Brow Beat

It’s Easy to Paint Fan Culture as Out of Control and Entitled. But Is It Really So Bad if Fans Have a Say in What Happens in Hollywood?

Marvel's Avengers assemble to take on Loki.
Marvel’s Avengers take on Loki.

Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures

In a much-shared essay called “Fandom Is Broken,” the critic Devin Faraci argued earlier this week that contemporary fan culture has become dominated by feelings of entitlement. Where there’s always been “a push and a pull between creator and fan,” Faraci wrote, now fans approach stories like they’re Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, expecting every dish to be prepared to their precise instructions. The trouble, he says, is “[T]hat isn’t how art works, and that shouldn’t be how art lovers react to art. They shouldn’t be bringing a bucket of paint to the museum to take out some of the blue from those Picassos, you know?”

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Especially in the world of genre, fan entitlement can be an ugly, and sometimes appalling, thing. Devotees of the original Ghostbusters have been hurling sexist invective at the female-fronted remake for months, and critics who lodge complaints against comic-book movies or popular video games regularly find themselves receiving death threats. All ostracized teenage geeks grow up believing they’d never treat people so poorly if they were in charge, but having achieved cultural dominance, many have now opted to replicate the bullying behavior they once despised.

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The culprit, or at least the primary catalyst, is social media, which has placed once-invisible consumers on equal footing with the people who make the things they love. Where artistic feedback used to be the province of the “truly committed”—the fans who took the time to write a letter or traveled to a convention to meet artists in person—now, of course, anyone with an internet connection has access to a megaphone.

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Fans didn’t come up with the idea that their opinion matters all on their own. In comics, they’ve been part of the conversation for decades, and as the comic-book aesthetic has increased its sway over the culture at large, comic-book fandom has become the template for fandom as a whole. At Comic-Con, fans aren’t just consumers: They’re shareholders, actively courted by the likes of J.J. Abrams and Zack Snyder. Logos, costumes, and long-range plans are rolled out for their approval. When a Hollywood studio puts its money behind the latest iteration of Superman or Captain America, it’s not just paying for a familiar character. It’s buying into decades, even generations, of fan involvement. But that deep-seated attachment, so difficult to create from scratch, comes with a catch. Please the fans, and you’ve got an army of unpaid promoters on your side. Anger them, and you’re all but sunk. So it is that Tom Hiddleston winds up in front of a jam-packed hall in the San Diego Convention Center, addressing the crowd in character as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Loki. On her Twitter feed, Kristen Warner, an academic and critic who wrote a book on the politics of racial representation on TV, drew an analogy with the musical Little Shop of Horrors: Fans are the carnivorous plant, Audrey II, but the movie studios and the comic-book companies are the ones acceding to its demands for fresh blood, feeding a hunger that only grows the more it’s catered to.

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Fan involvement has also been a, if not the, major force behind the diversification of Hollywood’s genre fictions, and they provide an ongoing education, free of charge, to creative personnel who are insufficiently sensitive to their concerns. When the dystopian CW show The 100 killed off a bisexual character earlier this year, LGBT fans of the show mounted a concerted campaign to express their anger. Showrunner Jason Rothenberg dodged their concerns and bled Twitter followers by the thousands, but Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who co-wrote the controversial episode, made a concerted effort to hear them out and admitted the show had screwed up. “I love that fans don’t take a lot of stuff lying down,” he wrote on Twitter. “[T]he ongoing conversation between fans and creators can be toxic, but in my case it has expanded perspective on both camps.”

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Death threats are an obvious, bright-line exception to the rule; Faraci quotes an angry Captain America fan’s letter to Marvel’s executive editor vividly fantasizing about killing him “in the most painful way possible that I can think of.” But these are rarely lodged on behalf of changing the status quo. They seem to surface en masse only when it’s suggested than an icon of red-blooded patriotism might have been playing for the other team, or when a critic, especially a woman, lodges a negative opinion about a comic-book movie or a video game—in other words, when there’s a challenge to the idea that culture should be created for, and judged by, exclusively white men. For fanboys who feel their only-recently-secured hold on the cultural conversation slipping, a death threat is the biggest bullhorn they can grab, a way of making damn sure people pay attention and letting perceived interlopers know they’re not welcome into the bargain.

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So it’s misleading to paint fans as entitled customers who are demanding that art cater to their whims. What studios are actually dealing with is audiences who no longer think of themselves just as consumers but as shareholders with a fiduciary right to have their opinions taken into account. And the cultural shareholder model doesn’t recognize seniority. A share is a share is a share, and no amount of bluster or foot-stomping can change that. The people who make comic-book movies and their genre ilk aren’t painting Picassos, let alone Van Goghs; no one at Warner Bros. is consoled by the idea that in 50 years Batman v Superman will be hailed as a misunderstood masterpiece. They’re making consumer products that sometimes happen to be art, and it’s in the best interests of all concerned to judge them as such. That doesn’t mean fans should always get what they want: As Joss Whedon put it, sometimes it’s more important to give them what they need. But the days when audiences’ ability to make their desires known began and ended with their wallets are long gone, and if the process of making art is more fraught because of the endless torrent of feedback, in some cases, the end product is better for it.

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