The Bigger Picture: Muppets, Avengers, and Life In The Age Of Fanfiction
One of the things that happens when you write about entertainment all day every day is you tend to get caught up in minutiae, and it leads to some editorial decisions that 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 in a column that we're calling "The Bigger Picture."
Right after our own Alan Sepinwall went to see "The Muppets" with his family, he hopped on iChat to share some thoughts as he was writing his review. He said something to me that he also included in his review, and it really struck a chord with me. "'The Muppets' is, to put it simply, the greatest work of fanfiction I've ever seen." In that one line, he explained something that I've been struggling to articulate for a while now, and I think it explains exactly where we are in pop culture.
This is the Age of Fanfiction.
When I first signed onto the Internet in the mid-'90s, I was unaware of just how big fanfiction was, but I quickly learned. We live in a time where copyright means very little to younger people, and it's not just because they want free movies or free music. More than that, they want to be able to play with the amazing toys that they've been given by filmmakers and comic book writers and TV creators, and they want to do so without the constraints that copyright creates. If they want Robocop and the raptors from "Jurassic Park" to team up with "My Little Pony" and solve crimes, they don't care who owns what. They want what they want, and the Internet became a place where people could easily and quickly and, most importantly, freely share stories in which Kirk and Spock got it on or The Simpsons met the X-Files or Indiana Jones fell through a wormhole and went on an adventure with Han Solo.
What's been truly bizarre, though, is the way the mainstream has slowly headed in the same direction, and without anyone noticing it, we seem to have handed over our entire industry to the creation of fanfiction on a corporate level, and at this point, I'm not sure how we're expecting the pendulum to ever swing back. I know people love to blame Spielberg and Lucas for creating the modern blockbuster age, but at least when they decided to pay tribute to their inspirations, they did so in interesting ways. Spielberg has talked about how his frustrations at hearing that only English filmmakers could direct James Bond movies led to the creation of Indiana Jones, and Lucas was working out his love of Flash Gordon when he created "Star Wars." Those are healthy ways to work through your love of something, and absolutely make sense as important pieces in the creative process. What's scary is how these days, filmmakers wouldn't bother with that last step, the part where you take your inspirations and run them through your own filter. Now, instead, we live in an age where we are simply doing the source material again and again and again, and where original creation seems to be almost frowned upon as a "risk."
I agree with Alan that "The Muppets" is absolutely an act of fans hijacking the thing they love and building something that stands as an explanation of why they love that thing, an expression of love as art. It works precisely because of the way it plays with the iconography of the characters and the way it plays off our collective knowledge about the Muppets and how they behave. When I read the piece at Badass Digest this weekend about the alternate ending to the film, I was bummed because it seems like that ending would have really paid off the long-standing tension between the Muppets and Statler and Waldorf, and the fact that I know that means I'm a big giant Muppet fanboy, whether I define myself like that or not, and obviously I'm responding to the way Jason Segel and Bret McKenzie and James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller all expressed their own affection for the Muppets. It's almost a dialogue between audience and artist, and the discussion we're having is about this thing we all love, The Muppets.
When one of these corporate-funded fanfictions fails, it's because that dialogue turns into an argument. When New Line makes "Lost In Space" and releases it and fans of the original say, "I'm not sure what that is, but it's not the 'Lost In Space' I remember," that's it. There's nothing the studio can do at that point. If you get it "wrong," you'll hear about it. Right now, "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1" is destroying everything else at the box-office, and I am in no way surprised. I may not like the film, but even in my strongly negative review, I acknowledged that I am not the audience that movie was made for. It is a film that is meant to do one thing: give "Twilight" fans a chance to finally see the big finish to their beloved books onscreen. Since I don't like "Twilight," it doesn't matter if I'm happy or unhappy with the film. What matters is that the "Twilight" fans in the theater the night I saw it loved it, and things I thought were ridiculous or funny were significant payoffs to them, things that they'd been waiting to see brought to life.
I've written at length about how much I'm looking forward to "The Avengers" next summer, and I have a newly rekindled faith in bigscreen Whedon that has me extremely eager to see what he's done with the property. Why? Because I already have a relationship with The Avengers as characters. I've watched each of the movies leading up to it, and I've been reading the comics for decades, and I even quite liked the animated series that Marvel recently produced. Seeing the movie, I'm not walking in like I do when I'm at a festival and I just pick a title off a list and walk into a room and something totally surprising and new happens. There's no chance I'll be "surprised" by "The Avengers" in any significant way. It's the opposite that I'm looking for, actually. I'm going to see if it's the Avengers that I know, and if it is, then I'll most likely enjoy the film. If they've got the dynamics right and the characters face a foe that is both fun and suitably difficult to defeat, that sounds pretty good to me, because I've wanted to see this exact sort of thing done for so long now. It's a film that is being made for an audience that already knows it wants to see it. That is Hollywood's dream, the new Holy Grail to chase.
That's the power of the fanfiction culture we live in. It's driven by demand. It's risk-averse in a major way, even if it's just as difficult to pull off as making good original movies would be. You're still always trusting that someone's expression is going to find an audience that's receptive, but now there's the shortcut that you can point to, the thing that already exists, that someone else has already paid money for, that you can demonstrate has fans to some degree. Watching the JJ Abrams "Star Trek" in 2009 was an exercise in playing to and against expectation at the same time, and the real pop genius of it is the way it works one way for longtime "Trek" fans, and a totally different way for the casual viewer who may even be new to "Trek." It is a curtain call for classic "Trek" even as it brushes all of that aside to create new "Trek" with a new voice. This should be a model that filmmakers study when they're playing around with older properties, updating or reinventing. I know so many people who are of a certain age who have a love of horror and who credit "Dark Shadows" with being one of the things that first got them interested in the genre, and when Tim Burton releases his version next year, I actually feel like it could be one of the more personal films we've seen from him in a while, if only because I believe his interest in that far more than I believe he was ever a Batman fan.
If you're a studio making these things, you have to embrace this idea. You already have to some degree, but we still see a lot of reboots driven simply by a sort of clueless broad-sweep policy rather than a genuine love of whatever it is that's being done. You can't tell me someone got weepy because of how excited they were when they were pitching "S.W.A.T." or "Starsky & Hutch." Just because you own something old does not mean people automatically want to see it again, and you need to be careful as you redefine stuff not to ruin whatever it was that people loved the first time. You have to walk a fine line, and I remember talking to Abrams for a long time one afternoon as he was first gearing up on "Trek," and he talked about how he came to "Trek" as a fan of space opera in general, and then "Trek" as a sort of game of archetypes, particularly in the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic. He was excited by what he was about to do, and he was genuinely thrilled to be playing with what he considered one of the most durable and elastic science-fiction properties of all time. And what are the "Harry Potter" films if not the most elaborate and carefully tweaked fan-service ever produced by a studio? I know some of the writers for the "Clone Wars" series, and those guys are absolutely living the "Star Wars" fan dream, crafting new adventures with Anakin and Obi-Wan and Yoda that can do almost anything. Pure fanfiction, and brought to life beautifully.
You can treat something with reverence. You can treat it with irreverence. You can be sincere or silly, faithful or free to reinvent. You have to approach each property differently, and always… always… you have to give it to people who would make it for you for free. Morgan Spurlock's Comic-Con documentary has one storyline in particular that I think is just tremendous, inspiring and cool and funny. It's the story of Holly Conrad, a costume designer who is also a raving "Mass Effect" fan. She and her friends enter the masquerade at the Con and they win. More than that, though, she's now actually working on the Legendary Pictures film version of "Mass Effect" in some capacity. And when you're talking about genuine fans, you have to include Thomas Tull, the CEO of Legendary, who is as sincere a genre nerd as I've ever spoken with, but with a bigger checkbook than anyone else making fanfiction right now. He can pay for "The Dark Knight" because that's the version of Batman he wants to see. And ultimately, that is what fanfiction is,,, using whatever resources you have to make something about the properties that you love. If all you have is a Text Edit program and some inspiration, fine. Write the story. If you want to do a homemade video thing and shoot it guerilla and do all the FX yourself, and you want to spend $500 total, that's awesome. Do it. Directors are getting jobs now based on the fanfilms they make, and it seems like execs don't care. They're just looking at the skill set on display, and if the film punches some nostalgic button to give the exec that little extra squirt of Dopamine while he's watching, even better. And if you end up running a giant hedge fund and you think Godzilla's cool and you know he's got to fight other giant monsters and you think they screwed it up the last time Hollywood tried, and you want to pay to see that version, then fantastic. That's Hollywood 2012. That's where we are, and I don't see that changing.
But I hope as this age continues, and I think it will for a while still, these filmmakers take the time to also try the new. Thomas Tull may be making "Godzilla," an actual licensed version of the giant monster that still looms larger than any other internationally, but he's also the guy who finally had the stones to make "Pacific Rim" with Guillermo Del Toro, a giant monster movie with some pretty radical twists built in. It's like he's making both "Flash Gordon" and "Star Wars" at the same time. It is encouraging, certainly, and I hope more and more filmmakers take that step past the fanfiction that something like "Cabin In The Woods" represents next year, a film that is not just a show-off know-it-all ode to a genre, but also a very new and different expression of that genre. It seems to me that the Age of Fanfiction could give way to a new Age Of Invention, but that's going to require us to let go of the familiar at some point.
In the meantime, I have to get back to my latest script, in which The Hobbits are summoned to Hogwarts to help the kids of Harry Potter. Maybe I can get Daniel Radcliffe to direct and Peter Jackson's kids to produce…