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Why the success of 'Captain Marvel' is a defeat for trolls
NEW YORK — Captain Marvel possesses superhuman strength, cosmic awareness and, it turns out, the ability to vanquish trolls.
Marvel's "Captain Marvel," the superhero factory's first movie fronted solely by a female hero, last weekend notched the sixth largest global opening ever and in five days of release has already sold $524.1 million tickets worldwide, Disney said Wednesday. That was despite the efforts of a vocal minority to sabotage the movie's release in a campaign to lower audience scores and disseminate false information about the film's star, Brie Larson.
It's a playbook borrowed from the political realm and brought into the movie theater. And the movies that have drawn such attention have, more times than not, starred women in franchises previously dominated by males. But after similar campaigns against "Ghostbusters" and "The Last Jedi," Hollywood studios are fighting back, as are sites like Rotten Tomatoes and YouTube.
Paul Feig's 2016 female-led "Ghostbusters" remake, which Donald Trump himself spoke out against, was among the first films to be targeted by users rating it lowly on sites like the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) before the film was even released. On YouTube, it was the most disliked trailer ever.
A similar strategy was employed on Rian Johnson's "Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi," which — like "Ghostbusters" — had, and continues to have, genuine detractors who simply didn't like the movie. But there were concerted efforts to amplify criticism of "The Last Jedi," which notably expanded the "Star Wars" universe with new heroes like Laura Dern's resistance leader and Kelly Marie Tran's maintenance worker. Tran eventually deleted her Instagram account after months of harassment.
So when Johnson and Feig saw similar attempts being made ahead of the release of "Captain Marvel," they recognized the handiwork.
"Pretty much the new 'Certified Fresh' badge," said Johnson, linking to an article about review bombing on "Captain Marvel." "What a sad, sad pathetic group of people are who organize to do things like this," said Feig.
The amplified backlashes to both "The Last Jedi" (which opened strong but faded) and "Ghostbusters" (which disappointed altogether) appeared to hurt the films' bottom lines.
But the tide may be turning. The same Facebook group that organized to vote down "The Last Jedi" also went after Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther." That time, though, both Facebook and Rotten Tomatoes moved to counter the group, which was removed from Facebook. "Black Panther" became the third highest grossing film of all time domestically, not accounting for inflation.
And "Captain Marvel," which drew a majority male audience (55 percent), similarly showed no signs of any ill effect.
"If those trolls had any negative impact on the box office, somebody point it out to me because I just don't see it," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. "The trolls, they're not going derail a movie like this. For the fans, they love Marvel, they love the brand. Other than a terrible movie, nothing would dissuade the Marvel fans and the movie fans from coming out and seeing a film."
Marvel, whose 21 films have earned a combined $18 billion in global box office, is indeed about as unassailable as any studio ever has been. "Captain Marvel" was also cunningly positioned as a need-to-see appetizer to "Avengers: Endgame," due out April 26.
But "Captain Marvel" found itself in the crosshairs with some largely in response to Larson's advocacy for diversity in film and in those who write about it. A USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study last year found that, for the 100 top grossing films in 2017, 77.8 percent of the critics counted on Rotten Tomatoes were male and 86 percent were white.
At the time of the study's release, Larson said: "I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn't work for him about 'A Wrinkle in Time.'" Larson later said she, after noticing that critics reviewing movies "appeared to be overwhelmingly white male" decided to make her press interviews "more inclusive."
"This film is about trying to put in as many little revolutions as possible," she told AV Club. "And as many little nods to what that experience is like, being a woman, so that other people could feel less alone."
Online critics exaggerated her words in videos like one titled "Brie Larson hates white men." Others said her character didn't smile enough in promotional materials. Larson responded with a photo of giant grins superimposed on previous male Marvel heroes.
But perhaps more importantly, steps were taken to mitigate any troll effect on "Captain Marvel." Two studio executives who spoke anonymously because they weren't authorized to speak about their about their anti-troll efforts, said they've become more adept and prepared for combating organized negativity around a release. There are no more sneak attacks.
And the avenues for manipulating audience perception are dwindling.
YouTube, where anti-Larson videos proliferated ahead of the film's opening, chose to categorize "Brie Larson" as a news search, not a general one. The algorithm tweak, first initiated to combat conspiracy videos after the 2017 Las Vegas music festival shooting, pushed videos from news and entertainment outlets up, and rants like "Brie Larson is Ruining Marvel!" down.
Rotten Tomatoes, which ranks both critic and audience scores, removed the potential for audience scoring before a movie is released. Though an initial wave of negative audience ratings pushed the score for "Captain Marvel" down, by Wednesday it was at 63 percent — almost exactly the film's average on Metacritic.
Dana Benson, a representative for the Fandango-owned Rotten Tomatoes, said the site is exploring more adjustments to prevent the gaming of its audience scores including a "verified purchase" component to reviews, similar to Amazon's system, so to audience reviews come from those who have seen the movie.
"We've seen it with enough movies that we know we have to evolve our system," said Benson of the trolling. "Anyone that has an open system like we do has received this type of attention. Moving forward, we want to make sure our users can trust our audience score and that we find different ways to verify the reviews."