Monday, March 3, 2014

Fan Service

Dedicated supporters of a person or enterprise are sometimes referred to as fans, short for fanatic, and they can often simultaneously be the best and worst people to have in your corner. Having fans in your corner, especially in things like arts and entertainment, brings a degree of guaranteed support and credibility to whatever you are trying to accomplish. Conversely, anonymous broadcasting and networking tools give disgruntled fans an undue amount of influence and an audience for their perceived grievances.


The Batman movies are a prime example of this; studios often 'test' movies before release but showing them audiences and surveying them afterwards, allowing them to tweak their product as needed. Then fledgling movie gossip site Ain't It Cool News began reporting on the poor response to screenings of Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin (even though they are supposed to be secret), and that was the end of that particular franchise for almost a decade.


Christopher Nolan, hot off the success of his brilliant indie detective-with-no-long-term-memory flick Memento, was brought in to write and direct a reboot, which everyone was tentatively excited about. The faith of the fan base was rewarded, but when Nolan announced the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker in the sequel, that same community was outraged, and made sure everyone knew it. With one voice, they claimed that a 'pretty-boy' like Ledger could not possibly do justice to a killer clown character created a half century before. Besides, some argued, no one should go up against Jack Nicholson's performance in Tim Burton's Batman almost twenty years ago. The most understanding perspective you might find on the message boards of the time was that this egregious mishandling was no doubt the result of studio interference.


At any rate, Nolan's reputation for composure under pressure stood him in good stead, remaining aloof while the studio released simple sketches of their vision as Ledger as a completely different Joker from anyone seen before in either the movies or the comics that inspired them. Some smart marketing campaigns centred around the San Diego Comic-Con brought a lot of fence-sitters into the fold, and had even the most entrenched fans saying they might be willing to give The Dark Knight the benefit of the doubt.


In the end, Nolan did the impossible: he made a movie that not only satisfied an initially hostile fan base but also intrigued mainstream audiences, becoming an enormous hit and making almost a billion dollars for Warner Bros.


It is intimidating to think about huge communications behemoths like AOL Time Warner (who own DC Comics and iconic characters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman) or Disney (who now both the Marvel Comics and Star Wars properties in addition to Mickey and the Muppets), devoting even a small portion of their budgets to researching, predicting and managing fan reactions to their plans, but obviously they must. With the time, money and energy at stake, it is critical to make sure fans understand that the creators and owners of these franchises respect the material they are working with, even when they make necessary departures from it. The DC animation arm used to excel at this sort of 'fan service', with cryptic nods to historical comic trivia and nerdy shibboleths salted into episodes of Justice League and Brave and the Bold, but they have lost much of their mojo in this arena. After disappointing (Green Lantern) or divisive (Man of Steel) efforts at the cinema, they seem to have largely ceded this ground to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.




The most recent Marvel One-Shot "Hail to the King" from the new Thor BluRay is a perfect example. In Iron Man 3, director Shane Black said there were no plans to include Tony Stark's arch nemesis The Mandarin for a number of reasons, the most prominent of which were the fact he is pretty much a racist caricature in the vein of Fu Manchu. Someone getting their powers from magical rings found in a crashed spaceship would be a real test for the suspension of disbelief, even in a summer comic book movie. But mid-production, Black reversed himself, saying they found a way to reinvent The Mandarin as a premier ideological terrorist, and that he would be played by the great Ben Kingsley. And in the movie, his chilling affect, ruthless manner and multi-accented voice make him a very credible threat, and a formidable foe for Iron Man.


But when it was revealed that the Mandarin was essentially a stalking horse, a puppet, a patsy, and this fearsome presence was actually a drug-addled thespian named Trevor Slattery, I roared with laughter, partially due to the great way he was written by Drew Pearce, partially for Sir Ben's brilliantly comedic portrayal, but honestly, mostly for how I knew the more 'serious comic fans' (it feels weird to even type that...) were going to react. Sure enough, their indignation began making the rounds shortly after the movie's release, but they soon found themselves outnumbered by people like myself who enjoyed the twist, and thought a comic version of the Mandarin was a poor fit for the movies.

Hail to the King is a ten minute film that centres around a documentarian interviewing Slattery in his rather plush prison cell, but what makes it most amazing is that writer Drew Pearce has done the impossible: it somehow, amazingly, reconciles the fans of the 'real' Mandarin with those of Trevor Slattery. Kingsley is brilliant in his return to this hapless, oblivious actor whose sense of his own importance is vastly overstated, but believed with such a degree of conviction that he has begun to convince those around him that it is legitimate. If you enjoyed IM3 or the ongoing evolution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I recommend seeing this Marvel One Shot as soon as possible.




In addition to opening up the MCU a teensy bit wider, Hail to the King may even have a hat-tip to a other future project: Trevor's new residence, Seagate Prison, is also the scene of the origin of one Luke Cage, better known as Power Man. Power Man, his occasional Heroes for Hire partner Iron Fist, blind crime fighter Daredevil and one time super person Jessica Jones are all getting their own limited-run series on Netflix, then coming together for a Defenders mini-series. Tiny asides like this, otherwise negligible remarks or references overlooked by the majority of onlookers, show the attention to detail that is the hallmark of great fan service.




Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series, although a little slow in finding its feet, has now begun to reward viewers who have stuck it out by revealing that an established character is turning into the cyborg assassin Deathlok, a relatively obscure character who nonetheless has had his own comic at various times since his creation in the '70s. Whether this will be enough to silence critics who feel not enough has been done to establish ties to either the Marvel Comics universe or the MCU remains to be seen, but hearing that tomorrow's episode will feature Bill Paxton, one of my favourite genre actors, playing agent Jack Garrett is pretty encouraging.



Garrett was introduced in the trippy and groundbreaking Elektra: Assassin miniseries by Frank Miller and Bill Sienckiewicz I bought off the racks at Starbase 12 back in 1986, and has, unbeknownst to me, made several appearances as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in the decades (ugh!) since. Again, they probably could have had Paxton playing an agent named Phillips or Robertson, but bringing in a comics reference is another means of restoring confidence in the fanbase.


DC may be re-learning the craft of fan service as well. Recent episodes of the CW superhero soap opera Arrow has seen the formation of popular anti-hero team The Suicide Squad, linkages to The League of Assassins and Batman villain Rās Al-Ghul, as well as serving as a 'back door pilot' to a new series featuring famed speedster The Flash. In the most recent episode alone:

  • We got to hear Officer Lance's radio call sign of Delta Charlie five-two, i.e. DC 52. DC's controversial universal reboot, they re numbered every comic they make back to number 1, was called "The New 52".
  • We see a team of robbers infiltrating Kord Industries to steal a high-tech device; Owner and CEO Ted Kord is also known as The Blue Beetle, a gadgeteer crime fighter and member of the Justice League.
  • During a scene in which Oliver Queen/Arrow races past a bus in order to keep it from crashing into a malevolently guided train, we can see an ad on the side of it for "Blue Devil" a lesser known comics character from the DC Universe.

And a clearer look here, courtesy of Bleeding Cool:

(See the Blue Devil one is really clever, and a bit meta, since the ad is for a Blue Devil 3D movie, so even those who are aware he's a comic character are likely to think, oh hey, in the Arrowverse, BD must be a comic that has been made into a summer movie, BUT, but, Blue Devil's origin story is that he is actually a Hollywood stuntman/special effects artist who gets trapped by sorcery within the costume he has created for a movie called...Blue Devil! If they end up actually having Blue Devil on either Arrow or The Flash after this ad, I will just...why are you staring at me like that?)


At this rate, it is only a matter of time before someone on Arrow mentions Gotham City or Metropolis, or something from there, like Wayne Industries or The Daily Planet, and even if they don't take it much further than that (which is likely, since they will need to keep the ground clear for the next Superman movie, which will include Batman, Wonder Woman and possibly a whole host of other costumed heroes), it's still a wonderful bit of fan service.


Fan service at its best is not about pandering, it is about sharing details regarding an imaginary world in a way that resonates with the most dedicated of fans; those who are smart enough to recognize the limitations of working within multiple media channels with dozens or hundreds of creative collaborators on thousands of projects spanning decades, but despite knowing all that, still hunger for this make-believe world to be as believable and consistent and detailed as possible.


Maybe this is because these fantastic universes seem so much better than our own sometime , so much fuller with potential and promise, where super-science, alien technology, ancient wisdom and unexplainable phenomena make the impossible real and the marvelous part of every day life. Who wouldn't want to look at the situation in the Ukraine and attribute the troubles there to agents provocateur of Hydra, looking to consolidate power, or AIM, needing the natural resources of the Crimea for some malicious purpose? Knowing full well that Captain America or Iron Man will doubtlessly arrive to shut things down with authority, but as little loss of life as possible?


On the other hand, not being invaded by countless alien races or used as pawns by one of the many secret societies jockeying for position in the world of comics has its benefits as well,I suppose.


For myself, I am certainly willing to give committed creators the benefit of a doubt, especially when they take their time establishing their bona fides with offhand references that wink broadly at those of us looking closely enough to perceive their significance. That is a service that this fan is only too happy to render.


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