There’s a reason we’re supposed to evolve past childhood.
It’s become standard practice for a certain vocal group of fans to throw a fit every time there’s a development that displeases them, the “customer is always right” approach to getting what they want. Whether it’s in comics, movies, TV shows, or video games, every time something about a character is altered, fans revolt, unable and unwilling to accept that other people have other ideas about those same characters. There have been a few great articles written about this idea of fan entitlement lately, such as this one from Devin Faraci or this other one from AV Club. I have to confess that I began writing this article prior to the above two being published, but since they each addressed this idea of fan entitlement in an eloquent and thoughtful way, it changed the trajectory of this article.
Those articles were inspired by the uproar over Captain America of the past few weeks. First, fans started a #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend hashtag that trended for days in support of the idea that the implicit romantic undertone to Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes’ relationship should finally be publicly acknowledged in the next Marvel film or the comics. Then came the uproar over the first issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers – as it turns out, Steve Rogers was Hydra the whole time.
It’s always the same caterwauling from the same people that happens every time a character is changed in any way.
Unsurprisingly, fans lost their shit, as they did regarding Zack Snyder’s handling of Superman or the Ghostbusters when they were reimagined as women. It’s the same old caterwauling that comes from the same old group whenever any change is made to a beloved character. Every single time without fail.
I’m not saying that all fan backlash is unreasonable and irrelevant. It’s absolutely vital that fans continue to speak out, clearly but respectfully, of certain practices or products that absolutely need criticized. Vocal fans are the reason we’re slowly starting to swing the pendulum toward a more diverse entertainment culture where women, POC, and the LGBTQ community are starting to gain more ground in the fight for equality. This is necessary and vital and good, and while the backlash from the progressive end of things can sometimes be as knee-jerk and unreasonable as those from the crazy end of the fan spectrum, it’s not this group that is the problem. And it’s not the vast majority of fans who just want to celebrate the things and the characters that they love. They’re great, exactly what fandom should be. No, I’m not speaking of them.
It’s the other group of fans. You know – that one. The small but loud one that rages any time change happens. But the general sense of entitlement that they feel is the symptom, not the disease. The root of it stems from their proprietary ownership of characters in particular.
A few weeks ago, a coworker asked me why I thought Marvel movies were embraced while DC movies get flak. My response essentially boiled down to this: You can change the narrative in major ways and deviate from the canonical story as long as you remain true to the spirit of the characters. And it’s true. Change a story and fans are mostly okay with it. But change a character and they lose it. We are living in an era where entertainment is character-driven, and while that’s always been the case to some extent, it has curdled into something toxic. There is a difference between loving someone and blindly worshipping them and too many in geek culture no longer understand that.
This is what happens when people lose the ability to differentiate between what they love and who they are.
This is what happens when we never have to put away childish things. This is what happens when we are never asked to evolve beyond childhood. This is what happens when more and more people are losing the ability to differentiate between what they love and who they are.
At some point, the line separating the fictional world of the characters and the real world in which fans live has become blurred. And how could it have done anything but? We are firmly ensconced in an age in which the hype cycle for movies and television shows and comic books occurs 24/7, 365 days a year and fiction, expanded universes, and fantasy have absolutely obliterated everything else in entertainment.
With geek culture and nostalgia being ubiquitous now, there is an entire generation that has never gotten the chance to step back from the heroes with whom they identified in childhood to gain perspective as adults. This is not a good thing. It’s a sad thing. The opportunity to evolve beyond your childhood self, even in your hobbies and interests, is a vital part of growing up. Our tastes are supposed to mature and evolve for a reason; we’re meant to explore beyond what we’ve always known. At some point in our march toward adulthood, we learn how to separate ourselves from the imaginary friends and fictional role models of our youth. And then, if we decide at a later time that we want to still embrace these things, we can, but with a balanced perspective. Or, at least, we’re supposed to. But it’s a process that a faction of the previous generation has avoided and one that the current generation has missed out on entirely.
Instead, there’s an entire group of fans out there – a large one – that is unable to extract itself from the characters with whom it identifies. It’s why, when a movie critic pans a film, fans attack as if the criticism were personal – it’s because they feel it is. It’s why, when a character is race- or gender-swapped, fans react as if they themselves were altered— it’s because they feel they were. It’s why, when a plot twist reveals something unexpected about a character, fans react as if it’s their personal story that’s being tampered with – it’s because they feel it is.
I don’t know what the solution is here. It’s not as if the entertainment industry will stop catering to fans and their fanatic nostalgia. And it’s not as if fans will allow them to. It’s become a parasitic relationship that’s spiraling downward, being distilled into the toxic essence that’s left when Peter Pan Syndrome is no longer the exception, but the rule. As someone who has wondered more than once in the past month what it might be like to walk away from geek culture, from writing for the internet, all I can say is that that toxicity is slowly killing the very people who create the things fans so fanatically love.