If you’ve gone out to the movies recently, you’ve likely watched a movie that was adapted from, based on, inspired by, or indebted to previously existing material.
If you look at the 2019 domestic box office results, of the 20 highest-grossing films of the year, with the exception of two films—Us and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood—each of the biggest money-makers at the theaters this year was based on or inspired by pre-existing material.
A consequence of this is that movies are becoming increasingly reliant on fan-service, or, crudely: fan-pandering. These are cinematic flourishes that are largely inconsequential and rely on knowledge of already existing material for the viewer’s optimum enjoyment.
Fan-service can take many forms. Sometimes it’s obvious: Lando’s sudden, convenient appearance in The Rise of Skywalker.
Sometimes it’s not: the somber opening tracking shot from The Irishman. In both cases, to fully appreciate the text and sub-text, it’s necessary to be familiar with pre-existing material.
During these cinematic moments of fan-service, there’s a dialogue going on between the film and the viewer’s personal history, and filmmakers in 2019, for better or worse, spent a lot of time maneuvering around and flirting with the audience’s personal history.
In various forms, fan-service has been an integral part of some of the most anticipated, beloved, and disappointing films of the year: Avengers: Endgame, The Irishman, Joker, Toy Story 4, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, The Rise of Skywalker, Knives Out, Lion King, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and Marriage Story, among others.
These moments of fan-service can bring out the kid in me (as it did during Toy Story and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) or, if I don’t have adequate knowledge of the subject matter, these notes of fan-pandering can fall cringingly flat (many moments in Rise of Skywalker and Avengers: Endgame).
[Warning: contains spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.]
With The Rise of Skywalker—the closing chapter in a 42-year-old mythology factory—there’s a whole lot of plot and lore that, because I’m not a Star Wars enthusiast, I missed out on. This is an instance where, because I’m not a devoted fan, I didn’t really see the same movie that Star Wars fans did and, in part, that’s an integral reason why I was disappointed.
I was recently expressing this disappointment to my friend Andrew, who’s a devoted Star Wars fan. He’d seen the new film and was mixed, but positive on a whole. For him, there were moments when the fan-service fell flat–for instance, when C-3PO, during the memory retrieval storyline, said sentimentality to the crew: “I’m looking at my friends.” It’s an anecdote featured prominently in the trailers and, for lots of audiences, it likely resonated.
And then there were moments when the fan-service worked for my friend Andrew and created a visceral and meaningful experience for him. Late in the film, after Leia’s death, there is a scene where Chewy receives a medal and breaks down crying. To me, as someone who doesn’t really have affection for Chewy, it was a moment of pathos that didn’t land for me. I was sad at Leia’s passing, but really I was more sad at the passing of Carrie Fischer. And instead of experiencing the mourning of an iconic character, I was instead watching a furry creature grieving. There was history on the screen that fans were experiencing that I was closed-off from.
Because the scene did resonate with my friend Andrew, I had my friend share his thoughts about what that scene meant to him.
Chewbacca receiving a memento from Leia after she passed reminded us of the love that Leia had for Chewy. The fan-service of making the item she gives him the medal from A New Hope added a fun touch. You did not need it to feel the power of the moment, but it makes it that much stronger by reminding the audience of the long friendship between these characters.Andrew, Star Wars fanboy
But fan-service isn’t only relegated to franchises. Some of the smaller, best-reviewed films of the year, for better or worse, rely on fan-service: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, The Irishman, Marriage Story, Us, Knives Out, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Ad Astra, among others.
There were many viewers who watched Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood and—because they aren’t immersed in late-‘60s film culture—didn’t really see the same movie I did. They saw the same images and heard the same dialogue, but there were likely lots of viewers who wondered why, for instance, Tarantino devoted so much time to showing how Brad Pitt’s character opens a can of dog-food. I loved that scene, but, for viewers unfamiliar with Robert Altman’s 1973 film The Long Goodbye, this is a totally valid question. The truth is, it’s quintessential fan-service: the scene doesn’t advance the plot, and—besides creating anecdotal texture—seems inconsequential.
But to me, as someone who’s seen The Long Goodbye dozens of times, when I saw that scene with Pitt and his slobbering dog in the theater this summer, it made me dumbly happy. It was like a beloved old friend returned: I got to experience the cinematic craft of Tarantino while also nostalgically recollecting the Altman classic.
In a very real sense I was feeling a similar giddy excitement that my friend Andrew felt during much of The Rise of Skywalker.
While watching the dog food scene in the theater, I wanted to nudge my friend I was sitting with and tell her about the reference. But I didn’t, because I’ve learned that everybody watches their own movie, and she was having her own experience, one very different than mine.
A short time later in the film, during a lavash party in the Hollywood Hills, I wanted to nudge my friend again, and narrate all the cultural references streaming across the screen: Shortly after the release of his film Rosemary’s Baby, we follow Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as they attend a pool party. At one point we’re introduced to members of Mamas and the Papas, the next moment we’re listening to screen legend Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) bemoan his unrequited love for Sharon Tate.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say: most people born after 1990 don’t know who Steve McQueen was. Or, even if the name is familiar and maybe they’ve seen a bit of The Great Escape on TV, most younger viewers won’t get the humor of McQueen bemoaning losing a love-interest. For a generation of audiences in the ’60s and ’70s, McQueen was the epitome of the counterculture antihero, nicknamed by the tabloids “the King of Cool.” A modern-day equivalent of Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal, or any of the various Chrises. So, to hear McQueen complain about not getting a woman, to some audiences who know McQueen’s mythic leading man status, is really funny. But to others, like my friend I was watching it with, she didn’t get it and wondered why we were spending time listening to a sallow-faced actor lament his love life. To me, it’s one of the most memorable anecdotes in a very anecdotal movie.
Martin Scorsese, despite being one of the most-lauded living filmmakers, isn’t immune to fan-service. (And I say this as someone who, for an eighth grade research project, chose Martin Scorsese as my hero.) In the same way that Star Wars fans were excited to rejoin the Resistance crew in this recent installment, I was similarly elated to rejoin the mobster universe of Martin Scorsese. It sounds absurd but, when the first trailer for The Irishman debuted, I was as excited as a Marvel fangirl following the release of the newest superhero trailer. And similar to the excitement felt by a Star Wars fan witnessing the return of an iconic character up on the big screen, that’s how happy I was to see De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino demanding the screen once again.
The casting of these three mob movie icons is, in part, fan-service. And the use of digital de-aging, to ensure that we’re following the same actors across decades, is also a version of fan-service. Arguably, it’s isn’t necessary to have the same actors (with the help of CGI makeup) portraying themselves across decades. Instead of watching a smudgy Robert De Niro portraying himself at 40, you could simply hire a younger actor.
However, as someone who fell in love with movies in large part because of the films of Scorsese and the acting performances of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci–I needed to see the same actors portraying themselves. It was fan-service for me, in part because, similar to a fan of the Marvel universe, I simply enjoy spending time observing these actors. I could watch Pacino emote for days (and considering how many times I’ve seen The Godfather Part I and II, I probably have).
Some of the fan-service in The Irishman is more subtle. While watching the 3.5-hour gangster epic on Netflix, many viewers were likely curious why the film opens so somberly and quietly, with a long tracking shot in a dour nursing home. Surely, especially considering this is a Scorsese flick, there must be a more exciting way to enter a movie. Perhaps, but if, like me, you’ve seen Scorsese’s film Goodfellas over three dozen times, then you know that this tracking shot in The Irishman is referencing the iconic Copa tracking shot from Goodfellas. And because I had this reference in my mind, I immediately knew that, despite taking place in the familiar, exciting mob universe, The Irishman was going to be very tonally different than Goodfellas. And I was right: this somber tone would pervade the film, creating a more nuanced, tender, and emotionally wrenching movie than I was expecting. This is an example of fan-service, in my opinion, that doesn’t detract from the present story and, for those familiar with its references, enhances the viewer’s cinematic experience.
Fan-service, in its various forms and quality, will continue. The movie and television industry is presently going through a transformation. More and more, studios are relying on the fanbase of pre-existing material to ensure an audience and guarantee a profit. For better or worse–in all its various disguises–fan-service will continue.
To quote Joe Pesci in The Irishman: “It’s what it is.”