If the customer is always right, then Marvel should start rethinking Steve Rogers’ romantic prospects.
After Captain America: Civil War not only put Bucky Barnes into cold storage (literally) but pushed Cap into a relationship with Peggy Carter’s niece, fans have expressed their disappointment by making #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter in the U.S. on Tuesday.
Simultaneously, online discussion over potential replacements for Daniel Craig in the role of James Bond have become dominated by the idea of a woman taking over the role, with Helen Mirren, Lupita Nyong’o and Gillian Anderson being nominated for the job. Anderson, at least, seems game.
The idea of fan input into a genre property is hardly a new thing — fans have campaigned for everything from specific actors to play the lead in Doctor Who to keeping Star Trek on the air to varying degrees of success — but in recent years, two things have happened to change the dynamic between creators and audience significantly.
The most obvious is that social media has made it far easier for fans to be heard — by other fans, by creators and by the world at large. Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or one of multiple online petition sites, the ability for anyone with an opinion and a keyboard to find like minds or, at least, those willing to listen has increased significantly compared with the pre-Internet era. Want to complain that the Superman in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn’t conform to your expectations of the character and is therefore invalid? Do so loudly enough, or entertainingly enough, and you will be noticed. Find the right hashtag, and you might even go viral.
But perhaps most important is the second change: that those controlling the iconic characters and franchises have already demonstrated that they’re willing to play with the toys in ways that address the fan discussion, demands and devotion.
Reboots and relaunches of properties are part of the vocabulary of properties now, and with that comes an ability — an eagerness, perhaps — to change things that might have been considered set in stone previously: Star Wars addressed the lack of female characters with the leads of The Force Awakens and Rogue One. Casino Royale introduced a new Bond who was more damaged and human than his onscreen predecessor. In comic books, Marvel offered readers an African-American Captain America and a female Thor, while finding success with the teen Muslim hero Ms. Marvel.
This willingness to change the rules — or, at least, introduce new elements that challenge the conventional wisdom — only fuels the fires of those demanding more change, and new ideas, in favorite properties. Intentionally or otherwise, it sends a signal that the fan discussion is being heard, if not always acknowledged.
Part of the reason for that is that social media is a system that includes content creators as well as content consumers, and so the likelihood of exposure to the debate is simply greater today than in days of yore. Therefore, topics of discussion are more likely to become part of the thought process of everyone involved in creating a particular story. Even if they didn’t see it themselves, the likelihood of journalists bringing it up during interviews is, again, increased; consider the discussion post-Force Awakens surrounding the sexuality of Finn and Poe, which grew so popular that both Oscar Isaac and John Boyega have talked about it publicly.
(See also Gillian Anderson responding to fan demand for her to play Bond; in what pre-social media environment could that have happened so quickly?)
There’s also the fact that, in many cases, a lot of fan demand is, if not justified, then at least something that highlights demographic shifts that have yet to be reflected in the texts audiences are responding to. Sure, maybe Captain America isn’t gay, but why aren’t there any gay superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Perhaps James Bond won’t become Jane Bond, but does that mean that there isn’t a gender imbalance in that series that seems out of step with reality? It’s possible that the conversations audiences are having are already being mirrored by those in charge of a particular property — or, perhaps, will end up inspiring some.
Does this mean that fans have a greater level of input into the direction of their beloved characters and fictional universes than in previous years? That’s almost impossible to answer for sure; creators are unlikely to be willing to say, “Yes, the Internet changed my mind or introduced this new idea” for all manner of reasons, after all.
But the increased visibility of such demand and discussion means that for those who want to make their opinions known and try to be heard by those who matter, there’s never been a better time. Cap might not get a boyfriend, but perhaps Bucky will finally find love in the arms of a handsome Wakandan scientist when he gets out of the fridge.