Bad News: Fan Theories are Destroying Movie Discussion

fan theories

Sorry, everyone. It turns out we have to ditch enjoying our entertainment a certain way because the managing editor of Movie Mezzanine thinks they are, and this is a direct quote, “truly toxic.”

Alright. Let’s do this.

In his latest editorial, titled “Why Fan Theories are Destroying Film Discourse,” film critic Josh Spiegel deconstructs the modern fan theory, directly calling me out on two theories I’ve written on this very site. For that reason, I think it would be rude not to respond, right?

He starts the essay with a few examples to set up his case.

Did you know that, in The Dark Knight, the hero was actually the Joker? It’s true—if you buy into this recent theory posited by a user on Reddit.

Interesting that he doesn’t link to the post itself, just an article on SlashFilm reporting on it. I mean, that’s not egregiously terrible or anything…but why not just link to the original post? Wouldn’t it be fairer for readers to evaluate the original version instead of a shortened one that leaves out his full explanation?

Also, I don’t get his logic with this sentence: “It’s true—if you buy into this.”

Well, no, something isn’t “true” just because you believe it. I suppose, then, it is true to you, but if Josh is subtly implying that truth is relative, then doesn’t that make this entire article pointless?

And did you know that Andy’s mom in Toy Story is also the grown version of the girl named Emily in Toy Story 2 who owned, and then discarded, Jessie the cowgirl?

YES! Wait, is this a trap?

No fooling, according to a post by the same guy who has a far broader theory that every Pixar movie—yes, even the Cars movies—are connected to each other.

Well, no, that’s not true. If he had read the actual post he’s linking to, he would have noticed that I didn’t, in fact, come up with the original theory for Andy’s mom being Emily. It was presented to me, and I made the case for it with my own research.

fan theories
So long, logic.

And in the most mind-blowing one of all, it’s even been suggested that the snarky kid at the beginning of Jurassic Park who Alan Grant threatens with a raptor claw grew up to be none other than Chris Pratt’s hero character in Jurassic World.

Again, Spiegel links to the article reporting what someone posted on Reddit, instead of just the original posting. Does Spiegel hate Reddit or something?

Also, I actually like this theory about Jurassic World. It’s interesting. It’s a fun connection. It makes enough sense, and it doesn’t contradict anything presented in the respective movies. So, what’s the problem?

There are an embarrassingly large number of fan theories floating around the Internet, and the emphasis here should be on the word “embarrassingly.”

It’s embarrassing to have a large number of discussions about movies? I thought fan theories were destroying film discourse, not strengthening it? Oh, Josh, let’s just cut to the chase, friend. 

What these ideas amount to are fan fiction, not fan theories.

Wait, but what are “these ideas” you refer to? I didn’t leave a sentence out. You’re saying that fan theories are fan fiction, but they’re not fan theories. What?

fan theories
And even *terrible* fan fiction gets to be a book!

Also, fan fiction isn’t as broad a term as you’re alluding. Unless someone is actually writing a fiction, it’s not fan fiction. And even if it is, some fan fiction can be pretty good (don’t see above), and a lot of people read and love it. In a way, the celebrated Star Wars novels are a form of fan fiction cleverly called “expanded universe.” Why is that acceptable, but an interpretation of a movie you just saw isn’t?

I have a feeling he’s not going to answer the question and instead bring something else up.

Few, if any, of these theories ever get a direct response;

They’re not supposed to get a direct response. That’s not the point. Fan theories, in a broad sense, are an experiment by moviegoers to let themselves interpret movies they love in new and different ways. They don’t have to be “true.” 

That’s like saying your interpretation of 2001A Space Odyssey isn’t worth your time because Kubrick hasn’t directly responded to it from the grave.

fan theories
OR HAS HE?

..the closest in recent memory is Pixar director Lee Unkrich playfully retweeting a comment or two from followers of his who treat the so-called Pixar Theory as utter silliness.

Well first of all, it’s not “so-called.” It’s just called.

Also, why not just link to the Tweet itself?? Again, Spiegel links to the blog post about the Tweet. I’m feeling an Inception fan theory coming on here…is…is Josh Spiegel Dom Cobb? Makes sense.

Oh, and you’re linking to the wrong Pixar Theory. That’s the website inspired by it, not the original post. I’m guessing Spiegel doesn’t care.

[UPDATE: Movie Mezzanine graciously fixed this error and sent the link to the correct spot. Credit where credit is due.]

But fan theories are becoming as prevalent to modern film culture as stories about casting rumors or reviews, and they are becoming truly toxic.

Toxic, eh? That’s strong language. I mean it implies that fan theories themselves are harmful. Probably to film discourse! Let’s read why. 

It’s easy to imagine the counterargument from those in favor of fan theories: What’s the harm?

Right. That’s a big one. 

The Dark Knight doesn’t become better or worse because of a Reddit user’s theory about the Joker, as silly as that theory might sound.

Nods.

The Toy Story films are still marvelous whether or not Andy’s mom is Jessie’s old owner.

True that. 

Jurassic World is still a resounding disappointment,

Wait, what? A resounding disappointment? That’s heavy hyperbole, especially considering the adjective is implying that we’re still feeling it as a disappointment months later. 

Never mind that Jurassic World is one of the top-grossing films of all time, or that it managed to score good reviews when most people were expecting another terrible Jurassic Park sequel. 

fan theories
Never forget.

I get why you may not have liked it, Spiegel, but that doesn’t make it an ongoing disappointment to everyone else.

The problem is that these theories, online, become as inextricable to a vast amount of readers as the actual movies themselves.

He just asserts this. No evidence. No examples. Not even a bloody anecdote. Spiegel, in all his wisdom, just declares that fan theories are confusing people because there’s a lot of them. Does he not think we’re smart enough to read fan theories? And then he says the movies should be confusing us. What? What’s confusing? 

This argument makes no sense to me because it implies that people care more about fan theories than the movie themselves, but liking the movie is the actual prerequisite to even wanting to read a fan theory.

So what’s the problem? People aren’t overthinking movies the right way? Is that where this is going?

Worse still, these fan theories are quickly replacing actual critical analysis,

Last I checked, people still critique movies. Like a lot of them. All the time. Do you have, maybe, any evidence that there are fewer articles that analyze movies the way you want them to be analyzed?

covered by a large amount of entertainment websites in part because the content beast must be fed,

Exactly! Like how celebrity gossip ruined film discourse because the magazine content beast had to be fed. Should we hate that, too?

and in part because it takes the work out of the hands of the sites’ writers and into the hands of random commenters who have too much time on their hands.

Look, I’m all for giving writers more work to do. Like sourcing the actual comments instead of just linking to the blog post about them. (But I guess he’s doing that to strengthen his point.) 

And we don’t totally disagree on this. Some fan theories are pretty bad, and it’s annoying when a website will feature them just to get clicks. So why are you attacking all fan theories? Some of them are fantastic, and yes, worth talking about.

fan theories
Like “the stormtroopers missed all the time because Vader ordered them not to kill his son. Oh, and he knew Luke was his son the whole time.”

They’re not from “random commenters” as you so condescendingly refer to them as. They’re human beings who love movies just as much as you and I do.

I don’t care what you think about them, Spiegel. Loving movies is the only qualifier you need to join the discussion, EVEN if you have free time (gasp).

So what’s the difference between a fan theory and a deep-dive exploration into one aspect of a film?

Hmmm…How many flattering adjectives you’re willing to assign to them? 

The former is the product of a person choosing to fantasize about what they would do if they had made the film they’re watching,

No, that’s not it at all. Last I checked, not everyone wants to be a director. Maybe I’ll check again. Checks. Nope. 

and the latter is the product of a person paying attention to the movie they’re watching and responding in kind.

Wow. Just…wow. Spiegel isn’t using words like “some” or “generally.” He’s definitively saying that people who write fan theories aren’t paying attention to the movie. 

Because it’s not like I write both fan theories and elaborate critiques about how The Incredibles demonstrates the subtle benefits of inequality, how Inception brilliantly built its story around filmmaking, or how the humans of WALL-E represent the best in society contrasted with their horrible surroundings you’re only perceiving as “bad” because of clever story tricks. 

I couldn’t have written any of those things because I wasn’t “paying attention.” I was too busy also writing fan theories, and those are bad.

Often, the fan theories that send the Internet—specifically its social-media avenues—into a tizzy rely heavily on the fact that they aren’t based directly on what’s present in the text.

True. Most of these theories end up being rubbish, or not completely thought through. 

Take, for example, the notion that Owen Grady in Jurassic World is the kid in the opening of Jurassic Park. That certainly sounds cool, and would be a nice, if random, tie-in to the 1993 film. But what’s the evidence backing this theory? Well, see, the kid in Jurassic Park is only credited as “Volunteer Boy.” So his name could be Owen! Also, Chris Pratt is only a year older than the actor who played Volunteer Boy, so the timeline could fit! Also…um…hey, look, something shiny!

Seriously, Josh? Why so mean-spirited in that last line? We get it. You think fan theories are childish. You don’t have to be a tool about it.

fan theories
Take a long, Lohan, look at yourself.

Also, the evidence for this Jurassic World theory comes from the fact that you can reasonably see the people who made the film creating a character who embodies this moment from the first film. It actually informs the story as a whole.

That said, and I can’t stress this enough, this theory doesn’t have to be true. But it is a fun thought experiment that you can speculate about because it does happen to fit with the source material so nicely.

The majority of the work to make this theory seem remotely logical is done behind the scenes, as someone imagines what could have happened to this kid after Alan Grant scratched at his stomach with a raptor claw.

Yeah, who needs imagination? Certainly not people who watch what is essentially an illusion on a big screen.

See, much of what we take from a movie has to come from thinking external of what’s being presented. This is because the audience makes an emotional connection with what’s happening, but not every director can spoon feed you the context. That would alienate the audience.

We have to fill in those blanks ourselves most of the time, which leads to…you guessed it…film discourse.

This same vagueness plagues the majority of fan theories. Yes, it’s not impossible that, in the Toy Story films, Andy’s mom could have a deeper connection to one of his toys than he or even she realizes. So many existing fan theories rely on the first four words of the previous sentence: “Yes, it’s not impossible.” The lack of impossibility, however, doesn’t automatically prove a theory correct; it merely suggests that it’s not impossible for something to be true.

Again, these theories don’t have to be true. That’s not why most people come up with them. It’s about interpreting small clues in new ways that get you to think about the film. When someone reads this theory for the first time, they’re often pushed into rewatching the movie, and (guess what!) paying attention to it. 

Fan theories are no substitute for critical analysis, yet they have quickly become inseparable for so many readers online.

This is Josh’s main argument, and I get why he’s so concerned. Because it’s true that fan theories are not a substitute. But that’s a complete misunderstanding of their role. They’re not meant to be a substitute, either. They never were. 

Instead, fan theories in their nature are meant to be a form of interpretation through imagination and passion for the subject material. They’re meant to answer questions that don’t have to be answered, but create conversations between the people who answer these questions in different ways.

fan theories
Sometimes, fan theories are answered by the voice actors themselves.

Analogy time!

Fan theories are like movies. There are good movies, and there are bad movies. That doesn’t mean we should get rid of all movies because some are bad. And bad movies certainly don’t replace other art forms that approach entertainment in a different way. I can read a fan theory and a deep analysis by A.A. Dowd. And I can enjoy both of them.

On the other, fan theories pose as critical analysis in spite of featuring neither criticism—often, these are posed by people who would proudly consider themselves fanboys or fangirls, never pausing to think about the built-in imperfections of even their favorite films—nor analysis.

Translation: Josh thinks you like movies too much. Go figure. 

Right, because in his world, people who overthink movies don’t criticize them. That is an actual opinion held by a film critic.

Popular films like Jurassic World or The Dark Knight or Toy Story beg to be debated for their themes.

And nothing else! Only themes! 

Hey, wouldn’t that mean that critical analysis of themes is destroying film discourse? What if someone wants to debate the characters in the movie, or how some of the movies share nods to each other?

Nope! To save film discourse, we must prevent it from happening the way we want it to. Shrug!

As ubiquitous as they may be, the discourse surrounding these films frequently sidesteps a conversation on nostalgia, on childhood heroes, on the possible emptiness of vast spectacle.

This sentence exists in a world where The Nostalgia Critic is one of the most widely viewed critics in new media. 

fan theories
OK, maybe some people talk about Nostalgia Critic more than nostalgia itself.

Fan theories now drive the discourse on these films, and to everyone’s detriment.

No, they just exist. That’s all they do. Yes, some are more popular than others, but how is that in any way proof that they’re replacing anything? 

I browse the Top and Trending URLs almost every single day. You know which articles about movies I see the most being shared? Not fan theories. Those make up a small percentage, because the reality is that a good fan theory is hard to discover, while pointing out what you think about a movie is pretty easy, and a lot of people are pretty interested in critical analysis.

You know what the top trending links were for the day I wrote this (September 2, 2015)? The top link was an image of Bryan Cranston as LBJ in the upcoming movie, All the Way.

fan theories
Yes, this is actually happening.

The second most shared link about movies (including via social media) was a longform piece by Italo Calvino about movies that influenced his youth, adapted from a published autobiography.

There was another piece about actors who’ve built successful careers after The Twilight Zone.

Even Gawker published something interesting about how Bruce Willis was unaware that China has a huge film market even though he’s in a movie made in China. OK, I thought it was interesting.

So that’s everything movie-related from the top 100 links. Yet I don’t see a single “fan theory” shoving its way past articles that are, in Spiegel’s eyes, more deserving.

fan theories

For some odd reason, Spiegel feels threatened because a good article he probably wrote isn’t as famous as a theory about the Joker from The Dark Knight. And I guess I sympathize. That sounds weird, and I’ve been there.

Does that mean fan theories are inherently bad, though? Absolutely not. You could only argue that they’re toxic if you actually have an argument that points out how they prevent people from deep analysis.

But instead of doing that, Spiegel has chosen to create a false dichotomy between analysis and analysis fueled by imagination. By doing this, he tries to makes you feel dumb for liking fan theories instead of something he likes.

That’s not an argument. That’s a childish guilt trip.

On their own, fan theories are, indeed, harmless; if they existed next to critical discussions, and did so in lesser standing, they would be a fun distraction.

“Fan theories wouldn’t be so bad if people liked my articles better.” 

But the more fan theories are treated as serious, thoughtful salvos in a debate, the more ridiculous they appear to become.

To you. 

Here’s a new fan theory to ponder: making these things die a quick death will improve the world of film immeasurably. What more proof do you need?

All of the proof you failed to deliver thousands of words ago. 

And I’m puzzled by the raising of the stakes toward the end. Now we have to make fan theories die a quick death? What’s going on, Josh? Did a fan theory steal your girlfriend or something?

Seriously, he went from talking about how fan theories are harmless to calling for their immediate death. This sounds a lot like a dictatorship to me, rather than letting people who love movies make up their minds on how they want to approach the entertainment they like.

In other words, not everyone thinks like a film critic. And that’s OK.

fan theories
You. Are going. To do great, today.

This entire article is a classic case of subjectivity rearing its opinionated head. The truth of it is that Josh Spiegel is an intelligent film critic. I actually like his work a lot and enjoyed his review of Inside Out, among others. We don’t always agree, of course, but he’s good at adding great points to any given discussion.

But this idea that fan theories are making everything worse is a true moment of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).

The quick of it is that Josh doesn’t like fan theories. So he doesn’t like that you like fan theories. Then he accuses you of not liking the type of analysis that he likes (even though you probably do). Then he calls for the death of said thing that you love.

No thanks.

[UPDATE] The original author of the “Joker” theory (who goes by the username, generalzee) responded to Spiegel’s post via the comments, and I thought it would be good to share it here as well. Source.

As the person who wrote the Joker Fan Theory in question, I can’t believe how wrong and insecure this article sounds.

First of all, I never intended for my fan theory to be a critical analysis of The Dark Knight. Nowhere in my theory do I talk about the framing of shots (which I could have), or the acting (which could have been a major point in such a theory), or even the uber-dark mise-en-scene, which may have fully supported my theory, and highlighted how, thematically, all three main characters were living in the dark. Instead, I made an arguably compelling argument that the film could be interpreted another way.

What I find worse than that, though, is the fact that you claim that I ignored facts that are DIRECTLY MENTIONED in my theory. I explained both the boats and Dent’s scarring (Both physical and emotional) directly in the original piece. Of course, I wouldn’t expect a modern blogger to actually check his sources, and I’m sure you just read the Mashable version at some point, but it annoys me that you would make such an attack on fan theories WITHOUT EVEN READING THE ONE YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.

So please let me be clear that this response IS intended to be a critical discourse on your work. What I see is a self-proclaimed critic who is horrified by his perceived loss of power to a basically unrelated group of people investigating films in a way that he, himself, has arbitrarily deemed below himself. This is reflected in his weak, but clear call to action to end Fan Theories as if they are going to harm legitimate film criticism. The panic he feels reflects strongly in his hastily researched (Really, how long did it take you to read the titles of the top 5 Fan Theories on Reddit?), and poorly thought-out criticism of a culture that he would attempt to appropriate into his own, only to discard it immediately.

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

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25 thoughts

  1. So, does that mean all the Harry Potter theories that have come out over the years, and are still very much present today, are okay because J.K. Rowling will answer them from time to time? Or are they detrimental as well because sometimes the readers find connections that even Rowling never seemed to originally intend. Curious…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, Josh Spiegel never “excused” theories that do get a direct response. I think his intent was “fan theories are so ridiculous, they don’t even get a direct response half the time.” That’s probably what he meant, anyway. And it is weird, because as you bring up, Rowling has made her own adjustments to the canon since the last book came out, and I believe she’s even added credence to a few of the popular fan theories, aside from the one about the Horcrux being the reason why Harry’s surrogate family was so mean to him.

      Like

  2. I think informed discussions are important in any creative outlet and it’s almost human nature to fantasize and decide what if and would you rather in these cases. Where I don’t like fan theories is when they’re oversimplied versions of non-canonical material or facts. That’s where it needs to be silenced.

    Like

    1. Totally agree, except I don’t think bad fan theories need to be “silenced.” It sends the wrong message when we tell people we dislike to go away. It’s better, in my opinion, to confront the issue and start a discussion. That’s what I did with this post, for example. I don’t dislike the author at all, but I disagree with him. Instead of telling him to take his post down or something, I’ve simply presented a counterargument. So the readers can look at both sides and decide who to agree with.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “When we tell people we dislike to go away” like the recent “delete your account” tweet from Clinton to Trump?

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  3. Forget the guy saying the Pixar Theory “died” (Stephen Marshall Bove) Josh Speigel is the TRUE threat to the community, and not just in Pixar, but in every movie. Theories are not destroying movie discussion, they are encouraging it. I’ve seen more reviews of movies now, and more than ever. Also, Speigel had no (or biased) “research” that mean absolutely nothing. If he doesn’t like fan theories, then he should just ignore them instead of bashing out hate and being a Donald Trump wannabe.

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    1. Spiegel isn’t a bad guy, and he’s certainly not a threat to any community. He’s just having a gut reaction to a problem that could happen that he for some reason thinks is already happening. If you read his work, you’ll find he really is a thoughtful writer.

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      1. Sorry about that, I don’t really follow any critics except yours (And the Nostalgia Critic) and I didn’t know Josh Spiegel is a pro critic. I will check how good the critic is next time before I make any comment about it.

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  4. That’s right Spiegel. I forgot that when Jon’s Pixar Theory, MatPat’s Five Night’s at Freddy’s timeline, the Belle/Tarzan connection, my Nintendo Theory, and all the edits and additions to the “Fridge” department of Tv Tropes (which is huge, believe me) were made….none of us were paying attention to the source material at all.

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  5. I don’t know if anyone said this, but writing, or reading, theories of movies/books you love is just pure FUN. Yes, it might be childish at times, and yes the actua theory might be extremely dumb, but it’s still fun to read, and still fun to be creative and dig into the lore of that particular movie/book (if you’re writing the theory.)

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  6. Fan theories have been happening forever. Remember that famous scene in Clerks about Star Wars or how about Marcelus Wallace soul being in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. The only difference know is it can actually be discussed around the world instead of waiting for magazines or newspaper articles to talk about once in a while.

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