Like a lot of gamers, I was hyped up for Borderlands 3. For those unfamiliar with the series, it’s a first-person shooter with a Diablo-esque loot system. But far more important than that was the humor and the writing. Oh man, the writing. That’s what had Borderlands cosplayers still hitting the cons years after Borderlands 2 premiered with its hilariously evil villain, Handsome Jack. (Just mention “Butt Stallion” to any BL fan and try to dare them not to crack a smile.) Shooters and looters are a dime a dozen these days, but does any other have Claptrap lose an argument with himself about whether he should get beaten up by thugs? And that’s before we even get to Tales of the Borderlands, which was more interactive novel than game, and yet remains many fans’ favorite.
But most of the reviews for the franchise’s latest outing are crestfallen over the lame writing, which landed like a body blow while I was shopping for a new game. Sure, they say, the guns and action and loot are better than ever, and if that’s all you care about then, ok, yeah… but that’s never been the real heart of the franchise, has it? And you’re telling me the game has forgettable villains? Forgettable villains???
It’s the same sin as that of Mass Effect: Andromeda. That game had the best action of any entry in that legendary series, and yet, it was still a franchise killer due to the wooden writing, lame quests, and elimination of the evil (aka “Renegade”) story choices. It was never the duck-and-cover shooty parts that people cared about with the original trilogy.
Your favorite media franchise will always let you down sooner or later. Always.
Hell, Star Wars wouldn’t have even been a franchise if it weren’t for its second movie, which wasn’t even helmed by George Lucas. Take that out of the equation, and what do you have? A fun, shallow space opera; a less-fun, shallower Return of the Jedi; and that’s it. There would have been nothing else, no prequels, no sequels, no Expanded Universe, no books, no games, no cartoons, nothing, and let’s face it, that’s exactly what should have happened because outside of Empire Strikes Back, there has always been zero depth to Star Wars. It was never meant to be anything but what we now call a summer movie. It’s why fans keep getting bewildered and ever-more embittered with each new film, no matter who’s directing because, whether it’s Lucas or JJ Abrams or Rian Johnson, they’re all left trying to wring gravitas out of the equivalent of goddamn Buck Rogers.
But even franchises with more solid footing will eventually let you down. How many good Indiana Jones movies were there? Either two or three, depending on what you think of Temple of Doom, right? Don’t we all wish it had ended with Last Crusade? How about the Simpsons? One of the most referenced series to this day, and yet, there’s a reason why people only make memes and gifs of the 1990s episodes.
Regarding superhero movies, Superman IV and Batman & Robin each managed to suck to such thermonuclear levels that not only did they kill their respective franchises, they each depressed the production of new superhero movies across the entire industry for years. Despite X-Men 3, the mutant movies looked like they could recover and keep kicking, up until crippled by Apocalypse and finally decapitated by Dark Phoenix. The Tobey Maguire Spider-franchise was felled by its third movie; Andrew Garfield’s by its second.
Fans who had been demanding new Arrested Development and Veronica Mars episodes probably counted on another season 1, when it was inevitable they’d be gifted another season 3 in both cases. And let’s not forget Star Trek. The series that gave us some of the most defining characters in the history of sci-fi degenerated into “Spock’s Brain,” after all.
Now this is where one may point out that old and busted franchises can be rebooted (as long as they had a bit of depth to them to begin with), and yes, ST:TOS did give us a couple of memorable entries once transformed into a movie franchise. And absolutely, ST:TNG eventually found its own voice once original creator Gene Roddenberry gave up day-to-day control, running strong all the way through its finale. But that series, too, eventually decayed into the movies after First Contact that we now wish we could forget. And speaking of reboots, the new Battlestar Galactica fell apart like a vampire in the sun right after the New Caprica episodes, didn’t it?
This is why I feel bad for people a bit too invested in any media franchise. You’ll always wind up trying to justify the latest turd like Mick Jagger trying to justify the Stones’ 78th album (or whatever it is they’re up to.) As any Jets fan could tell you: your franchise won’t save you.
Oh, but there’s an important exception to that rule, isn’t there?
Let’s circle back to Star Trek:TOS. That one got cancelled after its dismal third season clear back in the 1960s. And yet, fan interest never really subsided, and a big reason why? Fan fiction.
Star Trek wasn’t the origin of it, but it sure as shit was the franchise that put fanfic on the map; no easy feat in the days when the typical document app was an Underwood typewriter. And yet, fan ‘zines such as the one to the right (and yes, with a title that evokes one particularly unfortunate form of Kirk/Spock “fanfic”) were critical in keeping the franchise alive, collected and mailed at personal expense among fans and having absolutely nothing to do with the show’s writers or cast. The largely female fanfic writers kept the show alive in sci-fi circles until it was finally revived as the movies.
Because fanfic writers are unbound by the franchise’s rules, or its suckage, they can do whatever they want. Star Wars, but Jar Jar was the secret Emperor all along and Palpatine as his patsy? Sure, can’t be any worse than the original. Batman, but with epic cussing and Penguin is revealed to be Scrooge from Christmas Carol? Whatever you say. Naruto, only with literally yourself in it? Go for it.
And the “putting yourself in the story” version of fanfic became deeply popular to the inevitable point where it had to be ridiculed with the gravest insult in all of fanfic-dom: “Mary Sue.”
The name comes from a fanfic parody from the ’70s which can be found here. Mary Sue is always perfect; more competent than anyone else on the Enterprise; beloved by everyone else; rejects the advances of Kirk and Spock (or not, as the case may be). The term then got so abused that by the time the internet became available to the masses, it got applied to literally any fanfic someone didn’t like.
But there is no shame in fanfic. In fact, there is no shame in Mary Sue fanfic. It’s by you and for you, after all. If you want to make your author avatar so beautiful and brilliant that Captain America and Thor (or Captain Marvel and Scarlet Witch, or all four) fight each other for the blessings of your body? Shit, go for it! Believe me, it’s better content than the YouPorn browser history of the troll calling your character a Mary Sue, because of at the end of the day, there is no shame in something you want and that you create. Or as put in this tumblr essay by user unwinona:
That’s why I needed them. Because they were Mary Sues. These books were not written to draw my attention to all the ugly bumps and whiskers of the real world. They were somewhere to hide. I was painfully aware that I was being judged by my peers and adults and found lacking. I was a fuckup. And sometimes a fuckup needs to feel like a Mary Sue….
There is a reason that most fanfiction authors, specifically girls, start with a Mary Sue. It’s because girls are taught that they are never enough. You can’t be too loud, too quiet, too smart, too stupid. You can’t ask too many questions or know too many answers. No one is flocking to you for advice. Then something wonderful happens. The girl who was told she’s stupid finds out that she can be a better wizard than Albus Dumbledore. And that is something very important. Terrible at sports? You’re a warrior who does backflips and Legolas thinks you’re THE BEST. No friends? You get a standing ovation from Han Solo and the entire Rebel Alliance when you crash-land safely on Hoth after blowing up the Super Double Death Star. It’s all about you. Everyone in your favorite universe is TOTALLY ALL ABOUT YOU.
And maybe that’s what you want, or need. Or not. Maybe instead you just want to see Megatron win and enslave humanity and blow up Optimus Prime. Whatever. The point is you won’t ever see your franchise and its writers and directors put up exactly what it is you want to see, let alone when they’ve gone creatively bankrupt like all franchises eventually must.
So, the new Star Wars movie is made of suck as usual? Ready to give up on the franchise? You can do that. Or, you can have Rey and Finn on the Falcon getting readings on a strange ship calling itself the Enterprise and next thing they know, a Cylon basestar shows up and is sending waves of fighters at them, they’ll have to team up with this captain with the exaggerated mannerisms (or bald head, your choice) of the Enterprise and also with this rough and unruly ragtag crew aboard another ship called the Serenity that’s also just shown up and they’ll need all the help they can get because another massive ship run by some mean dude named Thanos just warped in, so who can save them now but Capt. YOO, flying in at the last minute in the most sleek, futuristic craft anyone’s ever seen, whose perfect body elicits waves of lust from both Rey and Finn, who’s the only one who knows what to do, whose mastery of tactics leads the heroes to victory and leaves both the Cylons and Thanos apologizing and promising to do better, only for Capt. Yoo to die at the last minute, with the biggest funeral processions ever known from Coruscant to Earth.
No, your story probably won’t make John Q. Troll happy. But might make you happy, and more importantly, represents you creating something instead of bitching about someone else not creating something for you.