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13 of the biggest fan backlashes (and whether they were right or wrong)

Contributed by
Dec 13, 2017

Fans are a funny bunch. They will slavishly devote themselves to a movie, TV series, franchise — an entire brand, in fact — but are also often the first to attack or criticize their favorites when things diverge the slightest bit from the story running in their heads. Many times, fans have specific opinions about who should play a particular character, or how a certain narrative should unfold, and if the actual creators decide to do something different, well ... all hell can break loose.

Fan backlashes have become much more prevalent in the Internet Age, but they've been with us since the inception of popular sci-fi, or about the last 50 years. One need look no further than the recent flap over the cute little porgs of The Last Jedi to realize that such controversies are bigger than ever.

Sometimes the backlash is legitimate and the fans are proven right; but often the grievances are, frankly, without merit and the most critical voices end up embracing that which they at first protested so vigorously. With that in mind, we've looked back to find a baker's dozen of the biggest fan backlashes of the past three or four decades ... so see if they seem silly now, or whether you think the protest might have been onto something in the first place.

SPOILER WARNING: Many plot points discussed freely below!

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The death of Spock (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)

When it was decided to kill off Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in the second Star Trek feature film, the plan was met with immediate resistance — from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who had been demoted to "Creative Consultant" after Star Trek: The Motion Picture ran tens of millions of dollars over budget. An angry Roddenberry leaked an early draft of the Star Trek II script, in which Spock died in the first act of the movie. Fan response was instantaneous (at least for pre-web days) and hostile: Everyone from producer Robert Sallin to execs at Paramount got hate mail and even death threats. Director/writer Nicholas Meyer and producer Harve Bennett moved Spock's death to the end of the movie, with the early demise transformed into a simulation fake-out. The result was a film that, in the end, came to be regarded as the best Trek movie of them all, with Spock getting an emotional goodbye that sent every fan home in tears. And of course, he came back anyway.

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The Ewoks (Return of the Jedi)

There have been many ways over the years in which Star Wars and its creator, George Lucas, have angered or disappointed the franchise's vast fanbase, including endless tinkering with the original films and pretty much the entire existence of the prequel trilogy. But unquestionably the mother of all Star Wars fan backlashes was over the Ewoks, the adorable little living teddy bears who end up bringing down the Empire in Return of the Jedi.

The original story called for either the Wookiees or a race of sentient lizard-like creatures to help the Rebel Alliance destroy the second Death Star, but Lucas apparently decided that more toy sales to kiddies were in order, and thus the Ewoks were born. For many fans, the cuddly furballs were an insult, especially when they started laying waste to scores of stormtroopers during the final battle on the moon of Endor. Lucas tried to spin the Ewoks off into their own franchise with two TV specials and a cartoon show, but it never really panned out. Thanks to the Ewoks, many fans look down on the otherwise solid Return of the Jedi — hope those toy sales were worth it, George. Yub nub.

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Michael Keaton cast as the Caped Crusader (Batman)

The various screen incarnations of Batman have inspired no small amount of controversy over the years (we'll get to more of them later on), but it all started with the casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton's original 1989 film. The hiring of what was considered at the time to be a fairly lightweight comic actor to play Gotham's brooding dark knight was met with derision and hostility — fans envisioned a campy film with Keaton as a modern Adam West.

According to reports, some 50,000 letters of protest were sent to Warner Bros. Pictures, but of course it was all for naught: Instead, Keaton turned fans' heads with a performance that was tormented and psychologically complex, setting the standard for all future screen Bats to come.

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Tom Cruise as Lestat (Interview with the Vampire)

When Tom Cruise was cast as the cold-hearted vampire Lestat in the 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice's best-selling horror novel, the fan protests started with Rice herself: She declared that she could not see Cruise in the role at all, famously telling the Los Angeles Times, "(Cruise) is no more my Vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler... it’s impossible to imagine how it’s going to work." Rice had envisioned someone like Rutger Hauer, but of course the studio wanted a star, and paid Cruise $10 million to put on a blonde wig and a ghostly pallor as Lestat.

Despite the reservations of Rice and her fans, however, Cruise successfully shed his all-American image in the role, playing Lestat with a nice balance of cruel amorality and playful humor. Rice herself was more than pleased: She took out two pages in Variety after seeing the movie to admit she was wrong and praise the actor (she also wrote an extended essay on the film, which you can read here).

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Who's that playing Godzilla? (Godzilla 1998)

There were many things wrong with the 1998 film Godzilla, the first large-scale Hollywood attempt to build a movie around the legendary Japanese monster. Chief among them was that director Roland Emmerich, not a Godzilla fan, opted to overhaul his star completely. He turned the 400-foot, upright, lumbering colossus into an oversized iguana, its body much closer to the ground and able to run at high speeds. His Godzilla also did not breathe radioactive flames, exhaling instead the more vague "power breath."

But the biggest change in the monster was from mythic destroyer/protector of Earth to scared animal hiding behind skyscrapers. The film ended up doing okay worldwide, but fans stayed away in North America, where it grossed well below expectations (even harder hit was the film's merchandising: The lack of toy sales drove the manufacturer, Trendmasters, out of business). Fans were right this time: Emmerich's film was and remains a disaster.

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Remaking Romero (Dawn of the Dead 2004)

George A. Romero's 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead is a milestone in both horror history and independent cinema. Not only did the director take gore and visceral terror to the next level, but he wedded it successfully with social commentary, did it all on a $1 million budget, and put it out unrated — a supposed kiss of box office death — only to see it become a major hit around the world.

So when it was announced that this classic would be remade, by an unknown video director named Zack Snyder, fans were understandably ready to chow down on some studio execs. But their fears were unfounded: While Snyder's Dawn was not quite as shockingly gruesome as Romero's (nor as scathing in its satire), it was still a credible, frightening horror movie that was respectful of its source material. Too bad it opened the gates for a million other far-lesser remakes...

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Heath Ledger gets the last laugh (The Dark Knight)

Although he won it posthumously, Heath Ledger remains the only actor to earn an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actor) for his work in a superhero movie. But Ledger's casting as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's groundbreaking The Dark Knight wasn't universally embraced: A quick look at the internet response at the time (via Gawker) shows fans were incredibly conflicted about the news, with some thinking Mark Hamill should have landed the role (after his acclaimed voicing of the animated version) and an uglier strain of so-called fans unable to come to grips with the idea that the same actor playing the Joker could have actually played a "gay cowboy" (!) a couple of years earlier in Brokeback Mountain. Um, that's what actors do... they play different characters. It's just a shame that Ledger wasn't around to enjoy a well-deserved victory lap for his definitive performance as the Clown Prince of Crime.

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Squidless (Watchmen)

Let's recall how Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen ended: Smartest man in the world Adrian Veidt fakes an alien invasion by plopping a giant, tentacled monster (created in his lab) in the middle of New York City, causing mass death and destruction. His goal is to unite the nations of the Earth against a common enemy, and surprisingly, it works. For director Zack Snyder's 2009 film version, it became clear that a giant squid showing up out of nowhere wouldn't work onscreen, so the story was changed to make Veidt essentially frame Dr. Manhattan as his "common enemy." While the premise was a stretch either way, the film version made more sense in context and perhaps even improved (what???) on the comic book. Fans, of course, were irate when they heard about the change; it's one of the major aspects of Snyder's film that divides them to this day — and yet it could have been even more different.

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Into the light (Lost series finale)

After six seasons of compelling, mysterious entertainment as well as narrative dead-ends and wheel-spinning, the survivors of Oceanic 815 finally met their destiny in an epic climactic episode that... pretty much was split between compelling entertainment and narrative dead-ends. Both fans and critics were divided by the ending, especially the gooey New Age mysticism of the church scene in the sideways universe, and writers/showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have been more or less explaining themselves ever since (fans have even come up with their own alternate explanations). The years since have not been kind to the closing episode: It regularly appears near or at the top of "worst series finales of all time" lists.

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Weapon of mass destruction (Man of Steel)

During the last third of 2013's Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) fights and eventually kills General Zod (Michael Shannon) before the latter can terraform humanity right off the face of the Earth and remake the planet as a new Krypton. Two things about this scenario set off alarm bells: First, that Superman killed Zod more or less in cold blood (although he did it ostensibly to save a family Zod was about to fry with heat beams), and that the death came at the end of a sequence in which their battle left unseen thousands, if not tens of thousands, dead in the smoldering ruins of downtown Metropolis. Spectacle without consequences is what it was, not to mention a dark and dour portrayal of a character who is supposed to bring hope and optimism to humanity. The backlash against director Zack Snyder (boy, he's in the thick of a lot of these things, isn't he?) for his wanton acts of cinematic devastation was strong enough that Snyder's next movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, addressed the issue directly (if not entirely successfully).

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Batfleck (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)

You think Michael Keaton had it bad when he was cast as Batman? It's hard to say who had it worse, him or Ben Affleck, who signed up to wear the cowl in Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice along with future Batman and Justice League movies to come. Affleck had to follow not only Christian Bale's acclaimed time in the Batmobile -- sorry, the Tumbler -- in the Dark Knight trilogy, but also his own previous and ill-advised foray into the superhero genre as Daredevil a decade earlier. As a result, fans were not happy (read the comments section here for an example), although it was kind of unfair to judge a future performance as Batman against a past performance as Daredevil in a bad movie. Affleck acquitted himself quite well in BvS -- at least we thought so -- and did a good job in Justice League too; It's the movies around him that were disappointing. Still, his future in the cowl remains unclear.

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Hail Hydra?? (Captain America)

It was the comics panel that shocked the world: At the end of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, published in May 2016, it was revealed that Steve Rogers -- aka Captain America, aka the symbol of all that was good and just and noble in the Marvel Universe -- was an agent of Hydra, and in fact had been one all along. The backlash was immediate and intense, with writer Nick Spencer getting threats online and Marvel coming under relentless attack from readers. And even though Cap was eventually restored (more or less) to the superhero we have all known and loved for decades -- thanks to a handy fragment of the original Rogers still "existing" within the Cosmic Cube -- the reverberations may still be impacting Marvel, which has seen its sales slump while DC's have soared. Turning Cap into the Marvel version of a Nazi was not the only reason for the publisher's downturn, but it did not appear to help.

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Answer the call? (Ghostbusters 2016)

An all-female team of Ghostbusters, played by some of the best comic actresses of their generation? Why the hell not? While we may have our reservations over how the final product turned out, the idea of swapping out the team's gender always seemed like a sound way to reinvent and reinvigorate the franchise. It's a pity that so many people out there seemed to disagree. The backlash to Paul Feig's movie and the casting of Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones quickly crossed multiple lines, from intense to misogynistic to hateful and depressing. There was no reason or justification at all for Leslie Jones to get death threats over a movie. And yet she got them. This was not just a normal backlash, but one of the most shameful events in fandom history, casting a pall over the movie's release while weaponizing social media. Let's hope we never see a backlash like it again.

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