The Dangers of Fanfic Nation

By: Jordan Ferguson

Four years ago the comedian Patton Oswalt wrote an essay for WIRED on how he saw the current state of geek culture, and the effects the Internet was having on it. In short, he argued the Internet had created a condition he dubbed ETEWAF (Everything That Ever Was, Available Forever): the days of rereading and obsessing over treasured cultural artifacts have been obliterated in a world of season passes, torrents, precaps and recaps.[1]

“I know it sounds great, but there’s a danger: Everything we have today that’s cool comes from someone wanting more of something they loved in the past,” wrote Oswalt. “Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie?”

A literal "dream" team becomes reality.

A literal “dream” team becomes reality.

I probably think too much about ETAWAF. As an adult male who grew up an only child in a tiny town during the 1980’s, I spent a lot of time in the ‘thought palaces’ Oswalt writes about, the private spaces where I mulled over what few geeky artifacts I managed to accumulate, and I’ve celebrated the ways in which the Web increases access to the things that would never have been available otherwise. But every summer, I see the cost play out in movie theatres across the country.

It’s become somewhat fashionable in cinephile circles to wring one’s hands at the lack of originality in and relative safety of the modern Hollywood blockbuster, a condition we can attribute to the unprecedented success of the Marvel Movie Method™, the fallout of which has created a world where sequels are announced before opening weekend and reboots are rushed solely in the interest in keeping the rights to the property, making it near impossible for anything without a sizable pre-existing fanbase to succeed right out the gate.[2]  And while the MMM has certainly played a part in the often formulaic approach to the summer blockbuster, there might be something more insidious simmering around Hollywood, something that has less to do with the movies themselves but the people tasked with making them.

In the world of genre adaptation, there is no greater sin than a perceived lack of reverence for the source material. Whether a director opts to elevate the subject into parable (i.e. Nolan’s Batman) or recognize and celebrate the inherent absurdity of the premise (i.e. Whedon’s Avengers), the genre blockbuster has become no place for an outsider: Current nerd messiah JJ Abrams[3] has been handed the reigns for both of the twin pillars of science-fiction fandom of the last sixty years, Stars Trek and War, gleefully trolling photo leaks from the set of Episode VII with easter eggs on Instagram; Matt Reeves, one-time Abrams partner and director of this summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has gone on record multiple times as a childhood obsessive of the franchise; Gareth Edwards, director of this year’s smash Godzilla reboot made a movie in 2010 called Monsters that was essentially a smaller-scale Godzilla movie without Godzilla[4]; and Michael Uslan, producer on every Batman film from Burton ’89 to Affleck ’16 wrote a memoir three years ago called The Boy Who Loved BatmanHollywood’s anxious reluctance to disturb the hivemind took an insecure demographic of dorky misfits and hardened us into Fanfic Nation, a place where the only people trusted to make things based on what we loved in the past are the people who loved them right along with us, cranking out safe, corporately-approved pabulum incapable of upsetting our expectations. It’s a place where fan-service is considered currency, and ETEWAF is the national religion.

And so what, really? What does it mean to live in Fanfic Nation? For one, it means replacing the required respect with a slavish devotion to the source, with little room for creative or artistic license, at its most extreme using the comics as storyboards for the film adaptations, resulting in films criticized for being “too faithful” to the original: The Watchmen movie caught its fair share of flak for that upon its release.[5]

This is not to say respect for the source should be eliminated, no one wants to see another Costantine. [6] But it is possible to balance a happy medium between the respectful and the pandering: Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy movies, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim, Ang Lee’s Hulk.

Oh yeah, I said it. Ang Lee’s Hulk, y’all.

But do you remember the risks that used to be taken?

But do you remember the risks that used to be taken?

Let’s ignore how insane it is that this movie actually happened in the first place, and instead celebrate the fact that even though it might have suffered from the weaknesses of 2003-era CGI and fell below recommended dosages of smashy-smashy, Lee’s distance from the original comic removed any sort of fanboy commitment to it, allowing him to actually attempt something, narratively and formally. His unique position as an Oscar-winner making a Marvel film before the foundation of Marvel Studios gave Lee a little flexibility to take some risks. And you’re never going to see anything like it again, Marvel will make sure of it. Edgar Wright’s opaque departure from Ant-Man last month is proof of that.

Of course, the precedent for this sort of aversion to creative risk is the place these stories originate from. The world of print comics under the Big-Two publishers of Marvel and DC is often rightly derided for being a work-for-hire system, where storytellers might have the leeway to make tweaks to a character, but everything has to be put back in the toybox once the run’s completed or the next movie comes out.[7] It’s an imperfect system at best, and never results in lasting change to the characters despite any publisher’s “Nothing will EVER be the same!” carnival barkery hype machine, but at least it gives writers a chance to make things temporarily interesting. In Fanfic Nation, you never even get to try. And given the money at stake, such timidity is understandable. The question will be, when the credits roll on Avengers 2, if the residents will still be satisfied.

—————

[1] Fun fact: Last weekend I grew so angered by the character of Vee on this season of Orange is the New Black I almost hopped online for details on her eventual fate. It’s like I couldn’t stand to wait another three hours to, y’know, watch the show.

[2] E.g.: the critical acclaim and audience indifference to Edge of Tomorrow, a big-budget action flick starring Tom Cruise and based on a Japanese science-fiction novel few people ever heard of.

[3] I’m just assuming here that one of the J’s stands for ‘Jesus’.

[4] As was Abrams’s Cloverfield before that.

[5] And you know Zack Snyder wished he could have found a way to maintain that alien bioengineering subplot.

[6] Meaning the film, not the concept. That new show looks pretty dope.

[7] Even something as whacked out as Grant Morrison’s decade-long run in Batman reset the characters in the same place Morrison found them in, while simultaneously commenting on the creative failures of such a system.

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