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Op-Ed: ‘Batman v Superman’ is fan fiction, and that’s OK

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice."

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

(Warner Bros. / TNS)

The first story my son read on his own was a work of fan fiction. I wrote it. In its entirety it read, “Hulk poops on Spider-Man.”

My son giggled ecstatically. He was 3. Of course, as we grow older and wiser and more discriminating, we recognize that we’re not supposed to laugh every time someone says “poop.” We also recognize that we’re not supposed to like fan fiction — in fact, “fan fiction” is virtually an insult. To say something is fan fiction is to say that it is derivative, low quality, unprofessional, adolescent. The fact that E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” started as “Twilight” fan fiction is hardly the only reason people despise it, but it’s on the list.

Well-adjusted adults turn up their noses at fan fiction, just as they do poop jokes. Or do they? Fan fiction is usually associated with gushing fantasies about “Star Wars” characters shared on Tumblr by tweens. But if fan fiction refers to any work borrowing characters or plots from another author, then fan fiction flourishes far beyond Internet forums. It’s everywhere.

What is “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” if not fan fiction? Director Zack Snyder’s film is based on Frank Miller’s 1986 “The Dark Knight Returns” and the 1992 storyline “The Death of Superman.” Miller and the “Death of Superman” creators were, in turn, paying homage to the original Superman and Batman comics by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane and Bill Finger. “Dawn of Justice” is doubly rejiggered: It’s fan fiction based on fan fiction.

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The same is true of virtually all other superhero movies. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is almost entirely composed of fan fiction tributes to the work of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Beyond the betighted and caped set, there’s “Sherlock” and “Elementary” (Arthur Conan Doyle fan fiction); “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (Jane Austen fan fiction); the upcoming “Tarzan” film; “Star Trek” reboots sans Gene Roddenberry; and “Star Wars” sequels sans George Lucas.

Most of the above are official reboots rather than amateur efforts. But just because Snyder and J.J. Abrams — who directed “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — are fans with corporate connections doesn’t change the fact that they are fans. Sure, Ang Lee got a license to turn Kirby and Stan Lee’s “Hulk” into a feature film, but his big-budget version isn’t any less an example of fan fiction than the incontinent Hulk I wrote about for my son.

Some might argue that the fan-fictionication of our popular media is a sign of decline. Under the derivative drumbeat of Suicide Squads, Dr. Whos and James Bonds, you might start to wonder whether anyone will ever have an original idea ever again.

Fan fiction, licensed or otherwise, is a way for people to talk back to narratives that exclude them, or to elaborate new possibilities in stories they already consider theirs.

The truth, however, is that fan fiction has a long and illustrious literary history. William Shakespeare famously stole most of his plots from earlier sources. Henry Fielding reworked Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela” twice. Mark Twain wrote Arthurian fan fiction. James Whale’s film variation on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is a classic in its own right. So, I’d argue, is the Adam West “Batman.” Jean Rhys’ 1966 “Wide Sargasso Sea,” Tom Stoppard’s 1966 “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” Alice Randall’s 2001 “The Wind Done Gone” and Jo Baker’s 2013 “Longbourn” all revisit classics to explore minor characters or take up threads missed or ignored in the original works they’re based on — standard fan fiction operating procedure.

People think in stories, and through stories. That can mean Kierkegaard trying to figure out the nature of God by retelling Job, or Gail Carson Levine trying to figure out feminism by retelling Cinderella in “Ella Enchanted.”

Fan fiction, licensed or otherwise, is a way for people to talk back to narratives that exclude them, or to elaborate new possibilities in stories they already consider theirs. Uhura is the most important character in “Star Trek”; Holmes and Watson are lovers; Morgan le Fay isn’t a spiteful witch, she’s a feminist priestess. In fan fiction, anything is possible if you imagine it.

Fan fiction doesn’t shut down creativity; it encourages it. That’s why people like fan fiction, even when it’s as poorly executed as Snyder’s “Dawn of Justice.” Retellings give permission for, and spark, more retellings. You watch “Dawn of Justice” and you think, “I can think up a better Superman story than that.”

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A story told once is the property of the author; a story told 20 or 30 or 1,000 times is everybody’s story —which means everybody gets to tell it.

“Hulk poops on Spider-Man,” too, sparked its inevitable variations. “Hulk poops on X-Men,” “X-Men poop on Spider-Man,” “Spider-Man poops on Hulk.” My son was delighted with every one. In part that’s because toddlers find poop amusing. But it’s also exhilarating and empowering to realize that you can make anyone poop on anyone. Once you’ve read that story about Hulk, Hulk is yours to do with as you will. We have so much fan fiction because people don’t just want to listen to stories. They want to make them their own.

Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.”

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