It’s been almost three years since Patrick H. Willems released his infamous viral video Shut Up About Plotholes and caused an uproar. Since then, the “debates” online about objective quality in storytelling haven’t improved. The concept of “plotholes” became the goto critique for every marginally successful YouTube critic and blogger who talked about films online to beat unpopular films over the head with. This debate over them has been a personal pet peeve of mine as someone who has studied film and written film criticism online for the better part of eight years.
While I understand the instincts that drive people to make that criticism, the way “plotholes” are discussed online has only served to further drive the wedge between different factions in the FilmTube community and fester terrible film-watching habits in a generation of young Cinephiles.
Much of this was incidental. There was obviously no conspiracy that caused the term to skyrocket in popularity more that merely a confluence of events that created the modern FilmTube community. It shouldn’t be suprising that he rise in discussions of this sort coincided with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi in late 2017. The extremely polarized reception for that film is still being debated today and I’m not interested in relitigating the points at this time but for the sake of discussion the most important thing to understand is that it galvanized a numerous methods of analysis within the anti-SJW spheres of YouTube who were struggling to put their reaction to the film into words.
Movie fans, enraged by the film’s content and story, began wrattling off hundreds of hours of video content ripping the new Star Wars film for every one of its long list of it’s sins. Entire podcasts and YouTube channels rose to prominence JUST by offering content ripping the film apart and filling a genuine public rage about the state of beloved genre franchises.
Since then, the acrimony and frustration has only increased with the rise of “Woke” cinema and television. Films like Ghostbusters, Terminator: Dark Fate, Captain Marvel and the direction for the entire Star Trek franchise have served as a lightning rod for criticism about the proliferation of progressive themes in modern genre fiction.
To this point, I agree. Progressive themes have overtaken Pop-Cinema in a big way as films like Black Panther and Get Out get ENORMOUS amounts of media hype and critical praise. It hasn’t helped that this has coincided with the utter progressive dominance of the entertainment media. The Gaming, Comic Book, YA Fiction and Film industries have always been run by liberals but the proliferation of insane anti-white, anti-male and anti-conservative posturing in these genres has turned off a large fraction of audiences.
Get Woke, Go Broke
Additionally, it’s coincided with the gradual qualitative decline of these mediums. While I generally think that these two movements have been incidental (entropy is inevitable after all), plenty of awful stories are being produced in modern fiction. It’s been a very easy excuse for liberal writers to hide behind “diversity” defenses and then to castigate their critics as harassers and bigots.
There is a smidgeon of imprecision in the claim that the rise of Woke cinema is what’s caused these once beloved franchises to fall apart. Anybody familiar with Sturgeon’s Law will understand a very simple truth about art and entertainment: “90% of EVERYTHING is crap!”
The film industry has been shrinking, condensing, monopolizing, evolving and limiting the exposure of new franchises into the cinematic ecosystem. Hollywood isn’t in a healthy space at this moment and doesn’t have the capital, desire or will to create new franchises. Instead, Hollywood just keeps channeling proportionally more and more money into funding big-budget adaptations of known properties in the hopes of catching a share of the market.
Less films means that the proportion of blockbusters will get statistically worse. Because Hollywood is also trying to “appeal to new demographics” through diversity casting and non-white male-directors, that same marketing change has coincided with the qualitative decline as well as a box office decline as these forty year old franchises like Star Wars and Terminator are getting stale.
The Progressive Kick-Back
It wasn’t helped by the fact that the “plot-holes” debate immediately become politicized. Partisan leftists like Lindsey Ellis, Dan Olsen, Sage Hyden, FilmCritHulk and MovieBob all rushed to offer their hot takes on the plot-holes and toxic fan-culture which got conservatives, who already disliked the progressive direction of the Disney corporation, to react very negatively. It quickly became clear that these writers were just as eager to condemn “reactionary” fans as toxic (and to be fair, some of them were a bit toxic at the fringes of the movement) and implicitly dismissed all of their talking points as racist, sexist and irrelevant. Instead of trying to open up new levels of conversation in the film discourse, the overtly partisan nature of these creators turned off the movie fans who already considered them self-righteous hacks.
And that’s a dang shame because, in a vacuum, these YouTubers do have a lot of good points about the way the obsessing over plot-minutia and lore discrepancies blinds fans from more seriously grappling with the themes, metaphors, visual storytelling, performances and emotional resonance of the material absent our own immediate reactions to them.
I’ve already addressed the issue of “plot holes” before in my Beowulf essay and didn’t directly address specific critics who drive me up a wall with discussions about them. For the most part, I don’t particularly want to be accusatory. I don’t think film critics who use the term “plot holes” are bad people. I actually agree with a lot of the things anti-SJW critics say about art analysis and filmmaking. I believe that art does and should have objective meanings and that it is vitally important to consider the artist’s intentions.
I do however think that they’re offering cheap analysis. As I wrote in that essay:
“So much of modern “film criticism” online can be summarized as surface level nitpicks and logic surfing. The problem with most films isn’t that they’re not-100% logically consistent or filled with plot holes but that their storytelling doesn’t engage you enough for you to NOT think about the logical implications of the story logic… our modern obsession with pop-art doesn’t lionize storytelling or artistry so much as it does escapism. We want to be absorbed in films the same way we were as children growing up and watching movies as kids in the 1980s and we’re discovering that most of the films we’re getting today are hollow facsimiles of the ones we loved as children.”
I don’t think that many of the most popular film critics on the internet today fully grasp the medium they’re criticizing and seem to dislike being challenged by their entertainment. The Distributist has already made a rather provocative video discussing the issue of anti-intellectualism in nerd culture and I don’t have much to add so I’ll simply link his video on the subject. I will merely say that I think his thesis that nerd culture is too sensitive to change and criticism is sincere.
Most of the anti-SJW criticism is a direct outgrowth of the Gamer-Gate, Comics-Gate and anti-SJW movements online and those movements were always primarily focused on driving “politics” out of gaming to protect the integrity of stories from progressive message mongering.
Leftists are frequently disingenuous in their assertion that “the personal is political” but I think that they’re generally write in there assertion that art and entertainment always contains layers of political content and assertations about what a culture considers and reinforces in it’s conception of “normalcy”.
Anyone who reads the classics or watches classic films can tell you that most great art COULDN’T exist if it didn’t contain those dimensions to it. Dante couldn’t have written The Divine Comedy without his scathing satire about the corruption of the Catholic Church. Beowulf couldn’t exist if the sub-textual tension between the Anglo-Saxons, Geats and Danes didn’t exist. Lovecraft couldn’t have created his cosmic horror without deep spiritual anxiety and fear that the society around him programmed into him. The Lord of the Rings couldn’t have existed if it wasn’t an outgrowth of Tolkien’s desire to reconcile his love of high fantasy with his Catholic faith and his disdain for political corruption, power and war. Robocop wouldn’t exist if Paul Verhoeven didn’t have a bone to pick with the Reagan administration. Star Wars wouldn’t even exist if George Lucas didn’t have negative things to say about the corrupting nature of power in light of the Vietnam War and the War on Terror.
Great works of art exist because the artist had something to say about life, meaning and politics. Anti-SJWs regularly fail to understand their own complacency in culture and they actively defend escapist stories that don’t challenge them deeply but give them a quick shot of relief from the challenges of their lives. They’re frequently too comfortable with treating art as a form of consumerism or self-affirming pornography while comfortably dismissing “political” art. All too often the “good stories” people are eager to run to the defense of get forgotten within a year while the more aggressive and politically charged stories go on to develop long-term cult followings as fans begin to slowly parse through their implicit meaning and depth over time (see the Star Wars Prequels).
Again, I’m not defending progressivism or “wokeness”. I’m merely parsing out the complexities of art. I share almost all of my political opinions with anti-SJW, anti-progressive YouTubers, moderates and partisan conservatives on different topics and that’s primarily why I’m writing this piece in the first place. I want the best art possible and I want to encourage people to see out the wisest council possible when it comes to understanding their emotions, fostering a mature worldview and understanding art that can actually improve our lives.
Emotional Reactions to Art
Film Criticism is a trade skill in most regards, as is any job that requires a level of expertise. As I’ve studied the form over the past decade, I’ve realized just how little I understand it. That true of most things in life. The people who most understand a topic are the people who most realize that they don’t grasp the full breadth of it’s meaning.
As much as I enjoy YouTuber’s ability to rant for hours about lore ephemera, I don’t think that’s the same skill as film criticism. If it was, EVERYBODY would be a talented film director. There would be millions of people applying to direct Star Wars and Marvel movies and the majority of those films would come out much better than they usually do.
We’re not. They’re not. Therefore storytelling is a skill and it’s one that most people don’t fully comprehend without training and practice. And hey, that’s no slight! Anyone can learn how to do it! I don’t consider myself a master of film criticism or anything.
There’s also nothing wrong with having normal film or literature opinions. While I can be a bit of a classics snob, I would never deny people their guilty pleasures and genuine emotional reactions (I’m pretty sure the Death Wish movies are among my favorite film franchises so I’m in no position to judge).
If you hated Star Wars TLJ, that’s a legitimate emotional reaction and it might’ve had to do with a sense of betrayal that the film wasn’t going to tell the kind of story you wanted to see. Maybe you felt talked down to or that the film was saying something negative about a demographic you belonged to. Maybe you thought it was slow and boring. Maybe you just wanted to see hero Luke Skywalker one more time.
That’s all fine!
That’s all a genuine reaction to art, properly understood. When I saw the movie, I was genuinely confused and spent a couple days sorting out my opinions before making my case for its quality. It took me months before I fully comprehended the film’s themes and approached it fully in a way that I felt gratified by. I spent a lot of time reading long-form essays on the film and slowly building up an understanding of how all the pieces fit together before I decided that I ultimately liked the film overall. At it’s best, film criticism exists to help us understand our reactions to art and entertainment.
All that said, I don’t agree with the overall approach of the majority of critics in their approach to the film.
Star Wars didn’t start sucking just because Rian Johnson decided he didn’t want to answer all of J.J. Abram’s silly mystery box ideas from The Force Awakens (which/who if we’re being honest is more responsible for the state of Star Wars than anything else, but that’s another rant). I don’t think the movie sucks because it’s woke. I don’t think the film is “objectively bad”. I don’t think Rian Johnson’s primary concern was to “subvert expectations” for it’s own sake. I don’t necessarily care that Rey is a “Mary Sue” (partially because that feels like a misapplication of that word but again that’s a different rant). Most importantly, I don’t think the nominal plot-holes of the film are a grievous sin on the part of the film.
When YouTubers like Mauler, Critical Drinker, Appabend, Cynical Reviews, The Quartering, DoomCock, Geeks and Gamers, That Star Wars Girl, Mediaholic, E;R, Midnight’s Edge, Rags and the now defunct Word of Wolf record HOURS long videos breaking down the story logic of Star Wars, I can’t help but just feel bored and tedious.
I’m not saying these YouTubers or all equally guilty of bad film criticism or engaging in reactionary analysis (I like most of them!) but they’ve all slipped into this mode of analysis to varying degrees. They’re all very popular, drive online discussion and have enough sway to convince entire corners of multiple fandoms to follow their lead. Hearing the same talking points trickle down across the internet from these critics has just become insufferable for me at times (especially when these critics spend time attacking other YouTubers and mocking them for their opinions).
It’s only gotten more tedious as other genre films like A Quiet Place, Annihilation and Black Panther have all been similarly torn apart using the same “plot-holes” analyses. You can talk about the relative merits and demerits of all of those films but they have coherent stories, themes and characters. The problem with these movies isn’t that their more incoherent than anything else coming out. They’re certainly more coherent stories than trash like Pirates of the Caribbean 5, Dark Phoenix, Wonder Woman 1984 or The Predator.
The problem with these stories is that YOU didn’t connect with them enough NOT to care about their plot holes. Those films didn’t suspend your disbelief enough to make you WANT to overlook those problems. Film is a magic trick and it works when you don’t notice it! The problem comes when you see the trick…
Consider this, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame both have about a thousand notable plot-holes each and NOBODY rightfully cares because those movies are both fun and engaging! Nobody cares that Giant Man’s powers make no sense or that the portals scene is filled with hundreds of extras who implicitly didn’t exist or died in the previous movie (or wouldn’t care enough to fight on the Avengers behalf). Nobody cares about the insane coincidences like Ant-Man’s miraculous survival in the Quantum Realm that the story depends upon. Nobody cares that Thanos sat on his thumbs for SIX YEARS before attacking Earth a second time or that the fake Infinity Gauntlet in Odin’s Vault is never explained.
For that matter, nobody cares about plot holes in Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Dark Knight or Terminator 2 either. The reason why is simple: these movies are engaging to us. If we’re bored, offended or otherwise frustrated with a movie, our critical apparatuses kick in way more easily and we start fussing over the minor details.
For another example, let’s consider Prometheus; that movie is dumb as a rock, filled with plot-holes and doesn’t add anything meaningful to the Alien franchise beyond the fact that it’s bizarrely meaningful for director Ridley Scott. Very few people disagree that it’s bad.
From a storytelling standpoint though, the problem is pretty straightforward. The film is so ponderous that it doesn’t know what it’s saying about it’s themes of religion, destruction and the fear of mortality. The movie alludes to bigger ideas, kills off most of its characters and then ends on a cliffhanger that doesn’t resolve any of the themes.
There is nothing solid for a viewer to latch onto besides the genuinely gorgeous visuals so their mind starts wondering. Now, a film like this COULD work if it were trying to be vague intentionally. Maybe the engineers/Gods could be left purposely mysterious or distant to make a point about the way humans perceive higher forms of being/intelligence.
Alas, the movie doesn’t build up that kind of story. So our minds wander and start noticing all of the weird coincidences, non-sense worldbuilding, inconclusive and plot-holes instead of thinking about why we’re frustrated by the film in the first place. I don’t need to spent two hours breaking down why a dumb blockbuster like Aquaman is dumb. The dumbness is not the point.
So yah, do you not like the fact that Star Wars The Last Jedi is nominally anti-capitalist, pro-feminist and anti-toxic masculinity? No skin off my bones.
Do you NOT like Mad Max: Fury Road which has all of those same themes? I doubt it because that movie is REALLY good at entertaining people!
So yah… YouTube critics…? Love yah guys as people! Y’all seem like chill people and I imagine most of us would bond over our shared love of movies! I hope any of you who stumble upon this understand I don’t mean any hard feelings by it. Can we just agree though that plot-holes aren’t necessarily the reason why we love or hate things?
Art is deep and most of us aren’t predisposed to having a rational reaction to it. Film is literally a machine designed to generate emotions. Can we not be so hasty?