If you want to know what an event is really about, the first step is to look at the dais. Follow this advice at Comic Con and you’ll likely wind up staring at moderator Chris Hardwick. Hardwick, the ex-Talking Dead host, popular podcaster, and CEO of Nerdist Industries, gets the big (unpaid) SDCC panel moderator gigs because he’s popular with the crowd and the talent. And it’s easy to see why: He is excited, knowledgeable, and brimming with questions. What he isn’t, is a real avatar for fans. What he is, is social media saboteur.
The big news at the Hardwick-hosted Star Wars panel was the enthusiastic participation of Harrison Ford, who has always seemed to hold the franchise in contempt. His famous quip about George Lucas’ writing “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it,” notwithstanding, he said a lot of nice stuff about the significance of his fellow cast members in his life. When Hardwick tee’d up the notorious grouch with a question about what it was like to return that galaxy far, far away, he responded perfectly: “It should have felt ridiculous! Here I was, doing something I did so long ago…. I will tell you that it felt great. I was proud and grateful to once again be involved.”
Chris was thrilled. The audience was thrilled. Disney execs, presumably were thrilled. And if they weren’t, they should have been because it could have gone way worse. The conventional wisdom is that Fox is a jerk and that social media has empowered fans (witness: Fox greenlighting Deadpool based on fan enthusiasm for leaked VFX footage), making them both more valuable to movie studios and far more dangerous. It follows that, in order for Disney’s new Han Solo movie to hit, fans have to be tweeting and liking Han Solo. That’s presumably why Ford was present and almost certainly why he was smiling, which is not a thing that happens consistently. Whatever else it was — and it was a lot of very cool others things — the Star Wars panel was about rewriting he history of Han Solo. Mission accomplished. Tweets tweeted.
Comic Con is specifically designed to be huge on social media. Companies invest a ton of money installing orcs, flying in stars, and engaging in all manner of viral marketing gimmicks. Because of the cosplay, the chaos, and the sexy cosplay happening around these corporate installations, it’s easy to forget that they are not just part of the festivities. They are advertisements. Similarly, Hardwick’s Instagram of himself and almost every superhero in the X-Men universe, which currently has over 43,000 likes, is an advertisement paid for by 20th Century Fox, the people who got the movie stars on the stage.
If Comic Con was about pure fan enthusiasm when it started and became about brands catering to superfans as it grew, it has become a physical portal into the alternative dimension of social media. Studios and canny stars playing uncanny X-Men know that they can force themselves into the conversations about the product they produce. In other words: People don’t take pictures of themselves with Michael Fassbender then writing “X-Men: Apocalypse is gonna sux” on their Facebook wall. Fandom often lacks that kind of integrity. Lots of enthusiasts sympathize with the comic book guy on the Simpsons, but they don’t have the courage to say the words “Worst Ever” at a movie star. And who’s to blame them for that?
So what is Hardwick doing? Play acting the version of fandom that brands are comfortable with and encouraging his audience do the same. Surely, he doesn’t mean to do evil — and the stakes here aren’t high — but by helping large companies re-educate fans on the art of fandom, his role is to sneak commerce into a place of love. Hardwick is the Scarlet Witch to Marvel’s Ultron. His job is to screw with people’s brains. Does that make him a bad dude? Nope. He’ll no doubt end up being an Avenger. But it puts him on the wrong side of a forever war, the one between consumers and those that wish to consume them.