Death threats have become a distressingly common occupational hazard for those in and around the arts. For sins as varied as putting Doctor Octopus’s mind in Peter Parker’s radioactive-spider-enhanced body (don’t ask) to writing a negative review of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the death threats flow freely from fans in this day and age.
It’s worth remembering that “fan” is a shortened form of fanatic, defined by Oxford as “a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal, especially for an extreme religious or political cause.” The escalating misbehavior of pop culture fans — the unremitting anger noted by Devin Faraci; the unrelenting entitlement highlighted by Jesse Hassenger — has some echoes in the political fights waged on social media day in and day out. From the Bernie Bros to the Trumpistas to the Establishmentarians, everyone is getting angrier, and increasingly direct contact between fans and public figures only encourages this sort of gross behavior.
A large part of the problem is that fans have been given too great an influence over the creative process. Consider a recent interview with Shane Black, director of “Iron Man 3.” That film, you may remember, saw the introduction of the classic Iron Man villain The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). In a third-act twist, it was revealed that the Mandarin was not “real,” that he was simply an out-of-work British actor named Trevor Slattery hired to play a terrorist.
Fans did not like this.
“Marvel saw so many negative things they made a whole other movie just to apologize called [‘All Hail the King’],” Black said. “In which they said, ‘No, no, the Mandarin is still alive. That wasn’t him. There’s a real Mandarin.’ The only reason they made that was an apology to fans who were so angry. … [W]hen the blowback hit, [Marvel] cared.”
Marvel has done a good job of making people feel as though they should be emotionally invested in Marvel. That emotional investment translates into real returns, if box-office figures are to be believed; four of the 15 all-time-highest-grossing films worldwide are Marvel movies. Fans are heavily courted by all the studios, their input desired, their participation in social media-based advertising craved. Give the fans a stake in the process, and they’ll show up on opening weekend.
This may lead to a financial payoff, but it also creates a weird and unhealthy relationship between audience and artist, one that leads to things like self-proclaimed fans publishing lengthy videos explaining why they’re not going to see a franchise reboot or hashtag campaigns aimed at trying to force studios to turn a character gay.
The first step toward building a better, healthier fandom would be to create a slightly more distant fandom, one that maintains a bit of a barrier between artist and audience. Simply put, fans don’t know what they want. They think they know what they want. They may be very vocal about what they believe they want. But in the end, consumers are not creators and their desires are very much beside the point, assuming that we believe in pop’s aspiration to the status of art.
What fandom needs is a Chinese wall between consumers and creators, one that keeps fans and artists entirely separate. In practice — and I realize, as someone who practically lives on Twitter, that this is deeply unfair to them — what this means is that artists may need to step back from social media a bit. The sort of person who would send a death threat to an artist for altering the backstory of a figment of the collective imagination seems unlikely to hew to a mutual disengagement.
A better fandom, then, is one where fans are kept at arm’s length and creators are cloistered away like monks. And fans have no one but themselves and their fanaticism to blame for that.
* The stupidest thing about this whole fight is that virtually nothing in comics lasts for longer than a year. If you dummies think Cap is going to be muttering “Hail Hydra” for more than about 12 issues, I have a bunch of lucrative bridge-investment opportunities for you to peruse.