Star Wars, Captain Marvel, Star Trek, The Orville & Terminator 6 Find Themselves Caught In The Middle Of Divided Pop Culture Fan Battles
The same culture wars that appear to have divided populations among political lines across the globe are also inspiring divisions among fanbases in several geek communities. With a slate of surprisingly contentious projects releasing this year, 2019 is going to set the stage for a number of battles that could decide definitively which side is winning the pop culture fandom geek wars.
The Two Warring Factions
Movies, television shows, cartoons, comic books, and video games are evolving in a way that one side claims brings them much-needed relevance and diversity, with an increased focus on social issues and politics, and more and more female, gay, minority, and non-Christian characters taking center stage, which they say is long overdue for underrepresented populations. They argue that those who don’t accept this wave of diversity are primarily angry, white, heterosexual, conservative males, who they say are intimidated and offended that these properties are no longer geared toward them or primarily featuring them. This group has been referred to as social justice warriors (SJWs) and non-player characters (NPCs), but since those terms have taken on a derogatory connotation, we’ll simply refer to them here as the reformists.
While the other side claims this diversity is just a smoke screen for creators to use pop culture properties to attack those who don’t agree with their left-leaning political ideologies. They accuse the reformists of filtering their advocacy and identity politics through entertainment and of trying to dodge any criticism of their actions or their final product by labelling all such criticism as stemming from racism, misogyny, sexism, xenophobia, hatred of anyone LGBT, or regressive political ideologies. They argue that drastically changing an intellectual property to push a social agenda and attacking the original fans for being upset by it is bad business that is going to cost them dollars and fans. This group has been referred to as a number of things, but mostly toxic fans, manbabies, the Fandom Menace, or Comicgaters. Again, to avoid unnecessary negative connotations, we’ll simply refer to them as disgruntled original fans (DOFs).
The battlefield for these two warring factions is the internet and the weapons being used are comments, ratings, movie ticket sales, boycotts, and merchandise purchases for sci-fi and comicbook-related entertainment. The reformists feel their approach to entertainment opens up the fanbase to a broader segment of the population, while the DOFs say their divisive strategies and hostility toward fans are hurting movies at the box-office and killing the comicbook and gaming industries.
One term frequently used in the media to describe the DOFs is a “a small, but vocal, minority,” implying that they should be completely ignored because they don’t have the numbers to impact whether a project is a success. However, the DOFs point to the box-office failure of Solo: A Star Wars Story and dwindling mainstream comicbook sales as evidence that there are more fans who feel the way they do, than there are those who support the reformists’ agenda.
2019 has set the stage for both sides to claim victories or suffer some embarrassing losses.
Star Wars: Episode 9
Assuming the next Star Wars film doesn’t get postponed to a 2020 release date, the question of whether or not it was a fan boycott that derailed the box-office for Solo: A Star Wars Story may finally be settled with the release of Star Wars: Episode 9.
After The Last Jedi was released, Star Wars fandom was split between the reformists, who thought the movie was a fresh, new approach to Star Wars, and the DOFs, who thought it was a poorly written and constructed movie that undermined the entire saga narrative and sacrificed beloved characters in an effort to advance a “feminist / social justice warrior agenda” that they felt was out of place in Star Wars storytelling. The DOFs felt all of the male characters were demeaned in the movie, especially Luke Skywalker, and that the film suffered as a result of Lucasafilm’s President Kathleen Kennedy’s stated intention of making Star Wars more appealing to girls. The DOFs were labelled by the reformists, the media, some members of the cast and crew of The Last Jedi, and some employees of Disney and Lucasfilm as “a small minority of bigots, sexists, racists and manbabies,” who weren’t ready to see women and minorities taking center stage in the Star Wars universe.
Many unhappy fans, including females and minorities who were shocked at how they were universally dismissed and accused of being Russian bots, trolls, and sexist white men, decided to take their anger out on Disney by boycotting Solo: A Star Wars Story. After it became the only Star Wars movie to lose money at the box-office, the media blamed a number of factors, including “Star Wars fatigue,” with too many movies being released too soon. Most outlets made no mention of the boycotting fans, dismissing them entirely. Many of those same fans are now saying they will continue their boycott with Episode 9. A number of YouTube channels that focus heavily on unhappy Star Wars fans have seen significant increases in video views and subscribers.
Was it really just a small minority of white male fans that were angry with The Last Jedi – too small a number to impact the box-office for Solo? Or was the backlash widespread enough to impact the box-office for Episode 9 as well, since Lucasfilm and Disney have done little, if anything, to win back fans disgruntled by the post-Last Jedi controversy? In fact, many fans speculated that Kathleen Kennedy would be fired from Lucasfilm after Solo and that Lucasfilm would cancel plans to pursue a trilogy headed up by The Last Jedi director, Rian Johnson, after the problems the film caused for the studio. But instead, Kennedy’s contract was renewed for 3 years and a production company was formed by Johnson to begin planning his trilogy, indicating that his films are still on the table.
If Episode 9 manages to match or exceed The Last Jedi at the box-office, that will support those who say only a small minority were boycotting Star Wars. Disney and Lucasfilm will feel vindicated in their direction for the new Star Wars Universe and in their reaction to the Last Jedi backlash. However, if it proves to be a financial disappointment, the DOFs will claim to be vindicated in their boycott and their complaints that Lucasfilm and the reformists are out of touch with what the fans want. They will argue that Episode’s 9 box-office proves they are not a “small minority” and will renew calls for Kennedy to be fired and for Johnson’s trilogy to be officially cancelled.
The one caveat is how far the J.J. Abrams film goes in undoing the damage caused by The Last Jedi. If word of mouth indicates that Abrams was able to right the ship with Episode 9, then that could be enough to draw boycotting fans back into the theater. However, Abrams was recently quoted by Entertainment Weekly as saying the backlash had no effect on how he approached Episode 9.
Captain Marvel isn’t exactly a best-selling comicbook for Marvel Comics. Titles based on the character have been cancelled and rebooted many times in recent years due to low sales. So, it came as a surprise to many that Marvel would choose this mostly unknown character to be their first female lead in a Disney Marvel movie, especially when so many fans had been clamoring for a Black Widow movie instead. But with many of their most popular female characters licensed out to other studios (X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-Woman), there wasn’t much Marvel had left to work with, and certainly no characters on the same level as DC’s Superman and Wonder Woman in terms of sheer power.
Enter Carol Danvers, a character previously known as Ms. Marvel, who was rebooted into the role of comicbook Captain Marvel in 2012.
Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige promised that there would be more women in front of and behind the camera in future Marvel films, which prompted the reformists to praise the move as a step in the right direction for equality and the DOFs to question whether Marvel was about to start focusing on the same identity politics that fractured the Star Wars fanbase.
Captain Marvel actress Brie Larson has said that she sees the movie as an extension of her feminist “activism,” which has upset a number of fans who have taken some of her recent comments to be misandrous and racist against white men. Even though Larson has denied the claims, many fans didn’t feel her denial was genuine. And because Marvel based some of their marketing for the movie on the fact that the character is female, they tapped into the sentiment that the film is being used to advance identity politics. Marvel and the media focused on Captain Marvel being the first female to headline a Marvel movie (1985’s Red Sonja was actually the first female Marvel headliner, but that film was released by MGM and isn’t related to the current Marvel cinematic universe). The original preview emphasized the “her” in “a hero” and subsequent trailers suggested that a recurring theme in the movie is Captain Marvel “rising up” against oppression by men. An article in Forbes highlighted the fact that the character doesn’t have a male love interest in the film, because she has “something better” – a female friendship. The first promo shots of the film were also marketed by Entertainment Weekly with the title, “The Future is Female.” Trivial matters by themselves, according to the reformists, but still enough to raise DOF eyebrows when taken into context alongside Larson’s comments and activism.
After the first trailer was released, a number of fans were underwhelmed and pointed out that Larson looked bored, not showing any variety of facial expression throughout the trailer. The immediate response to that by the reformists and the media was to label that criticism sexist and claim that demanding women smile all the time was a form of oppression. Larson herself responded by posting photos of male Marvel movie actors with smiles superimposed on their faces, centering the controversy on her smile, rather than on what the fans were originally saying – that she looked bored. The DOFs claimed they weren’t demanding that she smile. They just wanted her to emote and any expression would have sufficed.
Rotten Tomatoes, which informally polls fans on whether or not they are interested in seeing a movie prior to its release, indicated that only a stunningly low 26% out of more than 42,000 respondents wanted to see Captain Marvel, with several users commenting that Larson’s personal political antics played a role in them not wanting to see it. The mainstream media lashed out and characterized these results as an orchestrated effort by a small minority of “misogynist trolls” to “review bomb” Captain Marvel even before the movie was released. However, it should be noted that the 26% number was based on poll results and the comments were in reference to why people answered the poll the way they did. They were not reviews of the film. But the ensuing controversy caused Rotten Tomatoes to issue a statement on February 25, saying that they were removing the score and comments from their website altogether. Critics claimed they did this to silence fans and protect Captain Marvel as a likely result of pressure from Disney.
If Captain Marvel stumbles at the box-office, the reformists will say it’s because of angry white men who can’t handle a strong female lead and set out to attack the movie before seeing it. The DOFs will say it’s evidence that Marvel needs to be more careful about making sure they’re not appealing to one portion of their audience by promoting a movie or a lead actress that appears to attack another.
Another source of contention comes from the name of the film. While Marvel Comics currently has the right to the name Captain Marvel, the original Captain Marvel was a character now known in the DC Comics as Shazam! Coincidentally, Warner Bros. Shazam! opens on April 5, only 4 weeks after Captain Marvel. This has triggered the fan rivalry between the two comicbook giants. In looking at the comments on several social media posts related to Captain Marvel, some fans are saying the only Captain Marvel they are interested in seeing “is the REAL Captain Marvel – known as Shazam!”
Shazam! appears to be DC’s most light-heared movie to date, addressing criticism that their recent movies have been “too dark.” The marketing and talent behind the film have also mostly steered clear of any politics or controversy. Still, with opening projections hovering around $45 million and no other major film tying into it, Shazam! is expected to open with only less than half the box-office of Captain Marvel.
With many seeing Captain Marvel as a lead-in to this summer’s Avengers: Endgame, arguably one of the most anticipated movies of 2019, failing to post larger ticket sales than Shazam! would be seen a huge embarrassment for the film among its critics and could ignite accusations from reformists that it was a “sexist audience” that chose to support Shazam! over Captain Marvel only because the lead in Captain Marvel was a woman. If it doesn’t match Wonder Woman’s $821.8 million global haul, DOFs will surely claim it’s because Wonder Woman’s lead actress wasn’t as hostile to her male fanbase and they will point to Wonder Woman’s box-office success and their support of Alita: Battle Angel as proof that Brie Larson being a female isn’t what hurt her movie.
Star Trek: Discovery vs The Orville
Star Trek: Discovery got off to a rough start with some DOFs for taking too many liberties with Star Trek cannon and for not adhering to Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of the future in spirit, theme, or tone, but many also rejected the show for what they felt was heavy-handed politics in the writing and the left-wing political activism by the cast outside of the show. Co-executive producer Aaron Harberts admitted that production on the show began during the 2016 presidential election and that impacted their narratives for the show, with the Klingons being used as an allegory for political conservatives. In the midst of the NFL flag-kneeling controversy, the cast posted a photo of themselves on Instagram taking a knee in solidarity with the football protestors. Many conservatives found that offensive, stating that kneeling during the anthem was disrespectful to military personnel who died defending the country.
The show received praise from reformists for having a diverse cast, including two female leads. But other fans felt they took it to the opposite extreme, presenting a universe that felt like there was a “genocide of white men,” which they said felt inconsistent with other versions of Star Trek set before and after Discovery. When some fans said they found Sonequa Martin-Green’s character to be unlikable, they were accused by the reformists and the media of being racists and sexists, who were unwilling to accept a black female lead, even though DOFs had already accepted Avery Brooks as an African-American lead in Deep Space 9 and Kate Mulgrew as a female lead in Voyager, as well as Uhura and Sulu in the original series. DOFs claimed their legitimate criticisms of Star Trek: Discovery were dismissed and labelled racism and sexism by the reformists.
A number of DOFs have forsaken Discovery in favor of The Orville, saying it feels more like Star Trek than Star Trek. Initially promoted as a spoof of Star Trek, The Orville also features a diverse cast with a fairly even balance between the male and female characters. The storytelling wound up focusing less on comedy and more on tackling the kind of optimistic, thought-provoking human issues that Star Trek fans were looking for in their storylines, rather than the dark, gloomy, pessimistic universe presented in Discovery. Comments posted on social media by many DOFs mentioned how they hated Discovery, but were loving The Orville instead.
But with season 2 of The Orville seeing a dip in ratings, those fond sentiments don’t appear to be turning into actual viewers. Some fans are speculating that Discovery is likely not seeing big ratings either, but no ratings information is available from CBS’ streaming service. However, season 2 of Discovery is already underway and several other Star Trek shows have been announced. If either show fails to secure a 3rd season, the other side of the divided fanbase will claim that as a victory.
Terminator 6 also stepped into the controversy last year when a promotional photo was released, featuring two female characters with Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner off to the side. The press presented the promo photo with the same “the future is female” tagline used with Captain Marvel, saying the film looked as if it was going to focus on “girl power,” with actress Mackenzie Davis taking over the franchise. In regards to the promo photo, one website stated, “For five films we’ve been focusing on Arnold’s muscles and with saving John Connor, but the Terminator franchise seems to be taking a new direction that’s all about the women.”
Though the movie also features Arnold Schwarzenegger, his character was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the character of John Connor, the resistance leader who is supposed to lead the fight against the Terminators in the franchise’s lore. In fact, according to the cast list on IMDB, John Connor isn’t even a character in the movie.
Reports that some sets include immigration camps along the Mexican border have led some to speculate that the film may be used to weigh in on the hot-button topics, like the border wall and immigration, that are dividing so many people in the U.S. Newcomer, Natalia Reyes, confirmed that speculation in an interview with El Pais, where she said Terminator 6 “is going to touch many issues of the border and what is happening in the United States.”
Although Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is considered an iconic sci-fi action female lead, none of the previous films she appeared in went out of their way to focus on the fact that she was female. Reformists see Terminator 6 as a welcome opportunity for strong females to take the lead in the male-dominated sci-fi and action genres. DOFs, however, point out that the sci-fi genre has welcomed strong female leads for decades (Star Wars, Aliens, Resident Evil, Wonder Woman), but the most successful properties didn’t do it by eliminating strong male characters or by disenfranchising their predominantly male audience through exclusionary marketing.
Will removing John Connor from the story, replacing him with an unknown female character, and infusing the plot with contemporary political themes surrounding the US/Mexico border derail Terminator 6’s hopes of reviving the struggling franchise? Will the film learn a lesson from the response to Captain Marvel and steer clear of a marketing campaign that focuses too heavily on gender politics? Will DOFs who felt burned by Disney Star Wars be unwilling to see another one of their favorite franchises turned over to a new generation of new, young characters?
If the film flops, reformists will say it’s was either because of a sexist response to the female leads or because the franchise was already dead going in. DOFs, however, will point to the film following in the path of The Last Jedi, by sidelining popular older characters, directing marketing against a large portion of their fanbase, and interjecting non-related, real-world, subjective politics into the story, rather than using politics that spring from a natural and logical extension of the characters in their pre-existing universe.
The Core Arguments To Be Decided in 2019
The battle between the reformists and the DOFs seems to boil down to two main arguments.
The reformists are saying that if the DOFs are not sexist, racist, anti-gay xenophobes, then they shouldn’t have an issue with these groups being better represented in entertainment. They say focusing on politics is nothing new to entertainment, suggesting that DOFs are only upset because it’s no longer their politics being featured and if it’s something that bothers them so much, then they have the freedom to not watch it, but they don’t have the right to attack it. They argue that white males have been the center of attention for long enough and they should be willing to share some of that space with people who have been denied equal opportunities and that, in turn, will draw a bigger crowd to these entertainment properties, making them more profitable than they were before.
On the other hand, the DOFs are saying if it’s so important for certain groups and political ideologies to be represented in entertainment, the reformists should create new stories and new characters that focus on those things and let them stand on their own merit, rather than taking over an existing beloved franchise and turning it into something unrecognizable and unappealing to the original fanbase in an effort to push their social agendas and then attacking those fans when they say they aren’t happy about it. They use the term “get woke, go broke” to emphasize the fact that the reformists’ approach to entertainment is rarely successful because most people want entertainment without lectures or moral posturing and that marketing shouldn’t deride the core audience. They accuse the reformists of insincere virtue signaling and of using ad hominem condemnation of their critics to mask their attempts at left-wing political indoctrination and their inability to produce entertainment that connects with the audience in a meaningful way.
2019 won’t see the end of these battles, but it will give both sides an opportunity to claim decisive victories.