The Growing Toxicity of Tribal Fandom

Breaking news: you're allowed to like both DC and Marvel movies. Why, then, is a subset of online fandom so hostile to the idea?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

In Den of Geek UK‘s interview with Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, he lamented the fact that online fandom has become so fierce in some quarters that the ideal of writers and fans sitting around the same proverbial bonfire has become a pipe dream. Moffat’s argument was that he and many people who work on Doctor Who would love to have more conversations with fans, but that the hostility online often makes that impossible. People who make films and TV shows are now actively being warned about online fan response before they take jobs on. Because it’s known that, at its worst, fan response can get very personal, very hurtful, and very nasty.

In the last two months, both Marvel – via Disney – and DC via Warner Bros – have released a major movie.

From Marvel we had Thor: Ragnarok, that earned good to excellent reviews.

Ad – content continues below

From DC there’s the long-awaited Justice League, that hasn’t enjoyed anywhere near as positive a critical response. In both cases, some people enjoyed the films, and some didn’t. But the conversations surrounding both have taken on a nasty flavour, as a small subset of both fandoms appear to be perpetuating a myth that you’re not allowed to like both. That you have to pick Marvel or DC, and never the twain shall meet. That a false tribalism is being enforced, whether it exists or not.

This is then further undercut with the hostility of the conversation. To give you an example, Den of Geek UK gave glowing reviews to neither film, oddly enough, yet in both cases we were accused of either fellating Marvel, or indulging in some groinage with DC. And we got off lightly. A quick search online, and it’s pretty soon you see two subsets of fandoms ensconced in tribal positions, hurling vitriolic abuse at one another.

For liking, or disliking, a film.

Personally, I struggled with Justice League a lot, but conversely think that the very best comic book movies have come with a DC logo on them. The most consistently entertaining are Marvel films. I don’t expect you to agree, and half the fun of fandom is chatting about the films that we love and don’t love. We put our arguments forward, share our passions, have a drink and go off to watch the next thing to argue about. And I love that people defend films, and defend them with passion and investment.

Personally, I adore movies, and I adore talking about movies. But I now think we’re in very dangerous territory when we’re deciding on people’s personality traits because they got something out of a movie that you didn’t. And in the case of the faux Marvel vs DC war, I can’t help but feel it’s getting worse. Accusations of bias and hatred are being levelled before anyone has seen a finished film in some cases, and positions are being assumed irrespective of the movie that the debates are supposedly supposed to be about. That the battle, to a select few, has become more important than the films.

I confess, it utterly baffles me.

Ad – content continues below

Do the companies concerned propagate this? I’ve seen this argument, most recently with the example of Marvel dropping The Punisher on Netflix the same day that Justice League enjoyed its global rollout in cinemas.

But isn’t that just two companies competing with each other? How is that different to Pepsi positioning its fridge next to Coca-Cola? Or ITV and the BBC overlapping The X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing? All you’re getting there is a choice, and if a company reckons they may have some kind of advantage, they’re bound to play it. That doesn’t mean, again, that we’re not allowed to like both Coke and Pepsi. Because the choice is still in your hands.

But in comic book movie fandom, there’s a small bunch of people putting up these invisible barriers.

And the problem is that these invisible barriers inevitably hurt human beings, just for liking something. That the endpoint is people being bullied for what they like.

When I was at school, if you admitted you were a Doctor Who fan – it was the McCoy era, that I love, please don’t @ me – you were sneered at as a nerd (before nerds become oddly mainstream). In that ‘how dare you like something that society has somehow deemed is not the accepted thing’ way.

There’s been a lot of progress made in the decades since, and you only have to go to a Comic Con somewhere in the world to see the joyous outpouring of fandom, where you’re allowed to be open about liking pretty much anything. Even The Emoji Movie if you want.

Ad – content continues below

However, introducing pretty savage rivalries just takes us back, and at its heart becomes bullying. Because it’s that old thing of someone else trying to tell you what you are and aren’t allowed to like. Of imposing their opinions on you with the ferocity of fact. And I don’t know about you, but I had enough of that in the earlier years of my life, and I consequently call bullshit on it now.

20 years ago, many of us would never have dreamed of such a geek-driven movie – and TV – environment as we have now, where even niche comic book characters are becoming major studio movies. It’s a golden period for geek culture, and no longer do the majority have to hide in the shadows for fear of being condemned for stuff they enjoy.

Thus, let me let you into a secret: you are most definitely allowed to enjoy both DC and Marvel movies. You are most definitely allowed to like a film that somebody else doesn’t. And heck, put your arguments forward, and let’s have the kind of online pub debate that makes the geek community at its best such a joyous place to be.

But enough of making up false divisions. If you believe that the movie outlet you read is inherently biased, then vote with your feet. Find a place that reflects your views. That, or constructively ask the question and then – here’s the bit that’s often missed – listen to, and digest, the answer. Here’s a further revelation: you don’t have to agree, and it’s still possible to get on with people, even if views diverge.

How about, then, we end the name calling? We end the abuse? We end the trying to punch down on people for their opinions? And how about we just be excellent to each other. There’s enough shit out there in the world, without people hating others simply for a film they happen to like…