Did you know that, in The Dark Knight, the hero was actually the Joker? It’s true—if you buy into this recent theory posited by a user on Reddit. And did you know that Andy’s mom in Toy Story is also the grown version of the girl named Emily in Toy Story 2 who owned, and then discarded, Jessie the cowgirl? No fooling, according to a post by the same guy who has a far broader theory that every Pixar movie—yes, even the Cars movies—are connected to each other. And in the most mind-blowing one of all, it’s even been suggested that the snarky kid at the beginning of Jurassic Park who Alan Grant threatens with a raptor claw grew up to be none other than Chris Pratt’s hero character in Jurassic World.
There are an embarrassingly large number of fan theories floating around the Internet, and the emphasis here should be on the word “embarrassingly.” What these ideas amount to are fan fiction, not fan theories. Few, if any, of these theories ever get a direct response; the closest in recent memory is Pixar director Lee Unkrich playfully retweeting a comment or two from followers of his who treat the so-called Pixar Theory as utter silliness. But fan theories are becoming as prevalent to modern film culture as stories about casting rumors or reviews, and they are becoming truly toxic.
It’s easy to imagine the counterargument from those in favor of fan theories: What’s the harm? The Dark Knight doesn’t become better or worse because of a Reddit user’s theory about the Joker, as silly as that theory might sound. The Toy Story films are still marvelous whether or not Andy’s mom is Jessie’s old owner. Jurassic World is still a resounding disappointment, even if Chris Pratt wasn’t cosplaying as a less chunky version of some nasty little kid. The problem is that these theories, online, become as inextricable to a vast amount of readers as the actual movies themselves. Worse still, these fan theories are quickly replacing actual critical analysis, covered by a large amount of entertainment websites in part because the content beast must be fed, and in part because it takes the work out of the hands of the sites’ writers and into the hands of random commenters who have too much time on their hands.
So what’s the difference between a fan theory and a deep-dive exploration into one aspect of a film? The former is the product of a person choosing to fantasize about what they would do if they had made the film they’re watching, and the latter is the product of a person paying attention to the movie they’re watching and responding in kind. Often, the fan theories that send the Internet—specifically its social-media avenues—into a tizzy rely heavily on the fact that they aren’t based directly on what’s present in the text. Take, for example, the notion that Owen Grady in Jurassic World is the kid in the opening of Jurassic Park. That certainly sounds cool, and would be a nice, if random, tie-in to the 1993 film. But what’s the evidence backing this theory? Well, see, the kid in Jurassic Park is only credited as “Volunteer Boy.” So his name could be Owen! Also, Chris Pratt is only a year older than the actor who played Volunteer Boy, so the timeline could fit! Also…um…hey, look, something shiny!
The majority of the work to make this theory seem remotely logical is done behind the scenes, as someone imagines what could have happened to this kid after Alan Grant scratched at his stomach with a raptor claw. This same vagueness plagues the majority of fan theories. Yes, it’s not impossible that, in the Toy Story films, Andy’s mom could have a deeper connection to one of his toys than he or even she realizes. So many existing fan theories rely on the first four words of the previous sentence: “Yes, it’s not impossible.” The lack of impossibility, however, doesn’t automatically prove a theory correct; it merely suggests that it’s not impossible for something to be true.
Some fan theories, like the recent one regarding the Joker being the secret hero of The Dark Knight, have little or nothing to do with outsized and unwieldy postulations based on filling in unknown gaps in a film’s chronology. Instead, they have to do with a painful and often laughable misreading of the film in question. Apparently, the Joker’s plan included getting Batman to go into hiding for years, eliminating all organized crime, and removing corrupt officials from power. And what a heroic plan it is for the Joker to do all these things, including the part where he rigs two ferries to explode, including one full of innocent Gotham City citizens. That part, as well as the part where the Joker caused Harvey Dent’s facial scarring and encouraged him towards seeking mindless revenge, is left out of the fan theory, because to include it would acknowledge how paper-thin the argument is.
And yet, you can now find coverage for this and any number of pop-culture fan theories at a slew of websites, from Entertainment Weekly to Slashfilm. (Per that EW link, there’s a fan theory about “Friends.” “Friends.” The sitcom. About six people hanging out in a coffee shop. We all needed that.) The same thing happened with the Pixar Theory, and with the Jurassic World theory, and a theory about the new Mad Max, and so on and so forth. Fan theories are no substitute for critical analysis, yet they have quickly become inseparable for so many readers online. On one hand, it’s (sadly) a small encouragement that there’s any discussion about a movie that already exists, instead of a movie that will open in two years and only has a slew of set photos to its name. On the other, fan theories pose as critical analysis in spite of featuring neither criticism—often, these are posed by people who would proudly consider themselves fanboys or fangirls, never pausing to think about the built-in imperfections of even their favorite films—nor analysis.
Popular films like Jurassic World or The Dark Knight or Toy Story beg to be debated for their themes. As ubiquitous as they may be, the discourse surrounding these films frequently sidesteps a conversation on nostalgia, on childhood heroes, on the possible emptiness of vast spectacle. Fan theories now drive the discourse on these films, and to everyone’s detriment. On their own, fan theories are, indeed, harmless; if they existed next to critical discussions, and did so in lesser standing, they would be a fun distraction. But the more fan theories are treated as serious, thoughtful salvos in a debate, the more ridiculous they appear to become. Here’s a new fan theory to ponder: making these things die a quick death will improve the world of film immeasurably. What more proof do you need?