Hours after the film’s release, people who had already decided they hated Captain Marvel started review-bombing the movie on Rotten Tomatoes, before they’d even seen it. Captain Marvel is a comic book movie about an Air Force officer who is also kind of an alien, and loves cats, and happens to be female, and for some people that's a big problem. Countless angry reviews on YouTube read the movie's female lead as "feminist propaganda" and pandering to "social justice warriors."
According to The Hollywood Reporter, by 8 a.m. on opening day, the film had a 33 percent audience score from more than 58,000 reviews. Rotten Tomatoes said that the site was counting user reviews submitted prior to the movie's release due to a bug, and once the bug was fixed, that score bumped back up to 35 percent. As of writing, it has a 59 percent audience score, which is the score determined by the site’s users.
If I happened to check out the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes before deciding what movie I wanted to see at the theater that night, I would have gotten the impression that Captain Marvel is a waste of time and money. If I spent a minute Googling it I would have discovered that these negative reviews were coming from people whose opinion on this subject could not matter less to me, but how would I know to do that?
The people who were leaving negative reviews were "review bombing," a tactic that's getting more and more common, and platforms still don’t know how to handle it. That's a problem. User reviews are now just another battlefield in the greater culture war that is devouring the world. This makes them mostly useless when it comes to movies like Captain Marvel, or any product or service that gets caught up in the culture war.
These are not just things we consume, it's who we are
In a statement published on its blog on February 25, Rotten Tomatoes said that it was making changes to its pre-release functionality, including no longer allowing users to comment or review movies prior to their release in theaters.
“However, we still invite users to vote if they 'want to see' a movie prior to its release, and that vote total is displayed on the site," the statement read. “Unfortunately, we have seen an uptick in non-constructive input, sometimes bordering on trolling, which we believe is a disservice to our general readership.”
But those changes didn’t go smoothly: In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter on March 8, Rotten Tomatoes said that a glitch in implementing those changes combined pre- and post-release votes, muddling the two and opening it up to trolling. The statement said:
“We have identified a bug in the post-release functionality for the movies that have released into theaters since our product update last week. The quantity of user ratings (which is displayed directly below the audience score and is intended to only include the quantity of users who have left a rating or written review after a movie’s release) had included both pre-release and post-release fan voting."
Culture war review bombing is nothing new. We saw it happen with the Red Hen restaurant after the owner asked President Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, and people used Yelp as a battleground to try to defend or destroy the establishment. Yelp has guidelines in place that require users to “describe a firsthand consumer experience, not what someone read in the news,” a spokesperson told me at the time of the Red Hen review bombing—but it takes days or a week to review and clean up a Yelp page that’s been review-bombed.
Steam, despite absolutely fumbling on what should be obvious content moderation issues and ignoring the presence of hate groups on its platform, was an early platform to seriously attempt to address the problem of review-bombing. Players have to purchase and play a game for at least 20 minutes before they can review it, reviews show how long a player spent with a game, and Steam shows users if there's a spike in negative reviews, which helps them spot bad faith review brigades. These are helpful features, but even with these measures in place, Steam is not immune to review bombing.
There's not moderation tool that will change the fact that we’ve tied our identities inexorably to what we consume; it’s what brands have wanted all along. Steak-ums has an existential crisis on main. Sunny D, a drink almost exclusively made for children, enacts some sort of mental breakdown online. Ads target our deepest insecurities and follow us everywhere. These are not just things we consume, it's who we are.
What Captain Marvel says about our culture is of course an interesting subject worthy of discussion. Analyzing pop-culture can be rewarding, that's why we read movie reviews. It's even okay if you feel so strongly about a superhero movie that it makes you cry or get angry. But that is not what review bombing is. It's just a way to wage culture war against the things and people you don't like, and the platforms we use to review the things we consume still aren’t ready to combat the full force of an angry internet mob.