Fan service has come a long way since 2006, when studio New Line allowed its audience to basically crowd-think the entirety of Samuel L Jackson action epic Snakes on a Plane. Back then, somebody high up thought it would be a really good idea to start borrowing lines for Jackson to say (while fighting off those airborne reptiles) from a hyped-up geek community who had been spending most of their spare time discussing the unreleased movie on fan forums and blogs. The best/worst of them ended up being the legendary (for all the wrong reasons) line: “Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” Up there with Jackson’s famous Ezekiel 25:17 speech about the path of the righteous man it really wasn’t.
This week Marvel and Sony have shown how to do fan service properly. And all it took was a staged meme featuring all three webslingers from global megasmash Spider-Man: No Way Home pointing at each other. The image recalls a famous still from episode 19 of the 1967-1970 animated Spider-Man show, in which a Spidey-impostor – clue, he’s really a criminal – tries to impersonate the masked wallcrawler. It’s since been used millions of times in social media posts, often to illustrate moments when celebrities meet each other (according to the Know Your Meme website).
The staged meme was shot to publicise the digital release date of No Way Home on 22 March, and tapping into fans’ nostalgia for old Spider-Man shows couldn’t be more fitting. Ultimately, Jon Watts’s film, which recently overtook Avatar to become the third-highest-grossing film of all time at the all-important US box office, is 148 minutes of incredibly well-conceived and detailed Spidey fan-service. There are returning villains we thought we’d never see on the big screen again, such as Willem Dafoe’s cackling Green Goblin and Alfred Molina’s tragic Doc Ock. There are three Spider-Men from different eras, two of whom make such a welcome return that it’s like meeting a dear old friend again for a beer after decades apart.
Marvel and Sony got this so right that there is now talk of future movies starring Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield as Spidey. We will surely see Dafoe as the Green Goblin again, if the creatives out there have their heads screwed on properly. And there will be more old superheroes returning from the dead in forthcoming DC effort The Flash, in which we are promised the return of the Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck takes on Batman. It would almost be a shock if Warner Bros hasn’t been desperately reaching out to George Clooney to make an appearance, though it is obviously a little bit harder to play off nostalgia when nobody much liked your version of the caped crusader in the first place.
But if fan service can be such a vital element of a good comic book movie, how do we explain Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a DC episode concocted almost entirely so that people would head into the cinema in their droves to see the dark knight battle the last son of Krypton? This is, after all, a film that almost singlehandedly killed off Warner Bros’s plans for a Marvel-style cinematic universe.
Perhaps the secret here, if Hollywood really wants to keep comic book fans happy, is to build stories that allow them to fall in love with their favourite superheroes all over again, rather than one that requires transforming one of the most loved superheroes of all time, Batman, into a gun-toting, meat-headed bully just because certain filmgoers want to see him get knocked out with heat vision while they munch on their caramel-drenched popcorn.
It’s a lesson well worth learning for the men in suits. Otherwise, come press time, they might just find there’s a whole lot of studio bods suddenly pointing accusing fingers at each other, for entirely the wrong reasons.