Creators, fans and death threats: Talking to Joss Whedon, Neil Gaiman and more on the Age of Entitlement

A fan at Comic-Con International here had a message for Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and director of two “Avengers” movies: We want you back.

In this hyper-connected, social media-driven age, Whedon has been missing in action since spring 2015. That’s when he pulled the plug on his Twitter account.

In discussing the breakup to a roomful of his most dedicated fans on Friday, Whedon had a nuanced, complicated answer, one that speaks to the changing relationship between those who create and those who consume.

The short version: It’s not me, it’s you. 

“It could be something lovely,” he said of interacting with fans via social media. “It could be something funny. It could be 'Hang yourself, here's a noose. When can I kill you?' That's less fun. That's less interesting. Eventually, it becomes kind of a white noise. You can't remember what the dialogue was, so you stop having it.”

Whedon clarified that he didn’t leave Twitter because people were mean to him -- although, for the record, people were awfully mean to him.  Rather, he found himself at the forefront of a new era of fan entitlement that for some creators has raised tricky questions of ownership. Just who deserves a say in the development of pop media — those working to dream it up, or those paying to keep a project afloat?

“I would like always to have a dialogue with the audience, but at the same time you can't create by committee,” Whedon said. 

Increasingly, some can’t bear to even listen to the committee.

This month, “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones took her own temporary leave from Twitter, writing that she was in “personal hell” after being hit with a barrage of racist and misogynist remarks from those who were still upset that the film had been rebooted with a female-led cast. “I didn't do anything to deserve this,” Jones wrote. “It's just too much. It shouldn't be like this. So hurt right now.”

And even when not leveling personal attacks, fans today are more apt to make requests — or demands, depending on your point of view.

Online-driven campaigns have called for changes to the sexuality or race of popular characters. Make Captain America gay, some fans argue. Give Elsa (from Disney’s “Frozen”) a girlfriend, cries another contingent. Of course, it needs to be noted that when companies or artists do push for more inclusivity in genre entertainment, they are met with a deafening level of resentment (see the anger over the female-driven cast of “Ghostbusters”).

Other times, specific plot choices will be targeted, such as Whedon’s decision to stage a romance between two superheroes in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” or the killing of a character on a popular television series. Sometimes, fans will just lash out at an author for not finishing a book (see “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin).  

While some instances are rooted in a genuine and important desire to see more diversity in popular entertainment — a greater representation of LGBT characters or minorities, for instance — they’re still illustrative of the growing desire of fans to have a bigger say in their entertainment choices.

“It's a thing. It's not a bad thing. It's a thing,” said author and screenwriter Neil Gaiman, who was at Comic-Con to promote an upcoming adaption of his novel “American Gods.”

“It's the thing that kept 'Star Trek' going. It's the thing that brought back 'Doctor Who.' Fans are still creators. Fans demand and make things happen. Mostly, that's great. But it can tip, and when it tips, it goes into strange places where people feel that by having watched a TV show or bought a book, they feel that you owe them something huge for having done that. Watching the level of crazy that can sometimes happen is hard.”

Gaiman would know. In 2009, he wrote a blog post defending the work ethic of Martin, noting that the “Games of Thrones” writer was not employed by fans. “George R.R. Martin is not working for you,” Gaiman wrote in response to a fan who wondered whether “the audience has too much input when it comes to [scrutinizing] the actions of an artist.”

It’s a topic that's being grappled with by creators at this year’s Comic-Con, as well as the fans attending the convention.

“It is what it is,” said David Ayer, director of Warner Bros.’ upcoming villains-gone-crazy film “Suicide Squad.” “It’s the Roman arena. It’s thumbs up or thumbs down. The crowd votes. Hopefully, my movie doesn’t get executed in the sawdust there. But that’s why the genre has the connection and the power and the audience that it does – because there’s that ownership and there’s that participation.”

Still, he adds, “my hope is that we can just push the envelope a little bit and challenge people.”

If so, he may want to prepare for a backlash. 

Just ask Jennifer Hepler, author of “Women in Game Development: Breaking the Glass Level-Cap.”  The game developer previously worked for Electronic Arts-owned BioWare, where she was a writer on such blockbuster games as “Dragon Age: Inquisition” and “Dragon Age II.” 

Her home didn’t always have bulletproof glass windows. That development occurred after she contributed to “Dragon Age II.” As one of its core writers, Hepler was singled out for the inclusion of LGBT-friendly characters in the game. Some very vocal hard-core game fans were not happy.

Hepler was on maternity leave when the harassment started.

“All of a sudden, I started getting strange emails from people offering me support in this difficult time,” she recalled. “I was like, 'What are you talking about?' Somebody eventually told me that someone had posted something on [the online forum] Reddit that called me 'the cancer that was destroying BioWare.' When I first heard about it, I tried to laugh it off, but it got crazy very quickly.”

How crazy?

“I was pretty scared,” she said. “There were some pretty awful threats made. There were threats made against my children that were just horrifying.

“I got bulletproof glass in my house. I unlisted my phone number. I quit my Twitter account. I just tried to lay low. I'm lucky that worked. I don't know if it would work now. The mobs have become more empowered. It's a frightening situation out there.”

Even a hero of the medium isn’t immune.

Whedon came under attack last year for the romance between Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk in  “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The two shared an emotional exchange in the film, with both characters lamenting their inability to have children, and Black Widow was viewed by some as wanting a rather trite, domesticated life.

Whedon reflected on the incident when spotted in the lobby bar of a San Diego hotel. He said the relationship with fans had changed dramatically from when he was working on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in the late ’90s and early ’00s.

“Now that everybody can reach you directly, if you happen to be on social media, there is definitely a sense of not just 'We know better,' but also 'We should have the right to dictate.' That's mean, but I was sent lots and lots of -- not death threats -- but more just polite inquiries as to why I have not died or killed myself yet, all because of Natasha and Bruce having a romance.”

Whedon said that he was working on something original and that it was “relaxing” to not have to worry about fan opinions. Still, despite the “Ultron” experience, Whedon cautioned against completely tuning out the concerns of the audience.

“You can't draw a line exactly,” he said. “If we could, we would have. Sometimes,  an advocacy group will say, 'This character has to go through these things, because that's what we went through.' Sometimes, that's stuff you did not know about and that is stuff you need to honor. But sometimes it's 'Yes, but I am telling a different story.’ Every story is different. Everybody's version of the same story is different. At some point, it has to come from inside your gut. Your gut is not on social media.”

Now years removed from her online harassment, Hepler is still trying to make sense of it. She notes that players not interested in “Dragon Age II’s” gay romance could easily avoid it.

“There's a sense of entitlement and ownership that people have of media,” she said. “The thing that exemplifies it to me is this idea of 'You're ruining my childhood.' Your childhood is over.

“You can't retroactively ruin it by going out and making a new piece of media for somebody else's childhood. That is the battle cry you hear a lot, that somehow by making something new and making something for the next generation is going back and ruining people's childhood somehow. It's a huge sense of entitlement. 'This was important to me. How dare you change it?' ”

Full Coverage: 2016 Comic-Con International »

In one sense, fan entitlement is nothing new. Famously, Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, revisiting the character only after fans wouldn’t let him quit. But experts say the tone has shifted.

“I don't think a majority of fans of 'Game of Thrones' want to kill George R.R. Martin. It's definitely just a small vocal subset that issue death threats,” said Paul Booth, an associate professor at DePaul University in Chicago who studies fan culture. “But I also find it hard to believe that this sort of mentality happened years ago. I don't think anyone threatened to kill Conan Doyle if he didn't bring Sherlock Holmes back.

“We live in a culture of hyperbole. Everything is the most thing or the greatest thing. Everything is exaggerated. The discourse online has followed that. It's not 'I like this movie.' It's 'This is the greatest thing I have ever seen and anyone who disagrees is wrong.' It's a perversion of the fannish protection of an object.”

On the Comic-Con floor, attendees expressed dismay over fan outrage and harassment. But many still want their voices heard.

“I don't really see any issue with fans asking, 'Hey can we see this?' or 'Hey, can we change that?' So long as it's not changing the core values of what the character believes in,” said Nicole Andelfinger, 27, of Los Angeles. “If a creator decides they want to pursue what the fans are asking, all the more power to them, but we also can't necessarily ask every creator to see our vision. They have their own vision.”

When to listen, and when to turn off the noise, isn’t a science.

“You do see people trying to sort out what is the difference between the people who say, 'Keep 'Ghostbusters' male,' and the people who say, 'Give Elsa a girlfriend,’ ” said Hepler. “I think the difference is the 'or else.' I think a lot of people would like to see Elsa have a girlfriend or see Captain America have a boyfriend, but that usually isn't couched in the threatening terms of 'Or else I'll never see it again and harass everyone who worked on it.' But it is part of the same sense of ownership over media that people feel.”

Sarah Schechter, an executive producer on the CBS series “Supergirl,” said the solution is more — more diversity, more inclusion and more characters that reflect under-represented groups.

“I've had some friends who have been on the receiving end of hate campaigns, and it's very troubling for them,” she said. “They do genuinely just want to tell stories to entertain people and uplift them.

“I want there to be more female superhero shows, so it isn't just one representing. I think the more representation there is, the easier it will be for everyone to have different things happen to characters without people being as angry. Some of the fan engagement is really gratifying. That means they care about the characters. That's ultimately what every writer, actor, producer wants, but of course, it's upsetting when people get upset. It's very tricky.”

In the meantime, maybe we can all just talk it out. 

“You can express your opinions,” said Chris Hardwick, host of AMC’s “Talking Dead” and architect of the geek lifestyle site Nerdist. “But walking up to someone and telling them rationally why you did or didn't like something is different than walking up to them and hitting them in the face with a frying pan. Those are two different things.

“We're culturally addicted to outrage at the moment. We need to be more addicted to conversation.”

Staff writer Josh Rottenberg contributed to this report.

todd.martens@latimes.com

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