Some films are just easy targets. As the cycles of pop culture continue and we go through the endless stream of hype, backlash, arguments, fandom wars, and good old-fashioned trolling, it can get difficult to distance ourselves from all the noise. Certain stories, actors, creators, and the like become helpful shorthand for a sensation of closure that helps us deal with the tangled conversations that exhausted us for so long. It leads us to declare certain things to be the best ever movies, television shows, books, and so on, while others face the opposing fate. It’s simple, it’s neat, and it brings us all onto common ground with a sense of authority.
Well, that, or it can be used to incite outrage and garner precious clicks.
Which brings us to one of modern pop culture’s most beloved punching bags: Twilight. It’s been a decade since the first film in the four-part franchise premiered, shortly after the final book in Stephenie Meyer’s wildly popular series was released. The films wrapped up years ago, the actors have moved on, and trends have changed numerous times in the interim period. Yet still we find ourselves returning to the easy target of Twilight. The website Ranker joined in this past week by declaring the first movie, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, to be the worst film ever made. That’s right: Worse than The Room, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Master of Disguise, Movie 43, anything in the latter half of Adam Sandler’s career, the various Baby Genius movies, Gigli, Birdemic, the MST3k oeuvre and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. Worse than all of them. You’ll forgive me for being cynical about this vote.
Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t like the Twilight series of novels. I think the first book is interesting but the series falls apart under its own ineptitudes. They’re badly paced, the worldbuilding doesn’t hold up despite many intriguing elements, there’s no real plot or sense of threat to sustain four very long books, and Meyer’s depiction of a lurid teenage romance falls into many questionable areas regarding internalized misogyny and rape culture.
The films are so-so across the board, but the first one, like the book it’s based on, is easily the best. Director Hardwicke smartly treats the material with the right degree of seriousness, investing in the overwhelming emotional agony of this central romance and blending it with an indie sensibility that proves a better fit than one would anticipate. The cinematography is striking in its bleached bleakness of the Pacific Northwest, the acting is strong (yes, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are good in the Twilight movies), and Hardwicke and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg work well to expand the dynamics of Forks into something believable. The soundtrack is great, and Hardwicke is happy to embrace the silly. That thunder baseball scene set to Muse? It’s funny and it knows it is!
Twilight is not a bad movie. To call it such isn’t a bad thing, since tastes differ, but to label it objectively as the worst movie ever made in the history of the medium says way more about those making that declaration than the film itself.
It may be easy to forget in hindsight, but there was a period in the late 2000s to mid-2010s where Twilight was borderline inescapable. It was a pop culture phenomenon that sucked up all the oxygen in the room, right at a time when social media was on the rise and convention culture was moving into the hyper-mainstream. It was the latter half of the Potter movie years and there was a hunger for The Next Big Thing. It just happened to be a paranormal romance that prized emotions over plot and worldbuilding. Twilight has many good things in its favor, but it would do a disservice to the conversations around it to ignore how massively problematic it was too. There was a reason so much of the narrative surrounding the books and films was so heated. We learned a lot from those days, but it’s also impossible to deny how much of those legitimate criticisms were hijacked by people (usually men who hadn’t read the books) to mock something made for teenage girls. It’s easy to forget how sexism overwhelmed everything.
This phenomenon was not exclusive to Twilight. Look at fandom and cultural responses to any fandom that is driven mostly by the desires and consumerist power of women, especially if they’re young. Romance novels get it all the time, as do rom-coms and crafting and the beauty world. Even pop culture and fandoms not coded as feminine or “girly” face this ire, as any woman who loves comic books, Star Wars, and video games can attest to. Yet what happened with Twilight felt like the grossest exaggeration of that anger. It wasn’t enough to mock Twilight: It had to be annihilated. We all contributed to that wave of unnecessary force on some level. I know I did. I think about that a lot.
What is so worthless about Twilight and by extension all stories like it to those who are still mad about it a decade later? Is it the single-minded adoration of love itself or its feminine aesthetic or how utterly unconcerned it is with appealing to notions of realism? Plenty of stories do that, and many of them do it with way less creative spark and genuine emotion than that first Twilight film. Hell, just look at 50 Shades of Grey. Do those angry voices still genuinely care about those issues that women were dissecting in Twi-fandom long before it went mainstream, or are they just easy crutches to lean against while they use the same gags about sparkling? If misogyny in film is such a worry for them, then I have plenty of Michael Bay movies to submit as evidence. Maybe, just maybe, the interests of women are a joke in and of themselves to such figures.
It’s been a while since Twilight’s story ended. Stephenie Meyer has added bits and bobs to it since but admitted that the 50 Shades of Grey hubbub didn’t help, and since then she’s stuck to writing other books and producing films. Stewart and Pattinson have become major indie stars with hordes of awards to their names. Melissa Rosenberg created Marvel's Jessica Jones for Netflix, and Catherine Hardwicke continues to work in film and television, with her next film, Miss Bala, being released in 2019.
As for that first Twilight film? It's worth revisiting with fresh eyes and the noise of that zeitgeist cycle behind us. It remains a surprisingly influential film, one whose aesthetic and mood can be found in many a teen drama, and there's a lot to enjoy in this simple paranormal indie romance that sparkles and listens to Muse. If that's so morally egregious to you then perhaps you should think further about what that means. The stories made for adolescent women are worth more than your righteous indignation and clickbait.