There are some well-known works that gathered controversy throughout the years, and there are also famously controversial works in which the controversy, whether rightful or not, would overshadow most other aspects. Which isn't to say that works in the latter category have no other redeeming factor, just that most people would know little else aside from the controversial aspects.
Bad reviews alone do not make a controversial moment, and in fact some works can be well-regarded by critics and those who watched, read or played the work, and not all works listed here are either laughably bad or just downright terrible. Plot-related twists are generally not what makes up the category either, even if such cases are subjective and arguable. The major qualifier is that the works would be known beyond the fans of a particular genre that there's little knowledge of some other parts of a work to the general public.
Controversies can be a result of the following:
Public cat-fights between the creator and the media, critics, public, or all three (such as Dear Negative Reader rants).
Deceptive or offensive marketing
Frequent embarrassing displays of offensive or questionable behaviour: chronic examples of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs in public, showcasing a Hair-Trigger Temper whenever feeling provoked, making impulsive offensive comments, use of foul language,...
The manga Houou Gakuen Misoragumi barely made a blip in the US. But what was the general fan response? Absolute hatred. Both from the fans and the English publishers. Why? Because it's a manga that takes the Cure Your Gays route FAR too seriously, bringing along with it a whole mountain of Values Dissonance regarding lesbianism and gender roles. The English publishers treat it as an Old Shame and don't ever bring it up anymore.
Kodomo no Jikan (proposed title Nymphet) was licensed by publisher Seven Seas but never released in America due to its lolicon overtones.
They had only seen the first book (which isn't too bad in terms of content). Then the controversy erupted. Initially, Seven Seas defended the title, but a combination of major book chains refusing to stock it and their reading the later volumes (which come very close to violating the PROTECT Act) caused them to change their mind and drop it.
Lotte no Omocha, for the same reasons as Kodomo no Jikan - the female protagonist is a succubus? Well, OK, nothing bad about it so far... wait, the female protagonist is also 10 years old and will die if she doesn't drink Life Essence? Dude, Not Funny!
The first two Tintin stories, Tintin in the Land Of The Soviets and Tintin in Africa are both controversial to this day. The first is essentially a Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped anti-Soviet, anti-Communist propaganda piece that even Hergé saw as an Old Shame and refused to have updated, colorized or even reprinted. The second has been updated, colorized and reprinted, but has gained more controversy since the 1960s because of the outdated colonial times imagery and very offensive depictions of black Africans.
One spin-off writer, Chatoyance, is especially controversial for essentially taking the above and taking them Up to Eleven and then some. Three particular stories stand out: Ten Minutes: Aftermath, a personal Fix Fic that was interpreted (due to how Chatoyance posted a link right on the original author's comments page) as a middle finger to the fans of the original Ten Minutes story; The Reasonably Adamant Down With Celestia Newfoal Society, which was little more than a caustic Take That, Critics! leveled at anyone that didn't like her work; and finally, the short story New Universe Three: The Friendship Virus, TCB fic In Name Only that veered straight into Unfortunate Implications territory with its overtly misandric messages.
Everyone will agree that A Clockwork Orange is a controversial film. However in the United Kingdom its reputation is more legendary because the film was banned there from 1971 until Kubrick's death in 1999. Therefore, its controversial reputation remained far more intact than in other countries.
Baise Moi was banned in France because of its unsimulated sex scenes in the context of two female rape victims having revenge on their aggressors. The debate whether this is nothing less but cheap exploitation, or not, is still going on.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is remembered for two controversial scenes: the Bonk vs. The Joker scene in which the latter kills the former with the "Bang!" Flag Gun, and the entire flashback scene, with the very noteworthy part near the end in which Robin does the same thing to the Joker. Even before the film was released to video and DVD in 2000, movie companies were coming under heavy criticism for violence in films during the fallout of the Columbine shootings that had happened over a year ago, and WB felt pressured and afraid that Moral Guardians and Media Watchdogs would object that the movie would be a repeat of Columbine. As a result, the original release date (Halloween 2000) was postponed, and the film heavily edited and toned down for release on December 12. But even then, the Bowdlerised version (especially with the Joker's death scene changed to a Family UnfriendlyHigh Voltage Death) didn't help matters, but only caused unrest among many Batman fans that lasted for over a year. That unrest thankfully quelled down when the film developers still retained the original version in shelves and eventually released it on DVD as "the original, uncut version" under the PG-13 rating on April 23, 2002 (just three days after the third anniversary of the Columbine tragedy) following an online petition to have it released. The same uncut version would be digitally enhanced and released on Blu-Ray nine years later, just as it was intended to be before the backlash, as a way of ensuring that no tragedy such as Columbine would ever happen again.
The Birth of a Nation is a milestone in the history of cinema as an art form, pioneering many techniques that would shape motion pictures for decades to come. Unfortunately, it's also a film that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan and has white people in blackface portraying all Black people as either savage criminals or lazy idiots, and it has been cited as a key influence in the revival of the Klan in the 1910s and '20s. This aspect has overshadowed most of its historical significance.
The Brown Bunny is a film known mostly for an unsimulated oral sex scene, being booed harshly at the Cannes Film Festival, and the subsequent media catfight between Roger Ebert and the director. The film was later Re Cut and given a wide release, and Ebert gave the recut a three star review.
Interestingly, it didn't happen with In the Realm of the Senses; much like The Brown Bunny the film has many unsimulated sex scenes including oral and it also received harsh criticism at the Cannes Film Festival, but ultimately it was not overshadowed by it.
Cannibal Holocaust was notorious to a degree that it forced director Ruggero Deodato and the actors to explain that nobody died in production and the gore was just special effects. There is still a great deal of controversy to this day relating to animal cruelty, such as an infamous scene in which an actual live turtle is brutally decapitated and eviscerated onscreen. Seven animals were killed during the film's production. Although the director himself condemned his past actions and seems genuinely regretful, many people are turned off by the presence of actual animal deaths onscreen.
Cloud Atlas will probably be remembered more for the controversy over the decision to have white actors appear in Yellow Face than for its story.
Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) has been banned, censored and re-cut in so many countries that several different versions of different lenghts exist. Its offensive blasphemous content has brought more attention than the actual picture itself.
Eraserhead - Two words: the baby. Primarily because no one associated with the film (ESPECIALLY David Lynch) cares to discuss what the baby was made out of.
"They're not even sure it IS a baby..."
If you see any articles on Exodus: Gods and Kings, chances are they're more about the film's casting choices (White actors playing Egyptian and Middle Eastern characters) than of the actual film itself.
Gangster Squad ended up having some scenes reshot because a theater shooting that occurred in the film resembled the aforementioned The Dark Knight Rises shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Yet even with the reshoot the film as whole was deemed to be so violent that it was still hard to forget the parallel with Aurora. It didn't help that the film was released about a month after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Hound Dog, as quoted on the page description above, was infamously referred to as the Dakota Fanning rape film by critics and moviegoers alike.
Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ had sparked protests from religious groups worldwide, including the infamous attack at a Paris cinema where the use of Molotov cocktails injured 13 patrons and brought the theater under heavy repairs for the next three years.
Likewise, Taxi Driver is good enough to stand on its own merits, but it will forever be linked to John Hinckley and his attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.
Melancholia gets remembered more for the infamous interview of its director Lars von Trier about how he "was a Nazi", and then how that got him banned from Cannes.
Monty Python's Life of Brian was considered by the troupe to be their best movie, but the protests surrounding its supposed heresy will always limit its popularity.
At the time of release, protests by religious groups were described by the Pythons as the best publicity they could have hoped for. It really raised a lot of awareness of the film's existence, and led to a much higher box office taking. No Such Thing as Bad Publicity.
Similarly, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ arguably owes its record-breaking success with audiences who weren't devout Christians to this very trope. Practically everyone in America already knew the story (unlike The Last Temptation, the plot itself wasn't revisionist in any way), so the most interesting two things about the movie for most people were that it was ridiculously violent for a "Christian" film (as well as being probably the only R-rated film in history that Christian leaders urged their congregations to see) and that it was that rare post-1945 Western film with (supposed) anti-Semitism as part of the subject matter. Cool.
Triumph of the Will and Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl are visually impressive documentaries which were way ahead of their time from a technical standpoint. However, it's hard to praise these films because they were intended as Nazi propaganda. Riefenstahl was never able to distance herself from all the controversy surrounding these films and herself.
Vase de Noces is mostly a Leave the Camera Running film, starring an Ambiguous Disorder man and his faithful pig, going about on random hobbies and at one point porking each other. That one scene is thus the most highlighted part of the film for those who've heard of it, to the point that the DVD release even added the subtitle "The Pig F***ing Movie". It's also subverted in that, according to some critics such as Kyle Kallgren, the film's even-worse scenes (including unsimulated piglet hanging and eating feces) avoided public outcry to being overshadowed by the one (simulated) zoophilia scene.
Fanny Hill is well known for having been a subject of obscenity tests and for having been banned in America from inception until a 1966 Supreme Court case ruled that the book has redeeming social value. When it was published in 1748, it got the author arrested on obscenity charges.
Lolita is unfortunately more famous for the controversy that surrounds it than the actual content and quality of the novel: Vladimir Nabokov went through many publishers who refused to publish it, and after it was published, it was banned in many places for being "pornographic" or "an instruction manual for paedophilia" (which it is not). Even for people who aren't familiar with the history of the book, a lot of the covers/jackets make it look like erotica.
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie is recalled more for the ensuing fatwa declared on the author by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and for the fallout from that incident, than for the novel itself.
The Turner Diaries, a white supremacist novel by William L. Pierce, is best known for its association with Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber.
The Uncle Remus stories are a group of actual fables told by slaves and former slaves in the American South, making them a valuable cultural resource. However, though once popular, they are now nearly unknown. Compiler and editor Joel Chandler Harris' fictional character who tells the stories, Uncle Remus, was written as an elderly ex-slave who was basically content to continue to work for a white family. The implied racism is now almost all that is known of the stories. The fables themselves, taken out of the Remus context, are stories about animals using their wiles to trick each other, and man, in order to survive. Unlike Aesop's fables, they are not meant to be morally instructive, but are a commentary on man resorting to animal-like behaviors in desperate circumstances.
Uncle Tom's Cabin had a controversy that the publication of this book inspired over slavery, particularly in the years leading up to The American Civil War. However, few people have actually read the book, even those who (inaccurately) slur supposedly servile African Americans as "Uncle Toms".
The slur is more a reference to the minstrel shows "inspired by" the book frequently put on after The American Civil War, which inverted the message of the original novel and completely changed Tom's characterisation.
Ghostwatch, the one-off Halloween Special drama shown on BBC 1 in 1992, is better known for the controversy caused when a sizable chunk of the viewing audience thought it was real and the ensuing argument over whether this was the creators' desired effect than the fact that it's a damn fine ghost story. It makes frequent appearances on 'Underrated Horror Films' listicles as a result.
Igor Stravinsky 's The Rite Of Spring is universally praised for being a milestone in classical music and music in general. Yet the infamous story of the riots during its premier will forever remain associated with the piece.
Milli Vanilli was once a popular group, but after a scandal broke out revealing the fact that they playbacked all their songs they became a universal shame. To this day nobody in their right mind can admit liking their hits without addressing the playback scandal.
The Sex Pistols are mostly known for trying to play "God Save The Queen" from a barge during the Queen's Jubilee after being prohibited from playing the song on land. Much of the bad press was intentional.
As was the bad press they received for "Belsen Was a Gas", which was more of the Dude, Not Funny! variety.
Black Metal is mostly associated with crimes committed by a few of its members. This was not helped by said members exaggerating their own acts. As noted by Lords of Chaos in reference to an article in Kerrang:
Like it or not, however, the Kerrang! article was what brought Norwegian Black Metal to the rest of the world’s attention. It probably meant the crimes would eternally overshadow the music, but it was undoubtedly the best piece of international P.R. the scene would ever receive.
This trope tends to be zigzaged with hip-hop artists. Sometimes they're overshadowed by controversy, other times they're FUELED by it.
Fear of this trope was what caused Ice-T to remove "Cop Killer" from Body Count's debut album, as he felt that the controversy over its lyrical content had eclipsed its musical merits.
In June 2007, WWE's Vengeance pay-per-view was relaunched as Night of Champions, which continues to this day. At the time, WWE had nine championships, and this first Night of Champions was the first time that all of them were defended in the same night. But hardly anybody remembers that, because what they do remember is that John Morrison unexpectedly won the ECW Championship because he was booked in place of Chris Benoit, who no-showed the event because he was busy murdering his wife and child and then committing suicide. Not only was Benoit's reputation forever tarnished, but Morrison has (at least with some people) yet to live down the fact that he rose to main-event status in WWE entirely because of an offscreen tragedy.
WWE's 1999 Over the Edge pay-per-view will forever be known as the event where Owen Hart fell to his death. Vince McMahon's decision to keep the pay-per-view going despite Owen's death remains one of the most controversial topics in professional wrestling circles to this day.
Survivor Series 1997: The Montreal Screwjob. There were six other matches on the card. Does anybody remember those?
Custer's Revenge was an unauthorized third-party game for the Atari 2600 in 1982. It gathered quite a bit of negative attention, particularly from feminist and Native American groups, as the objective involved raping an Indian woman. From the next generation of consoles onward, manufacturers require approval for games to be released on their machines.
Daikatana, aside from its years spent in development hell, picked up controversy over its advertising campaign, which stated that "John Romero's about to make you his bitch. Suck it down." The game has mostly been forgotten aside from the aforementioned campaign and the negative press that brought Romero's development career down with it.
That and the game was absolutely horrible, which is what made the ad campaign so ridiculous in the first place.
Whenever people talk about Depression Quest, it is entirely in the context of the "Quinnspiracy" controversy surrounding it, in which the creator, Zoe Quinn, was accused of giving sexual favors to gaming journalists in exchange for positive reviews of the game and then having articles discussing the accusations pulled from the internet (as well as for allegedly taking advantage of the death of Robin Williams to promote it). The underlying quality of Depression Quest itself is rarely discussed.
The prequel to Fear Effect on the Playstation was known for having the first lesbian couple in the history of video game. A third game was supposed to be released but finally got cancelled.
The Manhunt series was best known for its premise of being about a convict being forced to take part in snuff films (the gameplay was mostly stealth based, with elements of Survival Horror). The first game was given mixed reviews, with some marking it down for the gorn and others praising it for its atmosphere, the sequel received average reviews across the board and the series was mostly forgotten.
The franchise is also overshadowed by claims that the first game inspired a series of killings in the UK which led to it being temporarily pulled from several chains (claims which were ultimately proven unfounded); while the sequel was actually banned outright in several countries, unlike the first game.
Metroid: Other M is mainly known for a rather misogynistic story that in its worst interpretations glorifies an abusive relationship; made all the worse since the series' heroine is something of a feminist gaming icon. In second place is the attempted justification for the series' usual Bag of Spilling that ends up absurd (particularly, not using available heat shielding in a lava-filled area).
Mortal Kombat 1, like Night Trap below, led to the creation of the ESRB through its fatality system.
Amusingly, the Sega versions of the game were rated (at the time, Sega used their own rudimentary content rating system), and the Nintendo ports were censored.
Night Trap was one of the video games that contributed to the creation of the ESRB ratings in the United States. An infamous bathroom scenenote which the game does call you out for when you fail to save the girl, or any girl for that matter in particular was what led to intense senate hearings with proponents of the ban saying it glorified violence toward women, while many of them admitted they hadn't played the game.
The Postal series is well-known for being a common target for Moral Guardians to campaign against video game violence, more so than any quality of gameplay, as opposed to other common targets like Doom or Grand Theft Auto.
Street Fighter X Tekken was highly anticipated upon release, being the crossover of two fighting game giants. Then through a series of controversies (the Gems game mechanic, the addition of an obese parody of Mega Man in the wake of the controversial cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3) culminating in the revelation that all DLC was on disk (and there was a lot of DLC) overshadowed the game's actual quality. To this day, Namco's half of the crossover is still pending and very much in question.
Tomodachi Life is infamous due to the lack of a Gay Option and Nintendo's initial rationalization about it (which was later retracted in an apology), moreso than the game being about interpersonal relationships between Miis.
Countless cartoons from the Golden Age of Animation (1930s until the end of 1950s) have been subject to censorship since the 1960s because of imagery that is nowadays considered racist or a bad example to little children (scenes of smoking, Suicide as Comedy,...). Though most of them only have minor scenes that can be edited in syndication other cartoons are almost impossible to show because they are troublesome from the first until the last frame. These are the Censored Eleven, cartoons who are never shown on American TV. The unfortunate thing about many of these is that some of them are actually good, funny and/or important films.
The Adventure Time episode "What Was Missing" immediately became popular, AND controversial, for the alleged lesbian subtext between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen.
The Censored Eleven cartoons became controversial post-Civil-Rights-Movement because of Values Dissonance causing many scenes to look incredibly racist. To this day, the artistic achievements of these cartoons are discussed less than the objectionable imagery and jokes.
Coonskin, Ralph Bakshi's satirical Blaxploitation re-imagining of the Uncle Remus tales. The Rev. Al Sharpton famously criticized the film without even seeing it, saying, "I don't got to see shit; I can smell shit!"
The My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode, "The Last Round-Up" appears to be only remembered for giving fan favorite character Derpy Hooves lines and a canon name, and then subsequently censoring her when it found that her portrayal and name was offensive to some. Everything else about the episode is pretty much eclipsed by it.
The ''South Park" episodes "200" and "201" is a Milestone Celebration and we learn the real truth behind Cartman's father. However, "200" caused a Muslim group to send death threats to Trey Parker and Matt Stone for depicting The Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit (even though it was really Santa Claus); Comedy Central subsequently altered "201" so all audio and visual references to Muhammad were censored, thus resparking the Muhammed cartoon controversy in real life. To this day, it has never been rerun, it's not available for legal streaming and only the censored version has been released on DVD. Portions of the uncensored cut very rarely leak onto the internet but are immediately blocked before they can spread.
The censored speech at the end, amusingly proven true by the forced censorship, essentially amounts to "Use fear and you will always get what you want!"
Bill Clinton is nowadays more remembered for his sex scandals than any of his actual political deeds. Not that it particularly hurt his popularity, as polls taken around the time he left office will indicate (in fact, his approval rating went up during the impeachment hearings).
Sex scandals in particular are great at overshadowing the legacies and/or careers of public figures. Unless said scandal crosses legal or ethical boundaries in an especially heinous way, entertainers tend to have a somewhat easier time shaking these off than politicians do.
O.J. Simpson's achievements as an American footballer and actor have been overshadowed by the controversy over his involvement in the murder of his wife and her mistress. Most people today know him solely for the murder scandal.
Tennis player John McEnroe was one of the most glorious champions in his sport, even managing to give Björn Borg a difficult time during Wimbledon 1980. Yet he mostly lives on in people's memories for his Hair-Trigger Temper and F-Word induced yelling at the referee during many matches. It has gotten to the point that there's more demand to see that kind of archive footage again than him winning his games.
French soccer champion Zinedine Zidane is world famous for one incident during his final game where he headbutted another player. Especially to people who don't know much about soccer, like American citizens, this is all they know about him.
Richard Nixon's presidency has been overshadowed by the Watergate affair. Other memorable events during his administration, even good ones like his visit to China, have been forgotten except for history buffs.
Silent movie comedian Fatty Arbuckle's legacy has been tainted by his involvement in an party/orgy where a young girl died. Even though his name was eventually cleared, the affair destroyed his career and public image. He was given the chance for a comeback, but died the day after signing a new deal.
Boris Yeltsin is not remembered today for any of his policies, but more for his very visible and embarrassing alcoholism problems during public appearances.