The Bigger Picture: ‘Mass Effect 3,’ ‘Mutant Turtles,’ and The New Tyranny of the Fan-trum

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.’

There have been two stories developing this week that fascinate me because of what they seem to suggest about the larger world of media and the way the audience is starting to truly drive the major choices being made.

Last night, I was thinking about these two stories, about the controversy surrounding the ending of “Mass Effect 3” and the reboot of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and I was watching reports stream in about the crowds turning out at theaters for the midnight screenings of “The Hunger Games,” and it all seems to be further proof that we are in the midst of The Age Of Fan-Fiction.

There is a particular moment that comes during the development of these movies, sometimes once, sometimes continuously, when fandom hears something that they don’t like or that worries them or that just plain doesn’t match the image they have in their collective heads about the thing, and they freak out.  They start petitions.  They crowd message boards and comment sections and they take to Twitter and Facebook and they are vocal.  They rant.  They moan.  They threaten.  They swear off the thing forever, convinced it’s been ruined.  They speak of childhoods ruined and raped and worse.  They employ overheated hyperbole.  They prop up strawmen for arguments and examples.

They throw fan-trums.

That’s my new all-purpose word for this moment.  Because when one person throws a tantrum, it’s unseemly, but it’s hardly something to worry about.  When one million people throw tantrums in unison, companies start getting worried calls from stockholders.  Fantrums have the power to alter products before they start production or even after they’re in stores.  Fantrums can change casting.  They can change endings.  They can derail entire productions.

And the idea that we have reached a place where the outcry from a fan base is part of the production cycle of pretty much anything is kind of insane.  That’s what happens when you have an entertainment industry driven largely by fear, though.  And there is little or no argument about what the primary motivator in most of the decisions made by major studios right now is.  They are afraid.  They have no idea why some things make money and no idea why some things fail.  On paper, “Green Lantern” was going to pay for everyone’s kids to go to college and buy them all houses and keep them working for a decade at the bare minimum.  On paper, the “Eragon” movies would be a huge deal, battling each new “Lemony Snicket” movie for release dates, both of them going up against the ongoing Ben Affleck “Daredevil” series.  Studios greenlight things that look like other things, things that you’ve already paid for at least once, because that gives them a fallback position when things do inevitably fail.

I’m sure if you ask fans why some things fail when adapted or rebooted, they’d tell you that they fail because they change important things.  And while that can certainly be an issue when things are changed for no good reason, there have been plenty of successful films that have diverged sharply from whatever source originally inspired them.  Fans conveniently forget that every single time there is a bit of news that deals with some still-hypothetical plot detail in a still-hypothetical film, and this week’s furor over “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was a great example.

First, Michael Bay speaks about the project and refers to the main characters as “aliens.”  As if scripted, there was an outcry from fandom the next day.  “No, Michael Bay, you are Satan/Hitler/the worst person ever because you have raped/murdered/destroyed my childhood.  If you make the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into aliens, my life will have no meaning, and the world will cease to make any logical sense to me.”  Because every single moment is THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT EVER and every single detail is THE MOST IMPORTANT DETAIL EVER.  There is no such thing as a moderate response from fandom.  They never collectively go, “Oh, that’s weird.  I guess I’ll wait and see how that fits into the movie that you haven’t even started making yet before I get worked up about it one way or another.”  Nope.  It’s zero-to-fantrum in 2.2 seconds on the Internet these days.  Every single time.

And I am constantly amazed at what people will get worked up over.  I don’t dismiss their right to like what they like, and I think it’s great that there are people who are emotionally invested in the integrity of “Yogi Bear,” but I don’t personally get that invested in… well, in almost anything.  I like a wide spectrum of things, and I certainly have opinions.  Hell, if we’re being honest, I probably made my career out of being good at inciting fantrums on an epic scale.  The McG “Superman,” or the Jon Peters “Sandman,” or the original ending of “Terminator: Salvation”… these are certainly events where something I wrote served to at least partially light a match that eventually burned these things down.  And while that’s not really my goal when writing, I am aware that when you poke fandom, you can count on a certain sort of response.

So Bay says “aliens,” everyone goes nuts.  Then Kevin Eastman weighs in.  Then Peter Laird weighs in.  Twice.  And now director Jonathan Liebesman has his say.  And all of this is being turned into “news” by virtue of the fact that you’ve got fandom so riled that castmembers from the original live-action films are writing open letters to Michael Bay about having their own childhoods “raped.”  You’ve got actual working professionals buying into one of the most pathetic terms in fanboy culture, using it to describe something that you’re not even sure is correct.  Amazing.  That’s what happens when people start to believe that the people who make films and television shows and comic books and video games owe them something.

Let’s be clear:  they don’t.  They don’t “owe” you anything.  They make a product, and then you decide if you’re going to pay for it.  Since many of you think it’s okay to download anything you want for free, even that second step isn’t a guaranteed part of the process anymore.  But it’s a very simple transaction.  They make.  You consume.  Only… that’s not really true anymore, is it?  I first noticed television shows actively responding to their vocal fanbases back when I was still new to the Internet.  Shows like “The Simpsons” and “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “The X-Files” were all early to understand just how much give and take there could be with an engaged online audience, and there are things in those shows that are direct responses to the online communities that erupted around them.  These days, one of the ways you know a show is a genuine cultural hit is when there is an active, engaged fanbase online.

Even so, you are not actually owed anything beyond whatever entertainment they produced for you in the first place.  Just because you like something, you do not automatically get a say in how that thing plays out.  This is why I believe we’re in an age where the fan-fiction mentality has become mainstreamed.  In fan-fiction, you get to take someone else’s creation and control it, and that’s what people seem to want now.

With “Mass Effect 3,” I understand why people are upset.  When I was at SXSW, I was staying with a friend who was neck deep in the game the entire time I was there.  I would walk through the room and see him engaged in space battle or running from Reapers or run-and-gunning his way through various crazy scenarios, and he seemed to be having a great time with it.  I played “Mass Effect 2” after Comic-Con last year because I was given a free copy at the Legendary Pictures panel.  I dug it, and I made sure to save my game because that’s one of the big points of that series.  You save your games from one to the next, so that decisions you made in the first hour of “Mass Effect” theoretically have an impact all the way up to the last hour of “Mass Effect 3.”  My Playstation tanked, unfortunately, so if I ever do play “ME3,” I’d be starting from scratch, which almost defeats the point.  People who played all three games were deeply invested in the version of Shep that they were playing.  Shep could be a he or a she, straight or gay, and his or her relationships with each member of his crew were all based on choices you make.  I was pleased with the version of Shepherd and his crew that I had saved by the end of “ME2,” and I was looking forward to carrying all of that over to the new game.

The thing is, the ending of “ME3” has become hugely debated, and one part of that is because the choice which has been such a key part of the whole franchise seems to be rendered irrelevant by the closing act of the game, where you are suddenly forced onto rails that give you a very narrow set of options to choose from.  In essence, all of the choice you made amount to nothing because every player ends up in the same place, forced to do the same thing, all in service of an ending that offers up no real answers.  Far from it, actually.  The ending has inspired debate, alternate theories about its meaning, and an outcry that either caught Bioware completely off-guard or played directly into what they wanted to have happen.  It’s hard to tell so far based on their response.  They may or may not have DLC coming that explains the ending, they may or may not be changing it, and they may or may not have always planned to charge people extra to play the ending of their game.  Because they haven’t been clear about their plans, Bioware is letting speculation run rampant, and that’s when a fantrum can reach hurricane force.  You’ve got people writing editorials about why Bioware should change the ending, editorials about why they shouldn’t, and other people writing editorials about how no matter what they do, gaming is now broken forever.

To some extent, fantrums are a best-case scenario for studios because it means people are talking about their products.  But it’s a fine line, and there comes a point where it can start to become intrusive, and I get the feeling we’re still finding that line.  In the end, the entire “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” thing seems to be a whole lot of hot air about absolutely nothing.  If you follow the thread of how this all happened, it looks like Bay misspoke about something he’s not terribly familiar with, and people took it as gospel.  The “Mass Effect 3” story is still evolving, and we won’t know how it plays out until Bioware either releases the DLC or officially weighs in on why they aren’t changing anything.  And beware of chiming in on this sort of thing, because sometimes you’re operating on misinformation that is completely wrong, like anyone spreading the rumors about “The Dark Knight Rises” showing up at Comic-Con this year.  Then again, hard facts have never really been required to kickstart a fantrum.

What do you think?  Do fans get a say in how things are done?  Are filmmakers or game designers the final arbiters of what happens in what they release?  Are fantrums a force for good or for bad?

I look forward to the conversation.