What does this ‘Batman v Superman’ controversy teach us about fan-trums?

02.18.16 2 years ago

When you write about entertainment all day every day, you tend to get caught up in minutiae, and it leads to editorial decisions I would call questionable. When you're writing breathless headlines about Pez dispensers, you may be working too hard to find relevance in the irrelevant. Getting hung up on the micro often prevents us from focusing on the macro, but I'd like to take the opportunity to take a step back from time to time to examine 'The Bigger Picture.'

I'd like to start by telling you three stories.

They're just three totally unrelated stories about going to see movies with people reacting afterwards in ways that are, by any definition, irrational. I can't imagine what might have happened in the last week that would have me reflecting on these incidents, but maybe by the time I've told them, we can figure out some sort of unifying thread.

First, let's talk about Marty.

Marty was “the Star Trek fan.” Out of the entire group of my friends in high school and college, there were people who loved all sorts of different things, and to different degrees. John was a huge Iron Maiden fan, for example. One of the Scotts was the gorehound, and the other Scott was really into Dave Barry. But none of them were fans on the level of Marty, who had the extra added advantage of a mom who would buy him anything he asked for and a dad who was so confused by him that he just agreed with the collecting to save himself any extra time being confounded. Marty was the Star Trek fan, and his room was a shrine to the franchise, filled with pretty much anything that had ever been released with the words “Star” or “Trek” printed anywhere on them.

One of the benefits of being a theater employee was that we got prints in several days early so we could build the print and make sure it was okay before we had our first public screening. We'd have an employee screening after we closed on Wednesday or Thursday nights, giving any of us who were curious a chance to see a film early a chance to do so. We could invite friends, and most of the time, it was the same group of us who would go see things. For certain films, though, certain friends would make sure they were included, and when the release of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was announced, Marty made it very clear that he would be joining us even if it required the use of superglue or a nail gun.

1989 was a fun summer, and we'd enjoyed Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a few weeks earlier, then been surprised by Dead Poets Society. We had to go to another theater owned by AMC in downtown Tampa to see Star Trek since we didn't actually book the theater on any of the eight screens where I worked. Our bookers were holding screens for Ghostbusters II and Batman, and couldn't promise Paramount the full contractual run they were looking for. On the drive from Brandon, where we all lived, into downtown Tampa, Marty got more and more revved up about what we were going to see. I'd enjoyed Star Trek IV, like most people, but the trailers for The Final Frontier were dire, and I couldn't help but tease Marty a bit about how excited he was.

Then we saw the film. And on the way home, that mild teasing turned into full-blown hysterical roasting. And it wasn't just me. It was all of us in the car, but I certainly did more than my fair share. I hated that film, and I thought it was bad enough to invalidate any good will that the previous film had inspired. I thought it was embarrassing on every level. And that whole ride home, Marty was quiet. It wasn't until we got to his house, around 3:00 in the morning, that he finally snapped.

And when I say snapped, I mean snapped. He started shrieking at me about how I didn't know anything about Star Trek and I didn't get it and The Final Frontier was too good a film for an idiot like me, and he stood there, shaking and almost in tears, out of control, and the angrier he got, the harder I laughed, unable to believe that he'd defend the film, much less that he would have a giant meltdown over it. He didn't speak to me for at least a week over the incident.

Next, a story about my friend Scott.

Out of all of my high school friends, it's likely Scott was the smartest of them. I just spoke with him for the first time in a while and it was really nice to hear how well he's doing and how happy he seems to be. Scott lived in the same neighborhood I did, and I spent a lot of time with him after school doing homework or playing ping-pong or just throwing a football around. Scott enjoyed movies, certainly, but he wasn't crazy for them the way I was. He liked what he liked, and on occasion, he would really flip for something. It was rarely something you'd expect, too.

For example, when Ridley Scott released Legend, Scott and I went to go see it together. It was an afternoon screening, and my mother was the one who took us. I was a fantasy fan, Scott was a fantasy fan, and I think we were both hoping to be mightily entertained.

One of us got what they wanted.

As we were getting in the car, I felt like I exhaled after holding my breath for the full running time of the film. I started laughing and managed to get “Oh, my god, did that SUCK” out of my mouth before Scott lashed out. It wasn't a punch, and it wasn't really a shove, and it certainly wasn't a smack, but it was an involuntary physical response to my scorn for the film, and the rest of the ride home was spent in what can only be described as a heated debate, concluding only when we pulled up at Scott's house and he stormed out of the car and inside his home.

And now, fittingly, a story about myself.

When I was in my first year of college, rumors began to circulate that they were making a new film about Batman.

Keep in mind, these were the days before Batman: The Animated Series. These were the days before any of the modern superhero films had been made. The last major superhero films I could name at the time were Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Supergirl, and the almost surrealistically misguided Howard The Duck. There was no reason to believe superheroes were going to work on film, but comics had become revitalized at around the same time, and it was starting to feel like movies just couldn't keep up. The closest thing I'd ever seen to a great comic book movie, one that captured the tone and the energy and the voice of a comic, was Robocop, which wasn't based on an actual comic. It just got the energy right, and so I found myself praying that they would do something on film with Batman that would be as bold, something that would finally do some sort of justice to my favorite comic book character.

As my freshman year wore on, I got crazier and crazier. A friend of mine who had moved to LA managed to lay hands on Sam Hamm's first draft of the script and he sent it to me. When I read it, I promptly lost my mind. And then they started announcing the casting of the film, and I couldn't even imagine how that film might work. I loved Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and I thought Beetlejuice was uneven but inventive, and the idea of Tim Burton bringing the comic to life seemed like a big swing for the studio to take.

Here's how crazy about it I was. When the first poster was released for the film, that iconic Bat-logo, I saw it for the first time in a Tallahassee theater lobby while I was there to see The Dream Team. At the end of the screening, I straight-up stole the poster from the poster case in the lobby and triumphantly hung it on the wall of my dorm room that same night. By the time the film was released, I was positively lunatic about it all. Anything that said Batman on it, I bought. I drove the people around me completely insane, and particularly my college roommate, Jake. I was on the hook. And on the night of the employee screening, as I was getting ready to leave for the theater, Jake was about to get into the back seat. As I stood there, he stopped and smiled and said, “You know… I kind of hope it sucks.”

And just like Marty after Star Trek V, and just like Scott after Legend, I handled it really, really poorly. I seethed all the way to the theater, and when I didn't care for the film, Jake's comment just nagged at me, like he had somehow cursed the movie, and I blamed him. I was angry at him, like he was the reason I didn't enjoy it.

All three of those reactions are completely ridiculous. And in each case, looking at those reactions with the perspective of time, I can tell you exactly why they happened.

In Marty's case, his investment in Star Trek was way more profound and personal that it was for anyone else in the car. I've always been a casual Trek fan at best. I like the original series. I like some of the films. I don't like others. More than anything, I think Star Trek is a great framework for storytelling that has sometimes been used to tell great stories. For Marty, though, Star Trek was essential. It was part of his identity. His relationships to those characters were real. He was Justin Long in Galaxy Quest, and that entire car ride home, he was listening to us shred these people that were important to him. It hurt him in a very real way, and instead of seeing how uncomfortable he was, we just kept laughing because, to us, it was just a lousy movie, not a significant event.

In Scott's case, he was surprised by Legend and caught off-guard by how much he loved it, and a film like that is more of an experience than a narrative. He walked out of that theater in love, still lost in that world that he'd just discovered, and as soon as I could open my mouth, I punctured that bubble he was in. I've had the exact same thing happen, and it's almost disorienting. You can't help but think, “Was he in the same theater I was?” And because I took that bliss away from him, disrupted it so completely, he got angry.

In my case, I needed Batman to be great. I needed it on some level. I loved the character, and I loved the way he seemed to be on an upswing in the comics, and I wanted to see my favorite character done justice. At the time, I hated the Adam West show for most of the reasons that I love it now. I hated the camp, the comedy, the pop design, the oh-so-'60s-ness of it all. I wanted an antidote to that. And Jake knew how invested I was, so for him to say that less than an hour before the film began felt like someone kicked me in the balls just as I was stepping across a marathon finish line.

For those who don't watch all of our videos or who missed the conversation that kicked all of this off, on the morning that the most recent Batman v Superman trailer was released, I was scheduled to do my weekly Fandemonium appearance with Roth Cornet. We sat down to talk about the trailer, and I mentioned some reactions I'd heard from friends close to the film. I didn't think it was a particularly significant conversation, but as soon as it was posted, things got out of hand.

So let's get into this, address this one final time, and then move on. From this point forward, I'll simply be blocking people on Twitter who come at me guns blazing. If you want to have a conversation, I'm open for that, but I've spent the last week watching people get angry to a degree that is unhealthy, and for the most part, they've been angry about something that never ever happened. I've written before about the phenomenon of the “fan-trum,” and this has been a doozy this week.

I did not tell you Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice is a bad movie.

Okay? Is that clear? If you go watch the actual video, which (god help me) I have embedded at the top of this piece, then you'll see that the first thing I said is how exciting I think Batman looks in this film. You remember when I mentioned above how Batman is my favorite superhero comic book character? Still true. One of the things I love about Batman is how open to interpretation he's been, and how many of those interpretations have worked despite being very different. I'd gotten used to the idea that live-action feature film versions of Batman feature suits that restrict their movement as a simple problem with live-action. That trailer immediately excited me because of how physically dynamic Ben Affleck's take on Batman seems to be. I love the beginning of that trailer. I'm dying to see more of Batman in action.

I also reported that the people I spoke with have been very excited by Jesse Eisenberg's performance as Lex Luthor, and that's encouraging news. It's apparent from the trailers for the film that he's made some big choices about the character, and I love when actors do that. Does it always pay off? Nope. And there are plenty of performances I've seen where someone crashes and burns precisely because they took such a big chance. Hearing some enthusiastic early buzz for Eisenberg's work makes me even more excited to see what he's done.

So if those things are how we started the video, why is here a certain vocal percentage of the fanboy audience that is so angry that they have spent the last week furious at me?

One of the things that seems to have some of you very upset or indignant is that I didn't name the source of my observations. While I would never name a source unless they were speaking officially on-the-record, I will offer you this: what began as a single conversation led to two other conversations, and in the time since our video was published, there have been three more conversations. In each case, the people I've spoken with are people I know well, people who work in positions where they have direct access to the materials we've discussed, and (this is the important one) who have a direct stake in the success of the overall slate at DC Films. As in, these are people who want these films to perform well for professional reasons. These are people who have a direct financial interest in these films doing well. These are people who took no joy or pleasure in reporting these things to me. That was not the point of any of the conversations. No one was gloating. No one was gleeful.

There are two points people have repeatedly raised this week to “prove” that I have my reporting wrong. The first has to do with a report I wrote about Joseph Gordon-Levitt and him reprising his role as John Blake for a Justice League film. People are pointing at the Batman v Superman trailer as if that somehow proves I was wrong when I published that story. Simply put, the ending of The Dark Knight Rises was no accident. When Will Beall was hired to write his drafts of Justice League, he was put through his paces. My reporting was based on at least one draft of Beall's script, in which John Blake was Batman. At various points as Beall kept working, they reconfigured Batman several times. They tried it where they never said which Batman he was. They tried writing it in a way that would lure Christian Bale back for one more film. They even offered Ben Affleck the role at the same time that they asked him if he'd like to direct the film. Nothing they tried during that process worked, though, and they pulled the plug on Beall's draft altogether.

These stories develop, and one of the things we discussed in the video is how DC has had a less clear game plan than Marvel, something which evidently led some of you to believe that I am pro-Marvel or anti-DC. That's simply not true, though. When you look back at my reviews of DC films just since I came here to HitFix, it would be impossible for anyone to take those as a whole and make any case at all for an anti-DC bias.

I'll even make it easy for you. Here's a pretty exhaustive reading list.

Here's my review of The Dark Knight Rises.

Here's part one of my second look at the film. And here's part two.

Here's my Man Of Steel review, which was so positive that at the time, it was Marvel fanboys who suddenly suspected me of ulterior motives.

Here's my commentary from the Warner Bros. Comic-Con panel where they announced Batman v Superman.

Here's my Comic-Con commentary from this year's presentation.

At the end of Comic-Con, I wrote a piece about fandom in general, and I find the section on Batman v Superman particularly ironic now in light of the way fandom's been behaving this last week.

It's also frustrating to me to hear people accuse of me trying to hurt this film in some way because I've been a big supporter of Zack Snyder as a filmmaker since I first met him during the post-production of 300. I spent an afternoon with him in a Burbank office as he showed me footage and talked to me about his approach to adapting Frank Miller's graphic novel, and right away, I was fascinated by the way he talked about bringing comic books to life. As I was on my way out of the office that day, there was a copy of Watchmen on his desk, and knowing how many people had already taken a shot at that particular title, I asked him if he was thinking about it. “I don't know,” he said, smiling. “Think I should?”

Over the years, I've been friendly with him and with his producer and wife Deb Snyder as well. I think they're an unstoppable team, and they care deeply about the films they make. When I talked to Snyder about Man Of Steel, I was still buzzed from seeing the film, and very excited about what kind of groundwork it laid for the future.

I discussed that in this piece with Greg Ellwood and Kris Tapley, and then we had a similar conversation in this piece.

Time after time, you see me excited about the notion of DC Films and their potential, and about this filmmaker. In the entire build-up to this film, perhaps the most critical piece I've written was this one, and it's the second thing you guys have been throwing at me this week while saying over and over that it's been “debunked.”

I'm not sure that word means what you think it means.

The piece I ran was an opinion piece, but it was sourced from several different places. In the piece, if you'll actually take the time to read the whole thing again, you'll see that I was having trouble believing any studio would say that about an entire slate of films. I was reporting what I had heard, and I was questioning it at the same time. Somehow, in the blindered way that fandom processes things, that second part of the thought process has been forgotten completely, and it points out just how hard it is to do anything like nuanced reportage for this audience.

Would you like to know the main reason I left Ain't It Cool to write for HitFix? It goes far deeper than money, although HitFix definitely made it hard for me to resist their offer. It came down to me getting tired of the audience and the way the audience never aged emotionally. When I started submitting reports to the site, I was a single guy living with buddies in my mid-20s. By the time I left, I was a father of two, a homeowner, staring down the barrel of my 40th birthday. I love movies, and I love that I get to write about them, but there is way more to movies than just men in rubber suits pretending to punch each other, and more and more often, it scares me how some people don't seem to understand that.

Here's an important quote from that article: “I'm going to put the question out there, and as we all talk to Zack Snyder or David Goyer or any of the actors working on these characters, I'd love to hear an answer, a firm denial. Is it true?”

Does that sound like I'm adamant that something is 100% true? Does that sound like I'm insisting on something as a fact that can never change?

I'm sorry if you did not like it when I said that several people I spoke to had mixed reactions to a film that you're looking forward to seeing. I'm sorry not because I did anything wrong, but because it kicked off a fan-trum of epic proportions, and when I look at the last week, I see Marty and I see Scott and I see myself, and I see that you are deeply invested in wanting to see this film work. You want to see Justice League. You want to see the individual movies. You are filled with hope and you don't want anything to deflate that right now.

My job isn't to be a cheerleader, though. It is to honestly report about the things that I hear and see and read, and to speculate about what those things mean, and to offer analysis based on my 25 years of working in this town. I've been in Los Angeles now long enough to have made friends who work at every level of every studio, and just because someone works for a studio, it doesn't mean they lose the ability to look at something and have a complex reaction to it. I'll tell you that one person I spoke to about the movie was far more excited than anyone else, and even he felt it was simply too overstuffed. He enjoyed everything in it. He just wanted more breathing room for some of the characters and ideas.

But even if I heard from 100 people that it was terrible, that still doesn't mean you will feel the same way. There was very mixed buzz on Mad Max: Fury Road from inside Warner Bros, right up until the moment it was released. And none of that meant a thing to me or to audiences around the world. There are certainly people who didn't like the film or who have complaints about it, and there are people who are passionately in love with it. Buzz is just conversation, and conversation should never be enough to make you so angry that you have to lash out.

At this point, people are fabricating quotes of mine to try to damage me in some way, and sure enough, there are people on Twitter and Facebook who seem to believe the lie. I can't control that. If you see someone circulating the following image…

… you should feel free to look at my original Twitter timeline, where you can see the original unaltered Tweet I sent to @FrontierToyota. Nothing's been deleted, and since I can't edit a Tweet, there's no way I covered any tracks. It's easy to believe something you see on social media, but it's just as easy to check to see if you should believe it or if you're being misled by someone who is simply malicious to be malicious.

I remain enthusiastic about Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and I hope I love it the same way I loved Man Of Steel. I also remain convinced that if the film fails to be the tentpole hit that Warner Bros. needs it to be, the studio will have to make some fairly major changes to their overall game plan. This property is much too important to them. They have two things right now that they are leaning on heavily; superhero titles and Harry Potter spin-offs. I guarantee they're just as anxious about Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them as they are about Batman v Superman, and saying so doesn't mean I wish either film any ill will. I'm just acknowledging that these are hugely important to the studio on a financial level, the very definition of tentpoles.

If you want to spend the time before release in that blissful bubble, then do so. I'm certainly not interested in dampening anyone's enthusiasm or excitement. There are plenty of fansites that are exist purely to stoke that enthusiasm, communities where you can just coast on goodwill and hype, and those are the perfect places for people who just want unfettered positivity.

Here at HitFix, though, I promise to continue to treat you as an audience like adults who understand that I'm not on any movie's marketing team, and my job is not just to tell you what you want to hear. My reportage may make you angry, and you may take issue with it, and you may want to dispute it.

But do me a favor. If you're going to be mad at me, at least read the whole thing, listen to every part of the video, and make sure you're not being led around by someone lying out of spite. If you want to take offense at something I've said, make sure I actually said it.

And in the meantime, I'll try to remember Marty and Scott and even myself and how easy it can be to accidentally shake a film fan's faith.

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice is in theaters on March 25, 2016.

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