We Can’t Trust Hollywood to Fix Toxic Fandom

Kelly Marie Tran in The Last Jedi. Photo: Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd.

There’s a scene Alan Moore wrote into the graphic novel Watchmen that I think about a lot these days. Nebbishy Nite Owl and nihilist the Comedian are attempting to quell an anti-superhero riot, and the former finds himself in despair. “What’s happened to America? What’s happened to the American Dream?” he asks. Presumably, he sees this as a rhetorical question, but he receives an answer, anyway. “It came true,” the Comedian replies. “You’re lookin’ at it.” I gaze at the endless wildfire of hatred and entitlement that is consuming more and more geek constituencies, and I fear what we’re looking at is the Fandom Dream coming true. Have mercy upon our souls.

I wish I could quote a more highbrow text than Watchmen to make my point. But, dear reader, I’m part of the problem. The number of prose books I’ve read is dwarfed by the corresponding number of superhero comics. I go to comic-cons at least twice a year and haven’t been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in more than five. I’ve watched The Empire Strikes Back more times than God can count, but I’d have to consult decade-old class notes in order to give you an opinion about the one Ozu movie I’ve seen. There was a time, not so long ago, when someone with my interests wouldn’t have been able to make it as an arts writer at a mainstream publication. I used to see it as a joyful miracle that the tectonic plates shifted in such a way that I could have my current job. Today, I’m not so sure. Maybe the world would be a better place if people in power weren’t listening to people like me.

But they are, and they don’t seem to understand what a mistake that might have been. Take, for example, the current state of the Star Wars franchise. This week, for reasons that are as yet unclear, Star Wars: The Last Jedi actor Kelly Marie Tran quit Instagram. Perhaps she just came to the rational conclusion we should all reach, which is that social media is a net negative on one’s life and should be abandoned while there’s still time. However, it’s more likely that she shuffled off that sepia-tinted coil because trolls — many of them virulently racist and body-shaming, some of them merely anti–Last Jedi — wouldn’t shut the hell up and leave her alone. I’m reluctant to quote the worst vitriol here for fear of giving it more oxygen; read it on your own, if you dare, but if you’ve ever encountered a dim-witted sixth-grade bully, you can probably guess the sort of stuff that was being posted.

This vicious opposition isn’t limited to Tran, of course; nor is it a fresh phenomenon. Certain sectors of Star Wars fandom began going rancid years ago, with the run-up to and release of 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. First, a probably small but certainly vocal minority of SW geeks piped up to decry the casting and centering of John Boyega, a black man, in one of the leading roles. Then, after the premiere, screenwriter Max Landis infamously called the Daisy Ridley character, Rey, a Mary Sue, a derisive term for improbably capable women, and his often-atrocious acolytes took up arms in a crusade against her. It was Last Jedi that really brought the trolls out of the woodwork — just take a look at the user reviews on the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page. Their critiques varied, but often came back to a sense that the social-justice warriors had made the franchise soft and overly liberal. A representative slam from someone going by “Frank B” ([sic] throughout): “Too much Disney - Mary Sue (Rey), Mary Poppins (Lea), Women’s Power (all), Healing World, vegan chewie, lame Evil Snok / Keylo / Hux, Love instead of War (Rose / Finn), many jokes to release danger for the young new spectators, cut animals to buy - too little Star Wars.”

Too little Star Wars. Sigh. The easy way out is to say, “What the hell was the Star Wars you had been watching?” You can point to Yoda’s messages about suppressing anger and hate, or accurately point out that Luke Skywalker is every bit the Mary Sue that Rey is, or identify the notion advanced in old spinoff media that the Rebel Alliance opposed Imperial bigotry toward nonhumans. You will be wasting your time. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the #BoycottStarWars camp — which, unfortunately, is claiming victory over Solo: A Star Wars Story’s poor box office — being persuaded by a discussion of the facts. Hell, the facts aren’t even entirely on your side: The lack of ethnic and gender diversity in the first three films is an original sin that allows toxic fans to point to the Original Trilogy the way gun nuts point to the Second Amendment. There’s no productive argument to be had when anti-inclusivity extremism is at play. These people want what they want, and they’re not disappearing.

Which brings us back to the tragic fulfillment of the Fandom Dream. That dream, if it can be reduced to a maxim, is If you love something hard enough, it’ll love you back. As geek icon Wil Wheaton put it in 2013, being a nerd isn’t about what you love — it’s how you love it. To be a member of a fandom is to take a property and embrace it like a vise. You consume it, you talk about it with fellow fans, maybe you go to conventions, maybe you write fanfic or draw fanart, and no matter what — and this is the most crucial part — you pray that, if there’s more of it, it’ll be as good as the best of what’s come before. There are polite fans who say it quietly and don’t get mad when their needs aren’t met. But, by their very nature, such fans are always going to be drowned out by the ones who, like Bobby Axelrod, declare to the world, These are my needs. What’s remarkable and dangerous is the fact that, in the past 20 years, Hollywood started feeding them. They started getting what they wanted, and they’ve never looked back.

Perhaps patient zero in this case was Joel Schumacher. As Glen Weldon points out in his crackerjack 2016 history of Batman, The Caped Crusade, whiny superhero geeks who congregated on sites like Ain’t It Cool News led a surprisingly coordinated campaign against Schumacher for his handling of the Bat-franchise as director of the (criminally underrated) duology of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin in the mid-’90s. And, at least in their eyes, they won. Warner Bros. left Schumacher out in the cold and, eventually, returned to Batsy with a grim ‘n’ gritty Christopher Nolan take in 2005’s Batman Begins. In the interim, Hollywood power brokers increasingly realized that the Ain’t It Cool types were a vocal base they could make a lot of money off of. If Harry Knowles gave his blessing to your geek-property movie, you suddenly had a legion of viewers who were willing to show up on opening night and cause a trickle-down of enthusiasm to more casual fans and general-population viewers.

Fast-forward to 2018 and talk to any steward of a geek property and you’ll hear how this approach has become accepted praxis. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve chatted with a sci-fi filmmaker or publicist and heard them talk about some variation of “giving the fans what they want.” If it’s an adaptation or sequel, they talk incessantly about staying true to the beloved source material. More often than not, they’re extremely concerned about advance buzz on geek blogs and tweeted responses to teaser trailers. As is true in any campaign, the base may not be the majority, but those in power feel they need them to turn out. That doesn’t mean capitulating to the demands of the worst of the worst, of course. The present moment in Hollywood history also features a general trend toward greater inclusion, not away from it. But it does mean constantly telling the public that they’re listening to fandom and deeply interested in what it’s demanding.

Perhaps that was a mistake. I can’t help but feel that the toxic Star Wars fans have heard this sort of rhetoric and taken it to heart. They know that fandom, in general, is being catered to these days. So why shouldn’t they expect to get what they want? Why shouldn’t they pipe up and yell about how jilted they feel? After all, don’t the more progressive-minded fans complain about lack of inclusion and get what they want in return? I’m not drawing a moral equivalency here — more inclusion is an inherent good. I’m talking about perception. When auteur Rian Johnson decided to break all your Star Wars toys (admirably, I might add) in Last Jedi, he was going against the grain. His noble response to the Tran situation has been to take to Twitter and insult the “manbabies” who may have driven her away. Good for him. But he’s the exception. The general response of Hollywood types to these campaigns of outrage against the things they themselves make has been silence or muttered defensiveness — they likely feel that they simply can’t afford to further piss these people off. Of course the trolls are going to get riled up: They’ve gotten used to genuflection, not nose-thumbing.

They’re so used to it, in fact, that it’s hard to figure out how the trend can be reversed. Maybe it’ll consist of encouraging more filmmakers to take the Johnson route and openly throw the chuds under the bus. But wouldn’t that just embolden them and harden their opposition? Maybe it’s about franchise stewards talking less about appeasing fans and empowering creative types to tell whatever the hell kinds of stories they want to tell. But, again, that feels like something that could add more fuel to the fire.

I have to wonder whether it might be incumbent upon the rest of us to stop caring so much about Star Wars and Marvel movies and other empires originally built in less-progressive eras. Maybe it’s time for us to put our heads together and walk a new path, one that doesn’t put faith in corporate mega-properties that are predicated on appealing to as many people as possible. It’ll take them a generation to give us the bold, uncompromising representations of lived truth that we want.

Could it be that the best route forward is to start putting more dollars into truly new stories, ones that center traditionally marginalized creators and characters, that are not just tilting toward our values, but are instead built on them? To enroll in a kind of Democratic Socialists of America for pop culture? The “it was better before the SJWs took over” crowd will have no firm footing there. There are plenty such products, but they struggle to compete with the Star Warses of the world. They need our help. Let’s build new fandoms, ones the trolls don’t have a stake in. The dark side may try to topple them. But I believe in the power of the light.

We Can’t Trust Hollywood to Fix Toxic Fandom