Terminator, Star Wars, and Star Trek Face Down Toxic Fandom
Toxic fandom is a phrase that is used very often nowadays. Social media provides a platform for just about anyone to get an opinion out into the public sphere. It’s easy to rationalize angry fans as an annoying side effect of social media and discount their opinions as irrational streams of consciousness. There are certainly cases where this is true. On the other hand, fans get frustrated by what they evaluate as clearly inferior product. Product they are asked to consume without complaining. When one considers the costs associated with paying for content and the easy access to platforms to complain about the product, it is clear the finished product has more pressure to excel than ever before.
There are three big name entertainment brands I enjoy which are feeling the sharp pain from the impact of upset fans. Sadly, today’s reality is entertainment producers must deal with fan expectations – realistic or unrealistic – on a daily basis. To make it more complicated, fan expectations aren’t fully under control of the entertainment industry and spin control is harder today than it has ever been prior.
Let’s take a look at the three brands I’m referring to:
Last Friday (November 1st), Terminator Dark Fate opened in the United States. It was a movie that was quite entertaining for this writer, who has been a fan of the franchise since the original Terminator was released back in 1984. Terminator 2 (1991) was the peak of the franchise, if not a contender for one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time. T2 caught a three genies in a bottle:
Arnold Schwarzenegger was at the peak of his action star popularity
James Cameron was proving himself to be one of the great directors/producers of his era
Linda Hamilton grabbed the reins of the realistic, female action lead out of the capable hands of Sigourney Weaver and did a fantastic job
Terminator Dark Fate was a solid movie. It featured the return of Arnold and Linda to their respective roles. Both have aged, yet they embraced from their age and didn’t come off as trying to behave as youthfully as their co-stars. Hamilton and Schwarzenegger understood their characters and both were believable as the future selves of the characters they played in the 80s and 90s.
The reboot was interesting in its handling of time travel (a subject for a different and longer column) and the origins of the antagonistic AI from the future. I couldn’t help but wonder if fighting against an opponent from the future, even if you're trying to control your fate, was in the end a losing proposition. With all of Sarah Connor’s battles against Skynet, it didn’t matter. Despite heroic efforts and sacrificial deaths of many around Connor, her actions just delayed the inevitable. In this universe, something called Legion came along 40 years or so later than Skynet would've. This new artificial intelligence construct evolved in a scarily similar fashion to Skynet. These similarities flowed down to both AIs developing their own version of Terminators. Both AIs used time travel to fight their battles in the past. In the Terminator universe, even winning isn’t a guarantee that you stop your adversary.
The evolution of Sarah Connor’s character in this movie was intriguing. She’s spent most of her adult life thinking she was the mother of the future’s messiah, John Connor. She is at a breaking point. After defeating various Terminators and Skynet, she finds out that her work isn’t done. To make it more difficult, she now has to reevaluate her perspective of her own identity. She has to move away from prime importance to the timeline. She has to deal with the fact that someone else appears to be the mother of the earthly messiah. This isn’t the full leap she has to make, though. Sarah discovers her assumptions of the future aren’t at all correct. The young lady she is protecting is the full-fledged messiah to this new future reality not the mother of some savior. Linda Hamilton plays this transition so well for us to enjoy.
In the end, Dark Fate was a mash up of Terminator and T2. It was well paced, had solid (not great) special effects, and had more introspective character moments than I expect from a run-of-the-mill sci-fi movie. The problem is the future shifting to make Skynet irrelevant and the elevation of a new threat has been rejected by many Terminator fans. I submit that a large reason for the low number of box office tickets purchased had more to do with subpar efforts from Terminator 3 (2003), Terminator Salvation (2009) and Terminator Genisys (2015) than the actual Terminator Dark Fate movie itself. Fans have felt cheated by the Terminator franchise and short of a movie made by a young Arnold teaming up with a young Cameron, it wasn’t going to do well at the box office. The weight of past failures was too much. Now the franchise is again behind the eight ball. Will it survive? Or, will it be shelved again? We will see.
Setting the analysis of the past aside, if you enjoyed the first two movies in the series, you’ll enjoy Terminator Dark Fate. Go see if before it leaves the theatres. It’s worth seeing on a big screen. If you’re open to tolerating a bit of the typical time travel malarkey, you’re in for a good time. I’d give that movie a solid B rating.
Star Wars’ Han Solo: A Smuggler’s Tale (2016) took the same haymaker to the chin that Terminator Dark Fate is reeling from right now. The Star Wars franchise is a much stronger beast, but the pain of the disappointing box office results for the Han Solo movie still reverberates through the franchise. Instead of producing individual character movies every other year, Disney has backed off of that plan. Like Dark Fate, Han Solo was a good to above average movie. Sadly for Han Solo, the anger that fans felt after watching Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) was almost physically palatable. Fans were outright angry with what they believed to be narrative missteps in the movie with the top four annoyances being:
the mischaracterization or misunderstanding of Luke Skywalker's character along with his values and behavior
the totally unbelievable ability of Princess Leia to fly through space at a time that required this power
the multiculturalism of the cast (the current political environment seems to seep into everything)
the ability to annihilate a massive capital class starship with a rather pedestrian starship making one wonder why this hasn’t been done for years and how much money have the bad guys wasted on ultimately ineffectual over-sized ships
These miscues coupled with many other changes in canon implemented by Disney after purchasing Lucasfilm gave birth to the anger of Star Wars fans. This frustration spilled over into social media. Ultimately, many of these same fans decided to stay home and effectively boycott the Solo movie to demonstrate the depth of their anger at Disney. Too bad for those folks, Solo was a much better movie than The Last Jedi. They missed out on an entertaining couple of hours at the cinema.
Given the anger of Star Wars fans and the precarious nature of the plot lines handed off to JJ Abrams, the expectations of fans is lower for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It’s hard to know how fans will respond to the movie when it’s released on December 20th. Abrams has a good track record, but he has no room for mistakes. Due to the derivative storylines in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), Abrams first Star Wars movie was not as universally embraced as Disney had planned. There were simply too many parallels to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) for many fans. When coupled with Rian Johnson’s Last Jedi, Star Wars fans are in a volcanic mood. Maybe they’ll erupt, maybe not.
With the ever increasing influence of social media, the fan unrest has been magnified to the point where the Star Wars fan base is actually famous for being angry. If you’re a producer of content, they’re just haters. If you’re an angry fan, you are simply angry at low quality entertainment product. Either way Star Wars could be the next brand in the firing line.
Mark Your Calendar: Answers will come on December 20th with the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Star Trek has struggled at the movie theaters as both the Kirk-era Star Trek movies and the Picard-era Star Trek movies have paled when compared with the results of the Star Wars movies. JJ Abrams (his name comes up a lot, eh) rebooted the Kirk-era movies in 2009 with a new cast. He was largely successful with the first two movies receiving positive reviews and both did well at the box office. The obstacle that prevented the franchise from growing organically like it could have was the movies were released 4 years apart. To make things worse, the third movie of this series was the weakest of the three films. As of now, the rebooted Kirk-era series appears to be on life support.
At the same time, on the small screen, Star Trek is now the crown jewel of CBS All Access with the newest series, Star Trek Discovery. This prequel takes place in the Star Trek mythos just before Kirk takes over the captaincy of the Enterprise for his original five year mission. Discovery has alienated a sizable set of Star Trek fans. Producers made the show look much more technologically advanced than past Trek series. This is logical enough as producers are going to use current technology and not try to make a show look like a cheap show produced 50 years ago. Crazily enough, a prequel series filmed today which looks better than series filmed 15 to 50 years ago has really frosted a group of fans. Fan ire is also fueled by the addition of heretofore unmentioned relatives of major characters along with massive societal events like wars that weren’t mentioned (or were barely mentioned) in any of the prior series. The lesson here is that if you mess with the canon of a sci-fi series, it can get really ugly.
In December, Star Trek will release its newest television series on CBS All Access. Star Trek Picard will feature the return of Patrick Stewart playing the iconic Jean Luc Picard. This series could be the event that will heal the rift in the Star Trek fan base. Conversely, it could be the event that further divides the fan base and pushes the Star Trek fan base to a place of bitterness that is currently occupied by Star Wars fans.
Mark Your Calendar: We will get answers on January 23, 2020 when Star Trek Picard debuts. No pressure on anyone associated with the series.
One franchise will probably not survive the anger of the fans. The future doesn’t look bright for the Terminator despite a solid movie debuting less than a week ago. We will see what happens with Star Wars and Star Trek. It’s probably a bit disconcerting for the producers of both franchises as they’ve seen one solid movie go down in flames. It would be different if Terminator Dark Fate was a mess which everyone could easily recognize, but it wasn’t.
In three months, we’ll know a lot more about what the future will look like for all three franchises. We know that solid may not be good enough. Star Trek and Star Wars personnel have to recognize this fact. Their objective is clear, put out the best product humanly possible. They don’t have much time so they had best use the time they have well. Good luck to both creative teams, because both franchises need a resounding success. Let’s hope it happens.