By all accounts, Iron Fist isn’t very good.
And I do mean all accounts. I have yet to read a vaguely encouraging review of Marvel’s latest Netflix show, which is adapted from an obscure 70s comic series and inspired much eyerolling before it even went into production. There wasn’t much enthusiasm for the story of a white man trained in martial arts and Asian mysticism, but then again, Doctor Strange made a lot of money, so Marvel, in their state of invincibility, had the freedom to make whatever the hell they wanted and reap the benefits. The show’s star Finn Jones has faced the brunt of the criticism, and he’s not been handling it well. After a series of bungled interviews and confusing PR strategies, he fell back on that age-old line that seems to be trotted out by passengers on a sinking ship once the reviews pour in.
‘I also think some of the reviews we saw were seeing the show through a very specific lens, and I think when the fans of the Marvel Netflix world and fans of the comic books view the show through the lens of just wanting to enjoy a superhero show, then they will really enjoy what they see.’
For the people in the back, that essentially translates to “we made it for the fans, not critics.”
As someone who occasionally gets paid to share her opinions, I can’t tell you how thoroughly disheartening this line is. I’ve heard it so many times from a variety of sources that it turns to dust in my ears. I heard it when Suicide Squad – officially the worst film I have ever seen – was trashed by critics; I heard it when the poor joyless souls of Batman V Superman were forced on the defence wagon after those reviews crushed second week box office sales (noticing a pattern here); I heard it in defence of multiple video games, particularly those criticized for unsavoury content. It’s an easy line to throw out when tensions are high because it says absolutely nothing but gives the illusion of loyalty. It’s also handy in that it exacerbates a false division between fans and critics, thus positioning one side as an obvious enemy worthy of scorn. As a person who’s usually on that side in these matters, it’s not fun.
First of all, of course your thing was made for the fans. Everything is made for a paying audience that has some level of enthusiasm for your product. You don’t throw hundreds of millions of dollars at a franchise in the hopes that you’ll please your fans and create a few more. This is always a fun defence when applied to such industry tent-poles, as if niche fan-service is the viable business model chosen by these executives. That sense of communal loyalty is key to many fandoms, and it’s something that’s inspired much fervor in recent years, particularly as those properties with very dedicated bases, like DC, face negative criticism. It’s easier to push DC as a scrappy underdog when it’s being pilloried by critics and “filthy casuals” alike, harkening back to the days of revulsion against geeks, who one day swore their revenge.
The problem with this false dichotomy when applied to the notion of the “geek community” is that it’s no longer an exclusive pantheon. Everyone is a geek, everyone is a gamer, and everyone is a fan. You can’t build multi-billion dollar franchises out of a fringe group. When the millions of people you make this thing for don’t like it, you can’t dismiss that as the bitter opinions of an unwanted demographic. You simply can’t afford to do so.
Then there’s the problem of that phony dynamic of critics versus fans. I often hear viewers lament the lack of decent portrayals of geeks on screen. This is certainly a problem, although it’s one that’s come leaps and bounds over the past few years. Try being a critic and looking for a cinematic of television portrayal of one that isn’t an embittered sad-sack, vengeful bitch who reviews negatively out of spite, or an elitist snob who needs to be taught a lesson (that pretty much leaves us with Michael Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds). That may seem like a frivolous matter, but try being a critic in an atmosphere where at best you’re dismissed with pity and scorn, and at worst you’re viewed as a cog in a bonkers conspiracy (no, I have never been paid off by Marvel for negatively reviewing DC movies, although I would welcome the steady source of income). The value of criticism is consistently diminished by the “we did it for the fans” line and the anger it encourages. It pushes this archaic narrative of the ivory tower dwelling misery-guts who failed as an artist so must destroy others’ hopes and dreams in revenge. Never mind that most critics I know are creatives in a variety of ways – writing books, releasing music, recording podcasts, creating art, making films, and so on – it draws lines around borders that never existed. It reinforces the notion that critics and fans never intersect, when it fact, on top of us all being fans, we are all critics.
Everyone has a blog or a Twitter page or a YouTube channel nowadays, and opinions can be found with incredible ease on almost every topic. Access to information has never been more democratic, considering the circumstances, and pop culture flourishes when as many people as possible engage with it. That’s not to say that the work of professional critics should be devalued by this trend. Indeed, media literacy is crucial in our current climate, and we all benefit from passionate criticism across a variety of sources and experiences. Shockingly, critics tend to be some of the most enthusiastic fans out there. You have to truly love something to dedicate so much of your time to dissecting it. You really need to love it to have to put up with the harassment and abuse that dishearteningly seems to accompany everything you write, especially if you’re a woman.
During my original tweet-storm on the Iron Fist issue, I received a response telling me that “A critic need not rant about fan reaction. You’re a critic! Like Super Chicken, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.“ The Twitter user then tried to do some back-tracking and cited the quote’s source – apparently it’s a song or something – but that final line sticks with me in a major way. I review and discuss pop culture on the internet. It is not a job of danger. Firefighter is a dangerous job. So is oil rig worker, or professional ski jumper. Harassment and abuse is not, nor should it be, an occupational hazard for something as benign as criticism. It shouldn’t be expected in any position, and yet the toxicity of the internet, and certain platforms’ refusals to deal with the problem, mean that we face this nonsense daily. It’s exhausting, and it makes doing our job so much harder.
“Critic” isn’t the only new dirty word to throw around when defending your fandom. There are the age old favourites of “fake geek girl” and accusations you’re not a “real fan”. It’s not just about dismissing opinions or marginalizing your stance in the community; it’s an insidious tool to establish a hierarchy of right and wrong. It’s a way to make the very act of criticizing something bad, and to push it out of the community. “We made it for the fans”, presumably because your idea of a real fan is someone who unquestioningly swallows whatever bile is given to them? There is a place for unfettered enthusiasm in fandom alongside detailed analysis. There is no worth in uncritically consuming a piece of culture with little to no thought for the craft or ideas within. Mindless obedience may be good for financial gain, but it’s terrible for art, and I don’t know a single fan of any element of pop culture who doesn’t think long and hard about their favourite things to the benefit of their fandom.
Finn Jones will probably be fine. The beauty of Marvel’s Netflix deal is they’re under no obligation to release viewership figures, so for all we know, nobody could watch the show and they can still report it as a hit. Iron Fist will still be in The Defenders, and Marvel Studios will laugh to the bank. Criticism will benefit the fans and lead to crucial discussions, and hopefully the show-runners and executives will one day be able to engage constructively with the issues at hand. It would be nice if that could happen, and not result in casual misogyny in my Twitter feed. Being a fan and a critic is supposed to be more fun than that.