On April 1, 2020, a news editor by the name of James Whitbrook wrote an article for Gizmodo entitled “Our Fascination With Canon Is Killing the Way We Value Stories”. His central argument being made clear in the title, he claims that with pop culture being dominated by large franchises featuring interconnected stories, the fanbase’s love of stories is morphing into what he calls an archival competition. He then laments that critics and fans alike don’t discuss the underlying themes of a given work, but rather melt down the base components to what he calls “pure, unflinching facts”.
His central thesis is not necessarily that canon doesn’t matter but craving it above everything else is toxic, decrying the community’s discussing of it to determine whether a given work matters. Despite a bit of backpedaling, the way Mr. Whitbrook ends the article betrays his real thoughts on the matter.
“Valuing the sterile facts of those stories more than the things about them that make us think or feel is a sad thing indeed.”
By labeling the facts of a given work “sterile”, it is strongly suggested that he doesn’t think highly of a series or metaseries striving to maintain its continuity, but rather its ability to spur discussion.
Taking note of the article’s publication date, I couldn’t help but initially take it with a grain of salt. It was entirely possible that he wrote it as an elaborate April Fool’s joke. If so, I would have given Mr. Whitbrook a lot of credit for writing this article. It perfectly parodies the absolute worst trends in contemporary criticism. Facts, internal consistency, and plot holes don’t matter if you walked away from the work with all the feels. You would have an easier time finding the Ark of the Covenant than a contemporary critic with this level of self-awareness. Sadly, after perusing his Twitter feed, I am less likely to believe that his article is an elaborate joke on his readers.
Consequently, I can safely declare this article to be a complete mess top to bottom. One of its biggest problems, and ironically fitting given his thesis, is that Mr. Whitbrook blatantly contradicts himself. In his closing statement, he makes his lack of respect for the facts known by calling them sterile while also lamenting that the audience supposedly doesn’t value thinking about what they just experienced. It’s bad enough when a feature-length film doesn’t follow its own rules, but to contradict oneself in the span of a single sentence in an 800-word essay is truly impressive.
Mr. Whitbrook also criticizes fans for using the term “filler episode”, believing their obsession with canon causes them to devalue stories that don’t contribute to the larger narrative. He claims such an attitude led to gatekeeping, but like many fellow journalists, he doesn’t take time to understand where the detractors are coming from. Those who watched anime in the 1990s or 2000s had to deal with absurd amounts of boring, pointless episodes that failed to advance the plot in any meaningful way. Barring the rarest of exceptions, these episodes remain unpopular with the respective fanbases for that exact reason.
Oftentimes, these episodes were made due to being adaptations of popular manga series. If a manga has not finished its run by the time it is being adapted, the anime producers find themselves in a conundrum should they run out of source material. The average conversion is two weekly manga chapters to a single anime episode. This wouldn’t pose a problem if the producers of the anime could wait for the mangaka to provide them with more material to adapt, but things aren’t always so simple.
Mangaka typically have a notoriously heavy workload. One would need a remarkable amount of passion to see their projects through or even survive longer than a week without keeling over. Understandably, despite – or more likely, as a result of – working around the clock on their projects, many of them are prone to falling behind schedule. This causes a problem for anime producers because, in many cases, most series are aired weekly. Because Japanese shows are typically broadcast as original episodes without reruns, by airing no new material, you might as well cancel the series right there and then.
Because mangaka tend have enough on their plate already, collaborating with them directly is usually out of the question. Therefore, the producers often find themselves having to create unique plotlines in order to allow the mangaka to catch up. Whether it’s by slowing down the pacing of the episodes to glacial speeds or creating filler arcs, anime producers do what they can to keep the series afloat until the next story beat is created. Popular series such as Dragon Ball Z and Naruto were especially infamous with their filler. While the former is infamous for its slow pacing, the latter notably had eighty weeks’ worth of filler. Unsurprisingly, this stretch is often called “Filler Hell”.
Whatever the case may be, the filler invariably stuck out like a sore thumb. Unless the producers of the anime decided to go off in their own direction, these filler episodes only succeeded in testing the viewers’ patience. These filler episodes could be used to give further insight into the characters, but even this proposition frequently fell flat. A good mangaka would be keen to develop their characters in their own material. Attempts to do so in a filler episode could easily result in inconsistencies involving out-of-character behavior or any manner of plot holes.
As a result, these episodes would be, at best, viewed with a degree of bored toleration. At worst, many people would swear off the series when it clearly wasn’t going anywhere, leading to a swift cancellation in extreme cases. To dismiss the aversion of these filler episodes as an early form of gatekeeping fails to understand why they’re disliked in the first place. And no, the answer isn’t because fans are so blind to the underlying themes of a work. They wouldn’t react in such a fashion because of apathy – quite the opposite, in fact.
I am also less inclined to believe this article is a joke because, at the end of the day, it perpetuates a disturbing trend of anti-intellectualism common in the theses of contemporary critics. In August of 2018, video essayist Patrick (H) Willems released a video entitled “SHUT UP ABOUT PLOT HOLES”. Mr. Willems made his first mistake before he even uploaded the video by electing to spell out its name in all caps. As a good essayist needs to be skilled in the art of persuasion, titling the video like that speaks to Mr. Willems’s extreme immaturity.
It gets worse when you actually watch the video. Mr. Willems has the characters in his video point out legitimate grievances with popular films only for himself punch out every single one of them. Notably, he doesn’t address any of issues, but rather elects to sweep them under the rug. For the crime of pointing out these problems, he even accuses his audience of “watching movies wrong” and insists that the plot holes they point out “don’t actually matter”.
Similar to Mr. Whitbrook, he laments that more and more people are concerned with whether these plots hold up to any kind of scrutiny. There is a nuanced discussion to be had on this subject. Does a plot hole ruin your enjoyment of the film or can you dismiss it as a technical error? Unfortunately, sentiments like this don’t encourage discussion; they reduce the other side to a strawman for the creator to swat down. He justifies characters making bad decisions by claiming that human beings are not logical. If a character were to make logical decisions, they wouldn’t be acting human. Ergo, if characters were making good decisions all the time, movies would be completely boring. He doesn’t even consider that some of the most interesting conflicts in fiction result from both sides making sound decisions or that a character can make bad calls due to falsely believing themselves to be logical.
Controversial critic Bob Chipman pitched his own thoughts on the matter a month later. Following Mr. Willems’s lead, he showed no respect for his audience, claiming plot hole discussion devolved from “this thing that happened does not make any sense” to “this thing that happened does not make any sense to me” [emphasis not added]. As usual, he displays an insufferable superiority complex any aspiring essayist should take great strives to avoid if they want any chance of resonating with audiences.
He then goes on, with some of the densest, most tortured prose imaginable, to insinuate that the overly pedantic nature of plot hole discussions “literally [murders] the concept of culture”. Like Mr. Willems, he doesn’t even come close to addressing any of the legitimate grievances people may have had with the films he discussed. Instead, he reduces them to shallow strawman arguments to ensure his audience doesn’t give them the time of day.
Anyone who decides these sterile facts and meaningless plot holes aren’t worth discussing will inevitably make a fool out of themselves. It is the natural consequence of failing to think more than one step ahead. Few critics seem to realize that claiming a film is not for a certain subset of people waives their right to act surprised when their sacred cows underperform. For a more specific example, after infamously declaring that The Last Jedi is “a movie about space wizards intended for children”, Mr. Willems proceeded to blow up on social media when its successor, The Rise of Skywalker, let him down.
Either way, concluding that fans becoming increasingly concerned with canon and plot holes wouldn’t necessarily indicate to me the discussions are becoming increasingly toxic. Instead, I would assume that there is something seriously wrong with current wave of writers. It’s true that this attitude can be taken too far, but more critics are unwilling to venture outside of their comfort zone. Rather than acknowledge the problems with these works, critics are more likely to find the one thing that will allow them to silence the opposition in the fewest steps possible. This has led, on numerous occasions, to reasonable critique getting dismissed just because it doesn’t line up with the popular consensus. Conversely, some rather dubious people have gotten free passes with their malformed opinions because, as hateful as they are, they pay lip service to the right causes.
It’s appropriate that all these pieces have mentioned Star Wars in some way because I consider the release of The Last Jedi to be the exact moment film criticism jumped the shark. Once it made its political biases known, critics did whatever they could to defend it – even if that meant declaring a deeply flawed film good. Eight years after condemning Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for being a piece of overproduced Hollywood schlock, they heaped praise upon a piece of overproduced Hollywood schlock that happened to echo their viewpoints back at them. Never mind the fact that The Last Jedi had innumerable plot holes and nonsensical character motivations; it checked all the boxes, so it must be a masterpiece.
It didn’t help that, like Mr. Willems and his misbegotten video, the most visible defenses usually involved moving the goalposts as opposed to addressing any of the problems directly. It is truly uncanny how many them point out the original trilogy has problems as well, claim The Last Jedi isn’t perfect without any qualifiers, or insist that calling Rey a Mary Sue is inherently sexist. If legitimate defenses could be mounted for these issues, they could just correct the detractors without having to perform these mental gymnastics or resorting to ad hominem. Their consistent inability to do so along with the film’s financial success ensured that everyone knew the emperor was naked.
When you resort to these kinds of tactics, it creates mental blind spots. If you don’t address these mental blind spots, you begin to suffer from confirmation bias, which is to say, you begin praising works that line up with your beliefs regardless of how good the execution may have been. This tendency can destroy a critic’s credibility in seconds, yet many of them blind themselves by their own biases, causing them to ignore real flaws in the art they consume.
In light of these trends, Mr. Whitbrook’s article could be read as a call for the journalists to take artistic liberties in their interpretations – the death of the author as it were. While having one’s own interpretation of a work can make for an interesting conversation piece, I find that the concept has been misused by journalists to insert political messages into works that didn’t have it. Alternatively, works that did have overt political messages were often co-opted so they could only be about one specific narrative.
To wit, when rapper Boots Riley made his directorial debut with Sorry to Bother You in 2018, a significant portion of the journalists assumed he was lambasting the Trump administration specifically. What those journalists conveniently ignored was that Mr. Riley had removed timely references from his film and set it in an alternate universe precisely to avoid dating it. While the Trump administration stands as a symbol of unchecked capitalism taken to its most disturbing conclusions, Mr. Riley’s ire ultimately wasn’t directed at a specific president. Consequently, the positive reaction to his film strongly suggests that when journalists enjoy something, it’s only because it echoes their own sentiments back at them – even if they have to deliberately mishear the message to do so. Adhering to the metaphorical death of the author, they can make up their own narrative unabated. However, as long as that pesky author is around on social media to foil these interpretations with their definitive answers, journalists are completely powerless.
Indeed, I firmly believe their Achilles’ heel has resulted from their inability to acknowledge their own biases. The backlash to The Last Jedi in particular led to many video essayists who challenged these sensibilities gaining popularity. One of them, who went by the e-handle MauLer, criticized the film in a three-part video essay that, combined, clocked in at a little over five hours. In response, many fans of the film expressed that he was taking the film too seriously. Others went a step further by claiming that long critique is not deep. It’s highly probable that someone who shot a five-hour video praising The Last Jedi would have been met with scorn. However, I doubt the scorn would have emanated from the same sources. The critics claim to encourage passionate discourse, yet it becomes problematic when the conversation isn’t going their way. If an outsider doesn’t like a critical darling and can prove their case with hard evidence, that is somehow far more heinous than when journalists cut out inconvenient details of a work to fit their narrative.
Now, in the interest of fairness, I will say the mainstream antipathy towards MauLer wasn’t wholly unjustified. During his critique of The Last Jedi, he went on a tangent wherein he lambasted the film for its left-leaning stance. His claim was that in doing so, it would isolate anyone who doesn’t lean left. It was a weak argument because Star Wars had always overtly leaned towards the left with George Lucas admitting the rebellion was inspired by the Viet Cong – standing opposite the imperialistic United States. I myself would argue the section of the film he criticized was not well-implemented, but it wasn’t as though the message resulted from a drastic change in form.
Furthermore, it ultimately became clear that he and his peers – the so-called Fandom Menace – were unapologetic far-right types. Through their various podcasts, they tended to lash out at anyone arguing in favor of social justice while being noticeably less harsh on conservatives. For good measure, their rhetoric also included hefty amounts of transphobia and ableism. In other words, it was clear they didn’t have any problems with works being political. On a subconscious level, they were bitter and angry that artists actively and consistently refused to validate their own backwards-looking worldviews.
As such, I completely understand why mainstream critics and video essayists didn’t have any respect for the Fandom Menace. That being said, through their inability to back up their conclusions with solid arguments, they did the absolute worst possible thing they could: they gave a group of very narrow-minded people credibility.
But, once again, the mainstream’s handling of these video essayists was to cut them off at the heels rather than actually consider any of their points. Because many of the people criticizing The Last Jedi were relative unknowns before they created their pieces, it was easy for the mainstream to dismiss them as upstarts. Consequently, things became especially interesting when critics were confronted with someone whose piece they couldn’t ignore as easily. In August of 2018, Red Letter Media released “Star Wars: The Last Plinkett Review”. Like the other videos starring the criminally insane Mr. Plinkett character, this one lambasts the film’s shortcomings in a humorous way.
In response, Matthew Rozsa of Salon wrote an article telling people to stop obsessing over The Last Jedi. As mentioned before, the backlash did indeed have a real, ugly undercurrent of racism and sexism to it, as evidenced by Kelly Marie Tran getting bullied off social media. The people who participated in those kinds of attacks were absolutely despicable. The problem is that Mr. Rozsa lumps these bullies in the same camp as the detractors. I can’t deny that there is overlap, but most of the detractors simply felt The Last Jedi was a bad film. Stuffing them in the same box allows him to brazenly ignore the legitimate criticisms while encouraging his audience to follow suit.
Mr. Rozsa also subtly tries to discourage his readers from considering the views expressed in the video, citing Red Letter Media’s alleged conservative streak in their humor. He himself even admits that the video lacks these flaws, which strongly suggests he only included the observation so his audience would be biased against the review going in. Plus, if his assertion isn’t true, then it makes him and his peers come across as incredibly thin-skinned. Once again, it’s difficult to dismiss the idea that obsessing over these sterile facts is perfectly fine when fans express blind devotion to the author’s beliefs. Only when they challenge these beliefs is it actually framed as an obsession.
More than anything, what I especially dislike about these sentiments is how much they demonize logic and critical thinking. If you were to speak with certain critics and fans at length, you would get the impression that logic cannot coexist with emotions. It is a mistake to assume that emotional moments flew past a person who doesn’t automatically accept what they witness at face value. As with any other aspect of art, emotional moments must be earned – not handed out. If a character dies, but only had a few moments of screen time, it’s not going to have the same impact as it would had they a significant presence for half of the story before being killed off. Alternatively, if you must ignore or violate previously established rules for these emotional moments, don’t be surprised if the audience collectively decides not to play along. Gauging and properly controlling the audience’s investment in the story are vital to making your emotional moments pay off.
From a critical standpoint, I realize the importance of emotional resonance in storytelling, but to abandon logic entirely would do a disservice to your audience. Your audience needs people who can make sound decisions about what art is worth consuming. It is not a profession that benefits from being overly emotional. If you are, you tend to only consume media that doesn’t challenge your viewpoints. Complacency is poison to intellectuals, yet many self-styled intellectuals are addicted to it. The world does not operate in shades of black and white, but by letting your emotions get to you, it is easy to trick yourself into believing that to be true. At best, being ruled by your emotions will polarize your audience. At worst, it can cause serious harm to the art form or even society at large.
The prime example of this is the story of Charles Laughton. He was a renowned actor who suddenly got a chance to make his directorial debut in the form of The Night of the Hunter in 1955 It is considered a masterpiece of cinema that would pave the way for the slasher genre a few decades later. At the time, however, Mr. Laughton’s effort was universally panned. Why? Because critics failed to recognize it for what it was. The Second World War had taken its toll on everyone, and both fans and critics reasonably demanded feelgood stories to help recuperate. For the most part, the studios obliged. The Night of the Hunter proceeded to challenge the sensibilities of its day and it was booed off the stage for its trouble. The backlash was so severe that Mr. Laughton would never find himself in the director’s chair again – all because the critics couldn’t keep their emotions in check.
The more important thing to keep in mind is that logic doesn’t have to compete with emotions. In reality, without both working in tandem, humans wouldn’t be able to function. How many times have you been given the choice of eating out somewhere only to be presented with more than one option? Did you ever decide to go to the restaurant slightly further away from all of the others? Logic would dictate the closest one is the best choice, but perhaps you liked the menu of that particular one the most. Without emotions to act as a tiebreaker in these kinds of decisions, human beings would seldom find themselves being able to make any kind of meaningful decisions at all.
Because of their constant errors in judgement, I feel the current wave of critics desperately need to go back to the basics. A credible critic needs to be a good persuasive writer. There are four important modes of persuasion to win people over to your side: ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos. An ethos in an appeal to authority – that is, credibility. Obviously, if you have no idea what you’re talking about, people aren’t going to trust your piece on that subject. If that happens, you would be better off having said nothing at all. Through their inability to address their opposition’s points, these critics ensure that nobody other than those most blindly loyal to their causes will respect them.
Pathos is an appeal to emotions. On the surface, this would appear to be the one aspect the current wave of critics has nailed down. However, without the ability to back up their claims through evidence, their emotional stances are often self-contradictory. Regardless, it is important to be able to engage with your audience on an emotional level. However, to do that, you need to consider where your audience is coming from. If you just assume that the audience doesn’t understand your sacred cows because they’re morally deficient, the only emotion you will inspire is anger.
Logos is an appeal to logic. Cynics like to believe that human beings aren’t rational, but I strongly suspect today’s critics use it as an excuse to abandon logic entirely. It is in your best interest when making arguments to be as logically consistent as possible. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge when something you like has its flaws. In fact, part of what I think makes critiquing good works interesting is watching them overcome their shortcomings and deliver quality experiences. If you overlook these flaws or are inconsistent about applying your criticisms, people won’t be able to figure out how you reach your conclusions. Moreover, if what you’re saying doesn’t add up, it will come back to haunt you, leading to your credibility being damaged.
The final mode of persuasion, kairos, isn’t mentioned as often, but I believe it to be highly important all the same. It is an appeal to time and place. One understated problem with today’s critics is their inability to let an experience settle. This is understandable due to how quickly they must write, but one’s opinion of a work can change. If this happens, all you need to do is articulate how your opinion changed. If you’re successful, your audience will understand. Kairos can also be interpreted as a call to choose your battles.
If you dive headfirst into the hot topic everyone is talking about without having all the pieces, you are liable to make yourself look ignorant or, worse, insensitive. While your audience might forgive you for making that mistake once or twice, a pattern of doing so will erode your credibility in the long term.
A good critic needs to be persuasive with a strong sense of conviction. If we’re to the point where they’re regularly imploring their audience not to think, then it betrays a serious lack of self-confidence and passion. Many of these critics approach their craft with an intent to be progressive, yet in what I find to be the ultimate twist of irony, their inability to address real problems that are right in front of them exhibits a dogma eerily similar to right-wing religious fanaticism. The critics’ attempts at handling non-believers by branding them heretics, thereby instilling the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with their viewpoints only makes this interpretation all the more plausible.
I think this problem is fixable, but it’s going to take a lot of self-reflection. If nothing else, it is my hope that when a new wave of critics emerges, they learn from these mistakes to avoid repeating them. An anti-intellectual critical circle is one adverse to risk or imagination – the lifeblood of any artistic movement. Because independent filmmakers seek to capture critical attention, they are currently mired in the doldrums of creative bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the independent gaming scene managed to take off in the mid-2010s once it moved away from this egotistical posturing and focused entirely on making good art on their own terms. Anyone else who wishes to obtain a significant level of success and admiration would do well to follow the example of those game creators.
In the end, Mr. Whitbrook’s claim that our fascination with canon is killing the way we value stories is entirely false. In fact, I would take this fascination with canon as a sign that people care about the media they consume. That, in turn, should encourage artists to be at the top of their game. After all, if they can’t get an illogical story past Joe Sixpack, what chance do they have against the truly knowledgeable? An audience with high standards can only help artistic movements, and we can only hope that critics will decide to follow suit someday.