The Dark Side Of Fandom

It gets better!

There are people who have already rolled their eyes at the title of this article. The header image has likely made them feel targeted, owing to the loyalty they feel to a certain brand. The timing of this is not unintentional either, since the embargo for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice lifts tomorrow afternoon, and both ‘sides’ (fans and critics alike) are bracing for unpleasantness on social media. Some have already branded this “yet another” clickbait article, while others are making their way down to comments to let their feelings about these last few months known, feelings about biases towards or against certain companies. It’s okay. I don’t really mind, because I’m not actually here to target anyone, nor do I have any loyalties to prove. People who like Batman, Superman or DC enough to get embroiled in heated debates may feel differently, and no amount of disclaimers about my own love for said properties will change that opinion, and that’s okay. By saying “it gets better” this whole thing may even sound like a diatribe from someone older and out of touch with fandom – lord knows we’ve had enough of those – but I’m just hoping twenty-four isn’t what’s considered old nowadays! It’s certainly older than sixteen, which is how old a lot of vocal ‘Batfans’ are on Twitter. It’s also how old I was during the buildup to The Dark Knight, and the reason I bring that up is because I’m not here to lecture anyone. All I’m here to say is, I’ve been there.

I get it.

I know the anxiety that comes with hoping a movie will be as good as you want it to be. I know the feeling of real life isolation that leads most of us toward these characters, and the weird looks when face-to-face conversations aren’t met with our level of enthusiasm. I know the joy of finding people who DO share the same excitement online. I know the camaraderie that comes with journeying toward a big film together (many of those folks are still my friends, eight years later!), and I know the defensiveness that comes with allegiance to a film or franchise. Most of all, I know the aggression, and I know where it comes from. I know the personal attachment that comes with a certain kind of big film, the desire for it to be not just a movie, but a cultural event. After having gone to bat for it for so long, I know what it’s like to want others to see it through your eyes. It even gets to a point where how they see the movie becomes about how they see your enthusiasm for it. About how they see you… Maybe the people who make fun of this kind of attachment just don’t get it. Then again, maybe they don’t have to. Maybe what really matters in all this is how we see situations like these, and how we conduct ourselves from there. My biggest takeaway from all the time I spent on social media during the buildup to, what was at the time, the next big superhero sequel involving Batman, was a sense of self-awareness. Sadly, it wasn’t something that kicked in until a few years later.

Some will question why it’s specifically DC fans that I’m ‘targeting’ when Marvel fans have conducted themselves in similar ways, or so I’m told. I don’t have any experience with that myself, but I have no doubt it happens across all kinds of fandom. I’m only really poised to speak on the issue in terms I’m familiar with, both because I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and because I’ve been that DC fanboy myself. Perhaps not to the same awful degree that some folks have experienced, I don’t recall ever having sent anyone death threats over Batman or Superman – a thing that’s happened to me and to plenty of people I know – but I’ve been part of the same obsessive cycle. How much is the movie going to make at the box office? What’s its Rottentomatoes score going to be? Will it make the IMDb Top 250? Will it be the rare superhero film that does well at the Oscars? The answer to all those questions was overwhelmingly positive in the case of The Dark Knight, a movie I still love to this very day, but here’s a little secret I’ve become privy to these last eight years: none of that stuff matters.

I can see why it might seem that way, though. Rottentomatoes is a quick-fire way of seeing what the ‘general consensus’ is amongst critics, a group whose approval means validation, but whose dissent means their opinion is suddenly irrelevant. Awareness that the Tomatometer reduces film criticism to a reductive thumbs-up/thumbs-down binary may not even matter, because ultimately, that percentage figure influences at least a handful of people who may or may not buy a ticket. IMDb ratings, while decided by a relatively small user base belonging to similar demographics, result in a Top 250 list that folks peruse in order to figure out what’s ‘essential.’ The Oscars function the same way in terms of public opinion, and a film’s box office take means people are watching it. All those things feel relevant so long as the status quo is validation through public perception. In the process, any narrative to the contrary feels like a conversation with an agenda. How can it not, when it’s trying to worm its way into what feels like the accepted objective standard? Devin already wrote about the nature of bias so I won’t harp on that, but more than what is or isn’t considered objective, what often gets swept under the rug is the nature of the conversation itself. Not what the prevailing narrative is – that’s usually debatable in the case of cinema – but what one can do to influence the conversation.

On one hand, we can engage with opinions. We can state our own in clear and concise ways, and we can learn to disagree while keeping art and entertainment squarely in focus. On the other, we can presume ulterior motive in order to discredit people whose opinions we don’t like. The latter is easier, but it’s also the only recourse when one hasn’t yet learned to disagree. That stems from just how personally attached people can get to certain properties, and undoing that isn’t something that happens overnight. I don’t mean we shouldn’t feel personally invested in movies, I mean investment is possible without equating critique of (or even attack on!) a fictional property with attack on oneself. While trying to discuss this on Twitter, a response I kept getting was that critics brought harassment upon themselves by saying this, that or the other about fictional characters. No healthy debate or productive engagement is ever going to be possible when attack on a person is considered equal to criticism of a property. That’s flat-out ludicrous. Feeling attacked because someone said something about a Batman movie isn’t the same as feeling attacked because you’re being attacked, and the former is a perspective that can actually be undone instead of being used as grounds to justify harassment or dog-piling. I have a hugely personal connection to The Dark Knight Rises, and people make fun of that movie to no end here on BMD (commenters and staff alike) and that’s okay. Jokes about a movie aren’t jokes about me, and even if they are jokes at my expense, I state my case and move on. Granted, that might be easier said than done, and I may have not reacted the same way were the conversation about The Dark Knight back in 2008, but a lot changed in that four year interim.

In fact, my allegiance to brands, studios and properties continued well in to 2010, with a series I’d been attached to for as long as I’d been watching movies. Toy Story 3 happened to coincide with my first year at college, and it was the first theatrical film during which I’d allowed myself to cry. It was a profound combination of things at the time. It still is from where I’m standing, and for whatever reason, that 100% figure on the Rottentomatoes pages for the first two films mattered to me. Here were these seemingly perfect things that were mine just as much as they were anyone else’s, and no one could touch them… Which is the kind of thinking that made me lose my damn mind when two critics listed their reviews as Rotten. In my mind, surely they must’ve had an agenda! I’m not even certain I read both reviews, but I was convinced that had to be the case. I remember skimming one and coming to the conclusion that the reasoning was superficial, and the review was negative just for the purpose of bringing the score down from 100 to an ever-so-woeful 99. It even got to a stage where I began an online petition to have the two critics removed from Rottentomatoes. It didn’t catch on of course, and I’ve made sure it’s nowhere to be found either, but having seen similar sentiments about critics who could even potentially dislike Batman v Superman, I had to bring it up despite how bloody embarrassing it is. I was legally an adult at the time!

Then again, what choice did I have? I don’t mean these actions were out of my control, of course. Every decision I made was premeditated, and I could’ve easily chosen to do nothing at all. In terms of inserting myself into the conversation however, that was the only path I could think of. I wasn’t mature or articulate enough to voice my grievances with any of the reviews in a measured way. Even if I was, would it have really benefitted anyone? Anyone at all? It would still mean projecting my self worth onto a movie in such a way that even a single disagreement made me furious. Thank God this was before I used Twitter, otherwise I’d likely have a bunch of nasty stuff to delete. Still, even if we’re talking about responding in the spirit of healthy debate, it’s not something I could’ve done at the time. The mere concept of people responding to art differently because of their experiences eluded me, and conversations about art I felt connected to were more about me than they were the art. I hadn’t yet learned to talk about cinema in a productive way, and boy am I glad I did.

It’s enriching, being able to engage in discussions where you end up seeing things from other people’s perspectives. It helps expand your own understanding of art, and in the process, of people in general. But it’s a conversation that must be entered into intentionally. The default standpoint of aggression and personal attack will never lead to a healthy debate. And while one could easily argue that critics ‘do it first’ by talking about DC, or even mentioning “DC fans,” such statements are never all-inclusive. To say “DC fans harass” isn’t to say that everyone who likes DC engages in harassment. That would include me, and it’d be a very silly thing to say about myself! Even though the contingent being referred to is relatively small, they’re vocal, and they spew a lot of toxic shit at unsuspecting users. The size of the group doesn’t make the statement any less true, and you can opt out of the group of DC fans who harass by following one simple guideline: don’t harass anybody.

Still, I understand where the impulse comes from. I sympathize if you feel cornered by dozens of critics who don’t like something you’re sure you’ll love, but as soon as that translates to active aggression against someone else, that’s where my sympathy ends. No one is going to take you seriously as a person, especially when you’re defending heroic characters by behaving like villains, because you’ve lost any and all chance for productive debate right there. You may feel that critics who make fun of X, Y or Z property lost that right first (even if that’s the case, you can still ignore them), but something a lot of comic and comicbook movie fans don’t get is that it’s okay to joke about things. Furthermore, it’s okay to joke about things that you yourself enjoy. In fact, it’s healthy! Perhaps I’m breaking a code of silence by letting you all in on what goes on behind the scenes here at BMD, but I can’t even count the number of jokes about The Dark Knight Rises that have been made at my expense. If you read my article about why I’m thankful for the movie, you’ll know that it damn near saved my life. Yet at the end of the day, things said in jest about a movie don’t invalidate my feelings for it, or the experience I had with it. What makes it easier is the fact that I was able to articulate a lot of those feelings, which made some of the jokes stop, but that wasn’t the only thing that needed to change. I needed to understand that it’s okay to have fun when it comes to movies. Now it’s one I can make fun of too while still loving it with every last breath, but this isn’t the kind of place I could’ve gotten to by continually being nasty to critics instead of talking to them like real people.

Art is complicated. People are complicated. We can love things intensely while also having nuanced opinions of them. Batman is a character I’ve loved since I was a child. I studied him academically in college, and I’d say I have a fairly good understanding of him as a fictional character across several mediums. But I also know how silly and childish he is as a concept – I mean, he dresses up as a rodent for Christ’s sake! That doesn’t change how I feel about his story. About his survivor’s guilt. About his desire to carry out his version of good at great personal cost. About his adherence to moral principles that were born out of tragedy. I can accept that he’s a walking balloon animal and an incredibly interesting literary concept all in one breath, and all it takes is understanding that art doesn’t need to be just one thing. It doesn’t need to be a number, or a percentage, or a golden statue. It’s a multitude of things. It’s multi-faceted. It contains layer upon layer of elements to dissect, just like human beings themselves. The only way scores and percentages really matter for a movie is if we’re feeding them into a computer that subsequently tells a robot how to mimic an opinion.

I won’t lie, I think box-office stuff is fascinating, but how much money a movie makes ultimately isn’t relevant to my daily life since I’m not an investor in any major studio. Rottentomatoes and IMDb scores make even less of a difference, but what most certainly does make a difference is what I get out of a movie. While watching it, or after the fact thanks to discussions or reviews. No amount of critics saying something is bad is going to make me like it less. If anything, reviews I disagree with help me have a more rounded understanding of why something worked for me. I’m glad I’m at this stage today, because I don’t think I could’ve taken another year of getting upset because something wasn’t above 90% on a website where even critics don’t really care about the score. None of that stuff is necessary, and it’s definitely not worth being an asshole to someone over. Warner Brothers and DC will be just fine without people defending their honor on Twitter, so let critics and journalists do their jobs without presuming they’re trying to sabotage the studios that are their bread and butter!

If that sounds a bit preachy, let me get back to my original point. I know how this works. I know the feelings behind it, and I know why certain responses take the form they do. Wanting to be a part of something big, something massive, something greater than ourselves, can make us do things we wouldn’t otherwise do, because it’s linked to our self-worth. In fact, if it really makes you happy, obsess over a movie’s Rottentomatoes score or box-office haul until you find something else to make you feel better. Do whatever you feel like as long as that obsessing doesn’t mean spewing vitriol at someone for Tweeting a different opinion, one that you can just as easily ignore. If you want to be happy about movies, like I most definitely did when I was behaving like this, then you have to leave this unpleasantness behind. Otherwise, no movie, or comic or TV show will ever be able to make you happy. No matter how good you like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice*, someone else not liking it will continue to eat at you, and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.

I hope this helps, because the alternative is pretty damn joyful.

*Your homework is to joke about this title even if you love the movie!