Long before algorithms answered the eternal question of what to watch next, there were actual humans who could point you in new cinematic directions.
At the risk of letting nostalgia over-romanticize the bygone movie rental experience, those conversations with blue-shirt-wearing clerks, who often also happened to be film buffs, could open up new genres to unlikely consumers.
Bricks-and-mortar Blockbusters may be nearly extinct, but there are pockets of YouTube that offer similarly impassioned and informed recommendations.
One of those places is the Cosmonaut Variety Hour, a YouTube channel with half a million subscribers. Marcus Turner, the primary host, and his friends mix substantive film analysis with enough humor to stand out in a crowded section of YouTube.
If you adore comic book flicks and video games, then I don’t need to sell you on the channel. Even if you only have a casual interest in those topics, it is still worth your time.
Full disclosure: I’m probably not the target audience. Calling my knowledge of superhero lore surface-level would be generous, and while I try to catch the bigger releases (“Black Panther,” “Avengers,” “Wonder Woman”) in theaters, there are plenty of holes (Sorry, “Ant Man”).
With that in mind, when I scrolled through some of the most-watched videos, I took a deep sigh upon seeing some of the reviews’ run times: 35 minutes on the Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2; 26 minutes on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. An hour covering a decade’s worth of Spider-Man? Dear God.
But after jumping in with his takedown of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” one thing was immediately apparent: The videos move along quickly. Turner often brings up the pacing of the films he critiques and clearly understands the value in his own work.
“The Amazing Spider-Man” review begins with Turner discussing the response to his Raimi video, humorously juxtaposing his narration — “I had lots of reasonable points that everybody unanimously agreed with as usual” — with a robotic voice reading out some of the insulting YouTube comments, including lines like, “you are a shining example of snowflake millennials who don’t understand jokes.”
Then Turner lays out his overarching thesis: The series simply doesn’t understand Spidey. Like a surgeon with a scalpel, Turner spends the next half-hour cutting open the film, pulling out the dysfunctional pieces and presenting each dissected part to the operating theater.
For the next 30 minutes, he goes through his issues with the film: Excessive time spent on Spider-Man’s parents; Andrew Garfield having too much confidence to be a nerdy outcast; the terrible editing throughout the film; the predictably laughable basketball scenes; other odd casting decisions; the many plot holes and questionable character motivations; and finally the inclusion of one of his most-hated songs, “Gone, Gone, Gone” by Phillip Phillips.
Behind every criticism is a combination of thoughtful supporting reasons and humorous riffs, with Turner bouncing back and forth between serious and silly to keep the viewer engaged and the video moving along.
YouTube film reviewers have been treating comic book blockbusters seriously long before “Black Panther” was nominated for Oscars. But Turner’s deep knowledge of comic book characters and story lines is both informative to casual viewers and demonstrates his credibility to passionate fan communities.
The 2017 video “The Problem With DC’s Heroes,” which has accumulated more than 4 million views, is the best example of Turner’s knowledge of the comic canon. It opens with Turner criticizing the directors behind recent DC superhero movies — “Batman v. Superman” in particular — for having only a superficial understanding of the comics. He contrasts this with Marvel’s mastery of every key character’s personalities and motivations, which allows them to successfully use the reference material to create story lines.
Turner unabashedly declares that he knows what he’s talking about, so “I can tell when the creator does or doesn’t.”
When the channel launched in 2013, video games were Turner’s priority. While the channel still creates gaming content — some of it lives on Twitch, too — it hit its stride when it started focusing on films. It also seems to carry a larger audience. The channel boasts 14 videos that have accumulated at least 1 million views, and only one involves video games.
Some of the channel’s most-watched reviews are takedowns, which follow a simple headline structure: movie title followed by the words, “Why it Sucks.” Negative reviews of sacrosanct popular pop culture figures are by no means a new way to attract attention. As the Ringer’s Rob Harvilla wrote in his essay about the art of a bad review, “a truly vicious pan, a merciless slam, a full-scale ethering is born of a righteous fury that can transmute into pure joy.”
Part of the appeal is “they give you access to a lot of writerly tools that are fun to use," New York Times chief film critic A.O. Scott told Harvilla. "You can be funny. You can be clever. What you’re doing is, you’re demonstrating your superiority to a thing that you’re writing about”
With this in mind, the video essay is simply the logical extension of this form — the pan as performance art.
Cosmonaut Variety Hour film reviews are not exclusively negative. Scroll through the channel and you will find a handful of videos encouraging viewers to watch films like “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” or attempt to play Dungeons and Dragons. The tone of these videos is a departure from the impassioned lambasting, but still entertaining.
“I figured it would be cool if I actually did a nice video for once,” Turner remarks in the beginning of his video titled “Superbad — The Greatest Teen Comedy of All Time.” Following the format of his other videos, Turner methodically lays out his argument. The analysis is no less rigorous and he succeeds in explaining how the film balances story and humor, while comparing the film to other Judd Apatow comedies.
The Cosmonaut Variety Hour stands out in a space filled with hyperbolic reviews that simply offer audiences loud affirmations of their own biases. Turner is at his best when aiming his critical eye at films that elicit genuine passion and thoroughly deconstructs how these films delight or disappoint.