This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s. This guest essay comes to us from our friend and critic of much renown, Drew McWeeny. You can read more of his criticism at Pulp & Popcorn.
The ‘70s were an age of experimentation and freedom. The ‘80s were all about the high-concept. The ‘90s were the decade of the indie. But since the turn of the new century, it feels like culture has become less distinct, partly because of business, partly because of the films themselves. For once, the definition of the last decade comes less from the actual work onscreen, and more from the way it is being greenlit and the way people consume it.
As the decade began, Hollywood was scrambling to figure out how to embrace the newly-minted Marvel model. “Quick!” you could hear in executive suites across town. “Build me a shared universe!” They promised fans that they would give them exactly what they wanted, and they ushered in a decade that has been spent chasing a very particular dollar, to the exclusion of everything else.
Yes, there are still plenty of good movies made every year, but it would be foolish to deny that there is a new monolithic pop culture that has taken hold over the past decade. It would be equally foolish to deny that there is something toxic and rancid driving the interaction between fandom and the studios now, something worse than just the typical cynicism that drives executives to unapologetically talk about “content” and “IP” instead of “films” and “characters.”
The ascendency of the sequel began in the ‘80s, but it’s never felt like it was crowding culture out completely, and it’s taken a while for me to fully get my head around what changed. Once I figured it out, I had some guilt to contend with, because I feel like I had a part in creating the atmosphere that has grown so suffocatingly toxic. When I began working online, it was a reaction to what I saw as an entirely corporate film press. What I helped build has become even more corporate, a giant distribution system for marketing materials and breathlessly-repeated press releases.
It has also become a bullhorn for toxic fandom.
Here’s the problem: the fans won. And once they won, they decided they weren’t satisfied. It’s not enough to finally get a 23-film mega-franchise based on the things you used to get stuffed in a locker for reading. Nope. That 23-film mega-franchise has to be the top-grossing ever, it has to have the best reviews, and it needs to win awards, and more than that, it needs to win more awards than any other giant mega-franchise because that proves that this mega-franchise is better than that mega-franchise, which transitively proves that the fans of this mega-franchise are better, more dynamic human beings than those fools who like that other shitty mega-franchise.
Maybe it was always this way. Certainly, when I was younger, Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans tended to give each other the side-eye, but I always saw that as more of a fundamental difference in what you want from your SF. Do you want something that’s based more in reality that posits a future you genuinely want to see, or do you want a fantasy that paints in broad mythic strokes? It never felt to me in those blissful pre-Internet days like the difference between those fandoms was so severe that it overshadowed the joy that made people fans in the first place.
Star Wars was a cultural phenomenon from the start, and living through that remarkable six-year stretch from 1977 to 1983 was thrilling. In many ways, we watched modern film marketing evolve as 20th Century Fox figured out how to ride that wave of energy that they did not fully understand. I was one of the kids driven absolutely mad by Star Wars, and I couldn’t have explained it to them either.
Star Wars was an anomaly, though, and even as Hollywood chased my demographic aggressively, they repeatedly demonstrated that they didn’t get why we liked the things we liked. It felt like being spoken down to by the industry even as they searched our pockets for spare change. The internet promised to change all of that. The internet was supposed to do two things. It was supposed to bring fans together who otherwise might never meet, and it was supposed to give us a chance to express our opinions directly and clearly, finally telling the studios what we really wanted because it felt like they just weren’t listening.
Well, they’re listening now, and they haven’t learned a thing. All that listening has shifted their business model from barely disguised contempt to a sort of craven, shameless pandering. Fan service has given way to a sort of frantic scrambling to find anything that will transform fans into obedient consumers, and the bigger the canvass, the better. One of the bellwethers of just how clearly this was the Decade of the Fan has been the way Hollywood not only embraced Comic-Con, but actually started to plan things around it. Comic-Con would be tolerable if it had stayed on stage in Hall H, but it metastasized, erasing the line between reporters and fans, and now all of film journalism is treated like Comic-Con, one long sustained giveaway in which the set visits and the casting controversies and the teasers and the trailers for the teasers and the teasers for the trailers for the trailers for the teasers are all given equal play, all part of the theme park ride, all part of keeping fans in a constant state of engorgement without release, year after year after year.
And if fandom was happy, maybe I’d just smile and walk away and let things be. But if anything, fandom has become more and more furious. The more they are given, the more they demand. If something’s 95% what they want, they will spend all of their time and energy on the 5% they didn’t like, and not only will they focus on their problems with it, but they will hunt down anyone who disagrees and they will shout at them until they are silent. The Decade of the Fan has only led to an entire generation of Veruca Salts and Mike Teevees, unleashed in Willy Wonka’s fabulous funhouse and discontent no matter how much they eat, no matter what they’re shown.
It’s time for fans to stop driving the bus. It’s time for the relationship to swing back into balance. It’s time for the people who make the art to listen to their own voices and to stop worrying about hypothetical consumers down the road. Fandom should be about celebration, and if there is room for tribalism, it should be about inclusion, inviting others to see what it is you see in something. Instead, a decade of having all their wishes granted has only led them to wish for more wishes, and it feels like it is unsustainable. Feeling like they moved from the margins to the mainstream turned fans from underdogs to bullies, and indulging them fully gave us a decade that will feel in hindsight like getting lost in the toy aisle at a Toys’R’Us, surrounded and eventually smothered by plastic monuments to a triumphant tantrum.