Despite the best efforts of a bad-faith and sexist smear campaign, Captain Marvel — Marvel Studios’ first solo superhero movie about a female superhero — is earning positive critical reviews, and the film is currently projected to make $125 million in its opening weekend.
For months, the film has been targeted by trolls. After its first trailer was released in September, some “fans” of the character photoshopped smiles onto star Brie Larson’s promotional photos — essentially the digital version of the “smile more” catcall — because they thought the actress was stiff and wooden in the role. Larson’s physique was called into question, as part of a debate over whether or not she was strong enough to play a hero who will be one of the strongest Avengers.
In February, as Captain Marvel’s first pre-release screenings were held for press, the movie became the subject of several negative user reviews posted to the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes by people who hadn’t even seen it, blasting Larson’s performance and trashing the movie itself. Although, to call their assessments “reviews” is generous, as they primarily complained about Larson for being sexist against men, expressing anger that seemed to stem from Larson being vocal about the lack of diversity in Hollywood and among film critics.
Larson didn’t back down, and during the press tour for the movie has spoken about how important feminism and diversity are to her, and how they are intrinsic to her character’s story.
The focused backlash against Captain Marvel wasn’t a random occurrence. Previously, trolls had mobilized online against Star Wars: The Last Jedi, harassing its cast and denouncing the movie for being too progressive. Movies like Black Panther and the 2016 all-women remake of Ghostbusters saw similar attacks (harassment of actors, fake negative reviews, etc.) too.
A brief look at the movies that have been targeted by trolls in the last few years makes it easy to see that this kind of backlash consistently erupts when women and non-white characters are at the center of Marvel Studios superhero flicks or other cinematic franchises with long, less-diverse histories.
It’s essentially become a knee-jerk response — to the point that Rotten Tomatoes announced in late February that it would tweak its user review feature in order to stop letting users post audience reviews prior to a movie’s release. The move was a clear effort to cut down on users who abuse the privilege by posting fake negative reviews meant to bring down films like Captain Marvel and others with stars who are not white or male.
Rotten Tomatoes’ policy change, along with Larson’s grace under fire and critical praise for the film, have greatly reduced its trolls’ ability to maintain a presence surrounding the movie. Its projected opening weekend box office of over $100 million has also helped to drown out the voices of those who’ve suggested a woman-fronted film can’t succeed. And while Captain Marvel is not the first movie and Larson not the first actress to face the wrath of online trolls — nor will they be the last — they have made considerable progress in finding a better way to deal with them.
Efforts to denounce Captain Marvel are part of a bigger problem with sexist trolls
Online targeting of Captain Marvel is just the latest example of a bigger problem.
In 2017, so-called “fans” targeted Star Wars: The Last Jedi for not representing what Star Wars is “meant to be.” Many were upset that The Last Jedi and its predecessor, The Force Awakens, featured a powerful female protagonist who was seen as the last hope for the good guys.
Further, the current Star Wars cast is as racially diverse as it ever was, which also made the franchise a target of online trolling. In June 2018, actress Kelly Marie Tran, who is Vietnamese American and Star Wars’ first female lead of color, deleted her Instagram account after months of harassment from Star Wars “fans.”
Before Star Wars, there were online attacks on the 2016 all-female Ghostbusters remake. And in between, in a case similar to Larson being debated as the right actress to play Captain Marvel, there were cries that Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot was not curvy enough to play the hero, while some people got mad at Warner Bros. for promoting women-only screenings of the film.
Captain Marvel and Brie Larson have started to create a blueprint for how to handle toxic trolls
It’s not difficult to see the common thread that superhero and other franchise movies with woman and people of color as protagonists are regularly met by toxic trolling online.
But as the face of Captain Marvel, Larson has handled toxic responses to the film with grace and savvy. In interviews, she has championed how empowering her role is, how important the character is, and how it’s unapologetically feminist.
“There’s just no question that we would have to show what it means to be all different kinds of women, that we don’t just have one type,” Larson told Entertainment Weekly. “To me, that’s a part of what the meditation of this movie is: It’s female strength, but what is female strength? What are the different ways that can look?”
She has also talked about the responsibility she feels under the gigawatt spotlight that’s been turned on her now that she’s Captain Marvel.
“I’ve never craved the spotlight that often comes along with success in this business,” she told Marie Claire. “It’s a by-product of the profession and a sign of the times. But any uncomfortableness I feel is balanced by the knowledge that it gives me the ability to advocate for myself and others.”
Larson and Marvel have shifted the conversation around Captain Marvel to focus on the important message attached to its hero, on the work Larson put into the role, and on the movie itself, instead of engaging with trolls.
But that isn’t to say that Larson has just ignored the trolls and moved on. As Bloomberg had noted, she also savvily responded on social media by calling out the double standards Captain Marvel has faced by sharing a picture of the typically serious male Avengers with altered smirks, and by posting videos of the extremely difficult workouts she was completing in her preparation for the role (including pushing a Jeep).
Captain Marvel got an assist from Rotten Tomatoes
While Larson and Marvel have made a clear and admirable effort to not fuel toxic conversations around the character, there are some things they can’t control, like the practice called “review bombing” —in which bad-faith users flood sites like Rotten Tomatoes with bad ratings and negative reviews of a movie, whether they’ve seen it or not.
Rotten Tomatoes tweaking its user review policy ahead of Captain Marvel’s release was a big step in addressing users who abuse the system, because it handicapped one of the trolls’ go-to behaviors.
Unfortunately, it’s not a be-all end-all fix: Bad-faith audience reviews have popped up on Rotten Tomatoes now that Captain Marvel has hit theaters (there’s currently an 80 percent to 30 percent approval discrepancy between critics and audience reviews). Meanwhile, on IMDb, which employs a similar system of allowing users to rate movies, there were over 4,500 1-star user votes for Captain Marvel before the movie was even released.
But in blocking those sight-unseen reviews until the release date, Rotten Tomatoes quashed them from being the story about Captain Marvel.
And what matters most to Marvel and its parent company Disney is how big of an earner Captain Marvel turns out to be. Early estimates indicate that the movie, which currently has an 81 percent “fresh” rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 65 on Metacritic, is tracking at a $100 million-plus opening weekend box office in North America. That would give it the third-highest solo superhero debut (meaning of a solo superhero film that isn’t a sequel) of all time domestically, behind Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther, and place it ahead of movies like Thor, Doctor Strange, and Iron Man. And at least 100 million reasons not to listen to or feed the trolls.
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Whales dying from plastic bags: The alarming trend, explained
Another dead whale has washed ashore with a belly full of plastic.
This week, the carcass of the young sperm whale, estimated to have been 7 years old, was found on a beach in Cefalù, Italy. Investigators aren’t certain whether the plastic killed the whale. But it’s part of a gruesome pattern that’s become impossible to ignore.
In April, a pregnant sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sardinia with nearly 50 pounds’ worth of plastic bags, containers, and tubing in her stomach. Biologists in Florida last month euthanized a baby rough-toothed dolphin with two plastic bags and a shredded balloon in its stomach.
“The dolphin was very young and emaciated,” said Michelle Kerr, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in an email. “Due to a poor prognosis, the decision was made to humanely euthanize the animal on scene.”
In March, a 1,100-pound Cuvier’s beaked whale was recovered in the Philippines filled with 88 pounds of plastic bags, fishing line, and rice sacks. A beached sperm whale was found in Indonesia last year with more than 1,000 pieces of plastic inside.
As the quantity of plastic humans dump in the ocean has reached obscene proportions, we’re seeing more and more sea life — including birds, otters, sea turtles, and fish — choking on it.
But the impact on whales is particularly alarming. After centuries of whaling and overfishing, the survival of many whale species is already precarious. Now, just as their numbers are starting to recover, whales are consuming our toxic waste. And their deaths aren’t just about biodiversity loss: Whales play a critical role in marine ecosystems, which provide 3 billion people with their primary sources of protein.
To find out more about why whales are so vulnerable to plastic waste, I talked to Lars Bejder, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He said there are multiple mechanisms at work here and that dying isn’t the only plastic hazard for whales, and explained why the problem will only get worse.
There’s a gargantuan amount of plastic in the ocean
The root cause of these stranded, plastic-filled whales is that plastic is cheap and easy to produce but almost impossible for nature to destroy. Chunks of plastic linger for decades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. This waste then churns in the ocean in massive gyres.
Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic — a mass greater than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza — enters the ocean each year.
Meanwhile, we’re still trying to figure out how much plastic waste has already accumulated in the ocean. A study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports estimated that 414 million bits of garbage weighing 238 tons have been deposited on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands 1,300 miles off the coast of Australia. It’s a sign that even the most remote regions of the world are now contaminated with the detritus of civilization.
“Sadly, the situation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is not unique, with significant quantities of debris documented on islands and coastal areas from the Arctic to the Antarctic,” researchers wrote. “[G]lobal debris surveys, the majority of which are focused solely on surface debris, have drastically underestimated the scale of debris accumulation.”
And the amount of plastic waste in the ocean is surging. Our current trajectory puts us on track to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.
So for the largest, hungriest animals in the ocean, plastic is becoming an unwelcome part of their diets.
Different whales face different risks from plastic
Whales are among the more intelligent creatures in the ocean, so why aren’t they smart enough to avoid eating plastic?
Well, one reason is that often plastic is in their food.
Small crustaceans like krill and tiny fish like anchovies often end up inadvertently consuming microplastics. Whales, the largest animals ever known to have existed, have a voracious appetite for these critters. A blue whale eats between 2 and 4 tons of krill per day.
Whales like the blue whale have baleen plates in their mouths that act as filters, trapping their small prey as well as small bits of plastic. This means they are less likely to ingest larger plastic waste items like bottles and containers, but the small plastic bits they consume quickly pile up.
“These baleen whales filter hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water per day,” Bejder said. “You can imagine all these microplastics they encounter through this filtration process that then become bioaccumulated.”
Microplastics are unlikely to obstruct the digestive tract of a baleen whale, but as they build up inside an animal’s tissues, they can leach toxic chemicals like endocrine disruptors that make the creature sick. This problem can affect all ocean filter feeders, including manta rays and whale sharks.
That means there could be large whales dying of plastic poisoning without obvious culprits like flip-flops and food containers in their stomachs, according to Bejder.
A study published this week in Royal Society Open Science also reported that plastic pollution is more dangerous to baleen whales than oil spills. “Particle capture studies suggest potentially greater danger to [baleen whales] from plastic pollution than oil,” the authors wrote.
Toothed whales like sperm whales and dolphins normally catch bigger prey, like squid. But since they can swallow larger animals, they are vulnerable to larger chunks of plastic, like bags and nets.
“They might be seeking those out because they’re thinking they might be prey,” Bejder said. A plastic container in murky waters could resemble a fish to a toothed whale, or a sperm whale may inadvertently swallow plastic garbage as it hunts for a meal.
Once ingested, the plastic piles up in the whale’s stomach. It can then obstruct bowels, preventing whales from digesting food and leading them to starve to death. It can also give a whale a false sense of being full, leading the whale to eat less and get weaker. That leaves it vulnerable to predators and disease.
We’re only seeing a tiny fraction of the whales being harmed by plastic
Part of the reason we pay so much attention to whales killed by plastic is because the whales themselves are very big and the plastic culprits are startlingly obvious. Large animals decay slowly, giving people plenty of time to figure out the cause of death, whereas smaller fish and crustaceans dying from plastic decompose quickly and are rarely investigated. Even for casual observers, a dead whale blocking a beach vacation photo is pretty hard to ignore.
Still, we’re missing a big part of the picture.
“The ones that land on the beach that are killed through ingestion, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. They’re just the ones that we see,” Bejder said. “I’m sure that many, many marine mammals have some levels of plastic bags and plastic items in their stomachs.”
Many more whales could be dying from plastic poisoning without our knowledge. Around the Gulf of Mexico for example, 2 to 6 percent of whale carcasses end up on a shoreline. That means the vast majority sink to the ocean floor. This is likely the case for most of the world’s waters.
And the fact that whales are suffering shows that our marine ecosystems in general are in peril. “Whales, baleen whales, these larger dolphins species are pretty much at the top of the food chain,” Bejder said. “They are sentinels of ocean health for sure.”
But with more plastic waste pouring into the ocean, the prognosis for the most mega of megafauna is grim.
Yoga With ELLE: When You’re Low On Energy
Join Fern Ross, our Chief Sub-Editor / Production Editor and resident (ahem, registered) yoga teacher as she takes you through several yoga poses each tailored to specific needs. This week, yoga for when you’re low on energy aka yoga for when you’re on your period.
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