Not My Steve: The Growing Perceived Ownership of Popular Culture's Characters Stories
After dodging spoilers, think pieces and general excitable tweets over the weekend I finally sat down to watch the conclusion to Marvel’s ten year experiment- The Infinity Saga with the film Avengers Endgame. It was a messy, long and thoroughly enjoyable film which I go into detail in my previous review of the film. However this piece is about something else. Following my viewing of the film I finally dove into the online chatter about the film to gauge people's response. What I found was expected- over the top proclamations that the film was “the greatest artistic achievement in human history”, restrained celebration “A fitting conclusion to a storied ten year cinematic experience” and even the classic negative “boring, overlong bullshit”. One perspective jumped out at me the most however. A worrying and growing trend in the realm of popular online culture chatter. The hashtag “Not My Steve”, began to circulate, a subsection of Marvel Twitter fans enraged at the films ending for Captain America and Steve Rogers wherein, instead of returning to the present after returning the Infinity Stones to their rightful places in history, returns to 1945 and lives out a life of married bliss with Peggy Carter. The implication being that Steve Rogers spent the entire history of the MCU living a life of normalcy while himself and the Avengers fought off the various villians and apocalypses they have experienced over the films. (An implication expounded upon and confirmed recently by Endgame Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely). It was a heartwarming scene that bookended a harrowing and humorous film, Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter finally sharing that dance. The “Not My Steve” hash tag however is part of a growing trend in online communities wherein the idea that Characters and stories somehow become the property of fans based on their love and admiration for them.
This idea of owning the characters and stories that has surfaced over the internet in the past ten years finds its roots in the “fandom” days of old. Obsessive fan bases are nothing new. Going back to the 1960’s Star Trek could be argued to be the first example of a modern fan following. Conventions and fan magazines all rose up where “Trekkies” could discuss their favourite episodes and characters and even share their own takes on characters in the form of “fan fiction”. This type of fan interaction continued onwards throughout the latter years of the 20th century with notable shows and films like The Rocky Horror Show, The X Files and Twin Peaks as stand outs. It wasn't until the early 21st century with the rise of the internet where fan cultures and fandoms really began to become prominent. The social media website Tumblr became a cornerstone of the fandom culture with huge communities building around TV Shows and FIlms like: Supernatural, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Harry Potter, Parks and Recreation and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In these communities various terms became part of the online lexicon like “shipping” and most recently “stan”. Shipping referring to the fans desire and obsession with the idea of characters entering into romantic and sexual relationships and “stanning” referring to Eminems famed song Stan referring to an unnatural and dangerous obsession with an individual or character. These fandoms operated to build one another up and share their views, opinions and own versions of their favourite characters and stories, offering multiple and varying different stories to fill in the gaps in the main medias stories or predicting future stories after the main flagships had ended their run. For the most part, these fandoms and online communities served their originally innocent and collaborative purpose up until very recently.
In recent years TV and FIlm studios have come to realise the best form of marketing for any film is not billboards, not splashy magazine covers or cast interviews. Its viral videos, and online conversation. A great example of this was the marketing campaign for Deadpool in 2015. Due to the character being known for breaking the fourth wall, Deadpool took centre stage in his own advertising, appearing in viral videos, fake trailers painting Deadpool as a romcom for Valentines Day and Deadpool appearing to slip into other films. It was a massive success, leading to a block buster smash, the first for an R rated film, superhero or otherwise. It lead to a sequence of films trying to replicate its success with an R rated Logan and most recently Hellboy. Other studios and films scrambled to catch up, trailers, behind the scenes videos, cryptic teasers and poster reveals drip fed and surprised drop in a concentrated effort to build up a fever amongst fans and audiences. These posts online began to draw out the incessant and sometimes argumentative speculation of fans. Perhaps the first big example of the fans sense of “Ownership” of the films and characters began with Disney's new Star Wars films, the stand out being the second in the new trilogy: The Last Jedi.
Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi tore up the rulebook set up for Star Wars by creator George Lucas and even JJ Abrams in The Force Awakens. Old laws and rules of the universe were up ended, story strands and character motivations set up by Abrams were ignored and most noticeably Luke Skywalker was depicted as a hermit hiding from the Universe and any responsibilities. It was a box office smash and for the most part, a critical marvel. However social media erupted with Star Wars “fans” claiming that the cast, crew and director had “ruined” Star Wars and got Luke wrong. The online response following its release was nothing short of a vile wave of misogyny and racism, untethered rage directed in any direction that dared to disagree or support the film. The vitriol was so strong, Kelly Marie Tran a young Asian American star of the film left social media and Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill had to issue many social media posts condemning fans responses to the film and its cast. It would be easy to pin this sense of ownership purely on the typical cultural view of overly “passionate fans”, the internet hermit, the white male in his mid thirties with conservative leanings and alt right fantasies of female and POC subservience. However to make this statement would be to ignore the other side of the coin, the often just as rabid and “overly woke” subsection of the internet. Those in love with these new iterations of the Star Wars world and the new steps taken in equal representation for women and POC in Hollywood cinema. Often this section of fan communities are just as vitriolic and conflict driven as the right side. They spoil for their online wars, often pre celebrating a film or character before its been revealed and released (much like the other side will attempt to derail its success through concentrated attacks on review sites like Rotten Tomatoes). Just a few weeks ago they themselves attacked Mark Hamill on Twitter after he retweeted a photoshopped image from the Rise of the Skywalker Trailer wherein Lando and Chewbacca are flying the Millenium Falcon. In the modified image, Luke, Han and Leia have been photoshopped in with Hamill captioning the image “Missed Opportunities”. Now if you exist outside the confines of major fan communities for these films, most would view this image for what it is. An actor, or more rightly a man enjoying the idea of spending a few days sharing the screen with his old friends and cast mates (two of whom have sadly passed), reminiscing about a time they all shared together in their lives 40 years ago. Unfortunately for these warring fan communities one saw victory, the other betrayal. The alt right “original Star Wars fans” saw a tacit agreement and signal that “Luke Skywalker” was finally openly trashing the new trilogy of films much like they did (and have tried to spin Hamils many ambiguously worded comments on his involvement and the new direction of the films). The left, languished in open sadness and anger, condemning Hamill for “supporting an Alt Right agenda” and “playing into their hands”. Subsequently Hamill responded with a second tweet stating- “Saw a pic of me with Billy D, Carrison & Harrie. Posted it because
I miss them. Nothing more, nothing less. I love the new cast too & didn't mean to get everyone's knickers in a twist. Maybe I should've just posted a bunch of #Endgame spoilers instead. #RelaxAndHaveFunPeople” . In an ideal world, the reactions of both sides would have shown one another that there is room for debate purely on the basis of whether it would work narratively, or if it was just plain cool and nostalgic for some people to view. Unfortunately when groups of people align themselves with agendas and group think opinions over objective enjoyment or lack thereof in films and television, there is no room for reasonable discussion, not within the confines of 280 characters online anyway.
So where from here? This year brings to an end various stages of these pop culture behemoths that have born this culture and state of one side vs another in the consumption of content and the former communal aspect of watching films. Avengers Endgame bowed only weeks ago, Game of Thrones finishes its 9 year run at the end of this week, and the final film in the new Star Wars Trilogy will be released at the culmination of 2019. The hopeful may imagine a world wherein as these cultural mainstays end and the next take up their time on the screens of laptops and phones and the cinema, and the conversation becomes more celebratory when enjoyed, and ambivalent when not. However from the past few years of fan community conversations online, the realist will see nothing ahead that builds any sense of comfort. The rise of social media ensured that no matter who you are and where you were from you had a voice. A voice that could be heard, shared and valued. Some have taken on a mutation of that ideal. The idea that your voice, means your opinion and your ownership of that opinion somehow conflates to an ownership of the subject of your words. Their attachments and their version of the character they love change from a spectating admiration, to a perceived sense of ownership and a “knowing what's right with and for this character and story” and any idea or evidence to oppose it is met with rage and condemnation. The truth is, he’s not “your Steve”, he never was.