Sunday, April 14, 2024

Secret Invasion And The Fan Dialogue

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Secret Invasion, to put things plainly, was not received well. As of the last time I checked, it is the lowest rated streaming show of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its finale the lowest rated single episode. Naturally, a project so poorly received leaves everyone scrambling to respond to the backlash. Even before Secret Invasion ended, Disney CEO Bob Iger had promised to scale back the amount of Marvel content being released.

More noteworthy, though, was the response from Ali Selim, an executive producer on Secret Invasion who also directed all six episodes. The entire interview is worth reading, but let’s talk about his comments regarding the “mixed” reviews coming from fans. Full quotes ahead, because Selim’s comments are not quite so bad as the headlines and online rage portray them (even if they are not great).

G'iah watching pensively from Secret Invasion

Selim said, “Oh, I don’t read reviews. With all due respect. For me, I view all the storytelling work I do as a dialogue with an audience. When the show is finished and put up on the screen, that’s my half of the dialogue. And the audience then starts their half of the response to it. I think that’s valuable, but I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer the question.”

“I don’t feel bad about mixed reviews. If you had unanimously good reviews, every movie would gross $10 billion, trillion dollars, right? [Projects] resonate with different people at different times for different reasons, and Marvel has a very devoted — even rabid — fan base who have expectations and when their expectations aren’t fulfilled, they move in the other direction; they give it a thumbs down.”

“I don’t know — is it our job to fulfill their expectations? Or to tell the story that we’re telling? So, it’s a tricky thing. I would love it if everybody loved it, but I also don’t have that expectation myself, so I feel great about the response to it.”

Much of the anger regarding these comments about Secret Invasion is in regard to the part about him only putting his half of the dialogue out there, along with his question about whether he should fulfill fan expectations or focus on the story he wants to tell. I get it. Taken out of context, like most clickbait headlines and angry fans will take it, Selim sounds dismissive of the fans and what people want out of the MCU. It’s also worth pointing out that what he describes does not sound like dialogue as most describe it, since dialogue would requires a back and forth he is missing here.

He does raise a good point, though, and describes the problem that has existed with franchised storytelling since its conception. How do you engage with fans when telling your story? How much do you listen to them? At what point does fanservice do a disservice to the story a creator wants to tell?

The prevalence of social media has only made the balance between listening to fans and ignoring them even more difficult to maintain. Even if a controversy exists among ten percent of your audience, it is easier than ever for that ten percent to make noise, so that the size of the controversy and backlash far exceeds the number of people truly upset with the media. It’s also easier than ever for creators to engage and respond to fans.

Sometimes this can be a great thing. Knowing what your fans want has always played a role in the entertainment industry. This is especially true of ongoing media like a book or television series. Popular actors are given expanded roles, popular subplots gain expanded focus, and the story naturally evolves depending on how certain aspects are received. Ever wonder why Stranger Things totally abandoned Kali and her gang? No, you don’t, because any fan knows her intro episode was largely panned and the Duffers had no reason to revisit them.

I know that the concept of engaging with fans sounds like it can’t fail, but it absolutely can. Jonathan Nolan famously said that he had to rewrite a twist in season 2 of Westworld because fans predicted it ahead of time. While he was likely joking, his larger comments about fans guessing the plot fits with the widespread complaints about that season, which was that it felt like the show was trying too hard to surprise fans and be unpredictable.

Let’s be honest here; you cannot just listen to the audience above all else. For one, no audience is a homogeneous identity sharing uniform opinions on a story. The best you can do in the most optimal of scenarios is please the largest percentage of the audience that you can.

Secondly, if we’re being totally real, is the issue that most fans are not professional storytellers, and it shows in online spaces that spend endless amounts of time debating/arguing over what a story should do. Spend enough time around fandom discussions of what they think will or should happen and you quickly realize how much those discussions are driven by simply wanting the easiest, most immediately satisfying thing. I mean, of course that’s what we want! We’re fans, and fans tend to want a narrow range of things to happen that will make us happy.

I can understand when creators like Selim take the view of not paying much attention to online reactions, because it’s ultimately a losing battle. Secret Invasion was never going to make everyone happy, and if you start focusing too much on what other people want, you can lose sight of the story you originally meant to tell or get too wrapped up in responding to criticisms. Ultimately, what could Secret Invasion do about all this negativity right now? The season is wrapped and filming, it is what it is.

Selim is at least partly right to say that his part of the dialogue is out there in the form of the show. Really, he can’t respond to the audience’s response unless Secret Invasion receives another season, he works on it, and he can then continue said dialogue. This is what I think he means by saying the show is his half of the conversation. This is the awkward back and forth between creator and audience that plays out in the entertainment world. It requires the patience to wait and listen and give the other side a chance to respond, except the audience can’t do that until the next project/season, and the creator can’t respond to that until they make the next piece of art.

Still, you hope to hear someone involved with a divisive project react to said divisiveness with words making clear that they are listening and do care what the audience thinks. The proper response helps assuage the audience and give them hope for the future.

Talos surrounded by Skrulls in Secret Invasion

As a part of the internet sphere who writes articles about what entertainment does right and wrong, it can also be difficult for said sphere to keep things in perspective. Online and critical reaction to the final season of Game of Thrones may have been uniformly disastrous but what does that matter to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss when said final season drew massive ratings, the show has continued as a streaming juggernaut, and Thrones will endure forever as one of the most influential shows in television history? It’s easy to see why they are so dismissive of the criticisms towards their work.

Does that mean Selim should ignore the reactions to Secret Invasion? Of course not. The show was met with a resounding “meh” that dipped into near total displeasure by the end. He and head writer Kyle Bradstreet will probably never get a second season from Marvel. There’s no way anyone is walking away thinking Secret Invasion was a success.

Hearing Selim question whether it is his job to meet audience expectations does not sound great. Meeting expectations is always the goal of a piece of entertainment. You have an audience you are hoping to reach, and that is always an expectation. This is especially true of Marvel. There were very clear expectations for Secret Invasion, one of the more well-known Marvel comic arcs, and everyone involved surely understood what was expected. They would also know the reaction if they did not meet those expectations.

I can promise you that Marvel wanted it to meet those expectations.

These types of comments make fans feel like the creator did not care what they think, which is the obvious issue most took from Selim’s comments about Secret Invasion. It has never been easy for the entertainment world to engage with their audience, and the problem is only becoming more difficult as it becomes easier and easier for fans to feel an entitlement over the product. To a certain degree, fans do have a sense of ownership over pieces of media. They only become popular through fans, they make money through fans, they live on after their conclusion through fans.

When fans hear something that reminds us that we have little real control, that the story can decide to ignore what we want or ask for, well, that is a tough pill to swallow. You always hope most of us will react maturely, but there will always be those sections of the fan base who take their sense of ownership too far.

Finding like-minded niches within a fandom is easier than ever, as is our ability to directly reach people who make the things we love. It has been tough to find a balance within fandom itself between positive and negative engagement. Anyone can hope online and find dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people who feel the exact same way they do. They can tweet something and find ready validation for whatever they feel about a piece of entertainment.

The larger said entertainment is, the easier it is to find people who agree with you about it. On the other hand, it is also makes uniform opinions increasingly difficult. Selim is most certainly correct about Marvel’s rabid fan base and their reactions when things don’t go as they wanted or expected. Marvel also has a massive fan base who all want very different things. No Marvel movie or show is going to please everyone.

For example, I love She-Hulk. It’s my third-favorite Disney+ show behind WandaVision and Loki. Almost everything about it worked for me. However, it clearly wanted to appeal to a specific audience that many MCU fans do not belong to. It sucks to see such widespread dislike for the show, but I understand.

Should She-Hulk have made more effort to appeal to a larger audience? I don’t think so, because it would have made for a worse show. You should only go for the audience you want and make the best show you can for them. That is a difficult message to communicate though, and so you end up with single quotes from larger interviews that cause a controversy. Selim is right; this is a tricky thing.

More than ever, it can be tough to keep perspective for both sides of these discussions. We usually only see the extremes of both sides. Showrunners, directors, and actors are harassed until they deactivate social media. Fans read insulting or tone deaf comments. Bad blood comes easily. The same way that Game of Thrones fans online have such intense disdain for Benioff and Weiss, I can imagine at least some part of them holds the same disdain for the fans who still flood social media with hate at every mention of their name.

This is an issue that will never go away, and has persisted in many forms since the first stories were told. Twitter and Reddit are just more accessible versions of fan forums, which were just gatherings of the fans who would write letters. Entertainment figures will always have to deal with their fans. This dialogue is never-ending and is never limited to a single piece of media.

Meanwhile, I hope we can all do our best to be better people about it.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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