Reality can be hard, really hard. Being the kid who’s a little too different, trying to survive middle school, figuring out your identity in high school, becoming an adult, the pressure of full-on adulting. So it’s no surprise that many embrace different levels of fandom throughout their lives. But why do some comics, film franchises, and television series draw such a cult following? Relatability. The reality is that none of us are going to be a Jedi Master, get superhuman strength or indestructibility, get spidey powers from a bite, or “boldly go where no man has gone before!” However, when we see a character that we can relate to, for whatever reason, overcome, be the hero, be treated fairly, etc. we are drawn to that character and their story. These stories can become a safe escape from the hard realities of life. And when we find refuge or positive identity in stories it’s easy to understand why people would want to surround themselves with merchandise that is representative of that connection. Let’s look at a few of the more recent programs that have developed cult followings.
On July 15, 2016, Netflix introduced us to Stranger Things. Presumably aimed at modern adults in their late 30’s through mid 50’s, Stranger Things follows four geeky middle school boys beginning in 1983 as one disappears, a strange silent girl appears, and the search for answers begins. For those of us who grew up in the 80’s Stranger Things not only took us back to our childhoods and simpler times but also gave us a childhood mystery to solve, an adventure to live out. Incorporating characters representative of different ages and social statuses the writers ensure a wide audience appeal without compromising the integrity of the storyline. What really brings it all together is their integration of these characters into the main plot. By staying focused, while still showing multiple assets viewers are invited to identify with Stranger Things in the way that is most comfortable for them.
Then we have the different Marvel series that Netflix has brought to the small screen. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, and Punisher are all part the Defenders group of characters with all of the stories centering around NYC. With multiple plot lines and a variety of stylistic perspectives each series can be viewed alone or as a part of the whole. Unlike Stranger Things which holds true to the 1980’s stereotypes of gender, and largely of race, the different Marvel series break away, in part from previous MCU stereotypes. This departure has led to criticism of some of the shows, in particular, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage neither of which has a white male in the hero role and send the clear message that one isn’t needed for the lead characters to perform at their heroic best. For many, these are selling points allowing women and people of color to have heroes that are a better representation of themselves and thus increasing the MCU fandom base.
But what does this fandom do? Is it good? Is it bad? Or can it be both? The answers to these questions are as numerous as the fans themselves. You might have heard it said that you can never have too much of a good thing, but I would disagree. For fans of Black Mirror show writer Charlie Brooker shows us the dangers of fandom in season 4 opener “USS Callister”. While it’s extremely unlikely that anyone is going to use our DNA to recreate and place us into a version of their favorite show or film franchise it does bring up the question of where the line lays between reality and fiction. In her article “Here’s Why Stranger Things Star Finn Wolfhard Was Forced to Speak Out Against Inappropriate Fans” Dee Lockett highlights the disturbing lengths to which some fans will go to engage with the actors who play their favorite characters. For some, their fandom becomes so all-consuming that it’s no longer entertainment or a temporary escape from reality but rather a way of existing. While this can become dangerous for the celebrities that they only see as the characters they’re obsessed with, I would suggest that this toxic fandom is even more dangerous for the fans themselves. This type of singular focus can lead people to detach from existing social circles, family, and eventually reality. However, these are extreme classes and not what I would consider typical fandom. For most, their fandom won’t reach beyond seeing their favorite franchise movies on opening night, watching the premiere of a new season with friends, collecting some memorabilia, and possibly attending Comi-Con. In short, fandom is generally a hobby like any other. In many cases, fandom is a topic around which friendships and social circles form. Just like most things in life fandom is great…in moderation.