Who would have thought a Paul Feig comedy could be so controversial? The director who gave us broad comedies like Bridesmaids (2011) and Spy (2015) returns with a reboot of 1984’s Ghostbusters, replacing the all-male leads with a quartet of ladies (gasp!), and unwittingly unleashing a torrent of vitriol from the internet’s darkest corners.
Unhappy fans of the original were quick to express their distaste. Social media was inundated with outrage. The trailer swiftly became the most disliked video on YouTube. Prominent vlog reviewer James Rolfe set off a fierce debate after explaining to his two million subscribers why he wouldn’t be covering it. At its most extreme, the ‘criticism’ turned violent, with Feig reportedly receiving death threats.
What is it about a pretty funny ‘80s comedy primarily distinguished by the incandescent performance of Bill Murray that inspires such anger from its fans? Sexism is a driving force for the naysayers who describe themselves as ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ – a nebulous group whose misogynistic ranting are ubiquitous on modern social media. But the folderol around the film is also part of Internet fandom’s shifting tides, as the fan morphs from enthusiast to zealot.
In the internet’s early days, technological prophets foresaw online forums as empowering fans to erode the divisions between ‘creator’ and ‘consumer’. After early online fanfiction communities blossomed, ardent rewatching was facilitated by streaming, and YouTube mashups let fans choose and share their own , much of today’s fan culture is dominated by social media campaigns.
Before Twitter and its ilk, fans wanting to express their opinions were limited to letters. Online interactions are easier and far more public, allowing conversations to transform into activism or downright harassment as a swarm of users add their voices. If fandom has become a new religion, then the internet is its church.
The internet has amplified fans’ voices and what they’re often saying is, “Stop doing things differently”. The popularity of petitions – whether demanding that shoot-‘em-up video game Mass Effect 3 revise its conclusion or to return George Lucas to the Star Wars franchise – is indicative of fans’ distaste for the unexpected.
What’s more, fans feel entitled to have their voices heard. It’s easy to see why, when contemporary Hollywood increasingly exploits existing fan bases. Since Snakes on a Plane (2006) undertook reshoots to incorporate fans’ imagined dialogue after its title became an unexpected sensation online, movie studios have pandered to readymade audiences in the hunt for greater profits.
And as the age of bankable stars comes to a close and blockbuster budgets skyrocket, what sells movies nowadays is the franchise: Harry Potter or Marvel or Minions. It’s become a financial imperative to give fans exactly what they want. The negative reaction to Ghostbusters is as much a fear of change as it is sexist.
Where comic book movies once cautiously courted mainstream audiences with accessible origin stories, now the most obscure characters and storylines hit the silver screen in CGI-enhanced 3D. Fandoms have become so large to forego the need to appeal to the so-called ‘mainstream’ audience. Tellingly, the recent trailer for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel eschewed any hint of plot or tone to deliver a laundry list of characters, concluding with the tagline: “Everything A Fan Wants”.
It’s not merely the movies and their marketing, either. Online media’s pop culture coverage increasingly caters to fans, where production particulars equal clicks. No longer the domain of Variety’s insider baseball, countless publications pore over the finest details of the upcoming Star Wars instalment or Game of Thrones episode. Would the reshoots of Rogue One or the appearance of Kit Harington with scraggly hair really have been breaking news 20 years ago?
Recently, popular film site Birth.Movies.Death – in between breathlessly dissecting the latest morsel of superhero movie news – declared that “fandom was broken.” It’s easy to share their pessimism. But the increasing importance of fans is far from an entirely negative phenomenon. For each anonymous Twitter account accusing critics of corruption, there’s an activist pushing for progressive change in pop culture.
There’s a world of difference between the Ghostbusters commotion and earnest fan campaigns intended to repair problems in the industry. Take, for example, the uproar in response to television series The 100 killing off a prominent lesbian character. The conversation that ensued highlighted how such decisions perpetuate the victimisation of queer characters and even prompted an apology from series creator Jason Rothenberg.
The celebration of queerness in fan culture is a flipside to the sexism spewed at those behind the new Ghostbusters movie. For years, queer representation in prominent pop culture franchises has been limited to subtextual winks and nudges, while ‘slash’ fanfiction imagined every same-sex pairing imaginable. It’s only thanks to fan pressure that the inclusion of queer characters mainstream movies – like upcoming Frozen and Star Wars sequels – feels legitimately likely.
The rise of social media and franchises alike has empowered fans. But the disparate ways in which fan communities have reacted to this newfound agency brings to mind a quote familiar to any comic book fan: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
An edited version of this article was published in Edition 515 of The Big Issue.