Toxic Fandom

Toxic Fandom

Reviews for the new Amazon Prime series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power have been delayed by Amazon for up to 72 hours amid concerns of review bombing and trolling. Reports of racist and sexist attacks against the cast has ignited the usual Twitter foray of “forced diversity”, “wokeism”, and other tired generalisations pertaining to modern entertainment, with no nuance to be spared. But while these remarks have thankfully been denounced, a broader discourse on the nature of “toxic fandom” has emerged which adds an unfortunate but very much discernible crinkle to what one might expect of this subject.

This idea of “toxic fandom” has become prevalent in recent years, mostly due to the nature of social media amplifying the voice of disturbed passionate fans. Where the extremist fans were once left to toil away with their posters and toy collections, they now have an avenue for embracing their fellow comrades in arms and turning on them at the slightest criticism of the IP they love. We’ve seen this most notably with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the fandom has become divided over the old era output and more recent Phase 4 material. Perhaps a brief list of talking points will illustrate where the fandom gets imbued with toxicity:

  • Yeah, I love Marvel but these new series (She Hulk, Ms Marvel) aren’t doing it for me.
  • Your sexism is showing.
  • Well, the stories just aren’t as good.
  • It’s them building up to another Avengers. You’ve gotta give them time.
  • That twerking scene with Megan Thee Stallion was such a low.
  • I bet if it was Tony Stark doing it you’d love it.
  • Why is Harry Styles in the MCU? He can’t act.
  • Harry’s talented. You’re just jelly.
  • Ugh… Marvel’s gone so woke.
  • Tell me you’re sexist without telling me you’re sexist.
  • That election was stolen off Trump! F- the MCU.
  • Wait, what?

These idiots kind of fans can usually be found on Twitter, where vitriol runs rampant more than any other social media but the discourse feeds into entertainment news too and colours the greater picture of toxic fandom. Now, to be fair, there are actual bigots criticising these shows and movies (as evidenced by the comments on Rings of Power and House of the Dragon) but in the chaos of the comments’ section, it becomes a lot easier to paint any criticism of these IPs with the broad stroke of toxicity, which brings us back to Tolkien.

Having watched three episodes of The Rings of Power, I deem it decent without being exceptional. The nature of my criticism may raise an eyebrow or two though because while I feel it is visually stunning, the characters are mostly dull and without personality. Especially the Elves. Now, because one of the leads is a female and because people on social media refuse context and reading beyond click bait headlines, this crictism could be rejected with a comment like “oh of course the man doesn’t like Galadriel doing everything Aragorn could” or something akin to that. It would even give me pause for thought because let’s face it, bigotry is embedded deep within our subconscious from an early age, in one way or another. Maybe there is a case to be made for traditional fans of fantasy (men, mostly white) having a blind-spot and actively trying to gate-keep a genre, without even releasing the extent of what they’re doing. It is genuinely a valid concern.

The question then arises as to where that leaves us however. We shouldn’t accept inferior art just because it promotes diversity or a particular ideology. That’s woefully condescending and allows any creators to invalidate criticisms without anything more than the label of “toxic fandom”. But we must also acknowledge that while not all modern criticisms lean towards toxicity, a fair number still do. We’ve seen this through review bombing of movies, books, and TV shows yet to even be released, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (when the trailer showed a Black stormtrooper), Captain Marvel and She Hulk. We’ve seen this in the way fans of certain singers (Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Harry Styles) react whenever someone criticises them in the mildest fashion (e.g. 24 writers credited to a recent Beyoncé song- you just don’t get it- Queen B knows what she’s doing). We see this through cult of personalities springing up around certain celebrities like Johnny Depp (and yes I know, Amber Heard was toxic but fans were willing to overlook every single dodgy thing Johnny did or sad with freakish devotion).

Toxic fandom is a thing; it’s just not everything though. And by denouncing large portions of a fan base, I don’t think Marvel or Disney or Prime will be doing themselves any favours. Rather, an open discussion is needed in order to articulate where valid criticisms differ from petty, tribalistic ones. Amazon can continue spending all the money in the world but it can’t buy the respect and devotion deservedly earned by JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson before. (But look, I’ll keep watching.)

Scorsese vs. Marvel: Cultural Divides and Toxic Fandom

Scorsese vs. Marvel: Cultural Divides and Toxic Fandom

Earlier this month, Martin Scorsese compared Marvel movies to “theme park rides”, stating that they are not what he considers to be proper “cinema”. Social media reaction was, as you could imagine, well thought out and nuanced. LOL JK! For real, the shit hit the fan with many bemoaning this “hackneyed, old curmudgeon fuck-face” for not being with “it”. Okay, I’m paraphrasing but it was embarrassing to read the amount of comments I did with people unfavorably comparing his movies to Marvel’s. Don’t get me wrong! I enjoy all the Marvel movies. But Scorsese has directed Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, among many other original greats. In some cases, sure, it’s a matter of opinion but beyond this, what became apparent to me was how vitriolic and nasty these people were in their comments. This has become the norm, all too readily, when an unpopular opinion is shared, even in a matter as insignificant as this.

On some level, I think Scorsese was being picked a part for not speaking as delicately as he should have. I don’t actually agree with his opinion and would note that these Marvel movies are keeping cinemas alive, to an extent. Plus, there is some proper acting, directorial creativity, and emotion to be found in them. You could even argue that the magnitude of a shared, albeit commercially-driven universe, like the MCU, is a bold and ambitious experiment in modern cinema. On the other hand, I want to back Scorsese because his knowledge of cinema is second-to-none (or very few), he has helped restore many great movies, and has a point when he says we’re being “invaded” by these kind of movies. There are too many of them and on some level, it feels like a factory-churning process. For instance, Captain Marvel came less than two months before Endgame which was followed by Spiderman: Far From Home, just over two months later. We knew Spiderman was fine after the snap in Infinity War before we’d even seen its sequel. Furthermore, there seems to be no end in sight. Disney have already filled their calendar for the next three years with an array of shows, sequels, and new additions to the MCU. It really is an all-consuming empire.

So, you can go back and forth on this. You may not like Scorsese. You may think superhero movies are for children. What’s so desperate about this all is how hard it is to even have a conversation without great offense being suffered. That’s where I admire Robert Downey Jr., who simply left it at “appreciating” Scorsese’s opinion (which has been edified slightly since to acknowledge them as a different/new kind of “art”, if not proper cinema- I don’t know, it was kind of vague). Downey Jr’s latter-day career has been built on the legacy of Iron Man and he’s made a ton of dough from it but he’s not arrogant enough to disregard what one of the true greats has to say. Interestingly, he compared the Marvel phenomenon to a  “stomping beast [eliminating] the competition”. When things like that happen, as with the Westerns’ craze in the 1950s, there’s naturally going to be some push back. Sometimes, a spanner needs to be thrown into the works to get things interesting again. Punk did that for music in 1976 and the likes of Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola did that for cinema that same decade.

Thanks to social media, cults of fandom have been given a voice most people used to ignore. We can all, in some sense, be producers of the franchises we love and consume. For instance, notice how the trailers for The Rise of Skywalker are steering things back from the divisive reaction to The Last Jedi? Disney listens because Disney has a product to sell. That doesn’t mean their movies lack artistic integrity but it does color the picture, if only a little bit. It’s gratifying for fans to have their voices heard but when you pay too much due diligence to popularity, you appropriate credibility in turn. That’s why there’s such a sense of entitlement in these fans’ expectations of these franchise movies and why more unique, original projects are so lacking today. I suspect the directors of old, like Scorsese and Coppola, feel this way, which is why they are so hostile to the way industry has gone recently. The culture has changed.

Now since, we’re here- my top five MCU movies:

  1. Avengers: Infinity War
  2. Captain America: Civil War
  3. Spiderman: Far From Home
  4. Thor: Ragnarok
  5. Avengers: Endgame

and my top five Scorsese movies:

  1. Goodfellas 
  2. Taxi Driver
  3. Casino
  4. Raging Bull
  5. The King of Comedy