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Rotten Tomatoes shuts down 'Batman' comments after death threats

July 18, 2012|By Rene Lynch | This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

Holy Controversy, Batman! Rotten Tomatoes, the popular movie review website, said it took the unprecedented step of shutting down comments about early reviews of one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the year --"The Dark Knight Rises"-- after remarks grew especially heated and even threatening.

"Death threats, rape threats are not OK, and that's what was happening," Matt Atchity, the site's editor in chief, told the Los Angeles Times. "At one point, we had seven people dedicated to [moderating] comments," he said, adding that he eventually had to disable all comments.

Atchity said the decision was made completely in-house, without any pressure from Warner Bros., the studio behind the "Batman" franchise. (Rotten Tomatoes is owned by social networking site Flixster.com, a Warner Bros. company.)

L.A. Times Review: 'The Dark Knight Rises'

"No, there was no pressure" from outside the office, Atchity said. And although some media representatives suspect a publicity stunt -- either for the movie or for Rotten Tomatoes, or both -- Atchity insisted that was not the case.

He made the decision, he said, because the comments went far beyond the routine banter that takes place between a movie's fans and its inevitable haters. "Whatever small role we play in the culture, I don't want to be known as a site for hate speech," Atchity said.

In an article titled in part, "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things," the Rotten Tomatoes editor used an open letter to readers to explain both the controversy and his effort to quell such hate speech.

The uproar centers on a movie that hasn't even opened in theaters -- and won't do so until Friday. 

The vast majority of commenters on the site spoke about their desire to see the film, heaping lavish praise on the latest and final film in director Christopher Nolan's trilogy about the conflicted comic hero played by Christian Bale.

But little by little, negative comments aimed at critics and spewing hatred and profanity began trickling in. (Given that combo, it's hard to offer up a taste of these comments without using said profanity, but some of the comments aimed directly at the movie suggest the heightened emotions surrounding the new film: "Overrated piece of..." "It's going to suck..." "Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale [have] destroyed Batman.")

Atchity said he had no problem with complaints about the movie. It was the hateful comments aimed at individual critics that crossed the line, such as comments threatening to rape or kill them. The comments were coming in faster than Atchity and his team could handle them.

Eventually, he said, he chose the "nuclear option" of disallowing any more such comments.

Many sought to lay the blame at the feet of Internet trolls -- folks who live to stir up trouble online -- not fans or even haters of the movie. "One more time: it's not that Batman fans have screwed up the Rotten Tomatoes commenting system. It's that crazy people did," said one tweet about the controversy.

The uproar comes as Rotten Tomatoes is considering revamping its commenting system to demand more accountability from users. Although not foolproof, a Facebook commenting system now under consideration could help the popular website cut down on vicious comments filed from behind the protective cloak of anonymity, Atchity said.

Much of the nastiness was directed at media critics.

One user on the movie review site noted that many of the critics seemed to use the same single descriptor for the new film: Bloated. "was there a sale of the word BLOATED at the word store? I ... read the reviews they all have the word bloated in them. come on now... you guys were just too lazy to go the movie and copy and pasted each others reviews guys do your own work..."

Others say Rotten Tomatoes has only itself to blame for this controversy: "Curmudgeon-y thought of day: Rotten Tomatoes reduces art of criticism to near-idiot levels, then is surprised that so many idiots read it," said one tweet.

[For the record, 6:30 p.m. July 18: An earlier version of this story failed to make clear that Rotten Tomatoes' actions were aimed only at hateful comments directed at individual critics. Atchity said negative comments about the movie -- such as those quoted in the story -- were not restricted.]

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Join Rene Lynch on Google+ and Twitter. Email: rene.lynch@latimes.com

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