Why Are We Compelled to Rank Movies in a Series with Each New Release?

It’s not enough to love films, we now must enumerate that love or hate relative to any similar films.

It has become a familiar ritual — the latest release in a franchise or a noted director’s canon spawns more than one site to run a “The Films of ___________, Ranked” article. We’ve done this dance with the Marvel movies since AT LEAST 2012 when The Avengers came out, and no doubt someone is at this very moment preparing a ranking of the 14 previous films in the MCU to accompany the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. Wonder Woman will likely spur on a ranking of all the DC Films, and we saw just in the past week where everyone stood on the existing Fast & Furious movies.

And yes, I got into the act with my own “The Films of Assistant Director Frank Capra III, Ranked.” Hopefully the point was made.

However, the most absurd such ranking I saw was a recent article that sought to list every episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 according to quality. When the quantity of what you’re ranking stretches into the hundreds, doesn’t the distinction between slots start to lose something? How much energy goes into placing Women of the Prehistoric Planet specifically above Space Travelers? More importantly, what use does that have for the audience of the article?

The ubiquity of practice certainly suggests the writer and the readers must be getting SOMETHING out of it. Is it that in our society, we find it less satisfying to praise a winner if we’re not simultaneously mocking and debasing the losers? I’ll plead guilty to relishing the act of putting HOOK at the bottom of every “Spielberg Movies, Ranked” list I’ve ever been a part of. Would others argue that the list serves the purpose highlighting the cream of the crop? If that was so, why not just write a post called “The Five Best Marvel Movies?” What makes that different from this:

1. The Avengers

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

3. Captain America: Civil War

4. Captain America : The First Avenger

5. Iron Man

6. Iron Man 3

7. Guardians of the Galaxy

8. Doctor Strange

9. Ant-Man

10. Thor

11. Avengers: Age of Ultron

12. The Incredible Hulk

13. Iron Man 2

14. Thor: The Dark World

I guarantee you that someone is pissed off by that list, and angrier than if I had just listed my top five films. There are some people who really hate the first Captain America, for reasons that mystify me because it’s EASILY the best solo movie of Phase One. (Yes, the original Iron Man is a great showcase for Downey and set the stage for everything that followed. If I could rank just the first half of the movie, it would easily be at the top of the list. Alas, the second hour is less remarkable and drags down the average a bit.) I’m sure there are also a lot of GOTG foaming at the mouth that I’ve placed it at the exact middle. Sorry guys, I call ’em like I see ‘em.

If you’ve ever made a “Best of” list available in a public forum, you’re probably familiar with what I call “You Forgot” Syndrome. Here, I’ll demonstrate. The category is “Best Horror Movies”:

  • Psycho
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street
  • Scream
  • Jaws
  • Halloween
  • The Exorcist
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre
  • The Fly
  • Get Out
  • The Blair Witch Project

Was your first reaction, “You forgot The Thing?” Or “Rosemary’s Baby?” Or “It Follows?” Because I guarantee you that posting a list like this always gets someone “helpfully” pointing out entries that the author must not have thought of. The implication, of course, is that the omitted work is so singular in its genius that it’s lack of placement must have been oversight, for surely there’s no rational reason why it wouldn’t be universally hailed as brilliant. An exhaustive ranking removes that. It says, “No, I didn’t forget your favorite movie out of ignorance. I’m completely aware of it and I think it SUCKS (or at least is lesser than all of these other ones.)

Perhaps the subtext of my Marvel list is, “GOTG is nothing special, gang. Praise it all you want, but it’s middle-range Marvel and no matter how much you love Slither, Joe Johnson made an adventure film WAY better than James Gunn did.” Maybe I’m not saying that, but that’s what some people are hearing and it gets a reaction — a far more powerful reaction than if I’d just “forgotten” GOTG entirely. It’s a preemptive sneer at your own tastes. It mocks you, as if to say, “Really? You like THAT one? Loser.”

Tarantino films, Ranked:

  • Reservoir Dogs
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Django Unchained
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • Death Proof (theatrical)
  • Kill Bill 2
  • Kill Bill 1
  • The Hateful Eight
  • Jackie Brown

I can see some of you fighting to not be provoked here, resisting like Roger Rabbit trying not to reply to “Shave an a haircut.” On a deep personal level, some of you have been violated by this list. I can’t imagine how mad Jackie Brown fans are feeling right now, even as the other Death Proof partisans in the house are pumping their fists and going, “Finally! Someone who gets that it’s not his worst film!”

Am I saying that everyone who makes a “_______, Ranked” list is trolling? I’m not inclined to go that far, but it’s not out of line to suggest an intent to be provocative there. Because ranking is less passive than selecting a favorite, the odds of pushing someone’s buttons goes up, which makes engagement more likely, and which also leads to people spreading the piece, for support and derision. The response becomes a mix of “Can you believe this idiot?” and “Yes! Someone else finally sees what I’ve said for years!”

Perhaps there’s doubt in your mind that a simple list could be that threatening or affirming to a reader. I submit that you have never written anything critical about Zack Snyder or a WB/DC movie on Twitter. In my twenty years on the internet, I have moved through many fandom that cut across sci-fi, comics, legal shows, horror, and teen drama and I can tell you that there are no fans more aggressive, obnoxious and convinced they are the victim than a particular Zack Snyder/DCEU fans. Any negative story about a forthcoming DC film is met with belligerent accusatory responses, usually including some version of “Marvel paid you to write this! You never write bad things about Marvel!” I always smile when I see the targeted journalist reply with articles they did indeed write about production problems on Marvel films, just to demonstrate the fan’s ignorance.

Now more than ever, it feels like a certain audience equates the movies they love with their identity. When The Dark Knight Rises was about to come out, the first critic to post a “rotten” review on Rotten Tomatoes got death threats for ruining the film’s “perfect” 100% rating. The fans leading this pitchfork mob had yet to see the movie themselves, so this was not a case where they had any basis to question the writer’s integrity. So why would they be so aggressive?

A while back, Drew McWeeny wrote a brilliant piece that touched on how he and people he knew had at one time or another tied their identity to the pop culture that they love. This relationship was so tight that a Star Trek fan friend of his completely flipped out when Star Trek V became the source of scorn in their group. I think we can agree Trek V is an awful film, but this friend couldn’t grok an attack on the film — because deriding Trek was like offending him as a person.

McWeeny dubbed these outbursts “fan-trums” and it’s certainly an apt term. There’s a tribalism to a lot of film culture circles that manifests in this way. “What I like is better than what you like,” and so on. “My culture is the best culture.” I have never seen a passionate Zack Snyder fan defend Batman v. Superman without derisively comparing it to Marvel. Such comparisons are rarely intellectual either, and more often are of the “Well, you just like Marvel movies because they’re simple and filled with jokes. You can’t handle ARTISTRY!”

That to me was the skeleton key here. It was no longer enough to enjoy Batman v. Superman. It was no longer enough to have that validated by other people who gave it their thumbs up. No, Batman v. Superman had to be acknowledged as BETTER than “the other team.” I can’t believe I’m about to quote Superman III, but one character in that film attributes a quote to Genghis Khan that quite appropriately describes this motivation: “It is not enough that I succeed; everyone else… must fail.”

Thus, making this ranked lists is an expression of that identity: Praise Empire Strikes Back and make sure you stick it to the prequels. Show how much you hated Dark Knight Rises (because geek culture eventually turns on everything) and rank it below Batman & Robin. Be the one person who thinks season one of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the superior season because it doesn’t wallow in melodrama.

Tell me how you rank the James Bond canon and I’ll tell you who you are.

Each ranked list is born of a writer throwing down the gauntlet of their identity, daring you to disagree with them. It’s simultaneously an effort at individuality, while hoping for conformity from everyone who reads it.

“I am a unique flower that contains multitudes, but don’t you dare dispute my conclusive evaluations of this particular canon.”

Love me, hate Thor: The Dark World.