Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Fandom Menace

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What does it mean to be a true fan? I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days, ever since watching the documentary The People Vs. George Lucas, a loving portrait of the vocal, passionate fringe of Star Wars fandom. “If it says Star Wars on it, I’ll buy it,” one fan gleefully admits, while others say that, yes, they didn’t care much for The Phantom Menace, but they still saw it ten times in the theater. Fandom is stronger than one’s like or dislike of any individual film or piece of merchandise: even more than the movies themselves, it’s about the shared experience of caring deeply about something, and about being around others who know how you feel. For the sake of that sense of community—of being part of something larger than yourself—sitting repeatedly through a movie you don’t really like is a small price to pay. And if you don’t feel that the franchise is living up to its potential, there are plenty of ways to address the situation on your own, whether through fan edits, conventions, or simply venting your feelings online.

Fandom, as I see it, is primarily a quest to keep a certain set of feelings alive. It’s the feeling you get when you see a great movie for the first time, or when you’re a child playing with a few plastic toys that seem capable of having endless adventures on their own. It’s about a moment in which the world—or at least the world of narrative possibility—seems full of limitless potential, with an infinite number of stories that could be told. To recapture that feeling, you want to spend as much time in this world as possible. You extend the experience in every way you can, either by revisiting the works that first triggered the emotion or exploring the expanded universe. But after a certain point, a new comic book or video game doesn’t expand the universe of stories. Rather, it contracts them, either by closing off unspoken possibilities or reducing them to yet another mediocre spinoff. Great storytelling, after all, is a rare commodity. Very few franchises have managed to sustain it for even three movies.

That’s when fandom starts to curdle—and not necessarily for the right reasons. Looking at the new movies and toys we’ve been given, and how much worse they are than the ones that encouraged us to love this world in the first place, we can only conclude that George Lucas just doesn’t care as much as we do. It never occurs to us that the first two Star Wars movies might have been outliers, and that even Return of the Jedi represents a regression to the mean. (My wife and I watched the Despecialized Edition of Jedi the other night, and the fall in quality from Empire—one of the greatest movies of all time—was painfully clear.) If the prequels were disappointing, it isn’t because Lucas wasn’t trying, although he may have suffered from hubris and lack of oversight: it’s because it’s unlikely that all these pieces would fall into place again in just the right way. And if that’s true of the movies, it’s doubly true of everything else. If we’re lucky, a franchise will give us one or two great films. Given the vagaries of any kind of artistic production, it’s unrealistic to expect anything else.

But of course, we do expect more, and it’s those expectations that bind fans together, as quixotic as they might be. Fandoms thrive on the sense of being endangered, or at least of being part of a vocal minority pitted against a complacent mainstream. Plenty of Star Wars fans like to think of themselves as the loyal opposition to Lucasfilm, and, even more radically, to the vast number of ordinary moviegoers who see Star Wars as just another movie—or, worse, make no distinction between the prequels and the original trilogy. As The People Vs. George Lucas points out, kids love Jar Jar Binks, and the generation that grew up on the prequels is graduating from college with their good feelings for these movies intact. Fans see their role as that of holding the franchise to a higher standard—to the one that they remember, rightly or not, as their first experience of this world. The fact that this ideal may not exist doesn’t enter into the equation. Indeed, their power comes from the fact that, like Yoda, they want the impossible.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2012 at 10:06 am

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