Article Thumbnail

Ben Mekler Isn’t Trying to Troll Hollywood. It Just Worked Out That Way.

His fake tweet reviews of blockbusters are full of absurdities that fans and websites assume are real. Is the L.A. writer trying to mock film critics and superhero cinema? Or as he tells MEL, is he just having some fun?

For movie fans who can’t wait to read early reactions to the latest Marvel blockbuster, Twitter has become convenient one-stop shopping to see what critics think. When a film’s review embargo breaks, the social media platform is flooded with bite-sized reviews from critics, junket journalists and entertainment reporters all weighing in. And alongside them, there’s usually one from Ben Mekler. He is not a critic or a journalist. He hasn’t even seen the movie. That does not stop him from tweeting about it, like in the case of Ant-Man and the Wasp

On its face, Mekler’s tweet seems patently absurd. There’s no way that happens in a big studio tentpole meant to make hundreds of millions of dollars. And yet, a lot of people always assume what he’s writing is true. In fact, when websites — whether major publications or fan sites — compile a list of tweet reactions to films, it’s shocking how often Mekler’s will appear alongside reputable reviewers’. Even more shocking, if you’re not looking that closely, the tone and style of his tweets are often indistinguishable from those of actual critics. 

Over the years, you’d think sites would eventually wise up to Mekler’s prank. But they never do: In fact, he’s put together a Twitter moment, called “Film Journalism is Alive,” that documents all the times respected news sources have included his ridiculous tweets in their coverage, including The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and People. And it’s still happening: Journalists have been duped by his “takes” on recent fan-boy entertainment like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and the Mortal Kombat reboot. His tweets are funny twice over: First, because of the initial tweet and, then later, because of the fact that he keeps fooling people into thinking they’re real.

Mekler, who’s 32, married and a new father, knows I’m not the only film critic who’s a fan of his tweets. “I do genuinely love movies and I do genuinely love film criticism,” he told me last week on Zoom from his L.A. home. “I follow a lot of film critics on Twitter and have become friends with a lot of them. So I’m aware of that and I love it. I grew up loving Roger Ebert and reading old Pauline Kael reviews.” Funny tweets aren’t his livelihood, though: He’s a writer on the Netflix animated series Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts and does a podcast devoted to all things Mortal Kombat. During our conversation, he admits that he doesn’t even consider himself a comedian. Look, he didn’t mean for his silly bogus tweet reactions to become a thing. But he enjoys writing them, so he’s not going to stop now.

On a superficial level, Mekler’s tweets are just delightfully silly. (Seriously, people really thought Aquaman had a tap-dancing scene in it?) But on another, they speak to several of the tensions going on in entertainment journalism, fan-boy culture and blockbuster cinema. There’s such feverish excitement for these movies — fans want to see them, critics want to deliver their hot take on them and websites want the traffic from readers dying to see these reactions — that there’s no safeguard in place to keep a guy like Mekler from mocking all of it while confusing everybody with his utterly straight-faced opinions on The Force Awakens or Wonder Woman 1984. (Apparently, fans didn’t take kindly to him suggesting that Diana plays with a Koosh ball for most of the sequel.) So I wanted to meet him and also pick his brain about what he’s learned along the way about the Comic Book Movie Industrial Complex.

One quick sidenote: This interview was conducted last Wednesday, a day before I was inadvertently in the news for angering Suicide Squad director David Ayer with a tweet suggesting that we probably didn’t need his purported director’s cut after seeing James Gunn’s superior The Suicide Squad. I only bring this up because, in retrospect, it was interesting to talk to Mekler about superhero movie fans and their feverish desire to defend their turf online. But mostly, we had a good laugh discussing Marvel movies’ lack of sex, the weirdest “prank” he pulled off — he wasn’t even trying to trick anybody — and what people in the industry think of his tweets.

So, what made you decide to start tweeting joke reactions to movies?

Honestly, initially it was just me goofing off. I was working at this company called Nerdist. I was doing comedy sketches over there, but I was very aware of the news cycle when a [movie’s review embargo] dropped — it was this frenzy to get a reaction as quickly as possible. A lot of people end up saying the same things [in their tweet reactions], but whatever you said would be seen by a lot of people. It was very funny to me. I think it was when Force Awakens was coming out — I did this long joke about characters eating sweet Vidalia onions [in the film], and it was just blindly retweeted by a lot of Star Wars news accounts. It was this great mix of people who got the joke and thought it was funny — and then also this mix of people who were like, “What’s a Vidalia onion? I don’t understand.” And somehow I had hundreds of people Googling “sweet Vidalia onion” trying to figure out if it was a Star Wars thing or a real-world thing. It was just really funny to me. 

I did it again, off the cuff, for one of the Avengers movies. It was, honestly, a pretty dumb joke — I knew that people would notice it less if I sandwiched it between two very bland but coherent thoughts. So I think it was something like, “Oh, [Infinity War] is such a great movie. Marvel fans are going to love it. Iron Man and Captain America fuck in the first 15 minutes. This is honestly a top-five Marvel film.” 

It was literally just the kinds of things that you just see repeated ad nauseam every time one of these movies comes out on every single site. And so I think five, 10 minutes after I tweeted that, I started getting a bunch of texts from my friends, because The Hollywood Reporter had just put it at the top of their [Infinity War reactions] roundup. That was when I realized, “Holy shit, they probably had some exhausted intern just scrubbing every single tweet from a verified account the moment that the embargo broke, and they didn’t read them or they just quickly scan the first line and were like, ‘Yeah, top-five Marvel film, I’ll just get a pop it into this article.’” It was the funniest fucking thing I’d ever seen in my life. 

I think that maybe was just after I’d left Nerdist and had started writing TV full-time, but I still had so many friends who were in entertainment journalism. So either through friends texting me or just through me following them [on Twitter], I’d be aware of when these embargoes were dropping — and if I happened to be online at the time and I could come up with a funny joke, I’d just do it. It became a habit from there.

At the beginning, you assumed people would know you were kidding, right?

[I thought], “Certainly, no one will take this seriously. Certainly somebody will read this and they won’t believe there is a seashell tap-dance number in Aquaman.” But what I have learned is that nobody reads critically. 

Very little thought is put into these jokes ever — I don’t write anything ahead of time. I don’t put in my calendar, “This is the time the embargo breaks and maybe you could do a riff on…” I’m online too much, so often enough there’s an embargo that I’ll find out about in that moment or shortly before, and [the joke] is literally just whatever comes to mind. I tend to think of very weird and obscure things — partially because it’s just my sense of humor, and partially because it’s easy for me to just rattle off a hundred variations of… like, I did a joke that, in Dumbo, his nose gets replaced with a machete. So it very much is about just having fun writing jokes — and literally every single time, I’m like, “There’s no way anyone will post this anywhere or take it seriously.” But I think part of me at this point knows that there will always be someone [who posts it in an article]. 

Have you tried to see how extreme you can go? Is there anything so ridiculous that people would instantly know it’s not real?

I would say that probably the breaking point for me in thinking that there’s anything I could tweet that someone won’t believe — and this wasn’t even an embargo thing — was I tweeted that, in The Irishman, one of the [release] delays was because they’d accidentally aged everyone back too much. And I posted a picture of a baby in a mobster outfit. It’s the third Google image result for “baby mobster.” And I’ll name names: [Awards handicapper] Sasha Stone full-on embedded it in an article about The Irishman and good buzz. There was a picture of a baby in a mob outfit that was bigger than any of the text in the tweet that was embedded on her website. But I was a verified account, and I spoke in the parlance of a lot of online film critics. I don’t think there is a limit to how absurd something I say can be.

As a film critic, what I really appreciate is how you nail that particular social-media “voice” of authority. You’re making fun of that kind of “bold proclamation” style but, honestly, it’s not that different from the way a lot of critics sound in our tweets.

I’m keenly aware that the thing that’s so funny to me — that on some level I’m satirizing — is that authoritative tone that people who are often very removed from having any idea of how a movie is made at all take when describing the craft. And, listen, I’m not someone who necessarily [thinks] that to be a good film critic you have to basically be a filmmaker and know every single thing about the process of making films. But I feel there’s this section of film journalism that’s very loud — it’s people who do take on this role of like, “I’m going to tell you the truth about this movie coming out. I’m going to tell you what you want to hear in an authoritative way where you can feel good about it so you’ll keep coming back and reading my Twitter account.” 

I mean, I think I’ve just been reading this stuff for too long — I’m a kid who in high school was reading Ain’t It Cool News and CHUD and these movie blogs. There were a lot of people like me who were just profoundly obsessed with movies on there who were speculating about the stuff that I was excited about — which at that time was the burgeoning blockbusters genre, the film world of comic books and superheroes. It’s all so exhausting now, but yeah, seeing the second or even third wave of it, these [critics]  grew up on those sites and found their voice as a film critic in how they were talking about movies in the forums of Ain’t It Cool News. It honestly has a bit of the feel of when you’d play a violent video game or see an R-rated movie, then come to the playground and tell your friends about it. 

But I think your tweets demonstrate how some critics want to put their stamp on a movie — they want to claim the movie as “theirs” by giving it an over-the-top rave.

Yeah, it’s the desperation to be first and to be taken seriously. Another thing that I have fun doing is when people start commenting and questioning the absurd element [of my tweets]: “The Justice League don’t ride sick hogs and pop wheelies for most of the length of [Zack Snyder’s] Justice League!” I do have a lot of fun getting into it with these random people, defending my honor as a critic and a journalist and over-explaining things and getting really defensive while I’m in whatever this character is that I do when I do these tweets. [I’m playing] just this incredibly thin-skinned, needy person who has to be first and has to be, as you put it, authoritative.

Right, but of course it’s not just some critics who get possessive about these movies — it’s also some fans. How much anger do you get from them after they see these films and realize you’re totally making up what’s in them? 

A lot of people got pissed at me that there wasn’t an episode of Loki that took place at the wrap party for the movie Holes. A lot of people — I still get tweeted at about it, even though the show is very over. So yeah, people come back and they get mad.

The fan thing that you mentioned is interesting, too. It’s something I’ve heard said a lot — and I put it into these tweets a lot — is that feeling of like, “You can believe me because I understand that this movie is for the fans, not for the snobby critics who don’t know how to just shut their brain off and have fun.” Or “Fans are going to be really…” — I put the word “fans” into [a lot of these tweets] because I feel like that’s part of that “Please like me, please take me seriously” energy that I’m playing off of. It’s that feeling of, “No, no, no, you don’t get it — I’m a fan too.” And [that] definitely came out of Ain’t It Cool: “I understand this movie’s for the fans — and I’m one of you and I’m telling you, you’re going to like it.” And I only ever tweet that I love [a] movie, so sometimes it’s a movie where everyone else is panning it, and I’m like, “Well, they just didn’t get that it was for the fans.”

What I think your tweets underline is that we’re living in an entertainment world where nonstop enthusiasm is very, very important. In fact, it’s encouraged: People get attention by proclaiming how much they love an upcoming blockbuster. 

There’s a lot of reasons it’s like that, and a lot of it comes out of just the general direction of pop culture. We’ve been living in a daisy chain of [real-life] crises for what feels like many years now. But a big part of it is the people who are looking for these reactions — it’s very much like an ouroboros snake, where the people that are looking for the very first tweets about a movie are looking to hear that it’s great. They’re not looking to hear that it sucks. Nobody is like, “I need to know what people say about Black Widow the second [Black Widow reactions] come out because I want to hear how bad it is.” Those people probably aren’t putting that much time and energy into it. Well, a certain group of people probably definitely are — misogynists. 

But [most] people that are looking for it are the people that want it to be good. It’s the fans — the people who are making stan [accounts] for these big movies and the characters that are in these big movies and the actors that are in these big movies. So I think actual critics do feel like they have to try to be positive about it or take a positive bent — that’s part of getting access from the studios to the early screening, which will let them tweet early, which creates the need for these [reaction roundup] articles in the first place. It’s a weird ecosystem.

You do a lot of other stuff: You write on Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, and you have Mortal Podkast. Is it weird that most people know you as the funny guy who does these tweets? As a comedian, do you worry about the joke getting stale?

I don’t totally consider myself a comedian, just because I haven’t done stand-up, [although] I did sketch comedy when I moved out to L.A. as a means to getting a job writing movies or television. For that reason, I’m like, “If it’s funny to me, I’ll just do it.” There’s not necessarily an agenda since there’s not a goal I’m working toward, so I’m less concerned with people getting sick of me. I’m like, “Well, it’s not the only thing I tweet.” It’s not really how I make a living necessarily.

The flip side of it is I guess that I’ve met a lot of great people and gotten work because of my Twitter account. And I do think a lot of the growth that I’ve seen on Twitter has been because of this joke that gets to more people — it’s partially a joke about the industry that I’m in. I’ve met more successful screenwriters who’ve become mentors to me because they thought my joke was funny because it’s about their movie. I don’t know that I’ve had an executive yet who is like, “Your Twitter’s really funny, so I want to give you this job,” but I have hung out with screenwriters who were like, “Oh, I’ve been working with this” — insert really notable genre executive or studio head — “and they were talking about how your Aquaman joke was really funny and probably made that movie another $10 million because it got around so much more than any actual critic’s tweet.” 

I don’t know what to do with that information or whatever cachet that might buy me with this person. But at the very least, being a writer who is 32 who has always had to hustle from the second I got into the business — I didn’t really get into the business at a time where it was like, “Write one episode of Friends, get a boat” — I’m constantly like, “Well, I need to meet more people. I need to try to get more work. I need to write more. I need to do more stuff.” The more people that just know who I am at all is a huge benefit to me and my career.

I’m not dumb to the fact that I’m getting something out of Twitter popularity, which a lot of the time comes out of that one joke I do. But at the same time, it’s like, I could stop doing it tomorrow and wouldn’t care. I mostly do it for my own amusement, however difficult that might be to believe. I’m doing it for this long because I do spend so much time reading about movies and thinking about movies. It’s just a joke that’s as much for me, I guess, as it is for anybody else. And the longer it goes on, it just gets funnier to me.

I also really enjoyed any time I made any joke that got remotely sexual about Marvel characters. There was always a massive, massive contingent of fan accounts that [would respond], “That’s right.” There’d be a Twitter account [named], like, “Steve Loves Bucky,” and it would be like, “That’s right, Captain America fists Bucky in this movie.” And I’d be like, “Are you saying that because you hope it happens and you honestly believe that it happens because I said it? There can’t be a person who sincerely could be convinced that happens in one of these movies — or are you just playing along?” I can’t tell. 

I think that speaks to the fact that the Marvel movies are so asexual, although they star these incredibly attractive actors. There’s all this pent-up sexual energy just waiting to burst free. 

The closest they’ve gotten is the leering photography of the women in the movies on the posters, which hasn’t really been the case in years now. I’ll also say, I’m more and more careful about what I say about a movie and try to make sure it’s more playing off of the absurdity than introducing something really disgusting or sexy or controversial in a Marvel movie. It’s like, “Well, sure, I’d love to write a Marvel movie or a Marvel show” — I’m a working screenwriter, I would love to be a part of that. But I will say, at least as far as I know, I haven’t lost any work doing such a joke. I’ve spoken to a few Marvel writers who were like, “Oh, it’s really funny when you do this bit” or “We have a group text of the crew, and we were laughing about this tweet that you did.” And I always say, “Just be a buddy and let me know if I make myself unhirable.” [Laughs] At least up to now, word is I haven’t. So that’s good. 

Has a studio ever invited you to a premiere to get a real response to one of their movies?

I don’t think so, actually. I’ve gone to premieres before for work, and I’ve seen movies early for work, but I don’t think because of the tweets. What does happen is I wind up on a lot of PR lists, somehow, as a critic, which I’m not. And I do get emails often offering interview opportunities with actors that I think about: “What if I did one of these? How confounding would it be that I just stayed in character the whole time and just asked deeply weird questions. What would that be like?” But I don’t ever want to spend 40 minutes wasting Kal Penn’s time, when my own time is valuable as well, to talk about some movie he’s producing. 

Your favorite film of 2019 was Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a terrific but little-scene 3D Chinese drama that ends with an hour-long unbroken shot. That’s an arthouse film that maybe eight people saw in America. Does it bum you out to know that you’ll never bring as much attention to a film like that as to the joke tweets you do about a Marvel movie?

I’m very normcore in that I do watch all the Marvel movies, and I think that they’re very watchable, fun popcorn movies — those are characters that, to some extent, I grew up with and I’m invested in seeing how they’re adapted to the big screen. But I also love movies like Long Day’s Journey Into Night that are maybe smaller that I might connect with emotionally a little bit more. I watched Quiz Show last night — it’s all I thought about today, it’s a phenomenal movie. But it’s funny because if I do tweet about something like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, there is always some bozo [on Twitter] who is like, “Yeah, but did anyone fart for 40 minutes in the movie?” 

Yeah, I know I do the joke [about] weird stuff in movies, but I’m not really trying to maintain any brand. On a dime, I will happily tweet something that’s completely inane and absurd and is an alternate-reality joke — and then, a second later, I get really emotional when I think about Christopher Lloyd’s performance in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I guess I just don’t think about it too much, and I just tweet whatever I want.

There’s a lot of talk about toxic fandom, especially on social media, around superhero movies. I’m curious what you’ve learned about that world from doing your tweets.

It’s very toxic is what I’ve learned. [Laughs] I mean, I see different sides of it because I feel like I see all of the fans in my mentions if I’m tweeting about something early. When I tweet something dumb, like people shredding on motorcycles in Justice League, I’ll usually get a good number of fans that catch onto what it is and are like, “LOL that’s funny,” or will play off of the joke or will ask questions to get me to [expand on] the joke, which is fun. But I tweeted there’s a Koosh ball in Wonder Woman 1984 — that’s all I said — and I had people in my mentions finding pictures of me with my child on Instagram and saying, “Your baby’s ugly.” I had people combing through my tweets trying to find anything salacious I’d ever said so they could try to tag Dreamworks, where I’m working now, and be like, “You would employ a person like this?” — as retribution for the fact that I tweeted, “There’s a Koosh ball in Wonder Woman.” 

I mean, I get it: They saw it as an attack on something that they devote — based on their avatars, which were mostly Wonder Woman — a large amount of their personal identity to. So it felt like a personal attack on them. I don’t know where the attack came from — in the introduction of Koosh balls to the world of Wonder Woman or if they thought I saw the movie and I didn’t like it and I was making fun of it. But that level of sensitivity and commitment of a whole personality onto something, I definitely see. 

I was listening to a podcast recently, and it was a conversation about the Enlightenment. [Laughs] What a segue. [Laughs] But it was a conversation about the Enlightenment, and it was about how at that time — before, during and after — there was a lot of violence because the way that the world operated was changing, the way that people identified themselves was shifting from identifying themselves as part of a religion or part of a church to these nationalities, to these governments and these monarchies. [The podcast was suggesting] that we’re in another Enlightenment now — and the thing that’s changing is that we’re no longer seeing each other as “my fellow American” or “Oh, you’re another Japanese person [like me], that’s how I identify with you.” Instead, it’s becoming these fandoms: “You also like Hello Kitty. I’m on the Hello Kitty subreddit. The people on the Hello Kitty subreddit are my people to the extent that that becomes how I see myself, how I see the people that are a part of my people.” 

That’s a part of some of the — I guess you could describe it as “violence” that you see online: “Fuck you for making fun of Wonder Woman, I’m a Wonder Woman person. That’s who I am. By doing so, you’ve attacked me and you’ve attacked the people that are in my community.” 

Where that leads, I don’t know, but that [podcast] made a lot of sense to me. Certainly, I feel closer to people that I’m in communities with on the internet who are all over the world than I do with someone just because they live in the same country as me or they’re the same race, religion or creed as me. And that’s interesting. I mean, it’s obvious why and how that happened. But I do think that’s part of where that “violence” happens when it happens.

It’s funny that you can sometimes make fans angry, but the people who actually make these movies seem to have a sense of humor about what you do.

Yeah, I made a joke about having read the Quiet Place III screenplay, the joke being that it becomes a sci-fi commando movie where the kids are slaughtering lots and lots of the aliens. And the screenwriters saw it and got in on the joke and went back and forth. That’s just always fun for me, because it’s the same playing-it-straight thing.

Hopefully I’m not being harmful to anyone and being critical only insofar as making more people aware of this weird system that exists now where critics have to rush to [be] first with their reviews in order to continue to have access or keep their websites successful and compete with whatever [fan] blog popped up that was more valuable to a studio. And also, hopefully, I’m helping people be more aware of the fact that those [roundup] articles are definitely written by very tired interns who are being paid garbage. There is a maddening, not particularly writer-friendly system that exists in criticism now. If I’m being critical of anything, it’s [so] more people are talking about that.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information