The Fanatical Audience

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It’s been a bumpy few months for me as a fan of several franchises that have failed to connect with me in their latest installments. First, it was The X-Files six-episode revival, then I finally got around to watching The Force Awakens, and then I saw Batman v. Superman in theaters the weekend it was released.

Fandom for any creative franchise or artist is a slippery slope towards madness, my friends. There’s a reason the word “fan” is derived from “fanatic.” We all find things that we love and it’s tempting to return to them over and over again and demand new iterations of those original things that once moved us. I’ve talked about franchises a lot on this blog, and that wasn’t my original intention. But it’s been a topic that has sort of burrowed into my brain and refused to let go.

Most recently, I’ve been thinking about how we as fellow fanatics respond when we’re exposed to a new chapter in a cherished franchise that sudden repulses us, and I’ve come to a few conclusions as to how we might all save our souls and sanity in the process.

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Let me be frank with you. I really wanted to love Batman v Superman, and I was convinced that despite the bad reviews and the rage of Internet fanboys still up in arms over Man of Steel (a film I quite enjoyed), I would walk out of the theater that Friday afternoon buzzing with excitement over what I had just seen. Instead, I felt empty. And awkward. And a little embarrassed. I felt like I had just been the victim of a con game.

But if that was my first instinct, my second was to take a deep breath and reconsider. It’s easy to succumb to knee-jerk reactions when you’re confronted with something you weren’t expecting.  Had I missed something? Was there something more substantial happening beneath the surface? Would a second viewing redeem my disappointments?

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Oddly enough, my wife was ecstatic after the film and began asking all sorts of questions about the comics history of Superman and the Justice League. When we arrived home, she wanted to immediately start watching all the old Superman films. And when pressed for a rating of BvS, she told me 4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars.

My own score would be closer to 2 or 2.5, and keep in mind, a full point of that is owed to the fact that Batman and Superman (and Wonder Woman!) were briefly sharing space in the same film frame.

Rather than tell my wife that she was wrong and an idiot for liking a film that I detested, I told her that I had been a bit disappointed but that there were things in the film that I enjoyed. I wasn’t lying, but I also wasn’t laying bare my ravaged soul.

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Superman and Batman are two of my absolute favorite characters in pop culture. I have been a loyal follower of their exploits since before I could read. They have made me laugh, tense up in suspense, open my mouth in awe, and yes, even shed a tear or two… hundred.

They’re my heroes, and a live-action film starring the two of them promised to be my favorite thing EVER.

But it wasn’t, and after some careful consideration and time to digest what I had seen, shock and disappointment inevitably turned to anger. “How dare they screw this up!” I told myself. “It’s not fair!” I kept my temper tantrums internal, choosing not to share them with others, but I did pen a pretty scathing–albeit brief–review. In retrospect, I kind of wish I hadn’t. I don’t like reviewing things that I dislike; I’d rather focus on what works for me than what doesn’t, would rather share in joy rather than wallow in mutual despair.

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But that tendency to feel betrayed and angered by a piece of art that disappoints us is a common one. We build up our hopes that fiction can help motivate us and inspire us, and when it doesn’t, we are left to feel alone and in doubt. Was this ever worth our affection, our passion, our all-consuming fanaticism? When this happens, we turn our ire towards the artist who failed to deliver, who couldn’t save us from our anxieties and fears.

While I think criticism and holding artists accountable for their work is valid and necessary, the Internet has given a voice to many who aren’t willing to look beyond the surface, who aren’t willing to see how something can be different from what they wanted and still a valid piece of art in its own right. It’s easy as fans to think that we have all the answers; I could tell you how I would have done Batman v Superman, and I can even fool myself into thinking it would have been better than what I saw on the screen.

But I can also understand that, for some people, Batman v Superman delighted and entertained as it did for my wife. Their reaction is no less valid than my own, so spending my time attacking them for it is both a waste of my time and a waste of theirs. We can have legitimate discussions and criticisms of things that we view as flawed, we can debate flimsy narrative structures and shallow characters, tonal ambiguities and thematic incongruities, but at the end of the day, people are either going to like something or they aren’t. We have no control over what other people think, and trying to turn people against something they originally enjoyed is a monstrous, mean-spirited goal.

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After The X-Files miniseries ended, I shared my piece “The Art or the Artist” with a terrific X-Files blog called Musings of an X-Phile. The piece makes the argument that we too often side with the art at the expense of the artist who created it. In the wake of some pretty spectacularly bad X-Files eps conceived by creator Chris Carter, the fandom was not in the mood to hear that Carter deserved our faith and patience.

One particular comment reminded me that the fans had the power now. With the Internet at our disposal, these creative works were more our property than the creator’s. We could write scathing screeds against the creator, we could formulate fan fiction that would be regarded as superior to the official version, we could “fix” bad films or shows with fan edits, we could even start petitions to have these artists chased off their own creations.

The artist was no longer an untouchable god removed from his audience; the artist could be reached now. He was a dancing court jester, there merely for our amusement. And the moment he wasn’t doing the job in a way we deemed fit, he deserved whatever fate awaited him; we as fans owed him nothing for past successes and previous gifts of quality material; as soon as any creator began to slip, he or she should be excised from their creation like a mold spore off an otherwise healthy piece of fruit.

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I was surprised by that reaction and the intensity of it. The anger, the furor, but even more so, the casual disregard for the livelihoods of these creative individuals who had invented something that once moved us and spoke to us. We didn’t owe them continued patronage if they ceased to entertain us, sure, but at the very least, didn’t we owe them the common courtesy of not actively plotting their downfall? Here we were talking about stealing away the creative property of a living, breathing human being out of some misguided scheme to rescue fictional characters from the alleged abuses perpetrated upon them by their out-of-touch creator.

Those responses haunted me as I dealt with the disappointing back-to-back experience of both The Force Awakens and Batman v Superman. My only consolation at the end of TFA was that J.J. Abrams wouldn’t be returning to Star Wars; my chief concern at the end of BvS was that the creative team of Zach Snyder and Chris Terrio would be reuniting for Justice League. I sighed, I stormed internally, but at the end of the day, I decided it wasn’t worth it. It’s not useful dwelling on our fears and anxieties, our disappointments or anger.

We can love these properties and that love can bring us so much that is rewarding and fulfilling, but the moment we become angered by a misstep, that passion we had for the property can subvert everything good we ever felt for it.

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It’s not only pointless to hold onto our disappointment; it’s also bound to poison the thing we used to love, to strip the joy out of what moves and motivates us. Whenever you feel yourself dwelling on anger for a creative property, just take a deep breath and let it go. Think about something you love instead and focus on that. Be willing to accept that others will find joy in the thing that you hated and be willing to let that injustice fade. Relate with people over the things you share in common, don’t dwell on the differences; don’t dig for conflict because your feelings of being betrayed aren’t shared by others.

I’ll admit. This is not easy in the short-term, but once you’ve trained yourself to accept this path, it will certainly make things smoother in the long run.

For my part, I look at this way: I watched some bad television and a couple of bad movies. They don’t count as the thing I love, so I don’t need to dwell on them or obsess over them. In my mind, they aren’t The X-Files, or Star Wars, or Batman or Superman, because they don’t evoke in me the love and passion I so often feel for these properties. They can be easily forgotten, because there are so many other better examples out there to incite in me the emotions that I, as a card-carrying fanatic, so crave.

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Consider this: fans don’t have control over the art itself. We can fool ourselves into thinking that we do, but ultimately, someone is making a decision somewhere and not asking for our direct feedback. Sometimes that decision is to do what the artist wants to do because they have a clear vision for a story; sometimes that decision is what the studio has pressured the artist to do because they think they know what the majority of an audience wants. Either way, there’s no guarantee you will like it. It’s not like there’s just one path to go down and it forks off in opposite directions of purely good or purely bad. Art is not a science, not empirical or based in cold, hard facts. It is an entirely subjective experience.

And paradoxically, that’s what we all want it to be. Deep down we don’t really want to have control over the art. Telling an artist to do something the way we want them to do it defeats the purpose of art to challenge us and surprise us, to force us to come to terms with things that might upset us. The best pieces of art, the ones that have really shaped us as human beings are the ones that came out of nowhere, that went in directions you couldn’t have expected or desired ahead of time.

The only control we as an audience should be fighting for is our own. We have a choice how we let art affect us: we either let it ruin our lives and then take out our anger on anyone and everyone within earshot OR alternatively, we shrug our shoulders and find something more worthy of our time and passion.

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9 thoughts on “The Fanatical Audience

  1. Great article! I’m going to take some time to digest it before I can come back with a more intelligent comment, but I just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading it very much.

  2. So I finally feel ready to make a stab at starting to reply! (Last month was a bit crazy.)

    I thought about how I’ve reacted in the past to this sort of disappointment, and it’s a bit different from what you describe. In a significant number of cases, possibly even the majority, a dud installment can put me off a whole series or franchise, even one that I used to love. The sour taste of the sequel can interfere with my enjoyment of the original so that I have to go away from the whole thing for a time. If I’m lucky, I can later go back to the stuff I like and pretend the rest doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t always work.

    When I feel that the quality of something is starting to slip, I usually distance myself from it. I consider it to be the ultimate lucky escape if I manage to jump ship just before the series starts to suck.

    Also, sometimes I do want to wallow in shared misery with others, if only to reassure myself that I’m not alone in finding whatever-it-is to be a travesty of what used to make the IP good. Plus, venting helps me work through the upset, and I figure it’s better to do that quietly online with like-minded people than to bore everyone around me with ranting.

    But then, there’s nothing that I’ve been a fan of since before I could read, as you have with Batman and Superman. Maybe that makes a difference? And I also wonder if the fact that you cut your teeth on superhero comics has helped to shape your attitude, since they’re famous for retconning and rebooting and generally not making storylines permanent. (I’m not especially a fan myself, so I hope that doesn’t sound insulting; it’s not meant to be.) Maybe it gives you more of a “long view” philosophic-ness, a knowledge that you can ride this one out and hope for a future installment that works better for you?

    • Great response! Well worth the wait! 🙂

      I think you’re definitely on to something with the idea of my interest in characters like Batman or Superman possibly giving me a longer view. I’ve appreciated certain interpretations of those characters that are surprisingly very different from each other. And then there have been many iterations that I’ve absolutely hated. While I’m not as engaged with those characters and their universes as I once was, I’m still fond of them and revisit the material I enjoyed; and I keep an eye out for future installments that might be more to my liking.

      I do think that putting distance between yourself and a flailing property is a natural instinct and I have certainly exercised the same instinct in the past. As fans we are certainly not indebted to an IP until the end of time and I believe that it’s far healthier to walk away from something that no longer makes you happy than dwelling or obsessing over all the ways that it disappoints you.

      Venting is a totally healthy response, but as fellow fanatics, we have to realize when we’ve moved past just temporary venting and let our disappointment for something more permanently poison and consume our emotional stability and good sense.

  3. Your article has definitely been food for thought. One of the things I noticed about those that hated BVS is that they hated the violence, grittiness and plot twists of the film but had no problem with the violence, grittiness and plot twists of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Why? Because in their eyes, Batman is “dark” and Superman is “light” – and they should stay that way. But didn’t they know that the earliest Superman comics were much sterner in tone because creator Jerry Siegel’s father was murdered in an armed robbery and Superman was a way to express his strong desire for justice (OK I’ll admit that I haven’t seen the film yet but, like you, I enjoyed “Man of Steel”. I’m also not surprised that your wife enjoyed it.)?

    • I think audiences of established IPs come in with preconceived notions of what they’re in store for. The trick with characters as old as Batman and Superman is that there is no “right” way of doing these characters, and audience members are likely to each have their own interpretation of that character based on their own personal preferences.

      That said, when you look at the entirety of the character’s history, I think you can make a valid point that Superman is traditionally a “lighter” character in tone than Batman. Even the early Siegel and Shuster stories that you refer to are less tragic, grotesque and morbid in tone than the early Bill Finger Batman stories. That’s not to say that Superman can’t work in a more violent, gritty, grim story (MOS, I would argue largely succeeds), but I do think that you’re dealing with diminishing returns keeping that character in a morally grey, grounded world for the entirety of a franchise.

      I go into this in more depth in my piece “It’s Not Easy Being Superman” (https://oconnoblog.com/2016/05/19/its-not-easy-being-superman/ ) but the long and short of it is that Superman as a concept lends itself to more fanciful, irreverent, metaphorical types of storytelling, and that approach really ought to be embraced by the studio because it distinguishes him from just about every other superhero IP out there.

      Regardless, BvS has more problems beyond just the critics’ assertions that “it was too dark” or “it wasn’t enough fun.” The larger issue for me was that the main plot takes a bathroom break while advertising for future films get shoehorned in. That’s just not good filmmaking; and unfortunately, it’s becoming a more and more common trend in blockbuster productions nowadays.

      • That common trend is probably due to Marvel fans always saying that DC needs to be more like Marvel if it wants to have a successful cinematic universe to which I say: “why? We don’t need another Marvel clone.” But due to BVS’s box office disappointment, Warner Bros. announced an overhaul of their DC cinematic plans – which sounds good and bad at the same time.

      • Agreed. It was WB trying to use Marvel’s playbook (see: Iron Man 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man 2) rather than focusing on telling a single story with a beginning, middle and end.

  4. Interestingly, I’ve just had the chance to observe this phenomenon firsthand: a couple of days ago, I just finished a new installment in a book series that I had been enjoying. The latest volume made a lot of changes to the established formula, and I didn’t feel like the changes were very successful, although the majority of the series’ fans seem happy with the book. So what have I been doing? Going to places like Amazon and Goodreads to lap up every mixed or negative review I can find, to help me put my finger on what’s bugging me and feel that I’m not alone. I completely ignore the positive reviews; I don’t want to hear gushing about how great the book was. And if it’s going where I think it might be going … well, I’ll probably read the next book because of peer pressure, but I’ll regard it as a chore, and I’ll probably never go back to the earlier installments that I used to enjoy because I’ll know where they’re leading.

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