Destroy All Monsters: THE PHANTOM MENACE Started The Conversation On Fan Entitlement

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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.

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George LucasStar WarsStar Wars Episode I: The Phantom MenaceHarrison FordAlec GuinnessMark HamillJames Earl JonesActionAdventureSci-Fi

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obijuanmartinezJune 8, 2016 10:53 AM

“… Three fart jokes. Count them – three. I remember reading somewhere that Lucas wanted this film to be an epic on the scale of Lawrence of Arabia, which, strangely enough, features no fart jokes at all."

— Chris Gore, FilmThreat.com, May 8, 2002

Niels MatthijsJune 8, 2016 11:08 AM

Don't think people would mind so much if we'd actually be talking "artmaking". But film these days, blockbusters in particular are more about mass appeal and making money, not about translating the vision of a director to the screen.

Many people are just acting accordingly, posing much more like consumers rather than art fans. Question is, can you blame them?

Matt BrownJune 8, 2016 12:03 PM

Good lord was it three? I only remember the one.

Ian NathansonJune 8, 2016 12:20 PM

The lack of understanding from Hollywood of what makes a film "good" and "works" is at the heart of this rather than entitlement.

The premise of a remake is that if we use the same or similar story that's updated for the times with new technology and new "hot" actors but with none of the other factors that made the original good like the writers, directors, producers, composers, editors, actors, etc...then we can recreate the success of that film for a new generation quickly and easily because it can be processed by corporate film making world since they know what a "Ghostbusters" is in terms of audience, budget, plot rather than an original idea where, "No one knows how to market this thing!"

Please look at the parallels with any other commercial artform before you start name calling. What happens when popular "hot" music artists cover classic cherished songs?

You get the same visceral feedback from the community on every level.

Limp Bizkit covering The Who's "Behind Blue Eyes" or Avril Lavigne covering John Lennon's "Imagine"

(Feel free to read more on the lists below. If you are a music lover, they will probably make you not happy.)

Are all remakes and cover songs bad? Not at all!

If done for the right reasons like the corrupted buzz phrases "Going back to the source material" or "having a new take on it" can produce some great results but just like any other form it's hard to create good art so a John Carpenter's "The Thing" or Jimmi Hendrix covering Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" is an even rarer thing.

If it's not done right, it is an absolute "money grab" trying to use a formula they think works while choosing once again not to produce an original piece of work out of the limited amount of productions per year.

Now combine that thinking with discussions on homages and remix culture and you can actually have a good well thought out article.

http://www.rollingstone.com/mu...
http://www.nme.com/list/miley-...
http://www.complex.com/music/2...

hurinJune 8, 2016 12:29 PM

This must be the dumbest use of gamedropping so far.

JahsoldierJune 8, 2016 1:36 PM

I could be remembering wrong, but I seem to remember the enormous level of excitement in the run-up to TPM being released. No one thought it could go wrong. And when it did, it was like the end of the 60's for sci fi geeks everywhere. I think the hate for TPM grew with the release of Clone Wars and reached its full pinnacle with the final "Noooooooo...." Personally I love watching the deconstruction of those movies by Red Letter more than I care to watch the films again. They weren't made for me and I am ok with that :)

SmazeliJune 8, 2016 8:12 PM

It's a nice narrative to chart crazed fandom starting with the release of the Phantom Menace. But violent fandom existed way before that. The voice actors for Tiny Toons had to bring bodyguards to the studios to protect them from adult stalkers. Celebrities were being stalked and threatened by crazed fans for as long as film existed. Prior to that, royalty and entertainers had to put up with it. Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes commit suicide, intending to end the series, and had to bring him back to life due to fan outcry.

Not to mention all the riots over the outcome of sports matches. As far as toxic fandom goes, I think a body count over soccer games ranks a few places higher than upset message board posts complaining about Star Wars.

Gopal NatarajanJune 8, 2016 11:04 PM

Somewhat ironic that the author criticizes "the belief that the paying customer has the right to have the product exactly the way they want it," yet that is the very basis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Seems like the studios aren't as put out by the fanboi "entitlement" complex as the author would have us believe.

Ms_FortuneJune 9, 2016 2:18 AM

"the belief that the paying customer has the right to have the product exactly the way they want it"

Well you can't please everyone but the paying customer does at leave some right to a product that will ultimately good, problem is to many movies don't really fall under that criteria, especially when you get into remake territory, then its like the director has no clue what made the originals good.

obijuanmartinezJune 9, 2016 9:04 AM

Let's see: The Eeopie tooting at Jar Jar & Jar Jar stepping 'in it' were the only ones I could recall offhand. This one's another great quote that sums up the 'Emperor Has No Clothes' syndrome I associate w/ TPM:

“…I can accept that a project this large could sink under its own weight, and that its most pressing issues were too fundamental to the material to have been amended through simple suggestion. But how is it possible that of the hundreds of people materially and emotionally invested in the production of this project, nobody pointed out that maybe Jar-Jar stepping in s**t did not belong in this movie?”

— Calum Marsh, SlantMagazine.com, February 2012

Less Lee MooreJune 9, 2016 2:54 PM

Interrupting my read to have a hearty laugh at this truth bomb: "translate this as: he can't write dialogue, and doesn't really care, cuz podrace" hahaha! Best.