Call them what you will. Some see them as the essential lifeline that allows a work to be created, the other extreme, as a parasite that eventually devours its host. Whatever the case, the viewing public's relationship with television and film content over the decades has only gotten deeper and more intense. Give them the right revival of The X-Files or Jurassic Park at the right time and they'll fall out of their chairs with gratitude. Screw around with their favorite franchise and feel the vitriol for generations. Is any of this healthy? Is anyone benefiting? Is excessive fan knowledge actually stifling creativity?
Questions like this have been posed recently, but it's on my mind now with the new Star Wars film only months away. From the days of the mid-1970's to now, fan culture has turned out an audience increasingly well-versed in the lore of every franchise from Marvel to Star Wars to Lord of the Rings. The more popular the property, the more rabid the base is about having encyclopedic knowledge of the mythos and eccentric details of the characters, etc. This stuff can get so intricate that the creators themselves need extra staff devoted to keeping all of it straight. For fear, of course, that any contradiction will cause an uprising of these fickle fans to denounce the property and head for some competitor's all-engrossing fiction.
A number of online discussions and media publication "trailer breakdowns" have been released en masse speculating on SW7's plot details from the scant shots shown in the trailer. This stuff makes my head spin with the vast array of literature and history on the subject that someone, like myself, who's only seen the six films couldn't possibly connect the dots of "character A was mentioned in a throwaway line in the prequels and surely will feature prominently in the plot of the new film, the little dot moving around in the background when you freeze-frame R2D2 proves it". While that would be impressive if Abrams and Kasdan actually read up enough on the details to create something that pleases this audience, is it necessarily good storytelling to make a film so convoluted that it needs to be explained ad nauseam in essays on a fictitious universe? How does it help the mythology and enrich the experience if I need to know as much about fabricated star-history as I know about real history? Instead of a vacuum that only relates to itself, isn't the mythos stronger if it is used to abstractly relate to actual, real concepts and events?
The psychology ain't hard to dissect, the fan feels such a deep connection to the IP and they desperately want it to be reciprocated. I get it. You're not some run-of-the-mill, casual, fair-weather fan of The Dallas Cowboys, you're THE fan of the Dallas Cowboys and your collection of merchandise, your season tickets and the ritualistic regularity with which you attend their games proves it. On the flip side, you're not just ANY lover of Marvel superheroes; YOU LIVE FOR IT. You stood for 12 hours in the freezing cold just to score prime seats for the first showing of the trailer for Ant Man, you've suffered for what you love, devoted countless hours, blood, sweat and tears to this, you DESERVE a little something in return. For these unique individuals, JJ Abrams owes it to them to find some bizarre nugget of character information that was only mentioned in the limited print of a book released in 1987 and turn it into a massive piece of the puzzle for his new film. Justification for the time spent will finally arrive in the form of those sweet, sweet confused expressions on Joe Star Wars Fan's faces all throughout the theater. Only the faithful will know the truth.
Myths tell an abstract tale that the listener (or viewer) can apply to their own human experience. While the initial trilogy told a complex human story of a bright kid painfully learning the dark truths of his own world to the point where it almost consumes him, the latter trilogy told an equally complex myth of a bright, albeit petty, kid whose immaturity leads to the creation of those dark truths. The prequel episodes of Star Wars cautioned the audience toward a world where complacency and self-interest can turn a functioning society into a destructive empire. The biggest difference I can see between the two is that the earlier films told the tale in a lean way, where characters served a narrative and thematic purpose, while in the later films (and most blockbusters with a built-in base) perform the feat backwards as the mythology chases the juggling act of the story/world. Star Wars is a perfect example of a myth whose own mythology ran away with it. Each film added more bloated histories and character details to the overall plot, while the thematic implications become more and more pared down, more marginalized, until they were barely noticeable on the surface. No one seemed more confused than George Lucas, for the record, who blamed the viewer for not being able to grasp his metaphor in a sea of confusing characters who are introduced and killed off before we even learn their names and a bunch of screaming, shrieking, hyper-active CGI creatures that all look vaguely the same.
It's a troubling shift from simple plots with weighty undertones to weighty plots with simple undertones where "getting it right" means story continuity wasn't contradicted ("in the comic book, character A DID have green hair! Great accuracy!") rather than ramping up emotional and thematic complexity with each installment. The overall work is dragged down trying to get actors who superficially resemble the character is the book, rather than one who can play the part; plot is enslaved to hitting all the same beats as the book rather than taking liberties that enhance the writer and director of the screen adaptation(I stress adaptation)'s ability to communicate their own ideas, etc. Most of the fandom then plays tough-guy, beating the drum that they don't care about what some Hollywood hotshot wants to say with their favorite story, but turn into drooling idiots when they see the Hollywood effects budget plastered all over the screen. (ok, I'm generalizing, sorry)
To completely digress - It was late 2002, SW Episode II had just been released on DVD, fan excitement was still high for the final film and fans were pouring over I and II looking for any small detail to theorize about how Lucas might shock the core audience with something oddball. It was clearly not going to happen. What purpose, besides a momentary cheap thrill for the director, would be served by pulling the rug out from under the audience's feet? In an incredibly detailed diatribe, one blogger (God, I wish I could find it all these years later) had an immensely complicated theory about why the droid R2D2 was actually a spy for the 'bad guys', with a massive amount of evidence to back up the thought process. Nevermind that Lucas actually writing such a thing into the script would make little to no sense for anyone but this guy writing the theory, it's the kind of thing that would only pop into someone's mind on the 1,000th viewing, even Lucas had not put a fraction of the amount of thought into this movie that the fan had. I'm seeing the same things everywhere now, with volumes of "Luke turning the dark side" theories and why it would be a great move to pull the rug out from under the fans' feet.
The 'pull the rug out' as a main objective of creators was outlandish and implausible 10 years ago, and yet fan culture in the present world makes me actually buy it. Audience expectation and the crowd with vast amounts of knowledge on superfluous details has started to reign supreme. Abrams would be applauded for some insane twist that adds nothing to the undertones or thematic backbone of the work, but merely causes empty gasps and "oh no he didn't!" from a fan base who cares more about the color of the paint on the spaceships.
Are modern myths being co-opted by bloated backstories and a fan base willing to hold creators to it, or is this nit-pick not holding any water? It would be easy to say "If you don't want the fans to hold you to it, don't make a Star Wars movie" but creative young talent like Rian Johnson and JJ Abrams, even with all of their clout, would be hard pressed to get their own original space opera off the ground. They're afforded the opportunity to make big films by attaching themselves to a franchise, but then have to contend with the Trekkies, etc. boxing in the storyline to suit everything that came before it. They smile and attend comic-con and seem to relish the fan base, but I can't help but find it all constrictive.