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Top 10 Movies That Caused Controversy Before Release

by Dean J. Samuels
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Who doesn’t love a good movie? Each year, more than 2,000 films are produced around the world. Whether good or bad, these movies make millions, sometimes billions, of dollars for everyone involved in the production.

However, money is not all that movies generate. Each year, a select few trigger gossip, buzz, and controversy. After all, everyone loves a good scandal. Usually, a particular scene, prop, or blooper causes it.

Sometimes, the controversy starts months before the film is even released. Due to religious objections, subject matter, or even assumed political stances, the movies on this list were controversial—and some were even banned—before they ever hit the silver screen.

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Top 10 Most Controversial Movies

10 The Hunt

The Hunt – Official Trailer [HD]

Originally set for release on September 27, 2019, The Hunt centers around the idea of a liberal elite cabal hunting working-class conservatives like deer. It’s a scenario straight out of “The Most Dangerous Game.” The satirical horror/thriller movie’s plot and trailers stirred such controversy among Internet denizens that it even attracted the attention of the president.

While some called the film liberal propaganda, others accused it of being right-wing fearmongering. People on both sides seem to agree on only one thing: They hate the film, its actors, and anyone who enjoys it.[1]

The reaction was so strong and immediate that the film’s release was delayed until early 2020. Since then, it has been sitting at a comfortable 6.5/10 rating, although the controversy surrounding the movie seems to continue unabated.

9 Joker

Joker is about a man pushed to the edge by a combination of poverty, untreated mental illness, and rampant abuse (both interpersonal and systemic). He had been beaten in his childhood to the point of brain damage and then paid for the symptoms of that damage for the rest of his life. How could this film have become anything but controversial?

Long before the movie was released, waves of comments from everyday people all the way to news anchors criticized the film. They called it an “incel” film, with many news stations claiming that the movie would inspire mass shootings and theater attacks. Others argued that the film would embolden disenfranchised young men to riot and commit acts of terror.[2]

Although these events didn’t happen, the media controversy surrounding the film continued for months before and after its release. At one point, Joker star Joaquin Phoenix walked out of an interview after a critic asked Phoenix if he thought his character would inspire “an unstable, self-pitying loner with a mass-shooter mindset.”

8 Ghostbusters

GHOSTBUSTERS – Official Trailer (HD)

It’s no small task to remake a movie. Usually, you have two choices: You can make a faithful retread, or you can create a completely new take on the original. One will be bland and predictable but guaranteed money. The other has the potential to surpass the original at the cost of some old fans and a potential for failure.[3]

Ghostbusters (2016) chose an unfortunate third path, which was to take the name and basic bones of the concept and massively bungle it. By removing all the original characters and insulting anyone who asked why, the production company and some of the actresses involved went out of their way to antagonize the original fans.

Along with a disastrously unfunny trailer and obnoxious think pieces about the new movie, this put off enough people to ensure that the film would be a box office bomb.

7 The Interview

The Interview Official Final Trailer (2014) – James Franco, Randall Park Comedy HD

In 2014, Sony Pictures was set to release a movie titled The Interview. The plot was funny and fairly original: Two reporters, who are sent to North Korea to interview despot Kim Jong Un, are recruited by the US government to carry out a hit on Kim at the same time.

Naturally, the North Korean government and citizenry did not take well to the film. Calling it a “dishonest movie that hurt the dignity of the Supreme Leader,” North Korea launched such a fierce campaign of threats against Sony and the film’s actors that Sony lost its nerve.

The movie was initially shelved by Sony to prevent possible retaliation by North Korea. But the film was ultimately launched (although not in theaters) after then-President Barack Obama and others said that not releasing it was a threat to free speech.[4]

The Interview is suspected of being the catalyst for the 2014 incursions into the Sony networks and data banks by the Guardians of Peace, a North Korea–affiliated group of hackers.

6 The Passion Of The Christ

The Passion of the Christ – HD (Trailer)

Religious movies are no strangers to controversy, but The Passion of the Christ got more than its share even before its release in 2004. Director Mel Gibson set out to share, through film, the last 44 hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, Gibson ran into more than a few issues.

First were the concerns that such a movie, depicting the torture and slaughter of Christ, was blasphemous. Then certain “warnings” appeared during filming.

Lead actor Jim Caviezel was left with a 36-centimeter (14 in) scar on his back from an errant whip during a flogging scene. Caviezel and Jan Michelini, the first assistant director, were also struck by lightning.[5]

Other controversies included Mel Gibson’s alleged anti-Semitic rants (which would later be proven via recordings). Christians also had concerns over the movie’s departures from the New Testament. They saw it as an act of heresy and blasphemy to make changes to the biblical word for the sake of story.

Despite all this, The Passion Of The Christ was wildly successful, making over $600 million total. At the time, it was the highest-grossing R-rated film ever.

Top 10 Most Controversial Religious Movies

5 Borat

BORAT Clip – My Name Borat (2006) Sacha Baron Cohen

With its portrayal of a Kazakhstan character, Borat was released in 2006 to thunderous applause from fans of comedy everywhere—except for some countries in the Middle East.

Before its launch, advance copies of the film were sent to raters, screeners, and censors in the different nations where it would be shown. This is standard procedure for international releases.

Unfortunately, Borat did not make the cut. It was banned in every Arab country except Lebanon. A censor in Dubai called the movie “vile, gross, and extremely ridiculous.”[6]

Kazakhstan censors and citizens were in an uproar. They claimed that they had been misled about the premise of the film, which they had believed to be a simple documentary. The outcry worked in the movie’s favor, however. It drove up ticket sales in the countries where the film was allowed to air and ultimately made the studio (and Sacha Baron-Cohen) a hefty profit.

4 Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain 2005 Trailer HD | Jake Gyllenhaal | Heath Ledger

Although it’s easy now to see this movie as a solid gay classic, Brokeback Mountain faced incredible controversy before its release. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as a pair of deeply-in-love cowboys embroiled in a 20-year affair behind their wives’ backs, the film sparked ire immediately upon announcement, with instant disavowals from several groups.[7]

The pushback was so strong that certain theaters didn’t show Brokeback Mountain. It was also the subject of many sermons from religious leaders upset at its portrayal of homosexual romance. The film was even banned in most Middle Eastern countries.

3 JoJo Rabbit

JOJO RABBIT | Official Trailer [HD] | FOX Searchlight

What’s more controversial than the Nazis? Apparently, funny Nazis.

Although the fantastic JoJo Rabbit was a great exercise in making fun of the worst people in history, the film was not without controversy. Even before it debuted in theaters, JoJo Rabbit had many people voicing their opinions on the message they assumed it held.

Many critics were already disgusted with the movie from the first trailer. They claimed that JoJo Rabbit was simply a way to ignore all the dark, deplorable things done by the Nazis. These critics also argued that the use of humor was a gruesome exercise in making light of the horrors of World War II.

Many protested that the film carried an anti-Semitic message with its portrayal of the Nazis describing Jewish people as monsters with scales and fire-breathing capabilities.[8]

On the other side, neo-Nazis were angry for much the same reason. In fact, neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups under other names were livid at the portrayal of Adolf Hitler as an eccentric, cowardly, imaginary friend to the titular character of JoJo Rabbit. They also hated the gay Nazi couple and the general portrayal of Nazi soldiers as stupid, superstitious, and laughable.

2 Captain Marvel

Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel | Pre-Order Now!

No matter how it was handled, this movie would have generated some buzz just by being another entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That said, the excitement and anticipation could have been positive if not for comments by Brie Larson, the lead actress.

Larson attracted Internet wrath by remarking repeatedly that she didn’t want or care about movie reviews made by “40-year-old white men.” Some people decried this sentiment as racist and sexist while others lauded it as correct and intelligent.

The fight eventually resulted in a war over Larson’s upcoming film, Captain Marvel. The anti-Larson crowd began review-bombing the film while the pro-Larsons set up bots to inflate the score. The war between the two continued right up until the film’s release.[9]

1 Monty Python: Life Of Brian

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) US Theaterical Trailer

As the oldest movie on our list, Monty Python: Life Of Brian comes from a time when society was slightly more uptight than it is today. So, it’s no surprise that Life Of Brian sparked fierce debates and interest even before its release.

The movie centers around the titular character of Brian, who was born one barn over from Jesus of Nazareth. It is a religious satire that follows Brian as he grows into a young freedom fighter mistaken for the Messiah.[10]

This immediately angered the Catholic Church (as well as the Protestants and the Jews) and prompted most of Europe to preemptively ban the film. Ireland outlawed the film from before its release until the year 1987.

In areas where it was shown, the film was picketed by nuns, priests, and rabbis, all of whom believed Life Of Brian to be blasphemous. They claimed that the movie made a mockery of Jesus’s suffering on the cross and the religion as a whole. In fact, the film was so hated that it earned a spot in the 1990 book A Brief History of Blasphemy.

Top 10 Movies That Have Been Banned Around The World

fact checked by Jamie Frater