What Justice League Tells Us About Toxic Fan Culture

It's not just Donald Trump who's obsessed with fake news. A subsection of movie fans convinced critics are out to destroy their favourite comic book franchise are beginning to look similarly paranoid. We look at this increasingly toxic online discourse

Feature by Christopher Machell | 29 Nov 2017
  • Justice League

It's no secret that Warner Bros' answer to Marvel's Cinematic Universe – the DC Extended Universe – has gotten off to a few false starts. The first entry, Man of Steel, received mixed reviews, and its follow-ups, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, were critically panned. Only Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman has thus far broke the series' losing streak. Latest instalment, Justice League, has fared only slightly better than Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad.

Yet the DCEU's critical maulings have hardly dampened hardcore fans' enthusiasm for the series. Indeed, a small but significant base of fans have become even more zealous in their fervour for the antics of the caped crusader and his super friends. There are even campaigns for fans to see the film multiple times to make up for its lower-than-expected box office takings, and for the studio to release director Zack Snyder's original cut before his departure from the project.

Passionate fan cultures in science fiction and fantasy are nothing new, of course – one need only look at properties like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Buffy the Vampire Slayer to see that. And most fan spaces are an inclusive and diverse place that welcome and connect people through their shared passions. But there is a growing trend in modern – invariably male – fan culture that is suspicious both of criticism and anyone perceived as outside 'the club'. Worse still, there is a contingent of hyper-masculine fandom that increasingly resembles the paranoid, chest-beating 'fake news' rhetoric of contemporary far-right political discourse.

Campaigns have been started by some fans to try to 'shut down' Rotten Tomatoes, spuriously claiming that the website is biased against the DCEU, conveniently ignoring that Wonder Woman currently sits at 92% 'fresh'. Unsurprisingly, Wonder Woman is the only film in the franchise starring and directed by a woman. Claims that Rotten Tomatoes is biased against the series are easily disprovable: the website does not review films – as a review aggregator it merely collates reviews and averages out the score to determine whether a film is 'fresh' or 'rotten'.

Moreover, as Warner Bros holds a stake in Rotten Tomatoes, it hardly stands to reason that the studio would be an active player in a conspiracy against themselves. The Rotten Tomatoes petition is not only a case of wilfully misunderstanding how the review aggregator works, but also tells us something about the sense of ownership that some fans feel over their favourite franchise.

These campaigns might appear harmless enough, but cries of conspiracy on social media and online forums are indicative of a mindset where facts can be distorted to fit a narrative of perceived victimisation by a cabal of malicious critics. The anonymity afforded by internet forums has surely fuelled the cycle of baseless claims and conspiracy theorising, and where there is only one correct and simplistic point of view, petitions to 'shut down' criticism and expose fanciful conspiracies are symptomatic of a toxic, self-perpetuating insularity. It’s a discourse that echoes much of the paranoid, manufactured victimhood of the alt-/far-right.

The culture of entitlement can partially be attributed to the studios that capitulate to the demands of vocal audiences; the numerous reshoots, rewrites and 'course corrections' of the DCEU franchise in response to fan complaints has meant that audiences have become active participants in the films’ productions. This feeds the intense sense of ownership over the series that many feel, but when filmmakers use the 'we made it for the fans, not the critics' cliché in response to poor reviews, they also perpetuate the myth that critics are engaged in a poorly-defined conspiracy against the success of their movies.

Critics have often been accused of bias or of being out of touch with average cinemagoers' tastes, but the recent backlash against criticism seems particularly baseless. There is an “I'm right, you're wrong” mentality that forgets a film's quality can't and should not be measured objectively, and it fosters a culture that is suspicious of any dissenting viewpoint. Anyone who is not already a die-hard fan simply doesn't 'get' the material, and is therefore insufficiently qualified to judge its artistic merit. This has also been seen in other male-dominated fan cultures, such as the ludicrous boycott of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by racist fans objecting to John Boyega's black stormtrooper, and the 2014 'Gamergate' controversy where female video games critics were viciously targeted and attacked online. While the debates around Justice League are nowhere near as extreme, petitions to 'shut down' criticism suggest a similarly toxic culture of suspicion and exclusion.

Both the paranoid conspiracy-theorising and the setting up of critics versus audiences damage film culture. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a film like Justice League while acknowledging its flaws, while poor reviews need not detract from an individual's enjoyment of a film. Indeed, the vast majority of Justice League's fans accept that the film isn't perfect and are open to and welcoming of new perspectives. Simply put, most people just want to get on with enjoying and sharing their passions. But there is an increasingly vocal minority of fans who use their fandom to bludgeon and exclude outsiders, quiet dissenting voices and 'shut down' criticism. The parallels with right wing political discourse are difficult to deny.

The role of film critics here is crucial. Critics offer up new perspectives that help to frame honest debate around film, and this must include a degree of self-examination. We must confront toxic discourse in film culture, and challenge the misconception that critics are somehow at odds with the interests of audiences. This means engaging openly and honestly with fans – only in exchanging dialogue can general audiences, fans and critics come together to de-toxify the discursive spaces around film and its fan cultures.

Justice League is released by Warner Bros and is in cinemas now