To paraphrase something Bruce Banner once said, “Don’t make the fans angry. You wouldn’t like them when they’re angry.”
Since the advent of social media, fans have increasingly had an online outlet to express their euphoria in glorious, crowd-pleasing moments—and to vent their white-hot, dragon-fire rage when their beloved franchises veer in directions they deem unacceptable.
In fact, we’ve seen it twice just this week with Game of Throne’s series-ending finale as well as the announcement of a new Batman actor (which I’ll get to in a moment).
But let’s start with GoT, as the superfans abbreviate HBO’s graphic, cinematic adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy saga. The series wrapped its eighth and final season Sunday night. I won’t spoil the end for the three people on Earth who don’t know. But suffice it to say fans didn’t like it.
Not. One. Bit.
How much did they despise the conclusion? Erm … a lot. One of the hottest viral trends on Twitter this week is the use of the word unsubscribe, a reference to how disappointed Thrones fans hope to punish HBO.
— Rahil (@rahilofficial) May 20, 2019
Other fans are petitioning for HBO to undertake a “do-over” on the entire final season. So far, a whopping 1.3 million of ’em have signed the change.org document asking for a reboot that, no doubt, is never going to happen.
But Game of Thrones fans’ have nothing on Batman aficionados. They hated George Clooney and they hated Ben Affleck behind the Caped Crusader’s cowl. So, no big surprise they’re hating on the latest actor tapped for that iconic role as well: Robert Pattinson. Yes, that Robert Pattison, of shiny vampire fame from Twilight. (Perhaps his Batman costume will sparkle tellingly in direct sunlight?)
As we saw with Game of Thrones, fans are firing off Twitter attacks galore, as well as multiple online petitions (the weapon du jour of today’s indignant superfan). One such petition implores, “Don’t make the Batfleck mistake again. Don’t do it. For the love of all that is holy, stop trashing the DC Universe.”
Clearly fans of these beloved franchises are angry. And online, everyone can hear you stream.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this fan backlash culture emerged. But I’ll take an admittedly arbitrary shot and suggest that it was almost exactly 20 years ago, when Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace arrived to epic expectations … and yielded similar levels of epic disappointment among the Force faithful. (Really? Darth Vader started out as a little boy who couldn’t act named … Annie? Really?)
Then again, maybe we need to go back another 22 years, to 1977, when Happy Days’ Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli tried to steal a bit of Jaws cultural thunder in desperate media ploy that infamously involved jumping a shark while waterskiing. (Hence the phrase, “Jump the shark.”)
Sharks and midi-chlorians aside, I think it’s worth reflecting for a moment on what’s going on here.
Though mine is an anecdotal, not a sociologically tested, hypothesis, I’d suggest that cultural identification with fictional characters is at a high-water mark. We’re looking and longing for meaning. We’re drawn into well-told stories with iconic characters we relate to deeply.
And—this might be the key—the online experience gives us a public space to yowl our displeasure at the top of our lungs when we think those stories go awry. It’s something that apparently we must feel empowering, as lots of folks are certainly doing it.
But I wonder if there’s also something even deeper at work here, too. Endings are tricky because there’s so much at stake, especially after eight seasons of a show like Game of Thrones. Even though fans have seen plenty of unhappy moments throughout this violent series, fans still longed for an ending that would satisfy them, that somehow made the journey worthwhile and meaningful.
They didn’t get it. And they’re seriously mad about it.
We all long for an ending that makes sense of the journey, and the painful turns and twists it’s taken along the way. Star Wars (the original trilogy) had one. So did The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And the Harry Potter saga.
Game of Thrones? Lost? Seinfeld?
Yeah, not so much.
(And while we’re at it, I’m just gonna throw Star Wars: Episode Eight – The Last Jedi under the bus one more time. Talk about a disappointment! I mean, Leia floating through space … Man, don’t even get me started!)