On October 3, 2016, a good nine months after Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens premiered to enormous popular success and critical acclaim, Mr. Plinkett finally released his eagerly awaited video review of the sci-fi blockbuster. The 105-minute video essay, released simultaneously on various online video platforms, ratcheted up nearly 1.5 million views in its first weeks on YouTube alone, quickly becoming one of the most talked about Star Wars phenomena of the year.
The video marked the eagerly awaited return of a character and a form that had pioneered the art of videographic film criticism a good half-decade earlier. With its series of elaborately produced, ambitiously framed, and richly layered series of lengthy video reviews, independent film company Red Letter Media established its reputation with its 2009 “Mr. Plinkett” video review of The Phantom Menace. Released as a series of seven YouTube videos – the sharing platform at the time not allowing for segments over ten minutes long – the character’s epic takedown of the notoriously unpopular first prequel film quickly became a geek culture phenomenon, with celebrity endorsements from figures such as Damon Lindelof adding to its rapid circulation among Star Wars fans and more widely within the growing geek culture of Web 2.0 and social media.
This stunningly ambitious video critique of the ten-year-old prequel film ran completely against the dominant logic of spreadable media: it was nearly 70 minutes long, where online videos tend to be brief and byte-sized; it voiced criticism that was meticulously argued and illustrated, where so many vlogs have been mostly dedicated to unstructured and often emotional first-person rants; and it was deeply self-aware and self-critical of fan culture’s obsessive investment in popular culture, and its unhealthy, even pathological public image.
As a geek-oriented video essay that plays like a Star Wars-era adaptation of Nabokov’s metatextual masterpiece Pale Fire, the Phantom Menace review married the language of geek culture to the visual logic and aesthetic register of the essay film, yielding a text that is constantly in the process of deconstructing not only its main object of analysis, but also its main character and narrator, and, ultimately, itself. Just as online fandom had been transitioning from a subcultural form to a more visible, more “mainstream” facet of 21st-century convergence culture, the Mr. Plinkett reviews both acknowledged and parodied this tenacious stereotype of excessive fandom.
For the uninitiated: Mr. Plinkett is a character played by Mike Stoklasa, a Milwaukee-based filmmaker, actor, and lifelong Star Wars fan. After a few previous appearances in other Red Letter Media video productions, Plinkett became something of a cult phenomenon following the viral success of his first Star Wars review. As its narrator, Mr. Plinkett is almost as much the subject of the video essay as the film he so mercilessly dissects: his sharply organized, clearly argued, and vividly illustrated analysis of the first prequel film is also constantly undermined by constant verbal slips, tics, and “accidental” reveals of the character’s own obsessive-compulsive, misogynistic, and even psychopathic tendencies.
As a performance of a particular type of fan stereotype, Mr. Plinkett plays into many common representations of fandom: his slurred delivery and deliberately off-putting speaking voice is far removed from the professionalism of mainstream film criticism; his intricate knowledge of the very films he criticizes demonstrates fandom’s “unhealthy,” pathological investment in pop culture trivia; and the disgusting murder-rape basement setting from which the essay is narrated both acknowledges and satirizes preconceptions about fandom as being associated primarily with abusive men lurking in creepy basements.
The first Star Wars review was followed by even more elaborate video reviews of the other two prequels, as well as downloadable audio commentary tracks, video reviews of various Star Trek films, and the ongoing web series Half in the Bag, in which Stoklasa plays a somewhat more well-adjusted VCR repairman who reviews recent film releases with a colleague. But while the viral popularity of the Mr. Plinkett videos from 2009–2011 provides a fascinating illustration of fan culture in transition, his recent return to a genre that his video helped popularize also reflects uncomfortably on disturbing trends in online fandom and mashup culture.
On the one hand, the stereotype of the fan as a socially inept obsessive-compulsive living his life in a state of arrested development has in recent years appeared to be difficult to maintain in the contemporary cultural arena: once-nerdy fantastic franchises, from superhero series to fantasy epics and space operas, are no longer the domain of male-centric niche cultures, but fully dominate the cultural conversation. And most of these popular transmedia storyworlds, including Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have successfully rebranded themselves in the Disney era as franchises that are diverse, inclusive, and respectful of fandom’s history and transmedial nature.
But at the same time, we have also seen a troubling resurgence of toxic masculinity within online fan culture. While the growing academic field of fan studies has approached fandom as a transformative community that is inherently progressive, reactionary phenomena like GamerGate, the Sad Puppies, and the “#boycottStarWars” hashtag movement suggest that racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy are gaining ground within global fan culture. Concentrated and organized via MRA groups, extremist “alt-right” organizations like Breitbart and Infowars, and online platforms like 4chan and 8chan, this vocal community has been emboldened by the recent Trump victory in the US elections.
While this growing faction of neo-fascist fandom shares some of Mr. Plinkett’s characteristics, it also clearly represents a new strain of toxic masculinity that is far removed from this “out-of-touch basement-dweller” archetype. These groups are completely at home within digital culture, and have pushed back violently against progressive developments within popular entertainment, harassing women and “SJWs” on social media, and describing TFA’s more diverse cast as a form of “white genocide.” Mr. Plinkett therefore no longer seems to function as a relevant template for contemporary fandom. While the prequel reviews drew so much of their appeal from their indictment of cultural texts that were hopelessly out of touch with their cultural context, it is now ironic to observe that the character of Mr. Plinkett has become a satirical figure that is poorly attuned to our times, doubling down on a portrait of pathological fandom that has already mutated into a new, far more dangerous strain. Today, we need to learn to recognize and understand these new forms of online fan culture that are mobilizing under the neo-fascist “alt-right” banner in the Trump era.
Bio: dr. Dan Hassler-Forest, Assistant Professor of Cultural Theory and Zombies, Dept. of Media and Culture Studies, Utrecht University, The Netherlands: D.A.Hassler-Forest@uu.nl