We live in the age of the superfan (often known as fanboys or fangirls).Massive movie franchises based upon comic books dominate our theatre screens. Old fan properties from the ’80s and ’90s, like Jurassic Park and Star Wars, are being revived to feed future generations of geeks. Events like San Diego Comic Con have swallowed the industry whole, forcing studios to compete with each other for the intense adoration of zealous but hypercritical uber-fans. Sequels, adaptations, remakes and reboots of genre films top the year-end box office. This focused targeting of fanboys/girls has overwhelmed the movie industry and film criticism has drastically changed to follow suit.
While individuals like Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris, who certainly loved movies but gave no specific favour to one genre or franchise, so long as the movies were good, dominated the past century of film criticism, our new millennium has seen the rise of critics with unabashed pop-culture favouritism. Websites such as Ain’t It Cool News, Birth Movies Death, Cinema Blend, Comic Book Movie.com, JoBlo, Screen Rant and SlashFilm now control the movie news landscape, publishing dozens of articles each day that repurpose studio promotional material into meaningless click bait. There are good articles to be found, but they sit uncomfortably alongside naked promotion for whatever fan property is deemed worthy of our collective attention at the moment.
Even older and once-respected publications like Entertainment Weekly have changed their entire mission statement to go after fanboys/girls, playing into franchise popularity while diluting any critical distance they once possessed. The geeks have inherited the Earth, and film criticism along with it. This being the case, film criticism is faced with an enormous question: is it possible for superfans to be good film critics? The answer is a resounding no.
While individuals like Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris, who certainly loved movies but gave no specific favour to one genre or franchise, so long as the movies were good, dominated the past century of film criticism, our new millennium has seen the rise of critics with unabashed pop-culture favouritism.
This isn’t to say that a film critic cannot be a fan of franchises, but there’s a difference between being a fan and a superfan. To be a fan means to love something dearly. The connotations are enthusiasm and adoration for an artistic properly. Film critics are (generally) fans of movies; they’d be writing about books, television, videogames or theatre if they didn’t love film more. And many critics are fans of various filmmakers or franchises. For instance, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (the A.V. Club) and Bilge Ebiri (New York Magazine) are both fans of the works of Paul W.S. Anderson (the Resident Evil franchise), while Drew McWeeny (Hitfix), who cut his teeth as Moriarty at the granddaddy of all superfan movie sites, Ain’t It Cool News, is an unashamed Star Wars devotee.
However, just because these critics are unabashed fans doesn’t mean they allow their love of film properties to prejudice their judgement. They let their love of these films inspire critical examination, not discount it. They write about these movies because they love them, and their writing doesn’t merely serve to praise, but instead examine what a film is doing and why it’s worthy of discussion.
Therein lies the crux of why a fanboy or girl cannot be an unbiased film critic. A good critic approaches a film with an open mind and seeks to intelligently discuss what a film is doing — narratively, formally, thematically — and whether it is successful or not. Every critic will obviously come to a film with his or her biases, but a good critic will be able to explore a film with a generous level of rational consideration, regardless of his or her assumptions.
Fangirl/boy critics don’t set aside their biases when engaging with film; they embrace those biases and allow them to determine their identities. Being a fanboy or girl means allowing the love of a property to overwhelm any critical perspective. If you’re a Marvel superfan, you automatically love each new entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You don’t love the films because they’re well made entertainment (although many are), but because you love Marvel, the films are Marvel properties and thus have to be great. You cannot be an effective critic if your engagement with film is entirely devoid of critical evaluation.
Critics let their love of these films inspire critical examination, not discount it. They write about these movies because they love them, and their writing doesn’t merely serve to praise, but instead examine what a film is doing and why it’s worthy of discussion.
As well, when superfan film critics do engage in criticism, they take the word too literally, merely splitting narrative hairs and criticizing every perceived error. Honest Trailers, Cinema Sins and the whole monstrous engine that is Red Letter Media are not examples of legitimate criticism, but of hypercritical nitpicking. Alfred Hitchcock would’ve gone mad if such critics existed in his day. Fanboy/girl criticism is aggravatingly literal-minded. Discussion of narrative coherence and editing continuity are legitimate topics, but they are not the breadth of expert film criticism. In fact, overly focusing on narrative can distract from what a film is actually doing, whether formally or thematically. Superfan film criticism seldom considers that a film might deliberately be incoherent or confounding conventions. This means that critics who cannot contemplate these possibilities fail to explore the deeper meanings of many works.
For example, the famous Red Letter Media takedown of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace is hailed in the superfan community as the definitive explanation of the prequels’ failures, but it’s just an angry fanboy ranting about why a new entry in a beloved fan property doesn’t conform to individual expectations. It never seeks to explore what George Lucas is actually doing in the prequel trilogy—considerations of quality aside. Instead, it tears apart a property that has drawn the ire of the fangirl/boy community.
The unsound reasoning behind the video is that because The Phantom Menace does not reflect the Star Wars property as Red Letter Media co-founder Mike Stoklasa envisions it, the film is not true Star Wars and thus is a worthless abomination. The entire review is founded upon the belief of being entitled to Star Wars one way and then expressing outrage when Star Wars is delivered another. As renowned Canadian film critic Geoff Pevere put it, “the more interesting question than ‘Is this a good Star Wars movie?’ is ‘Is this Star Wars movie any good?’” Sadly, fanboy/girl criticism is only interested in the former and only in so far as when Star Wars conforms to their notion of what constitutes a Star Wars effort.
When superfan film critics do engage in criticism, they take the word too literally, merely splitting narrative hairs and criticizing every perceived error. Honest Trailers, Cinema Sins and the whole monstrous engine that is Red Letter Media are not examples of legitimate criticism, but of hypercritical nitpicking.
Superfan criticism is fuelled by entitlement. Fanboys and girls believe they are co-owners of the properties they love. Their definitions of good and bad are defined by whether a film coddles this ludicrous opinion by playing to their expectations or outwardly defying them. Films that perform shameless fan service are considered good (as in the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), while movies that ignore fan desires are considered bad (as in the case of the Star Wars prequels).
Fanboys/girls are not capable of being critics because they allow the identity of a film to determine its worth, not the filmmaking. If a viewer loves or hates films passionately and against all reason, how can that person ever be expected to discuss the medium with any measure of critical accuracy? The entire definition of fair criticism is rational examination.
There is no intellectual generosity in superfan film critics and thus no chance to discuss movies with any curiosity and insight. The emotions these fans feel about films are real and should be acknowledged as such, but just because these people are earnest in their opinions doesn’t mean they are worthwhile. As well, fangirls/boys might write for popular movie sites that have hundreds of thousands of online readers, but reach doesn’t determine worth. A pithy tweet about Jurassic World might get countless retweets, but that doesn’t equate just criticism.
If respectable criticism hopes to survive into the future, it needs to resist the gravitational pull of superfan culture. If it doesn’t, film criticism will become just another shallow commodity, and the studios will have won.