The new series "Watchmen," based on the comic by writer Alan Moore, premiered last weekend on HBO, and according to The Daily Beast, it's the latest victim of "review bombing." However, if the perpetrators are hoping to sink the show, they're unlikely to succeed.
For those not in the know, "review bombing" is what happens when scads of disgruntled viewers go to the Rotten Tomatoes website and leave one-star reviews for a movie or television show to drag down its overall rating. In the case of "Watchmen," it received a score of 98% from critics and 43% from audiences.
"A complete disrespect of the source material," said one commenter. "We have enough politics in our lives right now, can we just escape a little?" groused another. Another called it "the worst show HBO has ever created."
The show has indeed taken liberties with the source material. But if it's a victim of review bombing, writer, social media specialist and advocate Chad MacDonald said it has nothing to do with the quality of the show and is the product of an orchestrated effort.
"I regularly see people encouraging each other to do it, and bragging about it when they're done," he said. "They will display how a film or show's rating is plummeting thanks to their efforts."
MacDonald said that in some cases, people who participate in this behavior are fans who view themselves as "gatekeepers" of a franchise. However, he said that racism and misogyny are more likely causes.
"'Captain Marvel' and 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' were attacked for their female leads," he said. "I would argue that the reason HBO's 'Watchmen' is getting review bombed right now is not necessarily because of how the show strays from the material, but because it opened with the Tulsa massacre of black Americans."
The Tulsa massacre was an incident that took place in Tulsa, OK, in 1921, in which thousands of white rioters attacked the city's black business district, causing multiple fatalities. MacDonald said that the initial responses to the show that he saw all focused on this, in part because many viewers never knew that the incident had even taken place.
"It was taken as an educational experience, as a positive that the show had unearthed a forgotten but crucial part of America's history," he said. "The review bombings started after that. Add to this that the lead character is a black woman, and well, there you go."
Ironically, Matt Klein, a cultural researcher at the Sparks & Honey consulting firm, compared the people who engage in review bombing to a mob as well, albeit with much less harmful results.
"Review bombing speaks to a larger movement at hand, which is what I call 'outrage culture,'" he said. "Digital mobs are ruthless, and like physical mobs, are hard to corral."
Klein said that HBO's best course of action at this point is to do nothing.
"Giving the mob or trolls attention keeps them alive and conditions them to believe what they're doing is effective," he said.
Todd M. Schoenberger, senior research analyst and director of research at the Wellington & Co. investment firm, said that if review bombing does hurt HBO's coffers, it comes at a bad time. The service just bid farewell to "Game of Thrones," and many subscribers canceled their service when it ended.
"The streaming subscriber is the golden goose for HBO, which they lost quite a few of following the finale of 'Game of Thrones'," he said. At the same time, it could also play in the service's favor for other types of customers.
"The package player, the one who subscribes as a result of a deal with a local cable company, won't cancel their subscription, and may even tune in to see if the reviews are correct," he said. "The problem is the negative reviews are just that, negative … that will have an immediate impact on HBO's gross revenues in the coming quarters."
Not all review bombing is ideologically motivated. Matt Klein of Sparks & Honey noted that in October 2018, Lady Gaga fans review bombed "Venom," which was playing in theaters at the same time as "A Star is Born," in which she starred. These fans hoped to depress ticket sales for "Venom" and make "A Star Is Born" look more popular by comparison.
While one can only speculate as to whether or not these poor reviews for "Watchmen" are sincere opinion or contrived effort, Chad MacDonald felt that it had nothing to do with a lack of faithfulness to the source material.
"Fans of 'Watchmen' have already seen the material advance beyond the original limited series," he said. "DC Comics published 'Beyond Watchmen' years ago, and have even dabbled with bringing the 'Watchmen' characters into the DC Universe proper, having them interact with Superman and Batman."
He added that other properties based on comic books, such as "The Walking Dead," have strayed from their source material without suffering the same fate. But even if it had, he said that it rarely does much to affect a property's value.
"If the material is good enough, the tactic of review bombing is toothless."