The Internet is a haven of free speech. You can say pretty much whatever you want — as long as you don’t say something that pisses off comic book geeks. Then they come after you hard, harder than the adamantium in Wolverine’s claws.
Their target in this case is Amy Nicholson of Boxoffice Magazine, who dared to do two things: 1) write a mixed-to-negative review of “The Avengers” and b) be a woman who wrote a mixed-to-negative review of “The Avengers.” As outlined by Melissa Silverstein at Indiewire’s Women and Hollywood blog, her review prompted dozens of angry comments, both on BoxofficeMagazine.com and at Rotten Tomatoes, where it was the first negative review aggregated on the site. Nicholson’s ruination of “The Avengers”‘ short-lived critical consensus prompted an outpouring of angry nerd vitriol. This isn’t all that unusual — the poor sap who posts the first negative review of any hotly anticipated geek property on Rotten Tomatoes inevitably suffers a shower of proverbial rotten tomatoes themselves. What was unusual in this case was the disgustingly misogynistic nature of the attacks. Apparently Nicholson’s lack of male genitalia makes her incapable of evaluating a movie based on a comic book. (Sample: “She asked her boyfriend what score she should give. Just stick to rom-coms, bitch.”)
When I read this kind of hateful garbage, I feel like Jonah Hill in “21 Jump Street”; the high school nerd who grows up, returns to high school, and discovers that the nerds are suddenly the cool kids (the rest of the time I feel like Jonah Hill in “Moneyball”; the high school nerd who grows up, stays a nerd, doesn’t ever talk to women, and spends a lot of time on the computer). The Internet has empowered a crazy role reversal: the bullied have become the bullies.
I’ve loved comic books since before I could even read; “Spider-Man” was, no joke, one of the very first words I ever spoke (although it sounded more like “Meh-Meh” at the time. What do you want from me? I was 1). I remained a casual observer of comics until eighth grade, when I got heavily into reading and collecting them. If you’d asked me at the age of 12 why I suddenly started obsessing over comic books, I’d probably have told you that I really enjoyed the stories that were being published at the time, particularly “The Amazing Spider-Man” by David Michelinie and Mark Bagley and “X-Men” by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee. If you asked me now, I would observe an interesting coincidence: that eighth grade was also the year when I received the harshest bullying of my entire life.
The abuse I endured wasn’t especially serious, but it was serious enough to understand how bad it hurts to be teased or called a name because of how you look or act. I was less than five feet tall through most of my freshman and sophomore years of high school. I didn’t hit puberty until I was 16. I had big glasses. I wore white sneakers and tapered jeans. I may as well have walked around with a gigantic target on my backpack.
What did I do instead? I found comic books. Apparently I was an extremely prophetic baby, because as I got older, the character of Peter Parker, the 98-pound-weakling who suffers endlessly at the hands of his jockish peers but harbors an incredible secret, began to appeal to me in profound ways. Same for the X-Men and their tales of persecution at the hands of a society that hates and fears their mutancy. I could relate. If only my incredible secret was as a cool as the proportionate strength of the spider. All I had was the ability to sing a surprisingly tender rendition of Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.”
That’s what upsets me most about angry Internet commenters; these so-called defenders of “The Avengers” have completely missed the point of “The Avengers.” The core values of super-hero comics are in direct opposition to bullying. The bad guys in comics — Dr. Doom, The Red Skull, Thanos, and, to a much lesser extent, Batroc the Leaper — those guys are the bullies. The super-heroes are the ones who stand up to the bullies. Many of them — Peter Parker, Steve Rogers — were picked on before they were blessed with powers. Others — The X-Men, The Hulk — get picked on as a result of their powers. They know what bullying feels like. That’s why they fight against it and that’s why we love them. But if we start to love them so much that we have to tear down anyone who disagrees with us then it’s time to take a good long look in the mirror and consider what we’ve become. Comic book fans used to be a welcoming, inclusive bunch. Now a lot of them seem like elitist assholes. It makes me ashamed to be a part of this community.
I haven’t seen “The Avengers” yet. When I do, I hope I disagree with Nicholson, but if I don’t, I won’t lash out at others about it (okay, maybe at my wife, but just a little). Spider-Man teaches us that with great power comes great responsibility. And the ability to write whatever you want on the Internet, anonymously and with little fear of reprisal, is truly a great power. It demands great responsibility. Great empathy couldn’t hurt either.