Traditional “nerd” fandom — you know, comic books, superheroes, D&D and the like — have taken a sharp and entirely unexpected turn over the last few years. Once relegated to the shameful corners of pop culture that nobody really wanted to admit to liking, they’ve now become culturally ubiquitous. They’re the subject of major blockbusters, $10 million dollar kickstarter campaigns and long-running HBO series. They’re made into action figures, Saturday morning cartoons and prestige art books. You can walk into any big box retailer in the country and pick up some hardbound anthology or starter set of these things and nobody would bat an eye at you for doing so.
But as the fandoms surrounding these have grown over the past decade, so too have the responsibilities of the fandoms and content-creators who write and act and create for them. After all, with great fandom, there must also come great responsibility. And that responsibility isn’t just the stuff of common sense decency, that is to say, not spoiling the new movie, no reading ahead in the module and in general not being a jerk. That expands outward to the authors, actors and directors of these fandoms as well. We owe it to ourselves to demand a better class of story, a better class of characters, to give our hard-earned money to.
As I discussed just the other week, this has been a subject of some concern, not just within the fandoms at large, but within the movies that these fandoms are consuming. No longer content to simply be about mindless bits of escapist action-fantasy, these movies are about something: specifically, about the necessary and welcome changes occurring within the larger fandoms that they are catering towards. Consider these now-famous words by Marvel media mogul Stan Lee:
“That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.”
It’s no wonder why the most recent Spider-Man movie — the absolutely essential Into the Spider-Verse (2018) — made itself all abuot this exact statement. The quote was the last thing that we saw before the start of the end credits and variations on it were said by various characters throughout the movie, including no less luminary a figure as Stan Lee, in one of his greatest and last on-screen cameos. Or, as Miles succinctly sums it up:
“I never thought that I’d be able to do any of this stuff, but I can. Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now.”
This — this right here — is the reason for everything you’ve been seeing happen in this increasingly populist fandoms. This is the reason why Spider-Verse isn’t about Peter Parker. This is the reason why the new Star Wars movies aren’t about a Skywalker. These fandoms are bigger than that now. Heroes are everywhere, and are no longer relegated to eugenically-sacrosanct bloodlines. After all, anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask.
As you might suspect, however, this transformation of heavily-entrenched fandoms from tightly fatalistic to aggressively democratized has not been without its pitfalls, nor its perils. In an unfounded backlash against her character, Kelly Marie Tran was chased off social media by so-called gatekeepers of the fandom (or, as I prefer to call them, good old fashioned bullies). James Gunn was temporarily fired from Disney over bad-faith arguments made by Twitter trolls enraged at his personal stance against Trump.
And then there’s Hellboy (2019). No, I don’t mean that Hellboy: not the del Toro Hellboy. I mean the bargain bin new Hellboy that stars Dna Harbour and Milla Jovovich.
Spoiler alert if you’re late in coming to this party, but in the film, a major plot point involves the titular Hellboy’s parentage. You see, he’s not the hero of our story simply because he’s some random demon fresh out of Hell. In fact, he’s not even our hero because he is a notable demon fresh out of Hell. As it turns out, Hellboy’s special. He’s not just a demon. He’s the perfect confluence of eugenics breeding: both the last descendant of King Arthur (and thus, by rights, King of the Britains and the only person in the entire cosmos to wield Excalibur, which is his birthright) and the heir to Satan himself.
You see, according to the movie, it is only this very specific cross-section of genetics that matter’s. It’s not his choice to fight against the forces of evil. It’s not his struggle against his inner demons. It’s not any heroic or selfish or personal act he takes throughout his entire life. The one and only reason that he is able to save the day is because he just so happens to be the distant spawn of a particular British monarch. Because of this, he has inherited a particular magic sword, which only he can wield due to his aforementioned parentage. And it is only because of this, and his “strong right hand,” that he’s able to win.
I thought we were past this Skywalker trap of nerddom after The Last Jedi (2017) took a hard stance against it in no uncertain terms. The fandom was obsessed with the absolute certainty that Rey was a Skywalker — had to be a Skywalker — because there was “no other explanation” for why she was strong with the Force, why she was swept up in the current galactic conflict, why she was so obsessively into Luke Skywalker. It couldn’t have been because she had a special talent or a vested interest in galactic politics or because Luke was the legendary leader of the first rebellion against the Empire (who destroyed the fist Death Star, rescued Darth Vader from the Dark Side and took down the imperial leadership in one fell swoop). It was because the right person mated with the right other person, at the right time, and produced a genetically predestined offspring.
Sounds pretty gross, right? Well that’s because it is.
I thought we were past this, but the fandom evidently still has a way to go before we can put this awful line of thinking to bed. Anybody really can wear the mask, or use the force, or pull the sword from the stone, not just the one-in-a-billion soul that happened to be born into the exact right family.