Is it Possible for a Fanboy to Be a Good Critic?
We live in the age of the fanboy and girl.
Massive movie franchises based off comic books dominate our theatre screens. Old fan properties from the 1980s and 1990s like Jurassic Park and Star Wars are being revived to feed future generations of geeks. Events like the San Diego Comic Con have seemingly swallowed the industry whole, forcing studios to compete with each other for the intense adoration of zealous but hypercritical uberfans. Sequels and adaptations and remakes and reboots of genre films top the year end box office. This focused targeting of fanboys and girls has overwhelmed the movie industry. And film criticism has drastically changed to follow suit.
While the past century of film criticism was dominated by individuals like Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris who certainly loved movies but gave no specific favour to one genre or franchise, so long as the movies were good, our new millennium has seen the rise of critics with unabashed pop-culture biases. Websites like Ain’t It Cool News, Birth Movies Death, Cinema Blend, Comic Book Movie, JoBlo, Screen Rant, and Slash Film now control the movie news landscape, publishing dozens of articles each day that repurpose studio promotional material into empty clickbait. There are good articles to be found at many of these websites, but they sit uncomfortably alongside naked promotion for whatever fan property is deemed worthy of our collective attention.
Even older and once-respected publications like Entertainment Weekly have changed their entire mission statement to go after fanboys and girls, playing into franchise popularity and diluting any critical remove they used to have. Geeks have inherited the earth, and they inherited film criticism along with it. This being the case, film criticism is faced with an enormous question: is it possible for fanboys and girls to be good film critics?
The answer is a resounding no.
This is not to say that a film critic cannot be a fan of franchises. But there’s a difference between being a fan and being a fanboy or girl. To be a fan means to love something dearly. The connotation is enthusiasm and adoration for an artistic properly. Film critics are (generally) fans of movies. They’d be writing about books or television or video games or theatre if they didn’t love movies more. And many film critics are fans of various filmmakers or franchises. For instance, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of The Onion A.V. Club and Bilge Ebiri of New York Magazine are both fans of the films of Paul W.S. Anderson (the Resident Evil franchise) and Drew McWeeney of Hitfix (who cut his teeth as Moriarty at the granddaddy of fanboy and girl movie sites, Ain’t It Cool News) is an out-and-out Star Wars fan. But just because these critics are unabashed fans doesn’t meant they allow their love of film properties to override their rational faculties. They let their love of these films inspire critical examination, not discount it. They write about these movies because they love them, and their writing on these films doesn’t merely serve to praise them, but instead examine what they’re doing and why they’re worthy of discussion.
Therein lies the crux of why a fanboy or girl cannot be a good film critic. A good critic approaches a film with an open mind and seeks to intelligently discuss what a film is doing, narratively, formally and thematically, and whether it is successful. Every critic will obviously come to a film with his or her own biases, but a good critic will be able to explore a film with a generous level of rational consideration regardless of his or her assumptions.
Fanboy and girl critics don’t set aside their biases when engaging with films. They embrace those biases and allow them to determine their identities. Being a fanboy or girl means allowing the love of a property to overwhelm any critical perspective. If you’re a Marvel fanboy or girl, you automatically love each new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You don’t love the films because they’re well-made entertainment (although many of them are), but because you love Marvel and the films are Marvel properties, and, thus, have to be great. You cannot be a good critic if your engagement with film is entirely devoid of critical evaluation.
As well, when fanboy and girl film critics do engage in criticism, they take the word too literally, merely nitpicking narrative and criticizing every perceived error. Honest Trailers, Cinema Sins, and the whole monstrous engine that is Red Letter Media are not examples of legitimate criticism, but of hypercritical nitpicking. Alfred Hitchcock would’ve gone mad if such critics existed in his day. Fanboy and girl criticism is aggravatingly literal-minded. Discussion of narrative coherence and editing continuity are legitimate topics to discuss about a movie, but they are not the entirety of expert film criticism. In fact, overly focusing on narrative can distract from what a film is truly doing, be if formally or thematically. Fanboy and girl film criticism never considers that a film might deliberately be incoherent or confound conventions. This means that critics who cannot contemplate these possibilities never explore the deeper meaning of many films.
For example, the famous Red Letter Media takedown of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace is hailed in the fanboy and girl community as the definitive explanation of the prequels’ failures, but it is really just angry fanboy ranting about why a new entry in a beloved fan property doesn’t conform to individual expectations. It never seeks to explore what George Lucas is actually doing in the prequel trilogy—considerations of quality aside. Instead, it merely seeks to tear apart a property that has drawn the ire of the fanboy and girl community. The unsound reasoning behind the video is that because The Phantom Menace does not reflect the Star Wars property as Red Letter Media co-founder Mike Stoklasa envisions it, the film is not true Star Wars and thus a worthless abomination. The entire review is founded on a belief of being entitled to Star Wars one way, and then expressing outrage when Star Wars is delivered another way. As renowned Canadian film critic Geoff Pevere puts it, “the more interesting question than ‘Is this a good Star Wars movie?’ is ‘Is this Star Wars movie any good?’” Sadly, fanboy and girl criticism is only interested in the former question—and only in so far as Star Wars conforms to their notion of what constitutes a Star Wars film.
Fanboy and girl criticism is all fueled by entitlement. Fanboys and girls believe they are co-owners of the properties they love. Their definitions of good and bad are defined by whether a film coddles this ludicrous opinion by playing to their expectations or outwardly defies them. Films that perform shameless fan service are considered good by fanboys and girls (as in the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and films that ignore fan desires are considered bad (as in the case of the Star Wars prequels).
Fanboys and girls are not capable of being good film critics because they allow the identity of a film to determine its worth, not the filmmaking. If a critic loves or hates films passionately and against all reason, how can that critic ever be expected to discuss films with any measure of critical accuracy? The entire definition of good criticism is rational examination!
There is no intellectual generosity in fanboy and girl film critics, and, thus, no chance to discuss movies with any curiosity and genuine insight. The emotions these critics feel about films are real and should be acknowledged as such. But just because these critics are earnest in their opinions on film does not mean their opinions are worthwhile. As well, fanboys and girls might write for popular movie sites that reach hundreds of thousands of online readers, but reach doesn’t determine worth. A pithy tweet about Jurassic World might get thousands of retweets, but that doesn’t make it good criticism.
It good criticism hopes to survive into the future, it needs to resist the gravitational pull of fanboy and girl culture. It it doesn’t, film criticism will become just another shallow commodity, and the studios will have won.
This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.