she lives in the Village full of gay men and no one wants any of her old, dried out pie."

Ignoring the fact that this commenter has no intimate knowledge of Zacharek's vagina, nor her frequency of sexual intercourse, it's kind of beside the point to say that she was the subject of sexism. People deploy such tried and true rhetorical devices as racial slurs, homophobia, and thinly veiled threats of violence on the internet every second of the day. That's not an excuse, but it most certainly is an unavoidable side effect of freedom of speech as it has evolved online. The unspoken problem here is that a clear-headed review of a movie starring a talking raccoon could engender such venom from an adult.

It is fair to say that the modern blockbuster—starting with 1977's Star Wars and going forward to today's Marvel-dominated landscape—is made for children first and foremost. Kids buy toys. Kids sleep on bed sheets featuring their favorite characters. Kids watch cartoon spinoffs on the vertically integrated corporate siblings of movie studios. They eventually grow up with the same level of affection they had for said movie, and keep spending money on re-releases, reboots, sequels, and merchandise.

I still buy toys, and go to midnight screenings of Tim Burton's Batman. I'm a part of this feedback loop of fandom; fully aware that I'm just a cash machine for multi-national corporations. It's totally irrational to be so passionate about such things into adulthood, but those of us still in thrall to sci-fi/fantasy either don't see it that way, or find ways to rationalize it. That's why we often respond badly to an outsider (especially one in a position of authority) trying to force us to wake up from our collective dream.

When one of these movies works for the general audience and becomes successful, the fact that the movie is for children is used as a bludgeon to smite anyone with a contrary opinion. The white knights for Guardians of the Galaxy or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ask why one would expend so much energy critiquing a movie for people who can't legally drink beer. It's a kids' movie, they scream to anyone who will listen. Just enjoy it! Yes, it is a kids' movie, and now adults are arguing about the relative merits of a kids' movie. Who's the real fool in this relationship? In truth, we all are.

Both the critic and the average audience member are on the same basic level when it comes to the usefulness of judging a movie where seven-foot-tall turtles ride skateboards in between product placements. Each side is arguing about something trivial. As silly as it may seem to critique a movie designed to appeal to the under-18 set, it is equally absurd to defend that movie from people who get paid to tell you what they think about said kids' movie. Everyone who participates in the cultural ecosystem by publicly declaring an opinion about a movie where men in rubber spacesuits punch each other is at least a little bit crazy, me included.

I spent a good long while anticipating the release of Guardians of the Galaxy. The promotional materials promised a delightful romp through the neglected corners of the mighty Marvel universe. Perhaps I am the proverbial "joyless cunt," but the finished product struck me as the same sort of pre-packaged, focus-grouped, foam-padded, processed-cheese-product, action-adventure spectacle we get every weekend from the motion picture industry. It's film as momentary diversion, something to forget after you're finished picking the popcorn out of your teeth. Even though I knew what I was getting into, I still expressed my displeasure. I still said something. Of course, I said something because I get paid to say something, and that's what drives all of this discourse, both the product and the response to the product.

Guardians was a tad less crass than Transformers: Age of Extinction or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, more genial and amusing than a Christopher Nolan mopefest, and a significant visual upgrade from the bland color palette of every other Marvel film, but it's still a barely-there trifle engineered to get kids to buy toys. Movies, like literally every other business, operate on the simple supply-and-demand principle. The human appetite for pleasant, non-threatening, positive entertainment seems unquenchable, which requires infinitely more supply. We need products, especially products with the insane public demand and pent-up anticipation of a film based on a known property.

I am not arrogant enough to presume that the entertainment industry owes the world anything more than what we demand. I am a capitalist. I love money. I like having it, and then spending it on RoboCop T-shirts. I don't begrudge anyone their right to make more money by calling two hours of explosions and close-ups of Megan Fox's ass a movie. I was lucky enough to be born an American, and goddamn it, I want to see Megan Fox's ass!

These movies are products—blatant transactions between two parties: the audience and the gristle factory that churns them out. And yet there is a large portion of the United States that refuses to acknowledge what these movies are, and that causes them to lash out at anyone who dares take them down from their exalted pedestal.

Perhaps its the identification with childhood, with the time in a person's life when the only truly detestable things were vegetables and homework, that causes the faithful to lose their shit in the face of a difference of opinion. When I was a child, motion pictures were made by kindly Willy Wonka-types like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for purely artistic reasons. It wasn't until the generation that grew up with Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park came of age that they realized there was more to it than that.

To some, Empire Strikes Back was made with love and care, whereas The Phantom Menace was a shitty, shameless cash grab. Really, both films were made with financial gain in mind, and calling one art and the other commerce is missing the point. George Lucas's decision to demand that 20th Century Fox grant him the merchandising rights to Star Wars made him a billionaire. No one who just wants to make art for the sake of art even considers selling toys. Shrewd businesspeople do, though.

This may seem like a more cynical age, but it's not. There are still scores of us who are capable of being transported to another world by an expensive, epic feature presentation. They can't stand it when a smug professional film critic swings into their fantasy with a bunch of naysaying. Sure, it's just a movie, but when you're eight years old (either physically or emotionally), it's not just a movie. It's a whole hell of a lot more than that. I wish I could say I was still able to be a part of that group that can engage fully with entertainment for the sake of being entertained. Even if I was, I don't think I'd ever threaten to murder someone who isn't. The divide between the two schools of thought in film criticism has never been more pronounced, but one would hope that eventually, both sides can learn to coexist in the same universe.

Follow Dave Schilling on Twitter.

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