The Problem With Fanboys Running the Asylum and the Importance of Critical Nostalgia

I will absolutely never say that nostalgia is a bad thing. It’s a major part of why we continue to love things as we get older, even as our tastes evolve. It’s what leads us to revisit works we enjoyed as children and, if we’re lucky, get something new out of them. To an extent, it’s why a lot of us love superhero comics. It’s why those characters survive.

The problem arises when the nostalgia filter makes us blind to the flaws of a work in the past and closed off to any changes. It’s common in sci fi, and it’s common in comics. I’ve noticed that when start talking about when a piece of media was at its best, they’re often not talking about the original themes of a work. What they’re usually talking about is the way they remember it – often inaccurately – before someone decided to take a different approach or introduce new characters and concepts. They don’t want characters to develop because they prefer archetypes rather than actual characters with arcs.

These forms of media have become an echo chamber, filled with writers addressing people like themselves. It’s a vicious, endless cycle. A vocal minority of white male fans jealously guard something they consider theirs by right. They’re the root of a lot of backlash against anything that dares to be different. This includes – but is by no means limited to – new characters, new interpretations of old ones, and challenges to the status quo. It further propagates the idea that comics are for white men and alienates other people that would enjoy it and that could contribute to bettering the genre.

Star Trek

The Original Series is seemingly paradoxical. It’s mired in the 60s at the same time as it was ahead of its time. It defined modern science fiction and influenced countless other pieces of media at the same time as its fans were considered the geekiest of geeks. It was Fair For Its Day and still is adored for it, while also standing as an example of something out of date that should be adapted to better suit our more evolved society, and appreciating the show requires the modern viewer to remember the historical context of when it was made.

Yes, at times, Uhura was basically a glorified secretary and she didn’t get an official first name until long after the series first aired. Yes, all the women were wearing short skirts with most of them seeming only to be around to look pretty. Yes, Chekov was a bit of a caricature. But Uhura was – still is – an icon. She was a Lieutenant that repeatedly demonstrated her ability to man other posts besides her own. She was involved in what wasn’t the first interracial kiss on television, but certainly the most remembered. She inspired Mae Jemison, Whoopi Goldberg! The actresses wanted the miniskirts. They liked showing off their legs, and besides, the miniskirt was a trademark of that second wave feminism. According to George Takei, every Asian actor of the time was clamouring to play Sulu because he wasn’t a stereotype. There was no call for a heavy accent. He was a pilot, a botanist, a fencer – he was at heart, a Renaissance Man. Chekov wasn’t any kind of villain, he was there to appeal to teenage girls. The Original Series presented a black woman in a major role during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a Japanese man twenty years after the US had stuck all Japanese people in internment camps, a Russian character that wasn’t a villain played by the son of Russian Jewish immigrants during the Cold War. It was imperfect – especially the treatment of women – but that doesn’t change the fact it was revolutionary.

I didn’t mind Star Trek (2009). I thought it was a decent movie. But, like others have pointed out, it felt like the work of someone that would have much preferred to be making a Star Wars movie – which, five years later, he’d be doing. I got the feeling that the people involved had a general understanding of the source material, a vague knowledge of what a Star Trek movie should be…but that knowledge is so coloured by the way Star Trek is perceived in popular culture, it didn’t feel authentic.

The macho womanizer Kirk was depicted as in the 2009 film, that he’s remembered as, really doesn’t have much basis in canon. In TOS, he was the balance between Spock’s logic and McCoy’s emotion. He wasn’t nearly as rash as some would have you believe. And the claims that he was a womanizer takes away a lot of the agency these women have. He was a charmer, and he flirted with a lot of women, but there really isn’t much canonical evidence for him having the degree of chauvinism required for him to be an actual womanizer. Kirk was attracted to smart, driven women that he usually developed genuine feelings for. I seem to recall an episode where a character mentioned that they tried to distract him from a class he taught by orchestrating a meeting between him and some technician that he wound up nearly marrying. He respected the women on his crew and fell in love easily. The idea that he just slept his way through the galaxy because every woman fell for him came more from people that wanted to live vicariously through him than the actual character.

In some ways, the 2009 movie is a step up from the misogyny of TOS. But it wasn’t done thoughtfully. Uhura got to do more than just answer the phones, which was great. Both Kirk and Spock were far more demonstrative of toxic masculinity in the 2009 movie than in TOS. Reboot Kirk was prone to violent confrontations and with much less respect for women. He got into a bar fight, ignoring Uhura when she told him to stop. He hid under Gaila’s bed while Uhura undressed. There was more focus on Spock’s anger at the claim he’d never lost his mother than on his grief for her passing. It felt as if J.J. Abrams had known enough to keep the Star Trek trappings…but not the soul.

To me, it felt like kind of a homogenization of Star Trek and Star Wars. Those stories are so different, trying to blend them together results in something utterly generic that doesn’t have what makes either of them good. Star Trek (2009) was missing something special. It was missing some of the heart. It lacked the social messages, the pacifist ideals, the recurring idea that we can build a better tomorrow. And in terms of the diversity themes…Society has caught up with Star Trek as it was when it first aired. As such, the alternate origin movies just aren’t the same kind of progressive. Sure, Uhura and Sulu are still there, and Uhura has a more important role than she did in The Original Series, but that’s no longer revolutionary. Chekov was still there – though Abrams saying they won’t recast after Anton Yelchin’s tragic death means he won’t be there in future movies – but without the real world backdrop of the Cold War, the fact that he’s Russian no longer means as much. Star Trek: Discovery is lacking in some departments – the core of idealism that is absolutely integral to the franchise doesn’t exist to nearly the same degree – but is doing more to further the diversity at the heart of Star Trek than the movies have.

The Original Series was, in part, about the wonder of the world. It painted an image of a future worth dreaming about, worth fighting for, worth building. I don’t see much of the point in making a Star Trek movie if you’re not a fan of that message. You can study it, delve deeper into it, deconstruct it…but if that kind of thing bores you, you should be making something else. Nostalgia matters a great deal when it comes to Star Trek. Star Trek Beyond managed to strike what I thought was a good balance between nostalgic respect for what Star Trek: The Original Series represented and making critical changes that updates the concepts to become better suited for today. It did a good job of translating the spirit of Star Trek. It stands as a pretty clear example of how future instalments in the franchise can honour that long legacy. To be true to what Star Trek has always represented, the Star Trek movies, books, and shows of today must keep pushing. They need to become more inclusive. They need to normalize diversity and push for a better tomorrow at the same time as they respect the core ideals of TOS. There’s no place for either creators who don’t respect the franchise history nor those that are determined to keep things precisely as they were in the 60s.

X-Men

We really, really need more diversity in comics. Like I said at the beginning, comics fans aren’t just white men, but that’s who comics are perceived to be for, because that’s who most of the writers are and to whom they’re talking. One of the consequences of that is how it results in a lot of characters that don’t appeal to that demographic being underused and poorly treated.

You can often get a pretty good idea of who a writer’s favourite characters are if you think about how old they are and what characters were popular around the time they were about ten. Nostalgia makes it a pretty safe bet that those characters will be treated well in the writer’s issues. A good character stands on their own without needing propping up. Fanboy writers, though, feel the need to completely disregard characters that aren’t their favourite in favour of trying to make their favourite look better. This can include writing characters they dislike badly in an attempt to make readers hate them, characters getting derailed to make the writer’s favourite look better, and more. The most obvious example of this I can think of is the eternal white boy favourite: Wolverine.

There’s something so…white dude about the fact that so many writers are determined to make Wolverine look better. Which is weird. Not all white dude characters lead to the same feeling of, oh, dear god, this is too much white male for one issue. Like, take, I don’t know, Colossus. He is white and he is a dude, but he doesn’t come across as nearly as much of a white dude as Wolverine does. That’s largely because Colossus is a genuinely good guy, not a designated hero who can only be viewed as a good guy because of major Protagonist Centred Morality. But Wolverine? Oh, boy.

When he’s written well – preferably in a more minor role – Wolverine is fine. He was fine back when he was first introduced and used as more of a Lancer, or just the guy whose impulsive running off and insistence upon doing things his way landed him in trouble that had to learn how to follow orders. The problem arose when people that read about him and thought he was cool when they were kids grew up and became writers themselves. Unfortunately, that’s most of today’s writers.

Because Logan is considered “cool”, he gets to be a huge hypocrite. He does any number of terrible things without facing consequences for them. He’s a self righteous jerk. And he’s straight up over exposed. Wolverine fans complain every time he demonstrates interesting flaws. So none of his myriad of character defects ever gets portrayed as a bad thing. He ends up winning every fight, even against opponents that should, by all logic, defeat him. He gets to lead teams and head the school despite his character being utterly unsuited for the job. He promptly forgets every lesson he’s ever learned. He very rarely has any lasting development. It’s incredibly irritating.

Beyond my issues with fanboys writing Wolverine, a lot of writers seem to be kind of missing the point of the X-Men – that or not really understanding the mutant metaphor, because again, most of them are white men. The introduction of the timeshifted original X-Men seems kind of like the result of writers longing for the version of Scott before all his years of character development, because that’s the version of the character they first got to know. That feels wrong to me on a visceral level. Scott becoming angrier and more driven to fight for a place for mutants is immensely relatable. He’s been told for years that what he has to do is play respectability politics and show repeatedly that he means humans no harm, only to learn from hard experience that that doesn’t work.

Nostalgia is all well and good. Longing for that more innocent version of the character is understandable. But to suggest that it would be better for Scott to go back to that version of himself is an affront to all those people that see themselves in the X-Men and in Scott’s growing cynicism and persistent idealism.

DC

Infinite Crisis is pretty much my favourite crisis story. And mostly, that’s for shallow reasons – Dick Grayson is pretty much my all time favourite comic book character; his relationship with Bruce is amazing; and the “what about Dick Grayson?” scene where Bruce is on the verge of giving up but believes that any universe with his son in it is worth fighting for and where thinking about how good a man Dick is makes Earth-1 Superman question what he’s doing is one of my favourite scenes ever. But it’s also for a deeper reason, and that’s that it’s critical of looking at things through the nostalgia filter. It’s critical of the idea that the Golden Age was fundamentally better. Which is why I find it all the stranger that it was written by Geoff Johns. Johns weirds me out, because he stands both as an example of the positive and negative aspects of nostalgia. That results in some of his stuff really working, and others…not.

The Good: respect for the past and existing characters, like the importance of Dick Grayson and Barry Allen, without denigrating them to make newer creations look better; creating some great characters, like Kate Kane and Jessica Cruz.

The Bad: his sense of nostalgia and love for old characters resulted in him doing dumb things, like erasing legacy characters for the sake of bringing back his old favourites and, well…Justice League. I think that movie shows off the flaws in his approach pretty well.

Geoff Johns is, in a sense, the opposite of Grant Morrison. As I said in this post, Morrison is completely unafraid of making big changes, regardless of how far from convention they be. His Batman and Robin took place without Bruce, the character that even people like me, who loved Dick as Batman, recognize as The BatmanTM. He introduces new characters and concepts, blows up the status quo. He makes his own world without ever looking back. And while that sometimes works, it sometimes really doesn’t. Everyone draws the line somewhere different, and for me, Morrison crosses it – he doesn’t have as much respect for the work of others even as he operates under the idea that everything that’s ever happened is in continuity. Johns, on the other hand, goes back to what’s familiar, when concerning characters he didn’t create. To what’s safe. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No, of course not. There’s a reason there’s so much love for his Green Lantern, his Aquaman. He likes the classics and is very much a fan. But his love for the classics involves doing things like kicking Wally West out of continuity to bring back Barry Allen, who at that point hadn’t been the Flash for over two decades.

This is similar to what happened with Cassandra Cain, Bruce Wayne’s only daughter and the second Batgirl. The New 52 erased her, a move comics still haven’t fully reversed. While Cass exists again, and while she’s loosely affiliated with the the Bats, she’s not a member of the family in the same sense as she used to be. She’s not being used as one of Bruce’s children, which was made painstakingly obvious by the fact she – like Tim, actually – didn’t get an issue of her facing off against a member of the Batman Rogues Gallery during Prelude to the Wedding. Her identity just rubs salt in the wound, because it wasn’t enough to strip her of her Black Bat mantle, wasn’t enough to make her the only member of the family without a bird or bat motif in either her code name or costume. No, they had to rename her Orphan. That’s adding insult to injury – before the New 52, she was happily adopted with a family that loved her.

While I can’t be certain as to why Cass and Steph were temporarily removed from continuity, the only reason I can think of is that it was about making it easier to return Barbara to the Batgirl mantle. In that one fell swoop, the writers took away the only Asian member of the Batfamily and one of the most popular disabled characters in all of comics. Which…thanks, I hate it. Barbara has outgrown Batgirl, but the writers are so nostalgic and change-averse, they don’t want to believe it. They don’t care about the close to thirty years she’s spent as Oracle and all the character development since her paralysis. They just immediately associate Batgirl with Barbara and because of that, are willing to toss aside years of content to go back to that without regard for what it’ll say to the readers. It’s unthinking nostalgia that does nothing to better the genre.


Works are best when they both respect the past and look to the future. Writers in shared mediums need to hold on to some level of nostalgia and respect the worlds built by others, but they can’t let it hold them back from trying new things and pushing boundaries. I want all writers in these mediums are fans – I just hope they aren’t fanboys about it, unable to let go of what they love for long enough to make changes.

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The Dark Phoenix Saga And The Sexist Treatment Of Jean Grey: God Dammit, She Deserves Better

I’ve talked about how much I hate how the X-Men movies thus far have treated Jean Grey here and here, and I think a lot of that is rooted in the way the Phoenix has completely taken over Jean’s character, both in the comics and public knowledge.

Even though the actual Dark Phoenix saga was much less sexist and oh ho, ho, look at that crazy chick than people tend to remember it, the way the comics treated Jean after that was still gross. I don’t have a fundamental objection to an exploration of a movie about power corrupting, except it’s always the women. Throughout comics, heroic characters destroy a lot of things for a variety of reasons. But somehow, Jean is one of the only people that has ever had to pay a price for it. Everyone else? They’re forgiven incredibly easily, no matter what their crime. Jean’s death may have made The Dark Phoenix arc iconic, but it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right.

Xavier has the power to use people as marionettes and has canonically manipulated and gaslighted people for years. He’s never “gone crazy from too much power”. Magneto has been having a Heel Face Revolving Door in both the comics and movies for decades and the list of people killed by him on the Marvel wiki is five pages long. He gets immediately forgiven and hasn’t had to spend decades trying to make up for it. Wolverine has been a raging hypocrite that kills people whenever he deems it necessary, both when he’s been mind controlled and not. He’s never gotten called out for it (He once went on a self righteous rant about none of the people he killed mattering in front of one of the people that he killed. That guy didn’t call him out, either.)

Jean has expressed huge amounts of remorse for what she’s done. At times, so has Magneto, even if he’s never had to pay an actual price for it. Xavier and Logan, not so much. Every comic she’s been in since then has had references to that time she lost control and time dedicated to her guilt and need to atone for “what she’s done”. Even her younger self freaked out about not wanting to become her.

Pretty much no character can stand on the same level as Jean and beat her in a straight fight, unless you count her various children and other hosts to the Phoenix. Especially not when she’s at full strength. But no X-Men movie has had the courage to give Jean the full use of her power and let her use it without going into the gross sexism of the oh, this woman has too much power for her own good and can’t handle it! For all my issues with Apocalypse, that at least came kind of close – though it’s negated by the movie that immediately follows being Dark Phoenix. What I’d love is a movie about Jean Grey, who’s worth a whole lot more than just her powers, that gets to be more than Wolverine’s out of control, telepathic lust object, where the story is about her. The manipulation by the Hellfire Club would be awesome, if she got to survive! If she got to be the hero. In my eyes, the best way to adapt the Dark Phoenix saga would be to make changes to both the original comic and to the way we remember it. I doubt that Dark Phoenix will make those changes.

The Dark Phoenix saga was a well written,  interesting story that wasn’t originally about Jean having more power than she could handle. I agree with that. But she also deserves to be able to live that down. Jean Grey was one of the original five X-Men. She’s existed as a character for longer than Wolverine, Storm, Gambit, Rogue, Kitty. Longer than countless other popular characters. But the Phoenix has dominated her narrative for years. Her whole pop culture identity is based on it. It’s the focus of adaptations. She’s had other stories, but writers act as if the Dark Phoenix is the only comic she was ever in, and like I pointed out here, they often remember it wrong.

One of the reasons I find X-Men Red so refreshing is that it’s not about the Phoenix, it’s about Jean. It’s taking a step back from all of that nonsense and going back to the basic principle of X-Men comics – human mutant coexistence. Jean deserves more respect. She deserves to stop being regarded as the person that’s constantly coming back from the dead, because that’s not even true, it takes her years. Other characters have come back way more times. X-Men Red is providing me with good material for her in the comics, so now I just need a movie focusing on her as she is and demonstrating how much value she has aside from being the host of the Phoenix, the chick Wolverine thinks is hot, and a way for Xavier to show off how great a teacher and parental figure he is. She’s existed for 55 years – it’s time.

Call Out Culture, Social Justice, and Missing the Point

I will never argue against the need to be critical of people and media that advance racist, sexist, or homophobic ideas. Tackling ignorance is important, and these ideas are legitimately harmful. But there comes a time where it’s just disingenuous, and people are calling others out not from desire to eliminate those ideas, but to demonstrate their own intelligence and purity.

A week or two ago, an old quote allegedly from Ben Affleck resurfaced where he made what was probably a joke about kissing another man being the most difficult challenge an actor can face. If Affleck said that at all – which, how would we know, this is a secondhand quote – it was twenty years ago. He was a clueless early twenty something in the nineties. Lots of people say or do dumb things. If he ever believed that, he pretty clearly doesn’t now.

I’m not defending the quote. It was a dumb thing to say, and it was in poor taste. But it’s been twenty years since then. It would be one thing to bring it up if we were talking about someone that has never given any indication of growing as a person. But Affleck? We’re talking about a man that defends Muslims against bigots; that makes intelligent, well reasoned arguments about social and political issues without having to just resort to buzzwords and personal attacks; a man that just the day before people decided to Tweet about his twenty year old quote had won a humanitarian award for his work in supporting local charities in Congo. You know what should get more attention than that quote? The East Congo Initiative! His work on that is much more recent, and much more impactful.

I don’t believe in celebrity idolization. Saying something good doesn’t make a person amazing, and nor does a stupid comment mean someone is human garbage. All people are flawed and have said or done stupid things. There are levels to stupid, too. Affleck is one of the people that has given me genuine reason to be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s backed up words with action, and he stands by people that aren’t like him. I have genuine respect for someone that’s studied the topics he’s discussing and travelled to the regions in question, while never trying to become a white saviour – he recognizes that the best thing he can do, the best role he can fill, is providing support to the local charities that know what they’re doing and what they need better than he ever will.

White liberals have loved Bill Maher for a long time, despite people of colour pointing out his racism. They flat out denied his racism and claimed he’s critical of everyone, some of them even after the news broke of him using racial slurs. Affleck? He went on Maher’s show years ago and called him out for being a bigot. He used his platform to give a voice to the people that are ignored.

People bring up things like this old quote not because they legitimately care about people growing and improving but because they want points or credit for pointing out another person’s mistakes, or recognition for being a better whatever – activist, ally, feminist – than someone else. If a lot of these people really cared about making the world a better place, they’d also be doing something constructive, like also bringing more attention to good causes like the ECI. Some do.

I’m not a straight white dude trying to brush something bad under the rug because it was a straight white dude that said it. I’m saying that people are more than a stupid comment. If we judged everyone by a stupid thing they said or did when they were young and pretended that that’s all they are, we’d have to accept that there are no good people. Evan Rachel Wood Tweeted that Affleck should grow up, and many people celebrated that. But I think we should remember that he very clearly has. It’s been twenty years since then, and he’s done some very good and important humanitarian work in those twenty years.

This is about so much more than one event. This is a manifestation of a huge problem that people pretend isn’t an issue.

I cannot stand this disgusting idea that all people from a minority or a marginalized group must have the same opinion about everything as if we’re a monolith, and that if we don’t, we’re self hating or somehow don’t care about social justice. My opinion, so long as it isn’t harmful to someone else, is just as valid as someone else’s. So forgive me if I don’t feel the urge to grab a pitchfork and bring up every stupid comment a person’s ever made.

My best friend is a good person. She’s smart, she’s decent, she’s open-minded. And in the time since we’ve met, she’s grown a lot as a person. She’s a white girl that went to Catholic school. When we met? She believed abortion was murder and pretty much thought a strong female character was one that hits things. Now? She has a much better, more nuanced understanding of feminism. Part of the reason for that is that people helped her learn. If someone were to say, your best friend is problematic, she hates women, I’d yell at them, because it’s not true. She had some views years ago that she no longer has. She’s grown up. People do that – they grow, change, and learn. We should judge them on who they are now and how they’ve changed, not who they once were.

The Internet and social media is a net positive. Of course it is. It gives us instantaneous access to information, it lets us communicate with each other easily. But among the negatives is that it allows for every mistake to be seen by everyone. It makes people feel entitled to every aspect of a person’s identity, otherwise their perspective will be dismissed and they’ll be assumed white and straight if they disagree with what either the majority or the vocal minority of PoC or LGBTQ people say. I don’t owe it to anyone to share my gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, nationality, socioeconomic status, or any such identifier. I can do it if I want to, if I feel I have to, if my background is a vital part of why I feel the way I do about a topic, but I’m a person. My opinion isn’t automatically valid or invalid based on what categories I fit into. It’s valid or invalid based on the arguments I make, and personal experiences may or may not play a role in shaping those.

I don’t think being a good feminist involves this level of hypocritical – and hypercritical – fixations on pretty minor errors. That’s not a constructive way of creating a world where all people are equal and don’t face violence and discrimination, it’s lazy, and it misses the point of what social justice is supposed to stand for. People do that because it’s easy. It’s easier than confronting legal discrimination against women and members of the LGBTQ community around the world, easier than finding a solution to targeted violence and police brutality, easier than electing more diverse candidates and finding ways to give more people a platform to speak their mind.

These things aren’t equivalent and we should never pretend they are. It’s why I hate the world problematic so much – someone that makes a bad joke is put on the same level as a person that commits a violent hate crime. We can do both. Of course we can. And it’s important to both tackle the big issues and educate about the smaller scale, individual level micro-aggressions. But we can do the latter while still giving people the benefit of the doubt, because most people, lacking the necessary background, aren’t aware that they’re saying something rude or offensive. I’ve seen a lot of people say that it’s not “their job” to educate a person, and that may be true, but when it comes to smaller things – not the sweeping, big issues, but little comments or jokes – it’s easy to do and has a much more positive impact than yelling at whoever said it for being a bad person.

Some people do need to be called out for ignorance and harmful statements, for a pattern of discriminatory behaviour, for harassment and abuse. I completely support that. But I draw the line at going back years to fixate on a single comment from someone with no recent record of saying anything of the sort.