Destroy All Monsters: THE PHANTOM MENACE Started The Conversation On Fan Entitlement
We are in the midst of a renewed conversation about fandom's relationship with the properties they cherish. This is thanks in no small part to (of all things!) a white male internet dweeb proclaiming to all who would listen that he is putting his foot down and not watching Ghostbusters this summer. Honestly: if you had told me three years ago that the Ghostbusters remake would a) happen and b) become the most heavily politicized film of the year, I'd have taken you to see Dr. Spengler with a colander on your head.
We're doing a good job of debating the particulars - is it fan fiction's fault? What's the connection to GamerGate? Who on earth identifies this heavily with Ghostbusters, for crying out loud? - but it might be worthwhile to follow the river back to its source. If there is a Ground Zero for the property we now identify as "fan entitlement," I'd enthusiastically posit that the Ground Zero in question is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Don't like The Phantom Menace? Hey, cool, you're not alone. Like, legendarily not alone, on the level of empirical truths which cross all pop cultural boundaries: everybody* hates The Phantom Menace.
(*They don't, obviously. People who grew up on the prequel trilogy, and folks who just plain liked 'em the first time around, are a growing voice in pop culture - rapidly becoming primary, in fact. But for the sake of this argument let's pretend the common wisdom is true and that "everybody" hates The Phantom Menace.)
There are a few confluences around The Phantom Menace that are worth examining. The first is the nature of the thing itself: while fan-targeted film franchises have been around forever (well, okay, maybe only since Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979), was The Phantom Menace the first time that a cherished property on that scale (it's hard to imagine a bigger popular success in the latter half of the 20th century than the Star Wars trilogy) received a decades-later rekindling?
We see this all the time, nowadays; remakes (Ghostbusters) and reboots (The Amazing Spider-Man) and "soft" reboots (The Force Awakens) and sequels (Rocky Balboa) and spinoffs (Creed) and prequels (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and reborquels (Star Trek).
The Phantom Menace certainly ignited the prequel craze, but on a longer timescale, I'd say it also cemented 21st century Hollywood's predilection for grabbing Generations X and Y's favourite pop cultural capital from the '70s and '80s; putting a new, spiffy spin on it; and trotting out the recognizeable brand for a bit of easy money.
The second Phantom Menace confluence: released in 1999, the arrival of the film coincided nicely with the radical growth spurt of the internet itself; and perhaps more importantly, with the explosion of what we can call "user-generated content." Ain't It Cool News was basically built, ground-up, on the successes of reporting on Star Wars before and after the fact. All the gajillion sites (like this one!) that followed did so in its model: handing authorial voice over to untrained, enthusiastic laymen and dilettantes who had opinions on film and pop culture that they wanted to share.
(Hi! I'm one of them! This is my column! Hi.)
The democratizing, and amplifying, effects of the internet bring us to the third confluence: on the terms set out above, The Phantom Menace was certainly the first major disappointment that emerged among all these tendencies and trends. Sure, it made a shit-ton of money and the reviews were generally pretty positive; but as a virtual cottage industry of TPM criticism can now attest, Episode I didn't get where the Star Wars fans who craved it wanted it to go.
And because (confluence 1) of the size of Star Wars' importance in pop culture, and because (confluence 2) all those disappointed people have spent the last fifteen years venting their spleen about it to one another online, we arrive at the aforementioned empirical truth about The Phantom Menace: it let its fans down. And, perhaps crucially, its fans let everybody know it.
This would be a good time to ask an important question: who was the Star Wars prequel trilogy made for?
Lucas has maintained that Star Wars has always been a series of childrens' movies, and that the prequels are no different. This doesn't quite tally with one ostensible market reality that drove the creation of these films - that the (now adult) fans of the original Star Wars would be a major contributor to its success - but it's certainly possible that Lucas, and LucasFilm, never factored how much those same adult Star Wars fans would continue to cherish the trilogy they saw when they were kids as though it were, for all intents and purposes, a contemporary, relevant property.
The fracas around the Special Edition edits to the original trilogy (serious concerns around film preservation notwithstanding) is pretty much about this. Star Wars never "aged" the way we might expect other decades-old popcorn movies to age; the people who loved it (and continue to love it, even today) are as invested in it as they were in 1977. As such, we can claim another empirical truth: nobody except Lucas wanted newer, spiffier versions of movies that they considered to be just fine in their original forms. Star Wars could have been re-released to theatres in 1997 without a single frame changed in its twenty year history and it still would have made a pantload of money, because the majority of the audience was there to see Star Wars, not CGI.
But let's take Lucas at his word and presume that when designing and creating The Phantom Menace, he was intentionally trying to make a movie for children. There's some credibility to this: the nine-year-old protagonist (?); the brash, cartoonish alien creatures (Jar Jar, Boss Nass, Watto, the Neimoidians, the battle droids, etc., etc., etc.); the fart jokes. On a more serious note, Lucas' career-long foregrounding of graphic storytelling over literary storytelling (translate this as: he can't write dialogue, and doesn't really care, cuz podrace) certainly suggests that children would have an inherent facility with his work. That the work is effective on adults, too, is perhaps beside the point.
Fine, The Phantom Menace is a kids' movie; but it's also a prequel to a cherished fan property, trading on filling in the gaps of an existing story. There's an understandable mixed message here: how can a film seem to be for us, and yet not be for us, at the same time?
This leads us to where the concept of fan entitlement really gets its engine revving: Fans seem to really, really, really hate it when there is the presumption, or even the unspoken suggestion, that they themselves might not be the principal, targeted consumer of the product at hand.
This is what drove the Ghostbusters guy insane: Flapjacks McMonkeynuts (sorry, I can't be bothered to google his name) couldn't handle the idea that a movie could come out, sharing the title of a film from 30 years ago that he really loves, and that he - and people like him - might not be the primary audience that the studio was courting. (Again: primary audience. God forbid a white fanboy get dumped down to a secondary consideration in a marketing spreadsheet.)
Weirdly, this is something our generation is going to have to get used to. As much as the identifiable brands of our childhood are from our childhood, which might be causing the confusion, we're probably not the major market for their remakes/reboots/relaunches.
Further, we don't own them. We never did. Our ability to identify a title like Big Trouble In Little China is not why Fox is remaking that film. They're just hoping that the rocket fuel of our conversations around it (again, user-generated content) will light up a marketing campaign that will position the movie to younger, more lucrative clients.
This raises an interesting question of what the "Anticipation Industrial Complex" - Comic Con, and everything like it - is for. We get served out teasers for trailers, and logos for movies that won't be released for years, and we tweet about it, and write about it, and podcast about it. Importantly, regardless of the medium, we make noise about it. Free noise, that becomes marketing. And all that noise is probably good noise regardless of whether we're being positive or negative. Film Twitter might be able to take down a Nina if we work really hard, but all our griping didn't slow Batman v. Superman down much. (Much.)
In the meantime, we have fan entitlement. The belief, on whatever level, that something fan-skewing should service the whims and needs of the fans to whom it skews.
This was the great outcome of The Phantom Menace, another one of those empirical truths: "well, it should have been this way." That "should" is a very powerful thing; it conjures the notion of a pristine, Socratic version of a mooted film project, which would be "right" if the stupid filmmakers didn't go and fuck it all up, by having opinions that differ from those of whoever is doing the complaining.
The Phantom Menace was an emboldening experience for that line of thinking. Again, in everyone's* opinion, Lucas (the original creator! Not to be trusted with his own work!) got it wrong. And the fact that it was everyone's opinion - that each new Red Letter Media video or epic-length think piece would only embroider a deeply-held empirical truth, like scholars annotating the Torah - set up a very basic, very stupid, conceit:
That we were "right" and Lucas was "wrong."
Welp. I'm here to tell you: artmaking is not democratic, and never has been. Anyone who didn't like The Phantom Menace was right about exactly one thing: that they didn't like The Phantom Menace. And yes, they can write a film review about that if that is their mien.
But every other jerry-rigged assumption that grows from that place, up to and including the justifiability of the creative decisions of the filmmakers, is the whining of a spoiled kid who didn't get what he wanted for Christmas. Sorry kids: sometimes you don't get what you want for Christmas. If you haven't figured that out yet, stop asking for presents and get a damn job.
But the industry's seeming urge to appease and/or kowtow to fan opinion, up to and including the first spoken line of The Force Awakens being "this will begin to make things right" as though that movie were an active apology for a whole trilogy of prior films, suggests that a loud enough temper tantrum will generate results. And hey, sometimes it certainly does.
Take that spoiled-kid philosophy and apply to all, though, for the way we have been talking about these kinds of movies, and TV shows, and comic books, and regular books, ever since. We treat daily with this poisonous idea that we're owed the thing we want for Christmas; when we want it, how we want it, and as often as we want it. And if we don't get it, maybe we can throw a hissy-fit loud enough to force our parents to relent.
I don't blame The Phantom Menace for any of this, of course. It Perfect Stormed a series of tendencies that were lying in wait in people my age and slightly older, and created a manner of dialogue that has become increasingly shrill, year by year, till we arrive at the present day.
On the one hand, it's an outgrowth of the weird perversion of the American Dream we seem to be living: the idea that everyone is owed success (read: happiness), rather than just opportunity (read: opportunity).
On the other hand, there's a strong, obvious tie to consumer culture, which has overtaken institutions from university education to privacy: the belief that the paying customer has the right to have the product exactly the way they want it, with blockbuster movies in this example now truly becoming something akin to fast food.
Of course, none of this makes a lick of sense, and betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of how movies actually work and what movies actually are. But hey, when did that ever stop anyone?
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.