The Dark Knight Rises comes out tomorrow, or midnight tonight if you're up for it. Unsurprisingly, a universe of nerds has already made up its collective mind about the movie and, without seeing a single frame of it beyond a leaked opening scene and what's in the previews, has anointed it in the sacred oil of nerd juice. And when a handful of critics showed up to give the movie anything other than unequivocal praise, that nerd juice started to boil over. Rotten Tomatoes ultimately had to dismantle its entire commenting platform after waves of users began threatening critics who suggested the movie might err toward the side of bloated and self-serious.
News outlets picked up the story and it burned its way through Newser and Buzzfeed for a few hours, picking up the standard "Heh, don't feed the trolls..." and "Heh, this is why we can't have nice things, heh ..." commentary, before dropping out of sight. In two weeks, "RottenTomatoes.com temporarily dropped its comments" will fall somewhere between Joe the Plumber's political ambitions and the release date of the next VeggieTales movie on the list of things that anyone could or should ever give a shit about. But I found it a lot more troubling than that fate would ever suggest.
Up until very recently--like, let's say 99.8 percent of human history since around 50,000 years ago, when it's thought we stopped acting like smart chimps and actually began drawing pictures and telling stories--art and popular entertainment were pretty simple. You dictated, wrote, sang, played, or painted something, and people either liked it or didn't. That was it. Eventually, patronage systems arose and maybe you had to tailor your story or song or picture to the fickle taste of royalty or the church, but the fundamentals of how to entertain people, and why, didn't change.
Then came the 20th century and marketing and focus groups and audience measurement metrics. Entertainment and art, which were always synonymous before, split off into two camps, one commercial and one personal. It became a matter of business to entertain people, and business was good precisely because movie studios and record labels and publishing houses spent billions of dollars and millions of man hours trying to feed the public exactly what it wanted. Then came the Internet, which seemed to make things even more democratic by allowing the people themselves to tell the entertainment industry exactly what they want so that, in turn, more of what they want can be pumped out and fed back to them.
Which all led straight to a legion of nerds threatening to murder other human beings for having reservations about a movie they think they're going to like. Do they not see how insane this is? We've reached a stage as a culture where people feel entitled not only to be constantly entertained, but to furiously demand that their opinions on the entertainment onslaught become unassailable rule of law.
When I read about the whole Rotten Tomatoes/Dark Knight Rises embarrassment, I of course first rolled my eyes at the nerds, but I shortly thought that maybe it wasn't such a bad thing, if you could cut through their histrionics and hyperbole. We are, after all, talking about a passionate fanbase actually having a forum to help shape the production and perception of entertainment. The patronage system was far from ideal, establishing as it did an autocratic, top-down culture in which anything designed to entertain was made without any public input and just trickled down to the masses at the whims of a handful of plutocrats. But then I realized: This isn't a democracy, what we have now. It's a federation of a bunch of snarling little cultural fascists, primed to jump down the throat of anyone who disagrees with them. "You'll eat it and you'll like it" may have been the less-than-ideal mantra of the old way, but is that really any worse than the new way, a deafening chorus of shrill yelps, out of which you can barely make out a voice screeching, "I LOVE PLAIN HOT DOGS AND I'LL KILL ANYONE WHO DOESN'T!"?
We still teach kids to accept hardship, to bear with and adapt to not getting exactly what they want, exactly when they want it. Yet in our own lives, we insist on precisely the opposite, on demanding that the culture and even the world's reaction to it conform to our tastes. Having an utterly unshakeable opinion and using it to shout down anyone who disagrees has been enshrined as a leading cultural value.
A few months ago, I saw a study revealing that the majority of "Millennials" (yuck) want movie theaters to start to allow texting during movies. Doesn't take a sociologist to trace the origins of the desire to tweet out spoilers to Ice Age: Continental Drift in 3-D in real time, lest you actually put the goddamn phone down for 90 minutes at a stretch. Doing so and sidestepping the desire to not be a prick pointing a glowing screen at the faces of the people around you is obviously a direct result of the "GIVE ME WHAT I WANT, RIGHT NOW" culture. But here's the scary thing: movie theater owners then immediately started arguing for Letting The Millennials Text! They looked at a bunch of obnoxious pricks doing dumb, selfish shit, and instead of saying "don't do that," they went with "yes, sir, how may I accommodate you, sir?"
I don't intend this to be a Sorkin-style Things Ain't What They Used To Be rant. I am a Millennial, much as it grosses me out to use the term. I don't think society is being rent in twain because people got worked up about Batman or because people of a certain age evidently cannot stop themselves from broadcasting "lol scrat never gonna get that eggcorn" for all the world to see instead of just waiting an hour to do the same. But I don't think it's in the best interest of the common good to pander to the loudest voices at all costs. That's how you end up with a society whose members feel so entitled that they don't consider others entitled to their own opinions. That's how you end up with death threats aimed at movie critics.