Last week, director Adam Sacks took to Twitter to announce a Kickstarter campaign to alter The Departed. No matter that Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime thriller won Best Picture at the Oscars and earned $291 million globally, Sacks claimed it was a great film marred by a terrible final note—namely, the rat that scurries across the screen in the last shot, which is Scorsese’s cheeky nod to the human “rats” populating his undercover-cops-and-crooks saga.
Sacks argued that he needed $4,000 to erase the creature from existence, and as of today, he’s already exceeded that goal, thus ensuring that a few lucky folks will eventually own a bootlegged copy of The Departed sans rodent. In the process, he sparked a sizable social-media conflagration, inciting heated pro and con contentions about the storytelling decision in question.
Sacks’ endeavor is, on the face of it, dumb, and unnecessary, and more than a bit hubristic—not only because there’s a vast difference between disliking a movie and actively trying to change it, but also because Sacks is just some guy and Scorsese is, you know, Martin Freaking Scorsese. However, it’s also something worse: the latest in a string of viral online campaigns waged to modify, slander, and/or torpedo a work deemed, for whatever reason, objectionable. The age of the Fanboy Troll Army is upon us.
This virulent era has no official start date, although it can be traced back at least as far as 2008, when critics who dared to dislike Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight were subject to an onslaught of (often homophobic, racist and/or juvenile) invectives from die-hard defenders. Still, it’s been gaining steam over the past three years, thanks to a series of brouhahas that have exposed the ugly underbelly of modern cinephilia, where immature enthusiasts frequently freak out over any amendment or update to their beloved childhood franchises, which they cling to with a fervor that would embarrass even the most blankie-obsessed infant.
Nowhere was this more apparent than with 2016’s Ghostbusters, the Paul Feig-directed all-female reboot of Ivan Reitman’s 1984 blockbuster. According to legions of sexist fans, the offense perpetrated by Feig was that he had the gall to reimagine this oh-so-important cultural touchstone about goofy men fighting slimy ghosts as a contemporary story about goofy women fighting slimy ghosts. Regardless of one’s feelings about the finished product (which this critic found sorely lacking), the outrage that greeted Feig’s film from a horde of predominantly male harassers was stunning in its noxiousness, culminating with racist attacks against co-star Leslie Jones (led by alt-right performance artist Milo Yiannopoulos) that forced her, briefly, off social media. Worse, it seems to have succeeded: there’s good reason to think it so soured the conversation around the feature that it eventually contributed to the film’s lackluster box-office performance ($128 million domestically).
As if that precedent wasn’t awful enough, Jason Reitman—son of Ivan—is currently in production on a new Ghostbusters film that exists in the same timeline as his father’s 1984 original, and last week, he promised that his franchise extension would “hand the movie back to fans.” That comment was heard by many (including Jones, who was critical of Reitman’s project) as a dog whistle to the anti-female Ghostbusters crowd. Though Reitman has since walked his statement back by praising Feig’s do-over (with Feig, in turn, defending Reitman), the lingering message remained clear: kowtow to the extremists, lest you face the wrath of vocal nerds who spend their days and nights online whining about how their “childhoods have been ruined” by sequels and reboots that tinkered with properties they loved as adolescents.
Fondly remembering youthful favorites is a natural and inherent part of cine fandom. Yet follow-ups don’t alter them; you can always go back to the source if that’s what you really want. Furthermore, if the sanctity of your childhood hinges on a movie about dudes shooting energy beams at a giant marshmallow man, that says a lot more about you than about any attempted cinematic update. This is a wholly obvious reality to any mature adult (or teenager). But it doesn’t change the fact that artists daring to jump into franchise waters risk endless invectives, if not ruination, if they don’t pander to these keyboard gangs. Just ask Rian Johnson, whose The Last Jedi continues to be a lightning rod for Star Wars zealots (and Russian bots!) who objected to a litany of supposed crimes committed by the writer/director, including his subversive upending of established canon formulas and his—gasp!—decision to employ a multicultural cast, including Kelly Marie Tran, who had to bolt Instagram because of the hatred directed her way.
Anyone who spends time in the online movie universe (and, especially, that amorphous realm known as Film Twitter) knows that such conduct is now par for the course. DC Comics stans lose their minds every time a Marvel installment gets better reviews than a DC-based tentpole (leading to hilarious conspiracy theories that critics are paid off by Disney). Black Panther was spammed with (ineffectual) racist nastiness ahead of its premiere, as well as throughout its theatrical run. Ocean’s 8 received the disgusting Ghostbusters-style treatment from righteous MRAs (i.e. “Men’s Rights Activists”) for putting a female spin on the Ocean’s 11 template. Lady Gaga fans launched a crusade to attack Venom ahead of its Oct. 6, 2018 premiere, which it shared with A Star is Born. And just this past week, an influx of Rotten Tomatoes-hosted vitriol targeted Captain Marvel, which upon its March 8 debut will be the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film (out of 21!) to be headlined by a woman.
Some of these movements were merely tantrums thrown by stunted adolescents, who’ve become emboldened by the idea that geek culture is unassailable, and that its “classics” are sacrosanct—a funny tack to take for people obsessed with superhero, science-fiction and fantasy properties originally designed for children. And as in the case of Sacks and The Departed, others are driven by an arrogant belief that fans know better than creators and, moreover, deserve to see their own ideal versions of movies—the ones that conform to their tastes, and ideas—become real, no matter the ludicrousness of their desires.
Meanwhile, a depressingly large number of these campaigns are defined by grievances against women and minorities, and by fury at Hollywood for attempting to make long-standing franchises sustainable by amplifying their inclusiveness. Whether they’re literally populated by Democrats or Republicans, Fanboy Troll Armies are fueled by conservative-minded anger. Their mob-mentality smear tactics and unhinged venom resemble the general reactionary odiousness spewed forth from the far-right and the likes of its cretinous figureheads (Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter, Ben Shapiro, etc.). At a time when the intolerant American throngs demand the right to have their voices heard on any and every sociopolitical topic, it’s little surprise that movie fandom has become besieged by its worst members, whose petulant rage is matched only by their narcissistic entitlement.
And if that description sounds suspiciously similar to the behavior practiced—and normalized—by the MAGA multitudes, there’s good reason: the entire anti-Ghostbusters train was kicked into high gear (via braying video review) by America’s chief intolerant, egotistical loudmouth: Donald Trump.