Don’t Do This

Photo: Paramount Pictures

A word to the wise: Don’t do this.

Perhaps you are confused. Let me give you some context. Jeff Fowler is the director of the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog movie. That film, whose trailer debuted online earlier this week, marries live-action actors (Jim Carrey, James Marsden) with a computer-generated hedgehog (voiced by Ben Schwartz).

For months, the question of how the iconic, whimsical design of the classic video-game character would translate to the more “realistic” visual language of the film has been shrouded in mystery, teased in silhouettes and leaks of marketing guidelines. Would he be buff or svelte? Would he still have one enormous eye with two pupils? How large would he be in relation to the human characters? Would he be sleek and smooth or visibly furry? Oh God, what did they do to his eyes??

The reaction to Sonic’s fully revealed appearance has been controversial, to say the least. He is furry all over, even on his hands; he is blue in parts where he maybe shouldn’t be; he has human teeth; he is naked but his unmentionable areas are Ken-doll smooth; his nose is short and wet and upturned; he has two eyes; he’s small enough to fit in a duffel bag. Did I mention the thing about the teeth?

Like all fictional cartoon characters transposed into the world of exactingly rendered CGI, there are some necessary growing pains for an audience used to simpler designs. Even the well-received Pokémon renderings in the impending Detective Pikachu film shocked audiences upon their first unveiling. The idea of a fur-covered Jigglypuff broke at least a few brains.

Even if we are to take it as a given that Sonic’s current film design is bad — and I’m not convinced it is, but maybe that’s because I’ve seen countless DeviantArt OCs that look way worse, so my understanding of what a “good” Sonic-universe character looks like is completely warped — you need to understand that this was always going to be the outcome. Sonic will never be good enough to live up to the imaginations of his most ardent fans. The point, and the fun, of the Sonic fandom, as it exists now, is to hate on Sonic.

For close to two decades, fans of Sonic the Hedgehog have endured dozens of Sonic Cycles. The Sonic Cycle is a simple process that, according to an ancient comment left on Digg, goes something like this:

  1. Announcement of new Sonic game, people immediately believe that it marks an unquestionable return to form.
  2. Each new tidbit of information — screenshots, trailers, narrative or character details — temper expectations.
  3. The actual game comes out, and it is not an acceptable level of good. People say nothing can save Sonic’s reputation.
  4. Repeat step 1.

If you need an infographic, here’s one that has floated around cyberspace for, I want to say, conservatively, a thousand millennia.

Ancient Sonic scripture, passed down through generations.

Every recent Sonic title (maybe save for 2017’s Sonic Mania) has fallen victim to this cycle, to the point that it has become a running joke always floating in the background of Sonic discussion. Simpler types of fandom thrive on a property’s enduring quality (the Marvel movies, for instance) but modern, fervent Sonic fandom is now animated by the fact that Sonic was once good and is now bad. It is sustained by hordes of people grasping for a result that they can never attain. The futility is a large aspect of the appeal.

There is a dominant aspect of fandom discourse that awards subversion. Essentially, if fans engage with a franchise or intellectual property enough, they earn the ability to make fun of it. It’s why, for example, Nintendo fans like to exaggerate their reaction to Mario’s nipples, or laugh about when the character Toad was compared to President Trump’s penis. The Sonic discourse is largely driven by this sort of affectionate animosity.

I outline this concept to hammer home the point that Fowler — and his collaborators at SEGA and Paramount — have shot themselves in the foot by promising to “fix” Sonic’s film design. It highly analogous to a video-game developer promising to make a good Sonic game on the heels of a slew of bad ones. It builds hype that is nearly impossible to fully deliver on. It makes the loudest fans believe that they’re being catered to above all else, and that by complaining on social media, they can collectively assert creative control over something that is out of their control. It sets the filmmakers up for yet another wave of frustration and anger as they unveil a tweaked Sonic that still does not measure up to fan expectations — because again, Sonic fandom is based on the inalienable truth is that he never will measure up.

You Can’t Appease Sonic Fans