WARNING: The following article contains minor spoilers for Venom, in theaters now.
Last week, Venom unwittingly made himself an enemy of the Lady Gaga fandom, which is possibly the only thing stranger than watching sentient black goo from outer space force Tom Hardy to stuff live lobsters into his mouth while bathing in a seafood restaurant tank.
Suspicion was raised when a batch of similarly-worded negative reviews of the symbiote’s solo film started spreading on Twitter this week, urging people to attend screenings of the Gaga-fronted A Star Is Born remake instead of the Sony/Marvel movie. Most were quick to flag it as a targeted effort from Little Monsters to boost the negative buzz leading up to Venom‘s release and help Mother Monster beat it to the top of the box office.
This news comes hot on the heels of the revelation that Russian bots attempted to capitalize on the divisiveness of The Last Jedi by bolstering the wave of negative opinions about the The Force Awakens sequel online. Speaking to The Washington Post, Morten Bay, the author of the report, stressed that the percentage of tweets he’d analyzed damning the film because of its perceived liberal leanings that were thought to be from said bots was less than 2%. But considering he also wrote that, “Russian trolls weaponize Star Wars criticism as an instrument of information warfare with the purpose of pushing for political change, while it is weaponized by right-wing fans to forward a conservative agenda,” you can see why the media jumped on the news.
The A Star Is Born/Venom beef and the “weaponization” of The Last Jedi criticism aren’t isolated incidents. DCEU fans threatened to flood Marvel’s Black Panther with bad reviews ahead of its release in February. This warning of digital guerrilla warfare was perhaps motivated by a long-running pet conspiracy that critics who give negative reviews to DC movies and positive reviews to Marvel ones are “in Disney’s pocket.” The perpetrators who subscribe to this conspiracy justified their actions as a levelling of the playing field.
The “Them vs Us” perception of the relationship between critics and audiences has existed for a long time, but in the age of Internet-powered fandom, this tension has intensified as the opinion of the general public seems to matter more and more. And the general public also thinks it should matter more. These days, we can leave permanent written reviews about everything from businesses to household groceries, reviews that actually have the power to effect another person’s purchasing decision. The same extends to sites where you can buy, rent or stream a movie or TV show.
The difference between the critical and audience consensus of a film is also laid bare in cold, hard statistics on review aggregation sites like Rotten Tomatoes — perfect fodder for conspiracists to levy accusations of favoritism as well as inspiration to mount a calculated attack on a film’s reputation and money-making potential.
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