Fan theories have become the new Buzzfeed plague as of late, no doubt appearing on your social media feeds accompanied by a few choice phrases such as, “mind blowing”, “insane”, and “life changing.” They cover everything from postulating James Bond is a code name assigned to different agents to the characters from Frozen existing in the same world as The Little Mermaid. Fan theories have existed from even before the internet days, shared by the mimeographed pages of early fanzines but have truly taken on a new life in the modern age of collective online fandom. They are an indicator of what makes fandom a participatory culture, as fans actively engage with the media they love. In response, producers of culture have begun to develop content that rewards attentive fans, involving them further in the creative process, although incurring new risks by doing so.
While fan speculation has been extant for as long as there have been fandoms, the recent interest in fan theories by numerous online outlets speaks to a variety of new factors that have changed the way fans and their interests interact. Fan theories used to occupy an unusual niche, as media properties rarely used to provide the kind of detail and cohesive worlds fans craved. Fans attempted to fill in the blanks of their favorites movies and television programs, seeking to answer questions and make connections that writers would not. A few fan theories eventually worked their way into canon, as creators adopted long standing fan speculation. According to authors Leora Hadas and Limor Shifman, from cosplay to fan theories it is this intense creative involvement that separates fans from regular audiences. Now after decades of resistance and benign neglect, studios have begun to accept and encourage this involvement, understanding that catering to a core fandom can keep a series or film running far beyond expectations. New relationships have been forged between fans and creators through social media and the explosion in massive fan conventions. Directors tweet out photos, studios release slickly edited trailers that hint at secrets yet to come and films carry homages to often complex backstories. The appearance of the relatively obscure character Howard the Duck at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy is but one example. However, an unintended side effect is that fan speculation now runs rampant, as fan-aware filmmaking has fueled readings that were never intended.
The new nuances inserted into films are mindful of the fact fans and internet communities will thoroughly scour a work once it is released to the home market. Although made easier by modern technology, this determination is also nothing new. A story from the early days of home computer gaming involves Richard Garriott, creator of the seminal Ultima series. Inspired by a map in the 1981 film Time Bandits, Garriott recounted how he watched the movie repeatedly in order to make a copy, working from the few seconds the map was visible on screen. After painstakingly recreating the map, he found that it bore little relation to the action that was depicted on screen—an omission that would scarcely fly in a new era of savvy media production and obsessive fan scrutiny. Did you notice the Wayne Enterprises logo on a satellite or the opened sleep chamber on the Kryptonian ship in Man of Steel? Do you know now to wait for the after-credit scene in films, for the tantalizing hint at what may come next? The references may be lost on many viewers but they are a reward for the faithful who will dissect any piece of information, a reward that fans have come to expect.
While profits play a role, writers and directors have jumped on the bandwagon partly because many are now of the same generation as their audiences, raised on the same seminal media and eager to create their own mythologies. An expectation for the audience to play detective is now encouraged with the breadcrumbs that lead to teases for new films or nods to the vast troves of source materials. Currently the biggest culprits are the Marvel films, which have anointed themselves with the lofty title of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Their tagline: it’s all connected. That concept used to terrify studio executives, who balked at connected storylines as they feared ratings would drop as confused viewers switched channels. Now it stands as tribute and a challenge to eager fans.
It’s not just a game or clever marketing, although both are true to an extent. In an era where identity is often defined by material items and associations with popular culture, be it football or anime, discovering an unknown interpretation or putting two and two together in a darkened theater provides a new way to relate to an interest. Directors and writers are now unafraid to plant the seeds for franchise empires, as evident in the premiere of new television programs like Heroes Reborn. Yet there is a hazard in modern myth making, as fans find themselves personally invested in the development of a certain plot or idea—by virtue of their commitment, their favorite program or game has now become their property. Failure to connect the dots to the satisfaction of fans can lead to disappointment and backlash, particularly when expectations are unmet or a plotline is seemingly ruined by creators. The end of the game Mass Effect 3 so angered fans that the developers released additional content in order to specifically address their concerns and soothe an unhappy fanbase.
The only surprise about fan theories is to those who have only recently discovered that audiences have been actively engaging with pop culture. It’s something right out of history or English class, the impetus to interpret and extrapolate from the available information. From deconstructing Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb to figuring out the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, academia has long sought to teach those concepts. Pop culture has rarely been allowed that kind of cachet, as it is presented as disposable and too empty of real meaning to be important. Popular has often been shorthand for lowbrow, and even today the idea of studying popular culture is a fairly new discipline within academia. Such little value was attached to popular culture programming that most of the early years of Doctor Who were erased in a move to save money by reusing the tapes they were stored on, a decision that no doubt has cost the BBC a tidy sum and deprived modern fans the chance to watch classic episodes. While often grating and occasionally too clever for their own good, particularly when paired with the overblown commentary that is now common for clickbait, fan theories are an integral part of fandom and are all in good fun.
Except for the idea that the Joker is hero of The Dark Knight. That’s just ridiculous.
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Henry Jenkins. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2008.
Henry Jenkins. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013.
JK Rowling shut down a major fan theory, so cross this off your list
Kristin M. Barton and Jonathan Malcolm Lampley, eds. Fan CULTure: Essays on Participatory Fandom in the 21st Century. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2014.
Joker is the Hero in The Dark Knight
Leora Hadas and Limor Shifman. “Keeping the Elite Powerless: Fan-Producer Relations in the ‘‘Nu Who’’ (and New YOU) Era.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 30, no.4 (Oct 2013): 275 – 291.
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