Avengers Endgame

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Disney fandom has become a powerful tribe – how did we get here?)

It’s natural to seek out people who share our interests. Those are the people with whom we’re most likely to get along. But after a point, tribalisation becomes a negative force: when supporting your tribe comes at the expense of other tribes. We see that everywhere, from fandom to global politics. And this year has seen a dramatic and disturbing spike in pop-culture tribalisation – largely centred around the company that needs it least.

Fandom rivalries have existed forever. Star Wars vs Star Trek has more or less come to an equilibrium, with most fans admitting that they like both, to some degree. The Marvel/DC rivalry has been around for decades, though it’s become much more visibly unpleasant since the birth of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. Now that superheroes are a dominant global cultural force, and not a niche for enthusiasts, the scale and fury of these rivalries has escalated to at-times horrifying levels. 

Curiously, neither of those two ongoing deathmatches has been the source of 2019’s worst fan behaviour. Rather, the most perplexing fan activity has centred on three Disney-centric issues – not content, but box office, branding, and corporate warfare.

The first feud was the smallest. Emerging around the similarly-timed releases of two female-led sci-fi actioners, it saw Marvel fans banding around Captain Marvel, and another, amorphous group supporting Alita: Battle Angel as an “alternative”. Irrespective of the relative merits of the two films, there was a lot of bad-faith thinking involved. The larger fan battle concerned the ideologies of each film: specifically, the fact that internet misogynists hated Captain Marvel’s feminist story beats, while Alita didn’t really address gender at all. Genuine Alita fans were swept up in the mix too, but many key campaign drivers had crusaded against Captain Marvel from its announcement. Now that both films are out on home video, the “fight” continues to this day.

The second feud was the biggest, most-publicised, and probably the dumbest. The all-time worldwide box office title is a coveted one, and for over twenty years it’s been held by one James Cameron film (Titanic) or another (Avatar). Hence, it was inevitable that Avengers: Endgame, the (temporary) conclusion to a run of over twenty blockbusters, would make a bid for first place. That bid ended up being more cynical than imagined, with Disney re-upping Endgame’s theatre count months after release as its worldwide gross began to close in on Avatar’s. It was a clear implicit indication for fans to push towards the #1 spot, and fans took up the mantle in great numbers, shelling out for repeat screenings solely to push the box-office numbers up. Ultimately, the ploy was successful.

Crucially, both Marvel/Alita and Avengers/Avatar are box-office battles with absolutely zero actual consequence for the company profiting from the films. Since Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox, both Alita and Avatar are Disney properties, just as the company’s acquisition of Marvel made the Avengers (and thus Captain Marvel) a Disney property. Only two results emerge from either battle being “won”: fans gain a misplaced sense of victory, and Disney makes money. The Disney-enabled, fan-driven push to drive Endgame over Avatar was a breathtaking artificial rivalry, ultimately as bad for consumers as it will be for art.

Who benefits from Avengers: Endgame topping the all-time charts? For fans, it’s about the community “winning”. But those fans will objectively be financially worse off for having bought more tickets solely to give it more of their money. For movies on the bubble – like Alita, which only really performed well internationally, and like the countless independent films struggling to compete with Disney’s monoliths – a higher box office can grant a film a sequel, or its creators more work. In those cases, fans get more entertainment out of the deal. But after a certain point – a point Endgame passed within days – the tangible benefit to fans drops away. Once a movie hits the pure-profit tipping point, only the studio benefits. For fans, it is purely a dick-measuring contest. 

Like dicks, box office is measurable, which makes it enticing as a vindication for fan commitment. You can argue endlessly about which films are better, but box office is all hard numbers. Never mind the fact that runaway ticket price inflation means Endgame, with a $100 million higher domestic gross, sold over two million fewer tickets than Avatar. Never mind the fact that box office doesn’t reflect quality (if it was, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen would be hailed as one of the 100 greatest movies ever made). Avengers beating Avatar is an empty victory, further enriching the world’s largest entertainment company and giving fans only pointless bragging rights.

The final, ongoing fan-led battle is even more insane, concerning as it does corporate politics well above fans’ paygrade. The break between Disney and Sony over Spider-Man film rights has been documented copiously but poorly; countless articles have speculated over the details of the fracture, few capturing the fullness of what actually went down. From available information, the two principal causes were Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige’s lack of time for Sony-held IP amidst a new slate of MCU films, and Disney’s demands for a 50/50 revenue split on future Spider-Man films (up from 5% in the initial deal).

Listen to fans, though, and Sony is the villain. The response to the news was overwhelmingly negative, with Sony seen as the evil outsider impeding the unimpeachable Disney/Marvel. Petitions were launched, Twitter campaigns raged (fueled in part by bots), and a planned march on Sony headquarters has attracted thousands of Facebook users (who may or may not actually show up). Misinformation and emotional language from distraught fans has driven most of it. The volume of bile directed at Sony reflects fans’ refusal to believe that the company that brought them the Marvel Cinematic Universe can do any wrong. The reality is that the original Sony/Disney deal expired. Neither party is entirely in the right here, as much as there can be a “right”, but in the context of Disney’s greater industry dominance, the negotiations take on a different tone.

While the Disney/Sony break could at least cause visible consequences for fans, the overwhelming fan hatred towards Sony is sickening to watch, given the often objectively evil behaviour of Disney. Disney has gobbled up other massive corporations, now eclipsing all the other majors in terms of IP popularity and market saturation. In Disney’s releasing ideology, blockbuster tentpoles aren’t just a high priority, but the only priority. It’s taken that approach and applied it to cinemas, too, which are strongarmed into contracts to carry Disney product exclusively for long periods, at the expense of other material, lest they lose the rights to screen the Mouse House’s much-sought-after blockbusters.

Obviously, this steeply reduces consumer choice in entertainment, and that’s only the tip of an iceberg that contains five-digit layoffs, historic anti-union behaviour, and predatorily high pricing on the true cash cows, merchandising and parks. Disney has not only accomplished world domination, but done so with the enthusiastic support of a blissfully ignorant public. Explicitly or not, Disney has successfully weaponised fan loyalty against rival studios and even against the wider moviegoing public. If Disney and Sony do finally patch things up, it’ll be because of Disney’s iron fist and ability to mobilise fans.

Disney does not care about fans, except insofar as they provide revenue and loyalty (i.e. revenue on an ongoing basis). Pledging loyalty to Disney is not just bizarre; it’s anti-consumer and even anti-democratic. A behemoth like Disney has not only the power to profoundly restrict available entertainment options; it also has the ability to affect laws so it can continue to do so more efficiently and with greater dividends for its shareholders. The family-friendly branding is just that: branding.

Fans are no longer fans of stories or characters; they’re fans of corporations and brands. Disney has cultivated brand loyalty for nearly a century: Disney wholly invented the myth of ritual lemming suicide in its 1958 documentary White Wilderness, and so high was public trust in the company that the myth persists to this day. Similarly, in the 2010s, Disney invented the myth that its release schedule contains all the movies audiences could ever need. Disney currently holds five of the top six highest-grossing films of 2019, a dominance that will only extend further with the release of Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The myth has become a disturbing reality, and fans are celebrating it. The tribe has become an empire.

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