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Will fans ever turn on the Marvel Cinematic Universe? An inside look at toxic fandom

‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ showed a divide for fans. Will Marvel suffer the same fate?

A scene from Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” with Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), left, Vision (Paul Bettany), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine/James Rhodey (Don Ch
A scene from Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

When Iron Man and Captain America battled in “Captain America: Civil War,” it surely caught the Marvel universe off guard. The two biggest superheroes battling each other? That seemed almost unimaginable.

Marvel fans might be in a similar scenario. Fans splitting up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Yeah, right. Fans leaving the studio that led to the highest-grossing film of all time? Sure. Doesn’t seem right.

But ... could it actually happen?

The last two films in the Skywalker saga — “The Last Jedi” and “The Rise of Skywalker” — upset different factions of fandoms. The arguments are too complicated to be summed up quickly. But there is a growing divide between older and younger fans, critics and the audience, and several other factions.

So could the same thing happen to Marvel?

Jim Jones and Aaron Hubbard, hosts of a podcast network called “Bald Move,” raised that question on a recent podcast episode about “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

Will fans ever turn on the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Yes, experts said, especially if fan values are betrayed.

“I don’t know that you could stop it,” Jones said.

It might be a string of bad movies. Or it could be bad representation. Maybe a lack of diversity.

“Disney has largely killed off a lot of enthusiasm and goodwill in ‘Star Wars’ over greed and poor quality control of their products,” Jones said. But Marvel continues to grow, using old stories and comic book to not upset fans.

“So that’s kind of what is amazing about the Marvel movies is they’re able to ... honor the canon of these Marvel characters, the important things of them, the amalgamation and yet also give new fresh twist on them in a way that almost everyone embraces and enjoys,” Jones said.

But the landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is changing. How people consume the MCU content will be changing. Marvel and Disney continue to expand their reach. So will fans stick with Marvel? Or could a backlash — like we’ve seen with “Rise of Skywalker” — soon take shape?

The economic factor

Carrie Reinhold, an associate professor at Dominican University, could see a future where the Marvel Cinematic Universe becomes divisive. Fans of all sorts of franchises tend to become divided over time as new products develop and new stories are told.

“I think there’s a great potential to see that same type of divisiveness spill into the MCU just like it has been in Star Wars and Ghostbusters and even to an extent in Harry Potter,” Reinhold said.

One major factor that could hurt Marvel Cinematic Universe fans is economics.

Cathleen Taff, president of distribution, franchise management, business and audience insight for Walt Disney Studios, discusses Marvel film “Avengers: Endgame” during the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures presentation at CinemaCon 2019, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) at Caesars Palace, Wednesday, April 3, 2019, in Las Vegas.
Chris Pizzello, Invision/Associated Press

Take, for example, Disney Plus, the subscription streaming service. If Disney requires viewers to see the Disney Plus Marvel shows in order to understand or follow the movies, it might alienate fans.

“That type of economic restrictions can start to have the same impact on the fandom. Or some of the fandom just can’t have that access,” Reinhold said. “And then the fans who can have access can look down on those fans and, yeah, there’s a great potential for, in one way, the industry and the company itself, kind of like, fomenting this divisiveness.”

“You have to engage with all these other parts, and we don’t necessarily have the resources to be able to do that.”

Reinhold said her fear is that the MCU will continue adding to the stories and moving into new phases — however many phases it ends up doing — and “you could start having people say, ‘Well, no, this is the real one. This is the main Doctor Strange.’”

“I think that could become worse, especially if fans feel that they have to buy Disney Plus to make sense of what’s going on.”

Violating fan values

Fans have values, experts say. Fan communities celebrate ideals and morals seen in their content. Marvel has embraced diversity, comedy and family-friendly superhero storytelling. Star Wars has celebrated hope and fighting for the good side. Modern DC Comics films have become more gritty and grounded.

Violating fan values would raise problems for Marvel, said Ashley Hinck, an assistant professor for the communication department at Xavier University.

“I think it would take some kind of move from the creators or a move from media companies that would violate some kind of value that the fan community has,” Hinck said.

Consider Harry Potter. The Harry Potter community has come to value social justice. The books include a number of references to social justice and social issues.

Now, fans believe J.K. Rowling is “sometimes supporting casting decisions like Johnny Depp in ways that don’t match fan community values,” Hinck said.

That conversation was the result of accusations that Depp had physically assaulted his ex-wife Amber Heard. Depp had been cast as Gellert Grindelwald in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” According to The Guardian, Rowling defended the casting, saying: “The filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but (are) genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.” Depp denied the accusations. More recently, Heard and Depp traded abuse claims against each other, according to USA Today.

Actor Johnny Depp poses for photographers upon arrival for the photo call of the film ‘Waiting For The Barbarians’ at the 76th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019.
Arthur Mola, Invision/Associated Press

“That’s how you kind of turn an entire fandom against you,” Hinck said. “But it’s also a reminder that fandoms are complicated.”

“So if you’re a lifelong Harry Potter fan, you have to figure out how to reconcile your love of this fan object with either problematic content or problematic politics from the creator,” Hinck said. “That love of the fan object, I think, is often intense enough where you do figure out how to come to terms with it.”

Directors, creators, actors and anyone associated with a franchise need to be mindful of the values of fans. Otherwise, there could be backlash.

“They want content that’s aligned with their values, content that’s aligned with what they’ve decided matters,” Hinck said. “And so I think that’s how you create backlash. So it takes some awareness of seeing community values, not just an awareness of what makes these franchises successful.”

“I also think it’s more complicated than just kind of the simple statement of listen to the fans, or do what they tell you to do. I think it takes an understanding of why fans are upset or what the backlash reflects.”

One example comes from “Sonic the Hedgehog.” Paramount Pictures released a trailer showing Sonic with humanlike arms, feet and facial qualities. Fans expressed concern. “Sonic” delayed its release, reworked its animation and released a new trailer.

“It’s more than just, ‘we don’t like this, give us something different.’ So I hope media companies kind of into dig into that and understand backlash as more than just give fans what they want,” Hinck said,

That doesn’t mean fans give up completely when they see something they don’t like. Superman committed murder in “Man of Steel” — there’s still some debate out there about whether Superman kills his enemies or not — but they still went to see “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Not all fans loved “The Last Jedi,” but “The Rise of Skywalker” made nearly $1 billion at the box office.

“If you’re a fan of something and you’re disappointed with the newest version or the newest iteration, I think you usually still go see it, usually still buy it,” Hinck said. “You’re usually still desperate enough for new content where you’ll engage it on some level.

“Even the mediocre content is content worth consuming if you’re an intense fan.”

Fans who are upset with the latest Star Wars film or Batman movie can find resolution. They just need to build something on their own.

“Maybe that means writing fan fiction and writing the better version,” she said. “Maybe that means doing fan activism to make up for the shortcomings that you see made by media companies to kind of come to terms with that.”

Fans have been creating their own for years. There’s the “How It Should Have Ended” YouTube channel. The Star Wars fandom has a number of fan films. People are constantly writing fan fiction about Star Trek, Fortnite and more.

Understanding the fan community and why fans selected those values can keep choppy waters calm.

“It’s absolutely possible that Marvel might do something that would cause fan backlash. It just is a matter of staying within fan values,” Hinck said. “Communities, fandom (are) important, and I think you have to understand it if you’re targeting those kinds of already established, trained communities.”