The Internet – a world of obsession that obliterates the line between love and hatred. In nearly every category of hobby or life, people will latch onto the tiniest tidbit of news or (mis)information to declare a project the worst thing ever; dead from the get go. Be it an unsubstantiated rumor, a set photo, or a potential casting choice, people, even self-proclaimed fans, are chomping at the bit to rejoice over a movie’s catastrophic failure before the cameras have even started rolling. Yet, for as prevalent as this form of panic is, Internet kneejerks often focus on the wrong things, if not being outright wrong. (And besides, for all the ranting and meme-ing everything into oblivion, it’s not as if we’re not going to see these movies).
Internet kneejerking is perhaps nowhere as common as with superhero movies (and similar, nostalgia-fueled action franchises). From writer to director to actors to set design, online enclaves are hardly ever universally positive about their favorite heroes and villains’ live action counterparts. It doesn’t matter how or why, but we’ll always find something to latch onto to exemplify our displeasure. I should note here that I will be using the pronoun “we” throughout the article. And I use “we” because it is “us.” If you’re reading film commentary, it’s because you like to read about, analyze, and contemplate movies. Does “we” refer to everyone at every time? No. Are we all necessarily kneejerks? Not necessarily. Am I using broad strokes? Of course I am – I’m on the Internet, writing about the Internet.
So with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s look at recent fodder for Internet kneejerks. We complained about Jared Leto being cast as The Joker in Suicide Squad, then we complained about his tattoos (understandably so), then we complained about his car, then we complained about his jacket. Though when we actually got to see him in action in the Suicide Squad trailer, he came across as something positively Joker-y. It remains to be seen whether the already stuffed-to-the-brim-with-characters Suicide Squad will end up suffering as a result of infusing (and presumably bolstering the role of) the Clown Prince of Crime into its proceedings. If that’s the case, then costuming is the least of our problems. (Similar to how the diversity-friendly casting of Johnny Storm ended up being a non-issue when faced with all the other failures in the recent Fantastic Four).
Needless to say, for the number of times we’ve been right (e.g. the recent Fantastic Four reboot, which was a great example of the studio using bad/no publicity to temper our expectations), we’ve been wrong countless others. People initially complained about the choice of Heath Ledger as the choice of The Joker, and he ended up giving lazy people a Halloween costume for nearly a decade at this point. All of the complaints about JJ Abrams chosen to handle Star Wars have seemingly died down due to a superb less-is-more marketing campaign that makes The Force Awakens appear like the trilogy we already love. And who would have really thought Guardians of the Galaxy (characters nobody knew plus being virtually unconnected to the rest of the MCU plus a fantastic cult writer/director in James Gunn, but whose previous movies made less than $10 million combined) would absolutely crush The Amazing Spider-Man 2?
Nevertheless, there’s something pleasurable about watching movies take pitchfork bearers by surprise, even if we’re one of the townspeople holding a torch. One of the best examples in recent years came with the Soviet Speedster – Quicksilver. Remember the publicity shots of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Oh how we hated him. The stupid jacket, the stupid Pink Floyd shirt, the stupid Walkman, the stupid goggles! He looked positively stupid. In actuality, he stole the entire film, which in and of itself was worthy of praise (though First Class remains my favorite in the entire saga). Alternatively, think about how much hope we had for Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Maybe it wasn’t the actor himself or the outfit, but Joss Whedon had built up enough trust in the audience to make us look forward to see how his rendition of Quicksilver would stand out from the Fox Studios counterpart. Instead, he was a complete dud. Agent Coulson’s death in the first Avengers successfully managed to be affecting, Quicksilver’s death barely registered. We can be wrong, and it’s sometimes good that we are.
Internet kneejerks can arguably be even worse with television. Over the past 15 years, the television format has changed significantly. Even some of the more flippant sitcoms and dramas have adopted elements of the “Golden Age” serialized approach to storytelling by going beyond callbacks and into genuine character arcs and ongoing storylines. While it would be ridiculous to ask anyone to hold off on their impression of a show until the end of a season (be it good or ill), we should also respect that we’re dealing with a different animal than when Law & Order ruled the airwaves. Did the Victorian Era equivalent of bloggers give letter grades to every new installment of The Pickwick Papers or Anna Karenina?
We constantly blame networks for canceling shows too early (it’s been over a decade since Firefly ended, let it go), yet we’re all ready to lambast a series way before it can possibly hope to find its footing. I, myself am guilty of this. In an earlier article, I criticized Cory Michael Smith’s portrayal of Edward Nygma (the future Riddler) in the Gotham series. This article, which was posted shortly into Gotham‘s run, expressed my dissatisfaction of the character – a concern which was valid at that time. By the end of the season, he had become the absolute standout of the cast, providing the future super villain with a fantastic blend of sympathy and menace that was better than the show deserved. And, in another example of counting one’s chickens before they hatch, Gotham‘s Season 2 completely revitalized the series in a way that makes it a genuinely strong weekly performer. In hindsight, it makes sense that the show, itself an odd Gothic/noir/superhero blend, would need time to figure out what works before earning a spot in the Dark Knight legacy. Maybe it took a bit longer than was to be expected to achieve this, but now that it knows what it is, it’s worth watching.
Depending on how you look at it, these are all exceptions and also the rules. It’s unlikely that the Internet will get off its collective soap box and let things play out naturally, hold off on prejudging based on a few blurry photos, and give properties a chance to impress or disappoint us in their finished forms. At the same time, it makes sense why we do it. In a strange way, it makes us feel as though we’re part of the filmmaking process. We’re throwing out ideas and discussing what could work and can’t work because we find it fun to speculate and exercise our creative muscles – all without actually understanding the true stresses and multiple masters of actually making a tentpole movie or an ongoing television series. I’m guilty of this too to some extent with Revisionist History articles about The Maze Runner, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Tomorrowland. (Though they were fun to write.)
The Internet has made film watching and film anticipation into a more interactive experience than it has ever been. But it’s also important to remember that we’re not part of the process, not really. We’re actually the collective minority. The Internet has become a hotbed of ridiculously intricate and convoluted theories, directions, and storylines. We become absorbed in these occasionally well-researched and well-reasoned conclusions. (After my initial hesitancy, I would genuinely be interested to see the Jason Todd = Joker theory come to pass.) I didn’t give two thoughts to Luke Skywalker not being on the Force Awakens poster, but #WhereIsLuke has become a thing. People will read as much into what filmmakers/marketers don’t show as much as what they do show. By going deeper into these rabbit holes, we even end up disappointed when a fan-developed storyline doesn’t happen in real life because what blossoms from these discussions are occasionally more thoughtful and involved than what actually comes to pass onscreen.
Yet we can never forget that the films themselves are talking to many different audiences at the same time. (That filmmakers have been able to achieve something close to a balance between fandom and mass audiences is a miracle in of itself.) The vast majority of the audience want a temporary diversion with good effects, passable action, watchable characters, and less intrusive exposition. They aren’t busy analyzing trailer screencaps or acquiring all the details from tie-in series and comic books. They don’t know Jason Todd from Tim Drake from Dick Grayson from John Blake, and the title “Batman: A Death in the Family” means nothing. They want to enjoy a movie, not do homework, and we can’t fault them for that.
Of course, the rationale for Internet kneejerks could even be simpler than us wanting to be part of movie magic. It’s always difficult to be let down, even with movies or television shows, and we bring a genuine emotional connection to these tentpole films. These characters have been with us since childhood. They provided us with a jumping off spot for our own imaginations and creativity. Even as adults, we still remain linked to these stories. Maybe we’ve stopped buying the comic books, but we remember why we read them in the first place. We continue to follow the movie news and rumors because we are genuinely interested in seeing these characters come to life, even if we know deep down they’ll disappoint us. Characters will be mishandled and storylines will be bastardized (X-Men: The Last Stand‘s blunder with Dark Phoenix lead Bryan Singer to gleefully give the finger to that movie with the end of Days of Future Past). Obsessing over these nuances could merely be an attempt to lessen the blow when we leave the theater in a self-fulfilling prophecy of disappointment (and ready to rant about it on our nearest forum). It’s a universal defense mechanism where we can all play along together.