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Jim McDermottJune 10, 2022
Jared Leto stars in a scene from the movie "Morbius." (CNS photo/Sony Pictures)

On June 8, Disney+ launched another new Marvel TV show, “Ms. Marvel,” about a Muslim teenager from Jersey City who gets super powers. Originally created by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona and Sana Amanat, the story of Kamala Khan has been groundbreaking in the world of comics for the rich ways that her life as a Pakistani-American Muslim is represented.

But the character has also proven to be enormously compelling for the joy with which she engages with life. When we first meet her in the comics (and as I understand it, also in the series), Kamala is a pop-culture superfan. She loves the super heroes of her world with an exuberance that is absolutely infectious, and that love also ends up translating into the relish with which she lives her life. Comic fans love her because of the hope and humor with which she looks upon life.

It’s an interesting moment to be debuting this kind of joyful, happy fan character. Every few weeks here in the real world we seem to get another story of “toxic fandom”: aggrieved fans of some pop culture property not only complaining about casting or story choices they don’t like but swarming online to bully and threaten actors.

It’s an interesting moment to be debuting this kind of joyful, happy fan character. Every few weeks here in the real world we seem to get another story of “toxic fandom.”

Last week, after the first two episodes of the Disney+ series “Obi-Wan Kenobi” aired, one of the show’s stars, Moses Ingram—who plays the lead villain called Third Sister—revealed that she has been receiving racist and threatening messages on Instagram. Kelly Marie Tran faced the same after “The Last Jedi.” So did Leslie Jones after the 2016 all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot. At this point, it has almost become de rigueur that if a Star Wars or Marvel movie features a person of color or woman in a leading role, they will face some kind of abuse.

And it all seems to feed on itself, too, each new act of aggression generating angry responses from others, then responses to those, and so on and so on. And nothing ever seems to get better. Even reporting on such events brings a feeling of pulling us all deeper into quicksand. It all seems kind of awful and inevitable.

But it turns out, it is not inevitable. Take the ongoing stories around “Morbius,” Sony Pictures’ recent film about a “living vampire” that was meant to be the latest addition in the Spider-Man universe of films the studio has begun building. Long before the film’s release in April, it seemed clear that “Morbius” was going to be a complete disaster. A film starring Jared Leto as a vampire set in some kind of Spider-Man universe? Somehow it was both too on the nose and too impossible to comprehend at the same time.

People produced fake Rotten Tomatoes meters giving the film impossible percentages of positive reviews, like 203 percent from critics.

And yet instead of saying so, an internet fandom began to cheer “Morbius” on. People produced fake Rotten Tomatoes meters giving the film impossible percentages of positive reviews, like 203 percent from critics. #MorbiusSweep started to trend on Twitter, signaling the film was going to sweep the Oscars, box office records, the Grammys, you name it. “Morb” also became a meme of its own, a word that could be used in everything from rap lyrics (”morb money, morb problems”) to cosmetics ads (“Maybe he’s born with it; maybe it’s Morbeline”) to, most recently, a rewriting of Francis Fukuyama’s famous quote about history: “Those who do not Morb from history are doomed to Remorb it.”

When it was released in April, “Morbius” tanked. Its real Rotten Tomatoes score was 16 percent. This is very bad. And while it has ended up grossing $163 million around the world, and $73 million in the United States—respectable, really, for a Covid-era film—for a major tentpole release meant to help establish a whole superhero universe for Spider-Man to some day play in, it was nearly an extinction level event.

But even then, the fandom continued to celebrate this silly film. Online, a movement immediately began for a sequel with the amazingly ridiculous name, “Morbius 2: It’s Morbin’ Time.” And these fans’ ongoing love for this modern-day cinematic catastrophe was in fact so great that Sony, wondering if the film had the makings of an underground cult classic, re-released the film last weekend in over a thousand theaters across the country.

When it was released in April, “Morbius” tanked. Its real Rotten Tomatoes score was 16 percent. This is very bad.

From the moment the first trailer dropped, the internet fandom could have shredded the film. (Think of what we did to “Cats.”) But instead, it found things to celebrate, like the character’s weird name and the fact that it was probably not very good. That was a choice made by the group meme-think that is the internet, and people continued to champion the film even after they saw it and it was so very bad.

This week, media outlets have been jeering at Sony for the re-release, which ended up being a misreading akin to ancient Rome dismissing the crowd at its gates as “just a few vandals.” On Friday the film grossed $85,000 total, which amounts to about five people seeing it in each theater in which it played, and also maybe the cost for one second of one wing of one of the film’s digital bats. The lesson, read the headline of National Review, is that “the internet is not real life.”

But personally, I think critics are missing the point. Sony ran with what was in no one’s mind a good idea, not because its leaders are fools but because instead of encountering a truly toxic fandom, it was met by a joyful one, a fandom that saw the value in cheering instead of jeering. When you’re met by joy, it has a way of sweeping you off your feet.

The joyful fandom doesn’t get a lot of attention these days, but it is out there. One of my favorite examples of it is podcaster Connor Goldsmith, a literary agent originally from the Westchester area who loves the X-Men so much that during the pandemic he started a weekly podcast called “Cerebro” in which he spends 3-plus hours talking with a guest from the world of pop culture about the stories of just one character from the X-Men universe.

How do you talk for three hours about Iceman, you ask, or spend three hours listening? It turns out, it’s really easy when your hosts love the characters as much as Goldsmith and his guests do.

“I love that for you,” he says over and over each episode. It is a phrase that I think encapsulates a major part of the ethos of a joyful fandom (and a joyful life).

“I love that for you,” he says over and over each episode. It is a phrase that I think encapsulates a major part of the ethos of a joyful fandom (and a joyful life): a willingness to make space for something that might not at first glance make sense to you personally, rather than to attack it. That might read at first like a kind of warm toleration; but in fact, when you make room for something that you want to write off as ridiculous—be it someone’s nerdy love for self-painted Dungeons & Dragons figurines or their collection of showtunes—you put yourself in a position where your own heart might also be touched with delight. I find myself using Goldsmith’s phrase often now, and I always feel better when I do, like I’m part of something bigger and more fun.

In the Jesuits, we talk about making a decision between “the two standards,” or kingdoms, which our 16th-century founder St. Ignatius described as the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world (a.k.a. personal riches, honor and ego). In the modern world of internet fandom, we make similar decisions all the time between responding with toxicity or joy.

We can spend what the poet Mary Oliver reminds us is our “one wild and precious life” by characterizing everything we don’t like as a dumpster fire. Or we can be like the joyful fandom of Connor Goldsmith, the MorbiMob and now Kamala Khan, aware that life is imperfect and yet that it is kind of great, too. (I really hope this new show is good. But either way, the “Ms. Marvel” comic book is a wonderful read.)

I think of the response a lot of us had when Baby Yoda was first revealed at the end of the pilot of “The Mandalorian”—the laughter that bubbled up then, like we were 10 again and had just been let in on the craziest secret about what our parents were getting us for Christmas. It continues to happen every single time I see that character.

Not everything is Baby Yoda, obviously. (Some things are “Doctor Strange.”) But if we get to choose how we see reality, why not try and find not the madness but the Baby Yoda that is in everything?

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