When does fan service go too far?


What is fan service? When is it used well? When is it used badly? We look at examples from Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Supernatural and more to try and draw the line.

Big movie franchises and series — both original creations and book adaptations — have always attracted large audiences, and these passionate folks (I count myself among them) invest their time, money, mind, body and soul over a period of years. Consume me or go home, I always say.

Ardent fans tend to develop strong views on their favorite stories as well as their own ideas about how those stories should go. Personally, I’m less concerned about whether my desires are catered to and more interested in great, inspired storytelling and characters who play my emotions like a violin. But that’s not to say I don’t appreciate a clever dose of fan service.

Game of Thrones
Image: Game of Thrones/HBO /

What is fan service?

Originating in anime and manga, “fan service” describes any content that’s added to please or excite the audience rather than progress the storyline. Often referring to the unnecessary sexualization of characters, the term has attracted some negative connotations over the years. It’s a complex subject, but I’ll simplify it: fan service is not always bad, fan service is not always good. And it can be a purely subjective experience because how it’s received differs from viewer to viewer.

In the very traditional sense of the term, we can all think of scenes showing gratuitous sexual content and nudity that’s added for no good reason. Why is it so important to assure us that people shower and bathe, or that they remove their clothing beforehand, guys? It’s often a lazy effort to hide a deficient narrative and a cheap attempt to boost ratings.

But there are less lascivious forms of fan service. Do you remember your excitement when you heard the orchestral version of Spider-Man’s theme song playing during the opening intro of Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming or when Captain America moved Mjölnir and Thor’s soul left his body in Avengers: Age of Ultron? How about the satisfying and empowering moment in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King when Eowyn removed her helmet and declared, “I am no man”, right before plunging her sword into the Witch-king of Angmar’s evil formless face, killing him? Did it blow your theorist mind when you realized the “RL” carved into the tree behind Jon in Game of Thrones season 1’s “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” confirmed the R+L=J theory at such an early stage?

This, dearly beloved, is fan service done right. But what happens when it goes wrong? At what point do crowd-pleasing details derail perfectly good storytelling? Do plot developments that pander to the whims of the fandom signal that a writer’s creative well has run dry?

Writers like to sometimes hide Easter eggs in their creations as a way to nod to die-hard supporters. When done well, these are inconspicuous references — messages, images or characters — that don’t (or shouldn’t) disrupt the plot. Some of these Easter eggs go as far as to foreshadow what’s to come or confirm speculation and long-standing fan theories. It’s a clever, subtle wink at the audience: “I see you.”

One of the best movie franchises in history and a personal obsession of mine is George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s 1980s award-winning Indiana Jones trilogy (because The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a sacrilege). It introduced us to the iconic archaeologist and adventurer Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr., who was played to perfection by Harrison Ford. It also has numerous examples of well-done fan service.

For instance, there are some moments in the series that wink at Star Wars fans. The inclusion of Ford, who played Han Solo in those movies, is an obvious link. But Lucas found another way to bring these two universes together. At the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy takes an artifact, which sets off a rolling boulder booby trap. He narrowly dodges it and flees from the angry Hovitos tribe, making his getaway in a seaplane. The lettering on the plane reads OB-CPO, which is a reference to Obi-Wan Kenobi and C-3PO.

Later, in the Well of Souls, Indy and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) are preparing to move the stone lid off the sarcophagus housing the Ark of the Covenant. Included on the wall of hieroglyphics behind them is a depiction of Princess Leia placing the Death Star plans into R2-D2 while C-3PO stands to his right. R2-D2 and C-3PO also feature on one of the golden pillars.

In The Temple of Doom, the name of the Shanghai nightclub that Indy and company escape from is called “Club Obi Wan.” These Easter eggs are inconspicuous to the degree that you probably wouldn’t even notice them unless they’re pointed out to you (Guilty!). That’s good fan service — understated and wholly appreciated.

Easter eggs can foreshadow events

One of the first and finest moments of foreshadowing I became aware of occurs in Steven Spielberg’s critically acclaimed Jurassic Park. The first (and best) movie in the ongoing franchise includes a scene where Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) can’t fasten his helicopter seat belt, so after a brief and futile struggle, he ties the straps together and seems rather pleased with his efforts. He couldn’t connect the buckles because they were both “female” connectors.

As we learn, all the dinosaurs on the island are engineered to be female and can’t breed. But as Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) so eloquently puts it, “Life finds a way.” Much like Dr. Grant found a solution to his dilemma, the dinos, who have gender-changing frog DNA, are eventually able to reproduce. Such finesse.

Why Marvel’s overt fan service works

Marvel Studios isn’t nearly as subtle. Indulging the audience is a national pastime for them, and they’ve often been accused of brazen fan service. We’re talking numerous shirtless scenes, comic-book references and crowd-pleasing moments saturating the franchise. But thanks to their “narrative first” approach, it works!

Take Stan Lee’s cameos in the Marvel movies, for example: they’re not there to forward the story, but rather, they’re a fun inclusion for fans who know how important Lee is to the history of Marvel. Excelsior, king!

As the cameos continued, fans began to speculate that Lee’s appearances weren’t unrelated and that he was portraying the same character in each movie, specifically, an informant for The Watchers, a race of extraterrestrial beings who observe and compile knowledge about the universe without interfering. Lee’s cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 showed him chatting with the Watchers: “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!” he says. This was a direct shout-out to this fan-made theory.

It was a gratifying nod to fans and made viewers think about Lee’s appearances in a new way. “Yes, we always thought it would be fun,” Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige later said at a press junket. “Stan Lee clearly exists, you know, above and apart from the reality of all the films. So the notion that he could be sitting there on a cosmic pit stop during the jump gate sequence in Guardians was something very fun.”

Marvel, for all its audience-indulging ways, has earned all the success and praise it’s received. Over the course of 22 movies and counting, it’s brought an immense number of separate stories and timelines together in a coherent fashion, with very few glaring continuity problems. That took tremendous vision and intensely focused storytelling. No amount of fan service has ever steered the franchise off course. I’d go so far as to say it enhanced the experience.

Avengers: Endgame was the culmination of the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it was guaranteed that the writers would cram in as much fan service as they could get away with. The final battle, in particular, all but sky-wrote a message to the fans: “Buckle up, this is for you”.

Just when it seemed as though all hope is lost in the battle against Thanos (Josh Brolin), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) opens a number of portals and everyone, including the heroes who had been snapped out of existence by Thanos in Infinity War, returned. Suffice it to say, my emotions ran wild. When Captain America (Chris Evans) gave the order, “Avengers, Assemble!” and Mjölnir flew into his outstretched hand, I flatlined. It was all my little fan heart didn’t even know it needed.

Fan service moments like this work in the Marvel movies because the narratives are so well-defined, they feel 100% earned. And I presume Marvel knows when to draw the line. For example, it’s unlikely Marvel will entertain a fan who recently erected a billboard begging them to bring Tony Stark back from the dead. If they ever cave and give in to this request, however, I’ll riot. #LetTonyStarkRestInPeace.

And Marvel isn’t the only franchise that’s gotten this right.

The Lord of the Rings takes a story-first approach

Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy set the benchmark for high fantasy movies. It’s the franchise of all franchises, the trilogy of all trilogies, my precious for life, and if you disagree I respect your right to have a wrong opinion. Adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary masterpiece, these Oscar-winning films were a labor of pure love and devotion by Jackson, a lifelong Tolkien fan.

I get that the movies sometimes strayed from the source material and the oversimplification or exclusion of certain characters, like Tom Bombadil, upset some fans. I didn’t necessarily worship some of the liberties taken, either. But that’s the nature of an adaptation: difficult decisions must be made and not everyone can be satisfied, so let’s journey on.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy demonstrates the immersive potential of powerful, emotive storytelling. So when the movies served up fan service, we were willing to go with it. Take the various flashy stunts performed by Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom). In The Fellowship of the Ring, he jumped onto a violent cave troll and dispatched it with an arrow through the head; The Two Towers showed him casually hoisting himself onto a moving horse; and in The Return of the King, he scaled a Mûmakil (a large elephant-type beast) and killed the riders and the creature before sliding down its trunk. Total boss move. It also took his friendly rivalry with Gimli to another level. “That still only counts as one!”

These stunts bordered on comical, but even fans who found them and any other fan service-y moments ridiculous were often happy to overlook them because the greater narrative and creative vision remained uncompromised.

The same can’t be said about all franchises, though.

Why Game of Thrones misses the mark

It still pains me to talk about Game of Thrones, and for some fans, hating season 8 has become a personality trait. For those who were able to enjoy it, I envy you. This adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books was poised to end as the greatest television series of all time until the last season came along and taught us a harsh lesson in heartbreak.

Let’s be clear so there’s no room for misunderstanding; I didn’t want a happy ending from Game of Thrones and I was paying attention. And while the final season looked like Game of Thrones, it didn’t feel like Game of Thrones. This was partially because the show paid more attention to fan service moments and less time on developing the complex narratives that made the series what it was. This had an unravelling effect on the meticulous character development and carefully constructed plots, resulting in storytelling that felt devoid of any real emotional impact.

Game of Thrones had fan service from day one, particularly in its unapologetic sex, nudity, debauchery and brutal violence. Although some argue those elements were gratuitous, I believe they served a purpose and were rarely irrelevant to the plot. These themes were interwoven into the fabric of the books, and they showed the cold, grim reality of life in Westeros. If anything, it added to the authenticity.

As the seasons progressed and the writers ran out of source material, they grew bolder and took greater creative liberties. I wasn’t enamored with some of the storyline alterations and character changes/exclusions along the way, but I didn’t question the show’s direction until the final season, although the fan service moments started to ramp up before that. Think of when we saw Gendry (Joe Dempsie) again in season 7’s “Eastwatch,” and Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) comments, “Thought you might still be rowing,” which referenced a popular meme. Or when Ed Sheeran played a Lannister soldier with a song in his heart in the season 7 premiere, “Dragonstone.” Personally, I found the former hilarious, the latter quite charming and neither particularly derailing, but not everyone will agree. These, however, signaled dark times ahead.

Season 8 had everything you’d expect from the series finale: grand battles — some of which were too dark to see — the long-awaited Cleganebowl, Jon finally riding a dragon, and so forth. But the writers relied on these big moments to distract us from more substantive issues, like Jaime’s character destruction, Bran’s uselessness, Cersei being killed by rubble, Daenerys flipping her crazy on like a switch, and the absence of a satisfactory explanation about the Night King’s origin and motivations. The list goes on.

If it was always the intention for Bran, the new Three-Eyed Raven, to end up on the Iron Throne, fine. But to assert, as Tyrion did, that no one had a better story than Bran the Broken was blasphemy. Maybe the coin had been tossed and it was Dany’s fate to become the Mad Queen — the signs were there. The problem was the writers didn’t convincingly sell us on her transformation. Imagine what could have been achieved if they’d dedicated more time towards her downward spiral into madness.

Star Wars: the fan service is strong with this one

Following the enormous backlash to Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi — I kinda loved the movie, I said what I said — J.J. Abrams was called in to complete the trilogy, but he was too eager to course-correct and placate the fan base. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker gives the fans what they thought they wanted, not what they needed, and it backfired all the same, leading to a fresh wave of criticism.

Emperor Palpatine on Exogal in Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker. Disney:Lucasfilm.
Emperor Palpatine on Exogal in Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker. Disney:Lucasfilm. /

The final installment of the sequel trilogy not only retconned some of Johnson’s more daring decisions from The Last Jedi, but it was peppered with cloying moments clearly designed to tug at fans’ nostalgic heartstrings. The result: plot holes and storytelling that felt recycled and uninspired. For instance, how is Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) alive? He merely alludes to the Dark Side of the Force being “a pathway to many abilities some consider unnatural.” The end, thank you for coming.

Viewers are left with little choice but to accept the vagueness of it all and move on because most of the movie’s premise teeters on his return. As fate (and Abrams) would have it, Palpatine has been spending his days since Return of the Jedi on the planet Exegol. There, he’s been pulling strings, controlling Supreme Leader Snoke and building a fleet of planet-destroying ships that he never thought to use against the Resistance until now.

And the big plot twist? Rey (Daisy Ridley) learns her father is the son we didn’t know Palpatine had…or the daughter of Palpatine’s failed clone. It had that “I have no good ideas left and I’m making this up as I go” quality about it.

The Last Jedi spent a lot of time establishing the idea that Rey’s parents were just junk-trader nobodies. “Do you know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known? You’ve just hidden it away. Say it,” urges Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). “They were nobody,” Rey responds tearfully. The Rise of Skywalker undid this revelation and substituted a bizarre one of its own. Additionally, the reveal mirrored the legendary Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader revelation so closely, I felt next to nothing.

The film has its merits and emotional charm. But it was a safe, unimaginative end to a dynamic decades-long story that deserved more.

Supernatural panders to the shippers

Let’s look at one last example. My Supernatural journey began in 2005 when it first aired, and my heart got ripped out when it ended last year after a 15-season run. The series never shied away from brilliant fan-servicing antics and constantly poked fun at itself and the characters. It frequently referenced pop culture, acknowledged what viewers were saying and it even addressed the absurdity of “Wincest” slash fans. “As in Sam slash Dean. Together.” Y’all know they’re brothers, right?

Sam and Dean Winchester would often have very emotionally charged moments — they were each other’s everything. I guess for some, these fights and reconciliations between brothers resembled romantic break-ups and reunions. Supernatural was built on their brotherly bond, but fans developed their own interpretations regardless.

Supernatural — “Carry On” — Image Number: SN1520C_0272r.jpg — Pictured (L-R): Jared Padalecki as Sam and Jensen Ackles as Dean — Photo: Robert Falconer/The CW — © 2020 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Supernatural — “Carry On” — Image Number: SN1520C_0272r.jpg — Pictured (L-R): Jared Padalecki as Sam and Jensen Ackles as Dean — Photo: Robert Falconer/The CW — © 2020 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved. /

And let’s not forget the genius of episodes like season 6’s “The French Mistake,” where Sam and Dean are transported to an alternate dimension where they have to play themselves: the actors, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, who play the Winchester brothers on a television show. Glorious thrills from beginning to end. So imagine my surprise when an instance of fan service actually shocked me.

I have a (no)love–(all)hate relationship with shipping culture for its ubiquity and non-negotiable attitude. I don’t go looking for ships, the ships find me on social media. Shippers eat, sleep and breathe their desired fictional romantic pairings, but what’s more alarming is how quickly a ship can be formed. Two characters have a brief but pleasant interaction and Bob’s your uncle, it’s obviously their destiny to be together. Storyline be damned, make it happen! As legitimate bonds form between characters, of course, you become invested and love the idea of them getting together. But shippers are a breed unto themselves and many take things to the extreme.

The Destiel ship — the romantic relationship between Dean and Castiel, played by Misha Collins — set sail soon after Castiel first appeared in season 4. I believe my genuine reaction was “Huh?!” when the ship first appeared on my radar. I paid it no further mind because nothing about Dean and Castiel’s relationship ever struck me as romantic. They grew extremely close and became family, nothing more. A few years ago, Jensen Ackles himself confirmed that “Destiel doesn’t exist.”

When Castiel confesses his feelings to Dean in season 15’s “Despair,” I was just as bewildered as the older Winchester brother. Neither of us saw that coming. The writers pandered like no one has ever pandered before in the history of pandering. What made it truly tragic is that Castiel poured his heart out to Dean and after his death, the subject was never broached again. The bombshell was dropped (to excite the shippers? For ratings?) and then discarded entirely.

Fan service has a time and place. When incorporated into a solid narrative, it can enhance the story, but when it’s added for the purpose of disguising a directionless storyline or pleasing a fandom, it’s time for the writers to get with the plot.

What are your thoughts on fan service? And what are some of your best and worst audience-pleasing moments?

Next. Why you should watch Love and Monsters when it comes to streaming. dark

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