Fandom makes honest criticism difficult.
I’d never say that it's impossible: Look at The Ringer, where admitted fans meet fandoms where they are. They can lovingly rag on their favorites, but I’d be lying if I said there were times when I didn’t wonder if hosts on Ringer podcasts were pulling their punches.
This entire concept of fandom, while not really new (hello, Star Wars fans and Trekkies alike), it does feel supercharged in this day and age where the superhero film is the most reliable bet in Hollywood.
It’s some weird mix of genuine love for source material mixing with our extremely online lives, which make community-building possible, and not discounting the occasional very good product, that makes this so hard to separate.
For me, lately my low-grade fandoms of two properties have been tried when I reached the end (and honestly, at various points along the journey) and said “I do not like this. This is not good.”
The fandom has this weird effect: It’s a sort of gaslighting. You don’t trust your own judgment anymore. Were you crazy? Losing your mind? Watching something completely different from everyone else?
Take Ted Lasso, for example.
I was as charmed by the football-coach-turned-football-coach as anyone, catching the wave early and watching week to week from Season One. It’s not just how badly the world seemed to need Ted’s brand of aw-shucks niceness no matter the obstacles; it was a genuinely good show that was well written and gave us these news stars to love.
Then came Season Two, and boy oh boy was I excited. And I watched and thought “Well, it’s a bit of a sophomore slump. Still plenty to love, but I can see the beating heart of what I loved so much. It’s just trying so hard to live up to expectations.”
My faith was shaken, but my fandom kept me in close to the flock.
Then came Season Three, which concluded this week. The show is likely done, but that’s not 100% certain. The characters are perfectly situated to crop up in spinoff properties that trundle along, without Ted and hid dad jokes. But none of that is certain right now.
None of the uncertainty truly seems to blame for, what in my estimation, was simply not a good or satisfying season of TV. Sure, it’s satisfying on a few fandom levels, because some of our beloveds come in for a soft landing. They’re the heroes of their lives, and their great big-heartedness isn’t punished. The world isn’t a cold and cynical and hateful place. This is satisfying, and I’m as much as sucker for closing montages and needle drops as anyone, despite my better judgment.
But narratively a lot was left to be desire. The quality of the writing seemed to plummet. The acting, by extension, seemed over the top and out of place. It hardly at all felt like the show that was such a balm during the worldwide (but especially national) nightmare that was COVID-19.
I would feel any one of these thoughts (and half a dozen more specific to a given episode) and then log onto Twitter to see what people were saying, and it was like I’d fallen through the looking glass. The praise was almost unanimous, and it was just as rapturous as it had ever been.
And I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d watched the same episode. I’d ask a friend about it, and she didn’t have the same feeling at all.
So there I was, wanting to love something, but failing, and wanting to criticize things as an amateur wanna-be critic, but also failing.
There’s a sensation that occurs when you’re reading a piece of writing and it feels like it’s your own thoughts, transcribed by someone else. It rights the world. It’s a breath of fresh air. That’s what Alan Sepinwall’s review for Rolling Stone was for me.
Then there was the—I’m just going to go ahead and say it—epic letdown that was Fast X.
This one is harder to justify because, honestly, I knew going in that everything about the franchise was ridiculous. It remains ridiculous. Utter nonsense.
But that’s not really what bothered me. Like the action was fine, if a little bloated from CGI, but that’s not my gripe. Nor is the nonsensical story that loosely connects these massive set pieces.
The entire things has always worked much better if you simply lean into the spectacle, and above all else, turn off your brain.
It was the quiet moments that bothered me. The people talking in rooms. The conversations. The scenes that called for acting and not ACTING (if ACTING is now just running around in a video game and pretending to do epically heroic stuff).
The whole thing felt stale, like quite possibly a human hadn’t written it, which was funny because I’m not the only one who thought that.
Alison Willmore, writing for Vulture, said “the film plays more like it was made by an AI versed in the existing movies but not quite up to spitting out something coherent itself.”
But this is actually just clear-eyed criticism. I agreed with pretty much every aspect of Willmore’s review, but it was Miles Surrey, over at The Ringer, who wrote the piece that spoke to me in the same way Sepinwall’s piece did.
These issues go beyond just the bad writing and line delivery that so deeply irked me. They are more fundamental to the whole enterprise, and as evidenced by the title, the premise is simple: There’s not enough creative juice flowing to this thing to keep it going.
Surrey anticipates a common defense of the series (though said defense does little to explain why more of these films should be made or audiences should continue to go see them):
The counterargument would be that the Fast franchise is in on the joke—certainly, any series that goes to space because the fans memed the scene into existence knows how to poke fun at itself. But my fear, Dom, is that the audience is no longer laughing along with you; they’re laughing at you. Besides, self-awareness is no substitute for quality blockbuster filmmaking, something that Fast X sorely lacks. There isn’t an action scene in Fast X to write home about—a sequence in which a giant spherical bomb barrels through the streets of Rome is admirably bonkers, but the whole thing is an intentional nod to the iconic bank vault chase in Fast Five. When it comes to original ideas, the tank is close to empty; what passes for a genuine creative risk is Fast X dangling cliff-hangers that won’t be resolved until the sequel. (As for the franchise’s future, it’s not even clear how many more Fast movies are in the works.)
This is accurate. There’s not been any reason for them, but as Willmore describes in her piece, somehow this brand of franchise storytelling (and this franchise in particular) has become a giant sucking black hole with a gravitational pull too strong for many Hollywood stars to escape.
Between all the returning cast members and the new ones, Fast X is deliriously unwieldy. It’s barely able to attend to all the big names involved — like, who needed Brie Larson to be in this and why? — and the way it hoards them turns the movie into an unintended treatise on how much power has tipped from stars to brands. The celebrities need this aging blockbuster saga more than it needs them, and the ones who try to leave come crawling back eventually, with their characters’ deaths or departures retroactively explained away.
I wanted to just turn my brain off and enjoy the spectacle. But I found myself, alone in a theater, and I rolled my eyes more times than I laughed out loud (and a great deal many more times than I was wowed by anything on screen). That’s a bad sign when coming from a fan.