I set a goal for myself about a month ago, to use this new Geek Punditry column to get back to writing about the movies, books, TV shows, and comics that I love. I felt like spending time on those things that bring me joy would reignite my writing chops and, just a month in, I feel like I’ve been successful. I’m looking forward to writing this each week. I’m excited to write this each week. But as early as week 3, my focus began to shift. What started as a celebration of things I love has already evolved, with the past two installments focusing on problems that I think need to be addressed. I bring this up because I’m going to do the same thing this week. I’m going to point out a problem that I think is perhaps the most insidious in all of pop culture. I mean, of course, fandom.
Earlier this week, James Gunn released a video announcing the new plans for the reinvention of the DC Universe in movies and television, and when I heard the news, that’s what I thought I would be writing about today. I figured I’d give you my feelings on what he has in the works for Superman, for Green Lantern, for Booster Gold (Booster freakin’ Gold!) and tell you why I’m excited and optimistic about it. But within hours, the excitement I felt was already being chipped away by people who, if you asked them to their face, would claim to love the very things they had begun whining about. But for people who say they’re acting out of love, their words painted another picture – venomous, vitriolic, and sometimes just plain nasty. Fans can be great, but every time a new movie is released, a new comic book creative team is announced, a new television series premieres, it becomes more and more clear that fandom can be absolutely toxic.
I’m not saying that criticism is bad. In times past, criticism itself was a legitimate form of literary discourse. But that was reasoned criticism, informed criticism. What we get today is a knee-jerk reaction that declares everything is terrible before it even sees the light of day, souring the joy for everybody. One need only look on any social media outlet, any of hundreds of Reddit pages, and one will find post after post, meme after meme, of people railing in anger against something they have not even seen. In fact, for the most part it’s criticism of things that do not yet exist. And while it’s true that the other extreme also exists – people who are happy about things they have not seen – that other extreme is a minority, and seems to me to be far healthier and joyful (or at the very least less pessimistic) and therefore is the side I would prefer to join.
Social media allows for no nuance, though. Everything is either the greatest thing ever made or (far more often) the worst thing ever made, with no degrees in-between. Last year’s Morbius movie is a good example of this. The film underperformed badly at the box office, even after a meme-inspired rerelease, and it has become a punchline. But this damage was not done by people who had watched the movie. The internet declared the film a failure long before its release – online hatred of Jared Leto combined with several COVID-related delays seemed to doom it before a single frame was released to the public. When I finally watched the movie, my response was, “That was okay.” It isn’t great, mind you, but it’s okay. Jared Leto is all right, Matt Smith seems to be having fun playing the bad guy, and the vampire effects – I’ll say it – were actually pretty impressive. But if you mention the title on Facebook you’ll get an avalanche of “IT’S MORBIN’ TIME!” posts and people slandering the movie, most of whom have never even watched it.
People who delight in someone else’s failure are nothing new, of course. It’s good old-fashioned schadenfreude (and thank the Germans for having an appropriate word for this), it’s as old as civilization itself, but the internet has given it voice that it didn’t have in ages past. The insidious thing is that this voice is not simply celebrating failure, but generating it. What’s worse, as the louder voices on the internet start to pretend that volume is consensus, too many people are starting to accept consensus as fact. I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard a few months ago between two of my high school students about the most recent Halloween movie. One student was declaring, in much the same voice you or I might use to declare that the bathroom is down the hall to the left, “It sucks. He’s barely in it.”
“Have you seen it?”
“No, but everyone says so.”
You’re not allowed to shout at your high school students for their opinions about movies. I looked it up.
Full disclosure: I didn’t particularly care for Halloween Ends, but A) my issues with it had nothing to do with the number of minutes Michael Myers appeared on screen, and B) I formed that opinion after watching the movie myself.
This phenomenon is perpetuated online thanks to sites like Rotten Tomatoes, which is a brilliant example of a good idea gone horribly wrong. Rotten Tomatoes gives a movie two scores: a percentage based on film critic scores and the percentage based on viewer scores. The site has no authority, no personal judgment inherent in its functionality, but people have begun using that algorithm-generated number as if it were some sort of benchmark of quality. I can’t say this often enough, my friends: consensus does not equal quality.
How many movie trailers have you seen declaring a movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score the way they used to tell us that Siskel and Ebert gave a movie two thumbs up? The difference is that Gene and Roger were actual critics, people who watched a movie first and then gave intelligent, nuanced critiques of the film. If they gave a movie a thumbs-down, they could explain to you why they disliked it. But if a movie gets a 35 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, all that means is that only 35 percent of the trolls on the internet had something positive to say. When I hear that number, the only response that makes sense to me is, “SO WHAT?” I accept the numbers as a consensus of the people who have posted to Rotten Tomatoes, but why in the hell should I care what they have to say? I disagree with random people all the time. I disagree with professional critics even more. Why should I accept their numbers instead of forming my own opinion? When they started to tease the upcoming announcement of a film’s Rotten Tomatoes score, I thought my brain was going to explode and squirt out of my ears like a Looney Tunes character, who would then get anxiety over its own upcoming Rotten Tomatoes score.
And you know, I wanted to like Halloween Ends. I’ve never understood the concept of “hate-watching.” There are so many things I want to watch that I know it’ll be impossible to get to them all – why should I waste time watching something I expect to dislike? Will it happen sometimes? Of course. But that’s not my goal. And more importantly, if I decide not to watch something because I expect to dislike it, I don’t declare it bad, I declare it unseen. For instance: I didn’t care for the first James Cameron Avatar movie. (Yes, I know, it made all the money. I don’t care. Consensus does not equal quality, remember?) Because I didn’t care for the first one, I haven’t watched the second. So here’s a pop quiz: when someone asks me about Avatar: The Way of Water, what is the correct way for me to reply?
A: It sucks, James Cameron sucks, water sucks, everyone sucks.
B: I haven’t seen it.
If you answered “A,” please disconnect all of your devices from the internet immediately and never talk to anyone again.
The other thing that stokes this particular flame is an “us vs. them” mentality that pervades the internet. It’s as though if you’re a fan of Property A, you are beholden via blood oath to despise everything associated with Property B. You must hate the movies, you must hate the books, you must hate the fans, and if an actor happens to jump from one to the other they are a traitor and must be dealt with possibly with bamboo shoots no later than Tuesday afternoon.
My God, is there any attitude in fandom stupider than that one?
Superman is my favorite superhero. He’s a DC character. Somehow that means I’m not allowed to say how great Spider-Man: No Way Home is? If I love Star Trek, is it a betrayal to express joy for The Mandalorian? If I’m a fan of Lord of the Rings, I have to hate Wheel of Time?
Storytelling isn’t sports. When I’m watching the New Orleans Saints play the Atlanta Falcons, the nature of sports means that I want one team to win and one team to lose. This is normal. But that same rule does not apply to movies, to TV shows, to books, to comics. In sports, somebody is gonna lose, but in storytelling, everyone can win. When I say that I want James Gunn’s Superman: Legacy to be a blockbuster movie, that is not the same thing as saying I hope Captain America: New World Order is a disaster. I firmly believe that great art of any kind will inspire great art from others, and that when one franchise I love is enjoying success it’s not an obstacle to anybody else. If anything, it’s a carrot to lure them to be better themselves. I think the people who make these properties understand this. It’s very common to see actors, directors, writers, or artists jump back and forth between publishers and studios and IPs and have positive things to say about all of them. It’s only the fans that view it as a competition. (Well, the fans and the corporate executives, but that’s a whole other conversation.)
This is not to say I’m blameless in this, of course. I certainly shared my criticisms of the original Avatar online, and lord knows I posted a “Morbin’ Time” meme or two, but as fandom has grown more toxic I’ve made a deliberate effort to pull back on that sort of thing. I’ve never been the sort of person who would get on Twitter and threaten an actor because I didn’t like a movie they were in, but I realize now that in the current internet climate even well-meaning criticism may sometimes give fuel to that sort of horrific person, and I don’t want to do that. The point of Geek Punditry is to talk about things I love, not things I hate.
I’m not saying not to criticize. I’m just asking that criticism be informed, that it be based on the work itself and not because you hate somebody’s previous movie or because you’ve chosen lines in a meaningless civil war. And most importantly, that it be respectful, both to the people you disagree with and to those whose work you are criticizing. Nobody intentionally makes a bad movie, with the possible exception of the Sharknado franchise, so even if you don’t like the work, give credit for the effort that went into it. The only people who lose when you speak respectfully are the people who refuse to speak respectfully.
And go ahead and be respectful to them, too.
Drives ‘em crazy.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure seriesOther People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. If, at any point during this column, you thought to yourself, “Blake is talking about THOSE people,” that probably means he’s talking about YOU.