Which 2022 Movie Has the Most Militant Fan Army?
Folks, it’s been another great year for movies, from Minions: The Rise of Gru to Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Theater chains continue their recovery from the Covid-19 shutdowns of 2020, with ticket sales projected to reach $7.4 billion for the year — still well below pre-pandemic totals, but a sign that viewers are happy to get off the couch. We’ve undoubtedly seen audiences get back in the cinematic spirit thanks to a bunch of blockbusters tailor-made for the big screen (and Nicole Kidman, of course).
Enthusiasm, however, may lead to extreme support. Call it the stan-ification of pop culture: when you really like an actor, or a director, or a film — you might decide you have to fight for it, and against all those who would dismiss your fave. The trenches of social media have long seen warfare between devotees of certain singers; now almost as many align themselves with movies they feel have changed the medium for the better. So, which 2022 hits had the most intense cheerleaders?
Top Gun: Maverick
The cult of Tom Cruise — his fans, not Scientology — has remained well-fed with the steady production of stunt-heavy Mission: Impossible films. Yet it was the improbable legacy sequel to 1986’s Top Gun that vaulted him into the box-office stratosphere. Top Gun: Maverick became the first of Cruise’s films to rake in a billion dollars worldwide, appealing to a near-universal hunger for gravity-defying spectacle. Even viewers who identified it as Pentagon propaganda had to admit they’d had a blast. It was the right-wing culture warriors, though, who anointed it as an “anti-woke” masterpiece that proved the real formula for Hollywood success lies in patriotic mythmaking, unburdened by political nuance or even a specific enemy. You probably have a cousin or co-worker who saw it five times and always saluted at the end credits.
Following Ti West’s X, a 1979-set slasher about a group of young people shooting porn around a Texas farm underneath the noses of the menacing old couple that owns the property, we got the prequel, Pearl. In this installment, Mia Goth — also the starlet of X — reveals the horrific youth of that movie’s primary villain. The fandom here therefore revolves around her interlocking, hair-raising performances, and an all-consuming obsession with the actress herself. Memes, GIFs and video edits rack up tens of thousands of likes, while Goth-based social accounts exhort followers to stream “#PearlMovie on demand now!!!!” A clip of Goth as Pearl, recently shared by the Motion Picture Academy on Twitter, was flooded with comments like “NOMINATE HER NOW” and “After Toni Collette and Lupita Nyong’o, here comes this Oscar season’s snub for an actress in a great horror performance.” Expect to hear plenty more where that came from if Pearl doesn’t gain some awards recognition.
When it comes to Batman, a diehard faction always seems to want something darker and grittier. Matt Reeves’ The Batman, the big reset after Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and Robert Pattinson’s first outing as Gotham’s caped vigilante, delivered with a pitch-black palette and grisly plot about a terrorist Riddler (Paul Dano) playing mind games as he killed off victims one by one. While any prestige or critical acclaim is rather beside the point, this brooding epic gave DC partisans the perfect opportunity to clown on anyone who prefers the quippy, kid-friendly Marvel Cinematic Universe to Nirvana-scored superhero malaise. An amusing TikTok trend imagined the MCU crew melting down each time Bruce Wayne declined to offer lighthearted commentary while punching his way through the city’s underworld — not the most vicious trolling, but it led to heated debate all the same.
Star Wars and Lord of the Rings
The Star Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises haven’t delivered a feature film since 2019 and 2014, respectively, though Disney has continued churning out TV shows set in a galaxy far, far away, and Amazon placed a huge bet with the staggeringly expensive series The Rings of Power. Both were grist for reactionaries who wanted a source of outrage besides the lesbian kiss in the Toy Story spinoff Lightyear. Actress Moses Ingram, who portrays Reva in Obi-Wan Kenobi, was besieged with racist messages from psychos who can accept the existence of Ewoks but not Black people; there were similarly ugly reactions to the diverse casting for Rings (and another fantasy series, HBO’s House of the Dragon, the follow-up to Game of Thrones). All in all, we saw a ton of familiar, mind-numbingly stupid arguments about how skin color works in well-worn fantasylands, which is perhaps another reason we should consider inventing some new ones.
Avatar: The Way of Water
After a 13-year wait, the James Cameron army had reason to celebrate in 2022. Avatar: The Way of Water premiered at last, finally moving the epic sci-fi franchise into its next phase, with three more sequels to come. But the return to Pandora wasn’t all smooth sailing. The true (blue) believers had to contend with a lot of snark from haters who said the original Avatar had “no cultural impact” and doubted there was much of an appetite for more. In return, they made an impassioned case for spectacle, cutting-edge visual effects and — most importantly — widescreen populism. “Imagine betting against James Cameron” became the rallying cry against those who predicted a flop. Indeed, it was the massive financial return on The Way of Water that allowed this crew to gloat over the December holidays, secure in the knowledge that whatever the movie’s quality, a shitload of people paid to see it.
Todd Field’s psychodrama about a renowned conductor played by Cate Blanchett has already won a slew of awards and topped any number of year-end lists. It’s bound to be an Oscar contender next year. But online, Tár’s slippery narrative, flawed protagonist and engagement with identity politics has made it a prime target for The Discourse™, and not in the way its vocal supporters would prefer. Things kicked off with an odd review where the writer expressed surprise at learning that Lydia Tár is not a real person — which led to various mocking explanations of how fiction works. Then the far right tried to lionize the character for pushing back on “cancel culture” — which led to frustrated explanations of why this story can’t be reduced to a simple message. In time, the Tár-heads were left to inveigh against new takes and theories as they came, declaring each worse than the last (if not the nadir of critical thought). Alas, the only way to beat a bad movie opinion is to never find out it exists.
Okay, a bit of an unfair pick, since the bottom line on Damien Chazelle’s three-hour tribute to the excesses of 1920s Hollywood is that it bombed. This underwhelming performance, however, set the stage for defenders to claim that audiences staying away from the polarizing Babylon were actively contributing to the death of cinema as we know it. Meanwhile, the saviors of the medium could proudly announce when they were seated in an otherwise empty theater for a showing. By this measure, they were the anti-Avatar crowd, committed against all odds to the preservation of gonzo auteurism. Some even went twice, as if to convince themselves that when the dust settles, it will emerge as a lasting piece of art, overlooked by everyone at first — except for the far-seeing few. Sometimes you want to get in on the ground floor of a counterreaction, and if it doesn’t happen, well, at least you’re in an exclusive club.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that this multiverse acid-trip of a family comedy would command the fiercest fanbase of 2022. It was, for many of these viewers, a consciousness-expanding journey into the self and the hidden connections that lie beneath the surface of this world. That Michelle Yeoh centered the zany conceit with the immigrant experience and a troubled mother-daughter dynamic strengthened the fervor that turned Everything Everywhere All at Once into A24’s biggest hit. It also wound up at the very top of Letterboxd’s list of highest-rated films. Yet some of this warm, fizzing energy curdled into contempt for whatever might challenge co-directors Daniel Kwan’s and Daniel Scheinert’s achievement. The stans erupted in rage when New York Times critics didn’t include it in their best-of-the-year roundups and have already lambasted the Academy over an apparent minor snub. Kwan himself had to address the “toxic” behavior and urge his strongest soldiers — in so many words — to fucking relax. Will they heed his words in the months ahead? Don’t count on it.