Defining Fan Service In The Age of Endgames

Does “fan service” have to be such a dirty term?
By  · Published on May 1st, 2019

The term “fan service” has long been associated with negative criticism — the idea that a creator has no new ideas to bring to the table, instead choosing to fall back on easy winks and nods. While it has its origins in anime fandom, “fan service” has been used in discussions of almost every modern franchise, almost always with a negative connotation. But recently, two of pop culture’s biggest juggernauts, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones, have raised the question, “What if fan service was a good thing?”

According to Wikipedia, the definition of fan service is “material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience.” Something that, on paper, doesn’t sound inherently bad, does it? When you’ve invested years of your life in a particular story, is it really too much to ask for an acknowledgment or two along the way? A satisfying conclusion, perhaps? Well, it’s something of a double-edged sword.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, for example, has more sappy endings and crowd-pleasing moments than I’d care to count, but every one of them is 100 percent earned and all work for the story being told. Éowyn saying “I am no man” as she stabs the Witch-king of Angmar right in the face is pure, cheer-inducing fan service, but don’t even try and tell me you don’t whoop to the high heavens at that moment. It’s satisfying because of the character arc that leads her there, a point that many stories miss when employing fan service.

On the other side, you have a movie like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which has cheap walk-on cameos from A New Hope background characters and bizarre CGI resurrections of deceased actors. Neither of which came out of anything in the story — Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba (these guys) are more distracting than anything else, while Tarkin’s role could have been fulfilled by Ben Mendelsohn’s charming but underutilized Director Krennic — and as a result, feel hollow. Especially when the film was the series’ big chance to break away from familiar characters.

But for Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones‘ final season, this is the end of an era. One last blowout before fans say goodbye to many of these characters for good. It would seem likely, then, that both would dole out a healthy dose of fan service as they go full steam towards the end. In the words of Thanos, “Dread it, run from it, destiny still arrives.” But, like The Lord of the Rings before them, both properties have woven well-earned fan service into their narratives to reward long-time viewers and bring their stories to a close (as much of a close as the neverending MCU can be brought to, anyway).

Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame and “The Long Night” episode of Game of Thrones below.

Endgame, which features characters whose actors’ contracts have come to an end, delighted audiences this past weekend with a greatest hits victory lap. The film’s second act zips all over the MCU’s timeline in a spectacular “time heist” that takes us on a gloriously self-indulgent trip down memory lane. Seeing our heroes revisit some of the highlights of the franchise, from The Avengers to Guardians of the Galaxy to um… Thor: The Dark World (there’s actually a lot of great character work done with Marvel’s weakest entry), is an absolute blast and an example of well-earned, well-executed fan service.

This isn’t Justice League or The Mummy throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, it’s a series that knows how to play to its strengths and give the audience one hell of a last ride. Superman showing up at the last minute to fight Steppenwolf might sound exciting, but the moment is never earned in the way that, say, Steve Rogers lifting Thor’s hammer is. Likewise, the villain reveals in Star Trek: Into Darkness and Spectre are utterly meaningless in the context of both rebooted series because the legwork hasn’t been done to establish why Khan and Blofeld are important outside of franchise recognition. But the Red Skull and Alexander Pierce can show up for brief cameos in Endgame and audiences will know exactly why they’re significant.

Meanwhile, on Game of Thrones, fan service has lead to one of the show’s best episodes to date, the stunning “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” The episode largely consists of characters sitting in rooms, talking and preparing for their imminent deaths. But the thing is, we’ve grown to love those characters over seven seasons and will treasure any last opportunity we can get to spend time with them. We love seeing Jaime Lannister give his old friend Brienne of Tarth a Knighthood while our other faves tell stories around the fire, we (read: I) love seeing the Nights Watch boys have a mini-reunion, and we (mostly) loved Arya Stark’s big sex scene with Gendry.

But, ever the double-edged sword, fan service also gave us mixed results in this week’s “The Long Night,” which sees the Night King’s forces descend upon Winterfell. Now I’m not here to wade into the exhausting debate over the episode’s merits, but its relationship to fan service is a complicated one. What the episode does highlight is Thrones‘ unwillingness to be brutal, to embrace the mean streak that made it so popular in the first place. By giving almost all the fan favorites such thick plot armor, the episode fails to really strike a devastating blow in the fight between the living and the dead. But there is one bit of fan service that absolutely works.

Arya’s win over the Night King (which you can read more about here and here) is extremely satisfying, despite the circumstances around it lacking. Not only was the moment foreshadowed by Melissandre all the way back in Season 3, but the same bit of fancy knife work was also shown to be a part of her skill set when she fought Brienne last season. After years of Arya being underestimated, years of training scenes where she’s told she’s not good enough, her triumphant victory over the dead was one worth cheering for.

So while even the best of them can slip up, it’s important to remember just how enjoyable a well-done bit of fan service can be. Longterm storytelling requires a lot of investment on the part of the audience member, and we shouldn’t deny the effectiveness of an acknowledgment of that. But that also means being wary when it comes to stories that use it for a cheap laugh or easy sequel bait. To go back to Thanos, it’s all about striking the perfect balance.

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