We live in an unusual time, movie-wise. On any given weekend, there’s probably at least one new movie coming out that’s based on an established property, be it a comic book or novel, an old TV show, a videogame, or some previously-existing film. Studios want to make projects with a built-in fan base, and they will go to great lengths to appease those fans. Marvel, for instance, has turned fan-pandering into an art form with the creation of its Cinematic Universe, which ties all their films together. There is no logical reason to have Falcon cameo in ANT-MAN except to explain why Ant-Man will be in the next Captain America film, a branch of the MCU that Falcon is already part of. Marvel simply knows fans love that sort of thing.
Studios are usually so desperate to earn fan approval that they bend over backward. It’s no real secret that potential casting choices for big movies are “leaked” online to see how the public will respond. This is why you often see stars saying they have “never been approached” about these roles they’re supposedly up for. The rumors are simply to gauge whether the fans will give a thumbs-up to a possible selection. If they do, the actor might actually receive an offer. If not, someone else mysteriously becomes the new consideration. Comic-Con has also proved a vital testing ground. Studios trot out the casts of their as-yet-unfilmed projects or debut early footage, hoping they will be met with enthusiasm. More than once, course corrections have occurred after the crowds at Hall H expressed displeasure.
Fan revolt is nothing new. In 1988, fans flooded Warner Brothers Pictures with angry letters after it was announced that Michael Keaton – an actor known primarily for comedies like BEETLEJUICE and MR. MOM – had been cast in Tim Burton’s adaptation of BATMAN. (Keaton ultimately proved them all wrong.) When a then-unknown Robert Pattinson was cast as Edward in the eagerly-awaited TWILIGHT, the so-called Twi-hards went into a tizzy. Once they saw the final film, they embraced Pattinson, although, as a whole, they never seemed interested in seeing him in anything other than a TWILIGHT picture. Similarly, producers of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY were smacked with an online petition demanding Dakota Johnson and Charlie Hunnam be replaced as the leads in favor of fan-preferred picks Alexis Bledel and Matt Bomer. Hunnam eventually dropped out and was replaced by Jamie Dornan. Johnson stayed. The film was a hit, if not exactly a blockbuster.
Those cases worked out from a box office perspective, but generally speaking, it can be extremely risky to piss off the fans, who feel a sense of ownership toward their beloved properties. We’ve seen two recent examples where failure to appease the base led to catastrophe. Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR, to the dismay of comic book loyalists, changed the manner in which the titular heroes obtain their superpowers. Less enlightened fans were additionally outraged that one of the characters, Johnny Storm, was now being played by a black actor, Michael B. Jordan. The movie’s $56 million take is widely considered a disaster. Scathing reviews didn’t help, but critics don’t usually make much impact on fan-driven films such as this. Large swaths of the base likely opted to stay away because they didn’t approve of the changes.
An even more telling example can be found in Universal’s JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, which is based on a popular ‘80s cartoon show and toy line. Dedicated fans were ecstatic upon learning there would be a movie adaptation. Then the first photos and trailer hit the internet, and it became painfully clear that the filmmakers were going to be something less than completely faithful to the source material. This led to a full-on boycott, which played out on multiple Facebook pages, among other online hangouts. The end result: the $5 million-budgeted film won’t even earn half that in its theatrical run.
All of this begs the question: How much power should fans have over the course of these movies? As terrible as it was (and believe me, it was abysmal), JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS at least felt like it had an idea behind it. The filmmakers clearly wanted to explore the power of the internet to make a person famous. They may not have given audiences the Jem story they were used to, but doggoneit, they gave them something. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, on the other hand, was a massive hit that offered no surprises. Moreover, it often felt, as most Marvel movies do, like a commercial for future Marvel movies. Sure, it was largely fun, but it never once had the courage to color outside the lines.
And this is where the problem lies. Fans typically want something that fits into their preconceived notion of what a property is. They seek cinematic comfort food. We’re all guilty of it. This impulse, however, may have the effect of shutting the door on movies that are more challenging and ambitious. When filmmakers feel they have to work within a very defined, fenced-in area, true art is stifled. Sometimes really spectacular entertainment is produced within these confines, but at what cost? Not every creative decision, safe or risky, pays off. Aren’t they worth making, though? Don’t the most special films come about because someone inherently defied the norm or made a deliberately unexpected choice? These are the very qualities we revere in directors like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, yet when they’re applied to our favorite properties, we tend to reject them – or at least display obstinance toward them until we’re proven wrong.
Cinema is fundamentally about making the viewer experience something. Allowing the target audience to dictate that experience not only creates the risk of bland movies, it creates the risk of breeding apathy. Yes, films based on existing properties have some responsibility to stay true to the source material’s spirit. (Why even adapt something if you don’t intend to be at least a little faithful?) But giving the fans too much power makes them oddly apathetic, because people don’t demand anything more than what they’re already comfortable with. That is in no way a knock on fans; it’s just an acknowledgement that intense love of something inherently makes us resistant to change.
If Shakespeare’s plays can be interpreted a hundred different ways, so can a superhero story, an old cartoon show, a popular young adult novel series, or anything else. A black actor can play a traditionally white character. An unpredictable actor can be cast over an obvious one. An origin story can be updated. By allowing ourselves to be open to adjustment and alteration, we deepen our relationship with the source material. Having our preconceived notions challenged causes us to engage with the property more fully and to explore our fondness for it in greater depth. We need the boat to be rocked from time to time.
Fandom is a wonderful, beautiful, meaningful thing. Allowing that fandom to be less rigid and more fluid will help keep it healthy and thriving, and that benefits audiences and filmmakers alike.
Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan