Captain Marvel hasn’t hit theaters, yet it garnered a dismal audience score of 54 percent—far below the totals for other recent Marvel movies. The poor grade is the result of “review bombing,” a practice that’s also widespread in the highly charged world of video gaming. Different groups organize campaigns to drag down the audience rating for a film (or a game) in response to a particular controversy, sometimes for sexist or racist reasons. Many culture writers noted that Captain Marvel, in particular, was likely being targeted for featuring a female hero. It’s become common to see online backlashes to female-led blockbusters—most notoriously with the 2016 iteration of Ghostbusters, but also with films such as Ocean’s 8 and even projects that never exited development. In the case of Captain Marvel, many online commenters seemed upset by Larson’s forthright remarks in interviews about how she hopes to increase diversity in the blockbuster world.
Review-bombing campaigns, which are run by a small (if loud) sliver of online fandom, don’t factor much into the larger cultural conversation around a movie. These efforts don’t even always affect a film’s box-office performance. In 2017, Star Wars: The Last Jedi was pilloried by unhappy viewers who drove the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes audience score to 44 percent; it was still the highest-grossing film of the year by more than $100 million. Certainly, there was legitimate debate among fans involving The Last Jedi’s characters and story lines. But the audience score was often cited in news articles as evidence of the film’s massive unpopularity—despite the fact that the metric is easily manipulated and not necessarily reflective of how most viewers felt about a movie.
The new Rotten Tomatoes changes, of course, apply to unreleased movies. In addition to restricting users’ ability to leave ratings, the site will also disable comment functions before a film’s release date. “Unfortunately, we have seen an uptick in non-constructive input, sometimes bordering on trolling, which we believe is a disservice to our general readership,” Rotten Tomatoes said in a statement on the site. “Don’t worry though, fans will still get to have their say: Once a movie is released, audiences can leave a user rating and comments as they always have.” The site has also said that Captain Marvel wasn’t the explicit reason for the change, which was reportedly part of a long-term strategy.
Captain Marvel wasn’t the only film under attack ahead of the Rotten Tomatoes change. J. J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode IX, which hasn’t announced its official title yet and won’t be out until December, was being barraged with negative comments on the site, perhaps owing to lingering resentment over the last Star Wars film. But the ire toward Captain Marvel appears especially heated. YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands of views have called the Rotten Tomatoes decision a “disgusting” act of “censorship” aimed at “protecting” the new film. Meanwhile, Larson has been the subject of all kinds of absurd complaints in tweets and YouTube comments, such as that she didn’t smile enough in the film’s trailer. “It’s just how it goes,” Larson told Yahoo. “This is part of why art that depicts the female experience is so important.”