The modern moviegoer is obsessive. The modern moviegoer is informed. The modern moviegoer is a different beast than any previous generation of audiences, for the simple reason that the modern viewer is armed with the internet. We are collectively better informed than ever before about the production processes behind our favorite movies, the filmographies of the directors and actors, the credentials of the writers and most controversially, the political implications of the movies themselves.
We do not accept the notion that movies are unchangeable, inarguable culminations of imagination. Instead, we pore over casting rumors, director interviews and teaser trailers, and so create highly specific expectations for every newly released film. We hope that the new Superman movie cuts down the bleak tone of the first one, because it wasn’t very effective. Or we pray the latest Jennifer Lawrence/David O. Russell collaboration isn’t just another three-hour shouting match. Or we place bets on how long it’ll take for the new James Bond movie to have a weird, kind of creepy, almost predatory sexual encounter (about 50 minutes in is my best guess).
Look at the popularity of YouTube channels like CinemaSins, Screen Junkies, Cracked, WatchMojo and Cinefix. Look at the discussions on Twitter and Tumblr about the merits of this or that movie, the seemingly endless top ten lists and bottom ten lists, the million think pieces that accompany every new release. “Why [insert beloved children’s movie] is Secretly Horrifying.” “Top Ten Reasons Why You’re A Bad Person and Should Feel Bad For Liking the Reboot More Than The Original.” We take this information and bust it out at dinner, in the car on the way to the movie we’re about to see, because we feel we’ve learned something about the media we consume, and we want to share that knowledge.
The phrase “everyone’s a critic” is usually used to describe people’s tendency to be nitpicky or mean, but when I say it here, I mean it in the literal sense. By virtue of the Internet, everyone can serve the role of the critic, placing movies in their cultural context, poking holes in their plots or character arcs, making fun of the stilted dialogue or lazy CGI.
In a lot of ways, this is a really good thing. Online campaigns have led to more diversity in film casting, and a wider appreciation of films that may have slipped under the critical and audience radar on release. And it’s wonderful that more attention is being paid to the effect entertainment has on us, especially the popcorn flicks. Because it’s never “just a movie.” Movies are both products of and contributors to our culture. They’re important and they’re special. It’s good that people pay attention.
But there is a clear downside, and that is that we have become a more demanding audience. We insist stories be structured in exactly the way we want them to be, and if they are not, then the movie doesn’t even deserve to exist.
Think of the articles that list every way in which a movie’s content or presentation is morally problematic, written in such a way that it seems the writer is simply revealing the truth and anyone who may have liked the movie is actually a monster. Or the fact that there is an entire genre of YouTube videos now dedicated to reviewing not just the trailer of a film, but the teaser trailer as well, as if that is a perfect barometer of whether or not the movie should be watched at all.
Many like to think of this as a liberal issue of “political correctness gone mad.” And yes, there is no denying the nastiness of the callout culture so prevalent on Tumblr and Twitter, but this is a problem that spans every ideology on the political spectrum. No one is immune.
Look at the awful backlash against the “Ghostbusters” remake. Or the uproar about the apparently politically motivated decision to cast a woman in the lead of “Star Wars: Rogue One.” Or the seething hatred directed by so-called men’s rights activists at “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
It’s anyone’s right to hate whatever they want to hate or not see any movie they don’t want to see. First Amendment rights, yada yada yada. But to the modern moviegoer, content not delivered in exactly the way we want is punishable by online harassment and death threats. We leak the home addresses, phone numbers and workplaces of people on Twitter who said something stupid so that the harassment and death threats can live on beyond the confines of the Internet. We think that our opinions are law, and if we believe a movie is too offensive to exist, then by God, that must mean it’s true.
But at the end of the day, we are an audience. Yes, we have opinions, and yes, we absolutely have the right to express them. We might even be pretty well informed about production and analysis and how character arcs should be structured and all that. But it’s when we start positioning our opinions (and yes, they are absolutely opinions) of a movie as absolute fact that we have a problem. We can’t say definitively whether a movie is deeply offensive and has no value. In truth, no one can, because movies aren’t definitive statements of fact and intent, dispensing information like a textbook. They’re stories from which we extract and interpret meaning. And meaning is malleable and dependent on the person who is doing the interpreting.
Of course movies are political, and of course their messages resonate deeply with audiences. Understanding them and analyzing their effects is important. But we, the modern viewers, have got to stop with the entitlement, with the nastiness, with the online screaming matches that never end. We have to be a better audience than this. And I think we can be. I think we can save ourselves from becoming the cultural equivalent of a YouTube comments section. All we need to do is make the choice.