So I guess, the newest trend on the internet is to talk about the question if movie criticism has become too nitpicky and if plot-holes matter. Or at least this was a big topic when I started the article, but I needed some time to put together all aspects of it. Though this time around, I don’t really want to repeat the whole discussion and the points made – I am sure if you really care, you’ll find the relevant information quite easily – but I nevertheless want to weight in. Mostly because I feel that currently the discussion isn’t particular precise. I think that the video which set off the avalanche was pointing towards a trend we should be aware of and which is worth examining, but the way it argued the point was unfortunate to say the least. Which resulted in most response videos not really addressing the point itself but instead arguing against the style of argumentation.
Basically, while the discussion about the music in the MCU spawned a number of videos with competing ideas, each of them bringing a new thought to the table, this one mostly consists of people criticizing each others line or argumentation and taking cheap pod shots at each other. I intend on focussing on the original question: Do plot-holes matter and is there something wrong with the way internet culture consumes movies? And in order to do this properly let’s start with the basics: What kind of movie criticism actually exist?
This is the most basic of movie criticism and serves a very specific purpose: Helping the audience to decide if a movie is worth their time and money. To be perfectly clear here, though: I am not saying that this is what every audience member is using reviews for. I am actually pretty sure that a considerable part of the audience is like me in that they make their decision based on trailers and themes and only look at reviews because they are either on the fence about a particular movie or because they respect the opinion of the reviewer and want to know what he or she thinks.
But none of this changes the original purpose of the review. And, to be frank, especially in the YouTube sphere, the quality of reviews is questionable. Nowadays a lot of reviews are basically a flashy version of a forum post. You basically have someone just blurting out his or her opinion out. This can be helpful if you already know that your own taste roughly matches up with the opinion of said reviewer, but in my eyes, a really good reviewer should strife for objectivity.
1.1. The Question of Objectivity
Oh, I said the bad word: objectivity. There is this school of thought that movie criticism is completely subjective because we all perceive movies differently. But if this is true, well, why are we even bothering discussing movies? If every movie is completely subjective and everything goes, then the implication is that it is not a craft which requires talent. Or, to put it differently, certainly you can describe the scribble of a three year old as art, but it still doesn’t display the skill and/or creativity of a Picasso. We are perfectly able to articulate the difference between those two, just like we are able to judge the difference between a Shakespeare sonnet and the typical rhymes someone might cobble together for a birthday.
So yes, I think there is objectivity in movie criticism. It is based on centuries of experience in what works and what doesn’t. Yes, centuries, because while film itself might be barely a century old, narration, music and picture composition, which are all part of film, have been around since the beginning of humanity. I would even go so far to say that there is a measurement for it, we just haven’t defined it yet. After all, painters were composing their pictures following the golden ratio long before its existence was even discovered, and there is an undeniable connection between music and mathematic. So when we enjoy a movie, there might actually be a complicated algorithm working in the background.
In addition, we already know that we react to certain colours, music, aso in a certain manner. If we do so because we were trained to react that way by the media we consume or if we create media based on some basic instinct which has been embedded in us since the beginning of humanity is a little bit like the chicken and egg question. The important factor here is that there are certain expectations to watching movies and that it makes a difference if they are deliberately subverted or if a director has trouble to craft a coherent story. Hence we are able to say “yeah, this movie was really well made, but I personally didn’t care for it” or “well, I know that movies isn’t really that good, but it is a guilty pleasure of mine”. If movies were completely subjective, we wouldn’t be able to make such a judgement.
There are people who argue that all those standards for movies are made up und personal enjoyment is the only metric which matters regarding the quality of a movie, rendering the very concept of a “guilty pleasure” as nothing more as the acknowledgement that one goes against the grain. I disagree. There are quite a few movies which I enjoy which do not have the stamp of approval of the majority, and which I wouldn’t call a guilty pleasure at all. Because I think that the elements I enjoy in those movies are genuinely good enough that they outweigh its flaws. There are other movies I don’t like at all, but can acknowledge as good, either because they are simply “not for me”, or because I can understand that what I consider as a deal breaker doesn’t bother other people. And I have my guilty pleasures, movies I largely enjoy because of their flaws and not despite of them. That doesn’t make them suddenly good movies, though.
I don’t believe that movies are completely subjective. Nor do I think, that you can remove the bias completely from a review. Some people are drawn more to characters, others prefer strong themes, others are simply more forgiving because they like an actor or director or because they went into the cinema with really low expectations. But I still think that a good review should start with the question “what kind of movie was the director attempted to make?” and end with “which kind of audience (if any) might like this movie?”. For example a very common complain about MCU movies is that an entry isn’t completely stand alone. Well, that is the point, people who watch the MCU want to experience an overreaching universe. Criticizing that a particular set-up wasn’t particularly well handled – god knows that there have been a lot of complains about Thor’s hot tub vision machine in Age of Ultron, and rightly so – is helpful, complaining that those set-ups are part of the MCU at all is not. On the same token, someone who starts his review with “this is just another chick flick” has already lost me, and not just because I really don’t see why movies which target the female audience are often treated with so much scorn, but also because even the so called chick flicks vary greatly in quality. Academy award wining and one of the highest grossing movies of all time Titanic can be considered a chick flick. Which brings me to another point.
1.3. The Danger of Elitism
I think the worst mistake a reviewer (or any movie fan for that matter) can make is to dismiss certain genres or type of movies off-hand. I guess the most common form of elitism is the idea, that certain movies are beneath serious criticism, sometimes because of the genre – romcoms, horror and action movies often get this treatment – sometimes because of the intended audience. And then there is naturally this ongoing claim that franchise movies somehow hinder the production of original movies, the implication here being that they lack creativity. In reality, one can create a movie which isn’t based on anything and it still can end up feeling tired and generic. At the same time a franchise movie can offer something interesting, maybe even ground-breaking. A number of famous movies are based on pre-existing properties anyway. That doesn’t make them in any way less creative since the transition for the big screen it an act of creativity in itself. Which is why a good reviewer should always be open-minded check his or her own bias. It can’t be completely removed from the equation, but it should always be treated like a bug, not a feature.
1.4 The Movie Discussion
While I just said that reviews usually have the purpose to inform the audience about a movie, a lot of creators have recognized by now that a lot of people prefer to use them to, well, feeding into their confirmation bias. Sorry, I know that I am stepping on some toes with this claim. But why else should you watch a so called spoiler-review? Most do it to figure out if their favourite reviewer agrees with them or not.
Now, not to be completely unfair, if you watch a group of people discussing a movie, there might be a good idea or two coming up in the interaction. But that is extremely dependent on the participants. Most of the time, you get a good idea what the taste of the people discussing the movie is like, but not what the actual movie is like. Or, to put it differently, not everyone is Siskel and Ebert, and finding a pairing like this is very rare indeed.
I suspect the success of those discussion rounds is based more on the listener getting some sort of fan-interaction by proxy. Meaning: If you don’t have someone with whom you can discuss your most beloved franchise, you can at the very least listening to other people doing it and leaving your own comments. And maybe you end up arguing with someone else in the comment section.
But what seems to be more common on the net is what I would call Nitpick-Humor. Those are youtuber or blogger which go through a movie and then make fun of real or perceived flaws. Originally, those weren’t really meant to have anything to do with movie criticism at all. They were meant to be entertainment. The Nostalgia Critic for example used to only tackled movies which already had a colourful reputation, to word it politely. But over time, the entertainment aspect bleed into reviews and more and more serious review bleed into entertainment offers. At this point the lines are so blurred, it is often hard to tell in which entry a specific category falls. Sometimes it is both. Sometimes it is neither because the creator of the video above all cares about neither about entertainment nor about serious reviews, but about how many people can be conned into watching his product.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Cinemasins. Count me in as one of those people who hate Cinemasins. But I don’t feel that way because they decided to make nit-picky videos about movie, I feel that way because they are lazy about it. And I am not just talking about they dinging movies for so called “sins” which could be cleared up spending five seconds to look the information up – I noticed that they are especially bad in physics, animals and just general knowledge of literature and culture. But what really enrages me is that they often complain about details which are actually clarified in the movies themselves. I could actually wrote a whole article about why Cinemasins is awful as well as a problem, but instead I’ll just link you to a video which already explained all my issues in detail, with the necessary sources to underline the point.
If you want to see a better version of Cinemasins, I recommend Cinemawins to you. Not because it has a positive outlook on movies, but because the points those videos bring up are based on actual knowledge about movie-making and story-telling. It’s still not good movie criticism, though, because it is too one sided. But at least it adds ideas to the discussion which might be worth discussing. Cinemasins is just muddying the waters with lazy clickbait.
To reiterate: I have no problem whatsoever with videos which point out plot-holes, and I have no problem with them doing it in a joking manner. I do have a problem with videos which are basically the entertainment version of fake news, making a false claim about a movie so convincingly, that it becomes an accepted fact.
Even channels who are more honest players might slip up in this regard. For example, I really dislike the How it should have ended video for Captain America The First Avenger, because it is built on two big jokes, both of which pointing to a non-existent flaw. One is based on a lack of knowledge by complaining about the bombs having the names of the city where they are supposed to explode written in English on them. Well, they don’t. New York and Boston just happen to be the German words for New York City and Boston. This joke is especially annoying because this movie is actually pretty good about labelling everything in Red Scull’s base in correct German, unlike most movies and TV shows I have seen. Meaning: the creators of the movie paid a lot of attention to detail and yet a huge number of people think that they were lazy about exactly this aspect, because some video creator on YouTube didn’t do proper research. (All this said, you could still make a point about the ridiculousness of writing the name of the destination on the bombs in the first place).
The other big joke is questioning the logic of Cap forcing down the plane, even though the movie itself clearly states the reason: He is currently over an area where nobody lives and knows that this won’t be the case for much longer, so he has to act immediately. If there are still bombs on the plane is irrelevant (though for the record, there are still some left), just a plan crashing into a city would kill a lot of people. That Cap has control over the plane is likewise irrelevant, because he is not a pilot. There is no way that he would be able to land safely without risking anyone else’s life. Plus, if there is anything the movie has established than that Cap’s first instinct is always to sacrifice himself. That is who the character is, and making a joke about what is one of the most heart-breaking scenes in the whole MCU is kind of like being the guy who sits behind you in the cinema during Titanic saying loudly “isn’t it tragic” with a fake sob while Jack is dying (and yes, this happened to me).
And don’t get me wrong here, I am not saying that we should turn off our brains while watching movies. I actually think that a truly good movie should stimulate our brain and challenge our perception of the world. But…
2.2 Do those plot holes actually matter?
Well…yes and no. Yes, they do matter. Even something as simple as a small mistake in the background like a chair suddenly standing in a slightly different position matters. It’s an imperfection in the movie, period. The question is how much those kind of mistakes impact the overall quality of the movie. I think everyone will agree that the chair doesn’t make a difference if for no other reason that most people wouldn’t even notice upon first viewing. This isn’t even really a plot hole (though it technically does break the narrative), more a goof.
Some would say that a plot-hole does matter when it takes you out of the movie upon first viewing, but even that isn’t truly correct either. If you go into a movie with a cynical mind-set, like the guy who ruined my second viewing of Titanic for me, you take yourself out of the movie on details you would gladly overlook in a different movie, and which a viewer with a less cynical approach wouldn’t notice.
My perspective is that plot-holes do matter when they interrupt the flow of a story and feel like lazy writing instead of an artistic choice. And yes, I know, that there is still an element of subjectivity in this definition, but hear me out. Citizen Kane is widely considered one of the best if not the best movie of all time. It is also entirely build around a plot hole, because it should be impossible for anyone to look for the meaning of the last word of a dying man, when said man passed away utterly alone. And yet it doesn’t feel like a huge deal, because this is a choice made for dramatic effect which underlines the message of the movie itself.
Compare this with Batman coming back into the city in The Dark Knight Rises. Yes, Batman suddenly turning up in a dramatic fashion is very, well, Batman. But the moments gets widely criticised because it isn’t just one plot hole, it is a triple plot hole. It is a plot hole on the “this doesn’t work in real life” level, because if someone is stranded somewhere at the end of the world with no money and no help, we want to know how said person made his way back. We don’t need to necessarily see it, but we need some sort of logical explanation. It is a plot hole on the “this goes against everything the movie established” level, because the narrative goes out of its way to show multiple times that Gotham City is under look-down. Batman just turning up in it with no explanation whatsoever fells therefore like cheating. And it is a plot hole on the thematic level because after a whole movie underlining how broken Batman is, having him suddenly healed because of willpower feels like a cop-out.
In the end it boils down to lazy writing vs an artistic decision. What is what, well, there is still room for argument there, but it is important to keep in mind that not every plot hole is automatically an unforgivable flaw. And not everything which the internet has labelled as a plot hole actually is one either. The weakness of the Death Star is not a plot hole because it isn’t unbelievable at all that the prototype of a new weapon might have a weakness in construction. There are real live examples of something like this happening. The seize of the door in Titanic is not a plot hole either, because the movie establishes that when Jack and Rose try to get both on the door, it keeps moving out of balance – and remember, they don’t really have any time for experiments, the water is freezing cold, every second they spend longer in the water trying to balance out the door can make the difference between life and death. So the movie establishes that it doesn’t work, and it is really a nit-pick if the set-designers seized the door right or not.
Creating a movie or any story for that matter is to a large part about editing. What you leave out is just as important as what you put in. And sometimes additional explanations just don’t serve a movie well. That is why conveniences are the bread and butter of movie making. Even if it is something as simple as finding a free parking spot directly in front of the house you want to visit in the middle of New York City. Because having the characters first search of a parking spot and then having to pay for it would be just a waste of precious runtime.
In general, tropes are not bad. It can be fun to be aware of them (it can also ruin your movie experience) but at the end of the day it is always about how they are utilized. And to judge this, well, that is the job of a proper analysis.
3. The Movie Analysis
But to be honest, I don’t think that either reviews or nit-pick humour is the place where meaningful movie criticism happens. That is because neither of them are really suited for it. Reviews don’t really add much to the discussion because they are too current. Some movies need some time to truly sink in and it is just impossible to measure the impact a movie and if it will truly endure the the test of time ahead of time. Which is why the academy got if wrong more often than not when it comes to awarding the best movie of a year, especially in terms of staying power.
Nit-pick humour is pretty much useless because it puts the entertainment value over the actual analysis, and it lacks the desire to put the observations made into a broader context. Without context, though, it is impossible to truly judge anything movie related.
Movie Analysis that’s what people like Lindsey Ellis (after her Nostalgia Chick days), Kyle, Every Frame a Painting, Folding Ideas and others like them offer. Well-structured video essays which are underpinned with a lot of knowledge and are built around a specific idea. That doesn’t mean that those ideas are always necessarily agreeable to the whole audience – remember I myself published a long article about a video of Every Frame a Painting I strongly disagree with – but they provide a solid argued point of view on a movie which can then become part of a larger discourse.
Don’t think that I look in any way down on the kind of discussion friends have after watching a movie together. Those are important part of the experience. But they are not the best setting to truly dig deeper into the structural aspects of a movie. Exchanging opinions is one thing, going into a deeper analysis is something else. Or, to put it differently: The general audience is able to voice IF they like a movie or not, but it is the job of the movie discourse to figure out WHY a movie or specific scenes resonate with an audience. Finding ways to eloquently explain why a movie deserves praise is hard once you get past the surface level, even if you have some basic knowledge about film. I often enough have been stuck with truly explaining why something resonates with me only to stumble over someone who was able to put the finger on exactly what made a particular scene work.
As a general rule it is easier to explain why something doesn’t work, though even then I feel that sometimes it is easy to put the blame at the wrong place. For example, the reason why Superman killing Zod at the end of Man of Steel doesn’t work is not because he is Superman. This would be the easy conclusion. It is because the built-up to the scene is badly executed (to explain that would be an essay in and of itself) and the fall-out is non-existent.
3.1 The Discourse
So, where is this discourse happening? In the past, mostly in universities, sometimes TV shows. Nowadays it is happening on the internet, accessible for everyone. And that is a great thing, because it opens up the participation in said discourse to everyone. That doesn’t mean, though, that everyone choses to participate on the same level or that every participant is a honest player. There are youtubers which aren’t really motivated by their love of movies, but by a desire to create controversy, or to push their political agenda.
To be frank, you have to wade through a lot of toxicity in order to find a good discourse on the internet, and the more high-profile a movie is, the more questionable content there is. Sorting through all this can be exhausting. In fact, there is so much content regarding movie discussion out there that we have now started to comment on the movie discussion itself. And not in a constructive manner. Especially the Star Wars fandom has become a battleground of people tearing each others videos apart just because they disagree on The Last Jedi. And don’t get me wrong here: A video which is dishonestly argued deserves to get torn apart – for example one which is misrepresenting a movie by argue based on selected scene while skipping scenes which disproof the point which one is trying to make. But this is about more than arguing about the merit of a franchise, this is about people really wanting to sink a franchise. To which I just have to say: Why do you care? There are a lot of franchises out there I don’t care for at all. There are also franchises I fell out of love with. The logical reaction to a bad experience is to walk away. Badgering other fans to agree with you or attacking the cast and crew isn’t helpful at all. It is just a movie. No matter what happens, whatever made you fall in love with a franchise in the first place will still be there. Just as I am happy that Disney only made one Pirates of Caribbean movie (and I stick to that story), you can be happy that Star Wars is just a trilogy, if you are really that dissatisfied with what came after.
3.2 The Meta Level
At this point, the fandom discourse has become so prominent, there are a number of channels out there which are no longer really about discussing a movie, instead they are talking about the discussion surrounding a movie. Justsomerandomguy does it with Marvel vs DC controversy. Hishe and Honest Trailer tend to integrate fandom memes into their jokes. On a more serious note, Renegade Cut has explored fandom tribalism in a miniseries about the DCEU. And I am currently exploring the effect internet culture has on the way we perceive movies and the movie industry in general (yes, I will get to that point, too).
We have now reached a level at which commenting on other channels has become a subscriber draw on its own. So everything which I have listed above regarding the different kind movie discussions exists again as a commentary on said different movie discussions. The upside of this trend is that, intentional or not, it calls out the various fandoms. It can be a great tool for self-reflection. But there is also a risk that feedback loop is created, or that falsehoods are repeated so often that they become accepted facts.
For example: Every time someone praises Ironman 3, their first step is to defend the Mandarin twist, as if this is the main problem with the movie. Yes, the Mandarin twists gets a lot of attention, but a lot of people who criticise the movie as a whole say that they twist in itself is one of the ideas they like in it. Don’t get me wrong, there are people who are all about not getting the Mandarin they wanted, but they are just one group of critics, and I suspect not even a particularly big one. Consequently, focussing your defence on the merits of the twist alone doesn’t really make a good case for Ironman 3. Pointing out which aspects of the movie work on the other hand is.
We all live in some sort of bubble, one way or another. How we perceive the world or the fandom is largely dependent on what kind of people we interact with. And often the ones who scream the loudest are actually just a minority. Which is why it is often important to take a step back and reconsider before jumping on an issue. And it is equally important to approach a movie with a readiness to discard a thesis we had in mind. It’s not about proving what we already think about a movie, it is about testing if what we think about a movie is actually matching up to reality.
And it is about questioning our own parameters. I said above that there is objectivity in movie criticism. Well, there is also no rule which elements are making a good movie. Creating a movie is like creating a good meal. There are rules how you have to prepare the ingrediencies you intent to use, there is no rule how to combine them. It is all about finding the right balance between the different tastes. Hence the question is not if a movie has a memorable villain, the question is if there should be a villain at all and if there is a villain, if said villain serves the story. The question is not of the main character has a great character development – in fact, some of the most famous characters out there are static characters – the question is how well the characters fit into the story. A joke which works in one movie can be completely out of place in another one. Every element in a movie needs to be discussed in the context of that movie alone (and sometimes the franchise it belongs to). And that includes plot holes.
4. Back to the beginning
So, is there something “wrong” about the way we consume movies? Before I answer the question (or at least take a honest stab at it), I think I should explain why the question is even important in the first place. After all, who cares how someone else consumes movies?
Frankly, I don’t. I do care about the fact, though, that the internet discourse is now influencing the way movies are being made. As Lindsey Ellis rightly pointed out, the Beauty and the Beast remake is a big exercise in answering meaningless gripes with the original movie.
And that is just one example. The Star Wars Anthology movies seem to be mostly about answering questions nobody ever wanted an answer to, like how Han Solo got his name. Rogue One is entirely about answering the aforementioned question about why the Death Star had such a glaring weakness. A little less obvious is a current trend of movies to overexplain details.
And I also care about how the discourse can contort a movie in the mind of the audience, especially if there are dishonest players in the conversation who for one reason or another really want a movie to fail. Currently the whole discourse surrounding Captain Marvel is pretty much a prime example of everything wrong with movie criticism on the internet. You have people using a deleted scene to make a point about the movie’s main character (for the record, the only discussion which should ever involve a deleted scene is answering the question if the deletion was a good or a bad decision), you have long videos about so called plot holes which falsely claim that Captain Marvel somehow broke the time-line (in reality the movie slots surprisingly well into the timeline of the MCU), and you have a general unwillingness to engage with the themes of the movie. The so called controversy isn’t about Captain Marvel at all, it is about pushing a narrative, and sadly this narrative will impact how some people see the movie.
So should we stop talking about plot holes? My answer is an emphatic: No. We shouldn’t stop talking about them, as long as they are genuine plot holes and not something which can be cleared up just by paying attention to the movie. But we might want to reconsider how much importance we assign to them.
In general we need to stop treating movies like they have to adhere to some sort of fool proof recipe. A lot of people – and that includes some reviewers – seem to have an extremely narrow view of how a movie should look like. Movies which are more allegorical seem to often get right over their head. And sometimes themes are missed exactly because of prior expectations.
We should also be a little bit more careful regarding the various channels related to movies we consume. There is nothing wrong with enjoying some entertaining takes on a movie or to laugh about overdone tropes or even our own over-investment in certain movies. But we need to judge criticism on the merit of the argument instead of it its entertainment value. And we need to get away from the idea that logic has to be the overriding feature of a movie, or that a plot hole is automatically a black mark against a narrative, and not a neutral feature. We need to get away from the notion that overly long videos in which someone goes through a movie step by step and nitpicks every second of it is in any way meaningful criticism.
A plot hole is not a measuring stick for the quality of a movie. It is just a feature of one. And more often than not the least important one.