Christopher McQuarrie on Toxic Fandom and the Perils of Messing with Fan Expectations

     July 24, 2018

Filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie has just made one of the most critically acclaimed blockbusters of the year in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, but in the lead-up to the film’s release, he found himself embroiled in the toxicity surrounding Star Wars: The Last Jedi. McQuarrie is friendly with Last Jedi filmmaker Rian Johnson, and is also active on Twitter, so he recently got caught up in the vitriol that’s being spewed at Johnson daily for “ruining Star Wars.”

But the toxicity surrounding The Last Jedi isn’t exactly new, and as iconic properties are starting to be mined in unique ways, longtime fans of the source material are having intense reactions that can sometimes verge on the unacceptable. Such was the case when McQuarrie tried to engage with some Last Jedi fans, so when Collider’s own Steve Weintraub spoke with McQuarrie at the press day for Fallout, he asked the filmmaker for his take on the whole “toxic fandom” issue we’re dealing with right now:

“I can tell you from my limited experience—I got caught up as an innocent bystander in a bunch of Star Wars stuff. Look, movies are very emotional. They’re extremely, extremely emotional. A movie like Star Wars or movies like Marvel where you’re dealing with comic books, this is stuff that’s coming from their childhood. It’s the same thing as campfire stories, and in some cases it’s the very fabric of their growing up. It’s something of which they’re hugely protective.”

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Image via Paramount Pictures

The Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects screenwriter says he actually has some experience with this, dating back to his 2000 directorial debut The Way of the Gun:

“Going back to The Way of the Gun, what I did in The Way of the Gun is I defied the expectations of the viewer; I subverted them right from the very beginning of the film. And I learned a valuable lesson which is that people tend to react quite extremely when you don’t meet their expectations or when you don’t tell them the story. What I did in The Way of the Gun was I was asking you to figure it out instead of telling you what I wanted you to feel. Mass audiences—I’m not saying everybody, but mass audiences tend to reject that sort of thing. It’s very upsetting [to them]. They’ve come to be entertained and they find themselves doing the work, and you confront that sort of thing at your peril.”

Subverting expectations is a great tool in the box of many screenwriters, but what McQuarrie seems to be getting at here is it has to either be done in the right way, or with the right movie. Shane Black has made a career out of subverting expectations, and when he does so with the film noir genre in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, that film’s relatively small but devoted legion of fans eat it up. But when he puts his own spin on a classic (and pretty racist) Marvel villain in Iron Man 3 by making a joke out of The Mandarin, hardcore fans lose their minds.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

McQuarrie says he’s actually been seeking out these angry The Last Jedi fans, and their responses seem to have confirmed his suspicions:

“So I understand why they’re as angry as they are, and I’ve been listening to their complaints about the movie that they’re complaining to. I’ve actually engaged some of them directly and spoken to them, and it’s kind of confirmed everything that I’ve felt which was we messed with their expectations, and when you do that that’s the reaction you’re going to get.”

But just because McQuarrie understands why these people are angry doesn’t excuse their behavior, and he pinpoints a pretty solid reason for the vitriol:

“At the same time, I feel like the reactions are pretty extreme, and what I noticed that they were not able to separate was their being upset from their choice of how they were expressing it. So you would confront them on the way they were expressing it, and they would defend their right to express being upset. They really couldn’t separate the two things. And that, I think, speaks to a bigger issue. I think that speaks to what we’re seeing on virtually any issue on the internet. People are so busy defending their point of view that they’re not really looking at the way they are defending it. What we’ve done as a society is we’re attacking logical problems with emotional responses.”

Indeed, in the age of “fake news” and the telephone game that is Twitter, discourse seems to have all but evaporated. So what’s happening in the world of fandom isn’t unique, and in some ways is understandable. But that doesn’t make it excusable.

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