The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a ‘WandaVision’ viral tweet explains the passion of Marvel fans — and haters

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany appear in “WandaVision.” (Disney)
Placeholder while article actions load

Madison Hatfield isn’t the biggest Marvel fan in the world — despite what so many seem to think.

She’s not even the biggest fan in her house. That distinction belongs to her husband. Sure, like many other red-blooded Americans, she enjoys the movies and shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some more than others. But what truly sets her heart on fire is watching her husband delight in them. “It’s makes him so happy, so it makes me happy,” she said.

Let’s put it this way: She only saw “Avengers: Endgame” in theaters once.

So she didn’t think much of it when she posted what she thought was an innocuous tweet to her 800 or so followers, praising a line from Marvel’s latest hit show, “WandaVision.” In one scene, a character suggests to another, “But what is grief, if not love persevering?”

When she heard it, she muttered an expletive under her breath. As both a screenwriter and a casual fan, the line struck her as a standout. “Sometimes you hear a line, and you can tell it would be remembered,” she said.

So on Saturday, intending to poke fun at her “screenwriter self,” she tweeted a photo with the line as the caption, adding, “Do you hear that sound? It’s every screenwriter in the world whispering a reverent ‘F---’ under their breath.” That evening, she went to bed, pleased with the 100 likes it received.

Little did she know that tweet would become a symbol of the almost hyperbolic feelings the MCU inspires online — from both fans and detractors. And how the earnestness of fans of a popular, Disney-controlled product can clash with the cynicism of a place like Twitter.

The next morning, Hatfield’s tweet had 10,000 likes.

“I was excited,” she said. “I thought, ‘People like my joke.’ ” As an added bonus, many people who had experience with grief wrote that it touched them in a personal way.

“Then,” she said, “it took a turn.”

Remember, this is the Internet. Express what others deem as too much excitement for something, and you’re labeled “stupid” and “dumb,” and told you don’t “consume the right kind of art.” Which is what happened.

“Because we all aspire to write bumper stickers,” replied Josh Olson, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of 2005’s “A History of Violence.” (Olson declined to comment for this article.)

“Why is there a tweet like this like every other day? Why are Marvel stans so desperate for this stuff to be considered great art?” asked one user.

“I’m BEGGING you to watch better media. If this is what you think is amazing writing you’re missing out,” wrote a user with the handle @HelpfulKraken in a tweet that was liked more than 1,400 times.

Those are some of the kinder responses. As others rushed to defend the line, Hatfield’s mentions turned into a digital war zone.

She muted her notifications when someone tweeted that she should try reading a book. She works in an indie bookstore.

“I’m a firm believer that everyone is allowed to enjoy the things they enjoy, and it’s not anyone’s business unless what you enjoy is an active harm to someone else,” Hatfield said.

To say the MCU draws strong feelings from just about everyone would be an understatement. Battling the supersaturated fan clubs for Marvel movies are expletive-laden subreddits and Facebook groups devoted to hatred of them. One Marvel fan meme involves earnestly tweeting images of the films’ cinematography, while critics will post images of green screens to mock them.

“When will MCU fans learn that simple wide VFX shots of colorful space and muddy landscapes isn’t what makes ‘amazing cinematography’?” tweeted one user.

The discourse around the “WandaVision” line is “just a small piece of a much larger story, which is the toxicity of social media in general,” said Jason Concepcion, co-host of the pop culture podcast “Binge Mode.”

He pointed out that, particularly online, most of us spend time in our own little bubbles, often only interacting with like-minded people. But a few huge “cultural tents like Marvel or sports or ‘Game of Thrones’ ” bring together “people from broad swaths of backgrounds.” Suddenly, folks who might not feel the same way are interacting on social media, a perfect recipe for conflict.

He added that the dominance of these realms — especially Marvel movies — might fuel critics’ ire. “I enjoy these movies, and I have enjoyed comic book stories since I was a kid,” he said. “But if I didn’t, I’d be like, ‘God, is this all I have to watch or hear about now?’ And it seems like it’s never going to end.”

One of the primary arguments against the films involves the economic concept opportunity cost, which is essentially the measure of what you’re not doing by doing the thing you are doing. “People feel incredibly strongly that there’s better art out there, and Marvel is keeping us from it,” Hatfield said. “That we’re so distracted by the costumes and explosions and superheroes, we can’t see anything else.”

Then there’s the opportunity cost of so many high-caliber directors and actors getting involved with the MCU, whose artistic freedom clashes with corporate synergy.

And, indeed, superhero projects have been subject to a chorus of criticism from actual filmmakers. Martin Scorsese called them “amusement parks.” Francis Ford Coppola wondered how “anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again.” Ken Loach referred to them as “commodities like hamburgers.” Alejandro G. Iñárritu said, “There’s nothing wrong with being fixated on superheroes when you are 7 years old, but I think there’s a disease in not growing up.”

Noah Weston, a New York-based rapper, quote-tweeted Hatfield tweet with the caption “context: the maximum legal age for screenwriters is now 14.” He loves the Marvel universe and considers himself a Marvel fan, having read the comics for 33 years and seen every movie and TV show, but “I do know their limits.” For Weston, those limits include the films encouraging audiences to “root for cops and troops,” he said.

“I don’t want to do either, to be honest, because I don’t want either to exist. So compounding that with rich people trying to tell me what grief is just makes my eyes roll,” Weston said. “My greater fear, rather than the discourse about whether it’s good art, is that this art will be used inadvertently and naively as ways to normalize oppressive institutions.”

Of course, the discourse cuts both ways, with Marvel fans often attacking critics of the films. After comedian Marc Maron said in 2019 that superhero movies were for “grown male nerd childs,” fans went ballistic on social media.

New Yorker film critic Richard Brody found himself the online target of MCU fans when he unfavorably reviewed “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019. He suggested to The Washington Post that the movies’ origins in decades of comic books might be at play here. Because of the “huge number of texts involved and how they interlock, the world is almost biblical in scope. And I think people who cling to them do so with a quasi-religious fervor, because of the overwhelmingness of its mythology.”

That then gets coupled with the backlash to the backlash, Brody speculated, in which MCU fans who fight back online feel that “the people who are demeaning their belief system, so to speak, the Marvel belief system, are the elites. The intellectuals. The critics, ostensibly giving the people’s movies the back of their hand. And I think that feeling sparks some of the rage.”

In the end, Hatfield’s glad she muted the thread, sparing her from some of the harsher comments. She admits she’s an “optimist who shouldn’t be on Twitter at all.” Anyway, she said, dunk on Marvel all you want. She doesn’t really care, “but you don’t have to call me ‘stupid.’ You don’t have to be mean to people.”

Read more:

‘WandaVision’ is making us question everything we know about Wanda’s powers