I Want Off This Culture of Hype

May 22, 2015

feeding-frenzy-walking-dead

Last week, I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, and I really enjoyed it. Yes, I found the film refreshing for all the much-discussed feminist reasons — although consider for a minute what it says about us as a society that we think a film with a strong female lead who is on equal footing with her male counterpart is unusual and refreshing — but I also found the movie refreshing for another completely unexpected reason: for the first time in a very long time, I had a chance to just fall in love with a movie and its franchise.

I’m a child of the 80’s, but I never saw the Mad Max movies. When the decision was made to reboot the franchise, I knew nothing about it. The first time I saw the Mad Max: Fury Road trailer was in a movie theatre. I was ignorant of any online spoilers or speculation. I knew nothing about the premise or the formula of Mad Max movies. My introduction to the Mad Max character was in the opening scene of Fury Road. As the film unfolded, I was able to discover the Mad Max world and its characters — and the story of the movie (such as it is) — how George Miller intended for me to learn about them: as finished products.

It was incredible. It was amazing. I didn’t even realize how much I had missed that feeling.

And, that’s when I realized how much of what passes for fandom today has spoiled so much of what I love about being a fan.

I’ve been a fangirl for most of my life. Recently however, I’ve found myself less and less excited by the same media I used to voraciously consume. I’m bored with mainstream superhero comics and their associated movie franchises, while I’m increasingly convinced of the genre’s innate reinforcement of non-progressive social and racial values of militarism and power imbalances that no longer jibe with my own politics. At some point in the last year, the love just left my relationship with the fandom.

Being a Fan (with a capital “F”) felt less and less enjoyable, and more and more like a chore. I felt increasingly alone in a fan community that once had been a refuge for me. For the last several months, I’ve struggled to pinpoint what exactly had changed. It was only last Thursday when I realized what it was: I hate the new culture of hype. I hate the presumption that to be a good fan is to wade thigh-deep into the hysteria over blurry leaked set photos and pirated scripts, so that we might wrest away a morsel of behind-the-scenes detail.

All of the media I love share one thing in common: they are genres of creative storytelling. What first drew me to comics, movies and video games are the feeling of immersion and discovery — as if a storyteller is taking me on a wild ride of their own imagination. I’ve always likened my fandom to romance. Like building a long-term relationship with a lover, being a fan is like a process of slow discovery leading to greater understanding and appreciation. My favourite part of being a fan is when patient and faithful fandom reveals some new and rich detail, which allows you to rediscover something new and wonderful about that thing which you already love.

But, if fandom used to be about romance, these days, it feels more like the one-night-stand. We no longer prioritize the slow process of falling in love with a piece of pop culture. Instead, the internet has facilitated a new and frenetic kind of obsessive fandom. Long before a new superhero movie makes it to the screen, details are leaked online. Fans camp out next to on-location sets, waiting for that brief moment when they can take a blurry photo of a cast member in full makeup and costume and send the Twittersphere into a tizzy. It has all become about instant gratification.

These days, being a fan feels like being trapped in the feeding frenzy. Major studios are now deliberately leaking on-set photos to feed our hunger. Fans try to top one another to be the first to share the latest minutiae about an upcoming film. Meanwhile, fans expend hours dissecting each new detail, jumping to this conclusion or that one about what this new information will mean about the final product. Nothing could possibly live up to that kind of intense speculation and scrutiny.

No longer are we patient enough to simply allow a filmmaker to tell their story to us. Now, we rush to pass judgement over an unrelenting barrage of uncontextualized fragments of leaked photos and teaser trailers. We no longer give ourselves the space to just discover our own fandom. Increasingly, the spoilers are thrust upon us in service to this greater machine of hype.

The full script for Captain America: Civil War — a film that hasn’t even entered into post-production yet — is already available in full online and people are writing full posts dissecting itA promotional image of Jason Momoa as Aquaman went viral. Earlier this year, set photos from X-Men: Apocalypse were leaked in rapid succession, and I was contacted by a bunch of people asking me what my opinion was on Lana Condor’s casting (I literally don’t know who she is), the movie’s contemporary take on Jubilee’s classic look (way better than her proposed SWAT suit), and what I thought about Olivia Munn as Psylocke (she is exactly whom Hollywood would cast for a character like Psylocke).

I find the expectation that we as fans should have any kind of opinion on these details bizarre, and — as details are leaked with greater frequency — more than a little exhausting. I have no opinion on Lara Condor’s Jubilee other than the fact that yes, the costume department has successfully referenced Jubilee’s costume. I have no opinion on Olivia Munn’s Psylocke because we haven’t seen what Munn — an actress of capricious talent — has done with the role, such as it is likely to be. What’s the point of speculating on these isolated niblets of information, months or years before we can see all the pieces put together in a cohesive whole? How can we possibly draw any conclusions about what Olivia Munn will be like as Psylocke, when we’ve seen nothing about how the filmmakers behind X-Men: Apocalypse plan on interpreting the character, or about how Munn will interpret the role?

Meanwhile, I’m disheartened that it has become increasingly impossible to avoid these leaked details, and protect my own preference to appreciate a film as a finished product — and therefore judge it on its own merits. By leaking a picture of Jubilee in her yellow raincoat, studios have guaranteed that we cannot experience that moment of surprise when, as a fangirl who loves the Jubilee character, I can see her for the first time in her yellow raincoat in the movie when and where and how filmmakers wanted her to be introduced to me. 

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I would’ve loved to have been surprised by Jubilee’s appearance in a Marvel cinematic film, an easter egg for all of us who grew up on Jubilee in the X-men cartoons. Now, whether I like it or not, I can’t be surprised by her introduction; I will undoubtedly and unconsciously spend most of the film looking for her when she’s not there and judging how she appears when she is.

It makes sense for studios to take advantage of this new fandom. The hype machine that runs with each of us serving as a tiny cog is basically a gigantic public relations office with each of us as (un)willing and unpaid interns volunteering our free labour to market a major studio’s latest project. Every time we share a picture of Ben Affleck as Batman (and yes, I’m guilty of that), we are helping a multi-billion dollar studio sustain a better bottom line by doing their publicity work for free. And then we pay those same studios for the privilege of consuming the very thing we just helped them promote. It’s hard for me to not feel like this hype machine has just found a new way to crassly commodify my intensely personal pop culture passions.

As an artist, I find it disheartening that fans are drawing judgments based on unedited and unfinished bits and pieces of a film. With my own drawings, paintings and graphic design, the intermediate steps of an incomplete project are rarely something worth looking at. It would break my heart to know that anyone was judging my final product based on how it looked as mere fragments of unedited ideas. Yet, that is exactly what we do when we rush to judgement about how Quicksilver looked in Avengers: Age of Ultron from a single shitty photograph (and yes, I’m guilty of this too) , absent of any CGI, proper lighting, or plot-related context. Sure, Quicksilver kind of sucked in Ultron, but he didn’t suck nearly as much as he looked like he might’ve sucked from that leaked set photo. And, now I don’t know if I disliked Quicksilver in Ultron because he was actually a pretty crappy interpretation of a fun character, or if I was primed to dislike him because I was introduced to him as unfinished raw material.

I’m not saying that we should never consume or comment on fan news. Culture critics, after all, build a portfolio of writing around analysis and interpretation of pop culture; much of this has interesting and relevant political consequence. I think the news of Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the Major for the upcoming Ghost In The Shell adaptation, for example, can be a lens through which we explore cultural appropriation and Hollywood racebending of traditionally non-White characters. But that’s a far cry from the deluge of production and post-production trivia that has come to characterize what it means to be a fan in the new Millennium.

For many fans, the fandom is really all about the hype, and I absolutely don’t begrudge them that. There is a sense of camaraderie that can come with mutual interest — or distaste — for the latest leaked details of a hotly-anticipated film.

I recognize that my growing distaste for the hype makes me unlike most fans. But what is most frustrating, however, is that it also increasingly feels as if to express disinterest in being part of the hype labels me as a “bad fan”. I am the downer. I am the killjoy. I refuse to enthusiastically pile on the “squee” bandwagon.

I can’t help it, though: the feeding frenzy of hype and spoilers is slowly destroying my love for all the things I used to love. How do I still identify as a fan when our idea of how to be a “good fan” is so limited? How can I still claim a fandom that has made being my kind of fan no longer fun?

  • Malcolm Shields

    this culture can’t remain like this forever, can it? I mean, I don’t want the fandom to be spoiled

  • LA Julian

    Anticipation Culture or Hype Culture seems to be burning out a bit — enough fansites expending so much energy and real estate on the Next Big Thing that turns out to be a dismal, disappointing bust is becoming more and more of an embarrassment with every “Tomorrowland,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Chappie” they pumped up for months or even years, then tried to pretend they never heard of after it bombed, that it can’t go on forever.

    At least, I hope so!

  • The further I’ve distanced myself from all the “sneak peeks” and teaser trailers and rumors, the happier I’ve been with my movie-going experience. 🙂

  • Robert Truswell

    This hype culture makes me want to nuke all of humanity into extinction. If this is what we’ve devolved to as a species, then I wish not for it to continue any further.

  • Sam Sapirstein

    Lets not forget that Star Trek, Star Wars, LotR and other properties weren’t necessarily made by fans – or even nerds in the modern sense. Sure they were made to sell, but they weren’t created with hype in mind. They were made with ART in mind, and people became obsessed with them because they were touched by the magic, by the ART.

    The cosmic, spiritual birth of these stories did not, in most cases, occur within some calcified bureaucratic entertainment system. All of these properties had to deal with The System, be it the television, film or publishing system. But they weren’t born in those systems, they just entered them in order to reach a large audience. The nucleus of the idea, the initial spark of passion, came from someone who loves stories and wants to tell new good ones.

    Nowadays, the nucleus of every piece of nerdy IP (god I can’t believe we FANS have been inculcated with such banal corporate speak!) emerges in the accounting office of a major studio. Because almost everything’s a remake or adaptation, we’re always dealing with a well of creativity that was sunk years before the project began, and in most cases has already dried out.

    And so we obsess over details and elements because that’s all there is: elements pasted together for no creative reason. Sometimes it works (Guardians). And there’s always another nerd to tell you that your fears of creative death are overblown, that every generation hates the next generation’s obsessions (if you’re over the age of like 20) so go back to your nursing home, that they’re ok with the new age of hyper hype, so why can’t you be? It’s sad.

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