In Defense of Fan Theories

By  · Published on September 3rd, 2015


I have a confession to make: I’m a fan of a fan theory.

A few years ago, I stumbled across a theory that each actor in the James Bond franchise was, in fact, playing a unique individual within Ian Fleming’s universe. As the fan theory goes, James Bond is a call sign, not a person, and as each Bond ages out of MI6 or is killed in the line of duty, another agent is given the ‘James Bond’ designation and picks up right where his predecessor left off. As far as fan theories go, this one is particularly rickety, with pieces of continuity in the past fifty-plus years making it obvious that there’s no way it could possibly be true. Then again, I was never the world’s biggest James Bond fan, and this theory acted as a little meta-game for me to play while watching one of the movies. When the movies failed to amuse me, I found a way to amuse myself.

I mention this because fan theories are back in the news for all the wrong reasons. A few months ago, while audiences were still catching their breath after seeing Mad Max for the first time, someone on Reddit wrote a theory that the feral kid from The Road Warrior and Tom Hardy’s Max were the same character. This lead to a short-lived but heated debate regarding the value of fan theories, capped off by Devin Faraci’s extremely thoughtful piece examining the various ways that audiences interact with the storytelling in films. And today, in response to a Reddit post suggesting that the Joker is the true hero of The Dark Knight, Movie Mezzanine’s Josh Spiegel wrote about the dangers in conflating fan theories with actual film criticism.

I’m not here to refute either of these articles. Both authors make extremely good points, and both have taken the time to revise and revisit their original argument to make sure that the specifics of their criticism were not lost in the subsequent outrage. And yet, the overall conversation regarding fan theories is less of a debate than a series of closing remarks, and this type of film criticism does more harm than good. There are incredibly valuable reasons for fan theories to exists, but ones that require us to take a more nuanced approach to our concept of movie-going audiences. Simply put, fan theories are an opportunity to meet people we wouldn’t otherwise engage with halfway.

Warner Bros.

It is somewhat telling that a fair amount of criticism levied against fan theories aren’t even criticism of the theories themselves. One of the biggest problems pointed out by Spiegel in his article isn’t that fan theories exist but that major news sites – acting more as content aggregators than content creators – copy and paste these theories without offering any intelligent insight of their own. There is certainly a lot of truth to this, but it also seems to unfairly target the types of movie-goers who get their news primarily from a very specific type of outlet. And by scolding these outlets – and these fans – for not digging deeper in the texts, we are ostracizing the very type of casual movie crowd we should be targeting if we want to see smarter discourse in the world.

This type of criticism is reluctant to consider that mainstream audiences really might be happy to engage with movies on a surface level. The audience of any film publication is unlikely to represent the vast majority of the American movie-going public; film blogs such as Film School Rejects cater to a type of audience member who is already predisposed towards thinking critically about film. These are people who watch a movie and immediately seek out the thoughts of others. This is nice – and, quite frankly, the basis of our industry – but far less common than we’d like to believe. I say this from first-hand experience. Unlike many people who write about film, I have very few film fanatic friends. I know people – intelligent people who are socially conscious, talented artists, and voracious readers – whose taste in films is probably directly proportionate to the marketing budget of each movie. Their diet consists of blockbusters and Oscar bait; they want to be entertained, and fan theories, at the most basic level, are pretty entertaining.

And this is where negativity towards fan theories chips away at my cheerful demeanor. If we want audiences to be more discerning movie goers, the least effective approach is to stand at the opposite end of the spectrum and shout insults at their current location. It is a basic tenant of negotiation theory that if you want to change someone’s mind, you begin where they are, not where you want them to be. Telling audiences that their theory about the Joker or Jurassic World is dumb only makes them more resistant to what you have to say. These should be teachable moments for any film critic. While fan theories themselves may be of questionable value, they are also indicative of an audience who is open to thinking deeper about the film and the way that writers construct entire worlds on the screen. This is an open door, one that might allow you to start nudging someone in a direction they might not otherwise head in themselves.

One critic who does this extremely well is Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly. For many people, Entertainment Weekly is a source of celebrity gossip and human interest stories; should they try and remember any film-related tidbits from the past decade, they might be more likely to remember the firing of Owen Gleiberman than a standout piece of film journalism. Recently, though, Nashawaty has made Entertainment Weekly a source of excellent film commentary for the average crowd. Every week, Nashawaty holds a mailbag with his readers where he attempts to answer questions about Hollywood, film criticism, and fandom. These mailbags won’t make a daily roundup of the best film criticism – some of the questions that Nashawaty answers demonstrate a very crude understanding of film – but I’ve come to look forward to these mailbags as much as any weekly column. Nashawaty engages with an audience on their turf and, slowly and methodically, tries to make them think a little deeper about the films they are watching. This is film education writ large, the type of positive change that might lead to more discerning audiences in the future.

This approach to film criticism isn’t for everyone, of course, and not every website should rush to give fan theories a voice as part of some grand social experiment. But there are future advocates of independent and thoughtful cinema who are being lost in the rush to condemn fan theories across the board. Whenever someone says that fan theories are bad, I can’t help but think way back to my freshman year of college, where I proudly announced to my advisor that I just didn’t see any value in watching older movies. That was an incredibly stupid thing to say – something that he took great pleasure in reminding me of during my exit interview three years later – but he never once told me that I was stupid for saying so. Instead, he encouraged me to keep an open mind while thinking about the types of movies that I love, and over time I was able to see just how much I was missing by being closed-minded. If we can change the way we think about fan theories – recognize them for the opportunity that they are – then we, too, might be able to open the mind of some casual moviegoer who thinks he or she has Hollywood figured out.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)