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“I‘ve been enjoying all the perks of being internet famous for making a rant about Star Wars that no one will remember in three months. Things like V.I.P access to all the hottest nightclubs, the private jets, women, drugs. It’s truly amazing how many people want to know the guy that made the 70-minute Phantom Menace review. Oh, wait, none of that’s true.”
That was Red Letter Media founder Mike Stoklasa back in April 2010—just months after his epic-length evisceration of George Lucas’ 1999 Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, made a splash on YouTube. And while we can’t speak to any nightclub perks that Stoklasa may or may not have enjoyed in the ensuing decade, it’s safe to say his self-described “rant” is anything but forgotten. Instead, it’s the lasting foundation of modern-day internet film criticism as we know it. A 70-minute YouTube video (about a 10-year-old Star Wars movie) changing the face of the internet? Stranger things have happened.
Yes, Red Letter Media has spent the past 10 years dunking on movies both new and old, celebrating classics and forgotten gems, and generally sharpening its critical claws. It’s huge, with more than 1 million YouTube subscribers and a boatload of Patreon supporters. The ecosystem it inspired may be littered with inferior copycats and toxic doofuses, but it’s hard to fault the original when that original remains so enjoyable. Oh, and even better: it’s all straight outta Milwaukee.
Like so many modern filmmaking stories, the origins of Red Letter Media can be traced back to a bunch of ’90s high school kids (in this case, Stoklasa and future RLM mascot Rich Evans, both living in the Chicago area) making weird and crappy home movies in their parents’ basements. Around 1999, Milwaukee-based Jay Bauman entered the picture, having met the pair on an online message board for amateur filmmakers. Collaborations on no-budget shorts and no-budget features ensued.
Those early days, culminating in the making of the disastrous 2003 feature Gorilla Interrupted, are documented in the 2013 self-made documentary How Not To Make A Movie. If you, too, were a kid who made weird and crappy movies in your parents’ basement (cough cough), you’ll find plenty to love and identify with.
Fast forward past Stoklasa’s time in Arizona, and Stoklasa and Bauman’s wedding videographer days, and the the seeds of Red Letter Media began to take root. In 2008, under the guise of the elderly and psychopathic “Mr. Plinkett,” Stoklasa created a multi-part takedown of 1994’s Star Trek Generations. (Opening line: “Star Trek Generations is the stupidest movie ever made.”) It was long, detailed, funny, harsh, and weirdly brilliant. Reviews of the other TNG-era Star Trek movies followed.
Then, in late 2009, Stoklasa’s Phantom Menace review hit the internet. It was an instant sensation. Celebrity fans praised it. Views soared into the millions. This wasn’t your typical “George Lucas ruined my childhood” video; instead, it was a painstaking deep dive into why and how TPM failed as both a Star Wars prequel and a film in general. Character, structure, and pacing were discussed. While many fans and critics had spent the past 10 years complaining about Jar Jar Binks, Stoklasa identified deeper, more fundamental problems:
It’s hard for a lot of people to articulate why exactly they hated The Phantom Menace because it’s such a clusterfuck of a film, so they point to Jar Jar. In fact, you can make an argument that Jar Jar was the only thing you could understand clearly in the movie. He had some kind of motivation and a character arc. He was annoying, yes, but ironically, he was the most realistic and understandable thing in the film.
Even today, 10 years and 8,000 new Star Wars films later, you’ll still find RLM memes littering various Star Wars comment sections: “It’s like poetry, it rhymes.” “What is it with Ricks?” “No one’s ever really gone.” Rich Evans fucking a droid. For better or worse, Red Letter Media has forever changed the way the internet talks about Star Wars.
But RLM is much more than Star Wars. In 2011, Stoklasa and Bauman launched Half In The Bag, a Siskel and Ebert-style series that reviews current movies. It’s RLM’s most prolific series to date (200 videos and counting), covering everything from Marvel products to Adam Sandler vacations. Also, there’s an ongoing storyline about Stoklasa and Bauman trying to fix Mr. Plinkett’s VCR, but never mind that.
More series followed. The ever-evolving “Best of the Worst” sees the RLM gang (Stoklasa, Bauman, and Evans joined by Jack Packard, Josh Davis, and others) wading through VHS oddities and straight-to-video/DVD schlock. The episode where they stumbled on a batshit-crazy, Milwaukee-made police training video from 1988 called Surviving Edged Weapons was and is a thing to behold:
And there’s more! Want insightful and considered discussions of classic cult films? Look no further than “re:View”:
Want tongue-in-cheek advice shows that may or may not be taken seriously by Hollywood filmmakers? (The Last Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson is/was a fan.) Enter recurring bits like “Scientist Man”:
Want celebrity guests? None other than professional dropper-by-er Macaulay Culkin has been dropping by RLM lately:
Want cultural saturation? A childhood photo of Rich Evans wearing a “DICK THE BIRTHDAY BOY” shirt has delighted Ellen DeGeneres and Julia Roberts:
And, finally, even in these troubled times, this three-minute video of Evans, Stoklasa, and Bauman watching a ridiculous scene from Resident Evil: Afterlife still has the power to brighten your day:
So what makes Red Letter Media so enjoyable, where so many similar “hey guys, let’s shit on new movies and laugh about crappy movies, don’t forget to subscribe” shows are so intolerable? For one, RLM never trashes for the sake of trashing. Even the most mercenary comic book movies or tired horror sequels are typically given a fair shake. Groan-inducing humor is still a big part of RLM’s charm, though they’ve happily jettisoned badly aged materiel. (Mr. Plinkett’s penchant for keeping women captive in his basement comes to mind.) Then there’s the natural chemistry between Stoklasa, Bauman, and the rest of the RLM crew. A bitter “man-child” ranting alone in his bedroom these reviews ain’t. (Neither are they “corporate nerds shilling for the latest billion-dollar franchise,” a genre so perfectly spoofed in the “Nerd Crew” series.)
Of course, your mileage may vary when it comes to RLM’s takes. Like the rest of the internet, they were overly critical of The Last Jedi, too dismissive of the frivolous 2016 Ghostbusters, and unable to give the perfectly passable Picard a fighting chance. (We get it, it’s not TNG!) Though they’re infinitely more smart and nuanced with their criticisms, RLM’s sheer popularity has a way of calcifying popular opinion. If they say something sucks, then it must suck. Suddenly, zillions of lesser armchair YouTube critics are parroting back the same opinions.
And yet RLM still stands apart from the rest of the “review culture” rabble. Their videos are entertaining and well-rendered critiques, fine pieces of filmmaking in their own right, and, at the very least, great YouTube comfort food. (Raise your hand if you’ve watched the Plinkett review of The Phantom Menace more times than the actual Phantom Menace.) “I’m not a bitter, fat, nerd living in his parent’s basement,” Stoklasa said in 2010. “I’m just a guy who’s trying to explain in detail why the prequels are awful disasters. There’s a science to all this. Sort of.”
Interviews with Stoklasa or Bauman are scarce, and the ones that do exist (like the one cited throughout this piece, conducted by yours truly for the long-defunct A.V. Club Milwaukee) are nearly a decade old. Happily, Red Letter Media’s prolific output and singular sensibility speak for themselves. Is there a science to it? There appears to be. Take it away, Scientist Man.