Angry Video Game Nerds, Cute Boys And Bored Superheroes: Exploring the Strange Sub-genre of Movie Vehicles For Youtube “Superstars”
The 2014 Starz reality competition The Chair asked a provocative question. Could Youtube “superstar” Shane Dawson successfully make the transition to feature-film as a director as well as an actor? The reviews and box-office for the film he made as part of the competition, 2014’s Not Cool, suggest that the answer is an unequivocal, “no” but watching other films from popular Youtube personalities poses an equally provocative follow-up question. Should Youtube personalities be able to make the leap from amusing tweens, teens and children alike with goofy, homemade videos to making movies peoplemight actually pay to see? A survey of this strange sub-genre suggests that the answer is also no.
It does not help that the first “big” Youtube movie, 2009’s Fred: The Movie was devoted to Fred Figglehorn, a manic man-child created and performed by Lucas Cruickshank who is equally well-known for being insanely popular among children and an unbearable irritation for anyone who has made it past adolescence.
The film finds Fred’s grating latchkey kid on a quest to find “Judy” (British pop star Pixie Lott, whose fame undoubtedly played a role in the film getting a theatrical release in the UK), a popular girl he crush on. As Fred, Cruickshank jabbers directly to the camera in a manic, high-pitched nasal whine. He doesn’t talk so much as he squeals. He mugs, he contorts, he flails. In tiny increments, the character is insufferable; stretched to feature length, he becomes a grueling endurance test, and that’s even before the film begins featuring vomiting at a level not seen since 2 Girls, 1 Cup. Yet somehow, the pornographic internet sensation remains easier to sit through than 80 minutes of Fred’s dispiriting antics.
Fred: The Movie is less a crossover move than a shutdown movie. It’s so screechingly, screamingly awful that it was more likely to shutdown the evolution of Youtube talent to the big screen than to facilitate it.
Despite the film’s all-too-convincing attempts to make Fred unbearable, once you remove the trick voice, haircut and a wardrobe from the Steve Urkel signature collection, Cruickshank is yet another clean-cut cute boy out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. Even the Ernest P. Worrell of the Youtube revolution is yet another dreamy boy, a fantasy figure for the tween girls who are Youtube superstar’s biggest, most devoted audience.
Fred: The Movie was successful enough to spawn two sequels but that’s the only rubric by which it could be deemed a success. The film served a useful purpose in establishing a tough-to-beat nadir for Youtube movies. From this point forward, Youtubers who failed to become movie stars could take comfort in knowing that their movies might be bad, but they couldn’t be Fred: The Movie terrible.
2014’s Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie isn’t as terrible as Fred: The Movie but it may be even more screamingly inessential. Fred: The Movie at least has the decency to end after 80 minutes, Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie inexplicably lasts nearly two hours, which is roughly two hours longer than a project involving a living caricature of a stereotypical geek yelling about old video games in profanely verbose ways has any right to be.
The film’s plot has the Angry Video Game Nerd (James Rolfe) looking for the landfill where millions of copies of the E.T video game are buried (although, tellingly, they couldn’t actually get the rights to use the game’s name, so “E.T” is spelled differently), which would be self-indulgent even if there wasn’t already a better film (Atari: Game Over) on the subject of the legendary E.T The Game landfill released the same year. Like far too many Youtube movies, this is for fans only. It’s less a film than an elaborate indulgence, the kind of ego trip that features several early minutes of characters guffawing at the title character’s antics to establish that, despite what we’re experiencing, the Angry Video Game Nerd is, in fact, funny, albeit not funny enough to make him being the focus of a feature film seem like anything other than a joke without a punchline.
2014’s Not Cool has an advantage over Fred: The Movie and Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie in that its protagonist is not a professional irritation, but rather the hero of a generic teen sex comedy that Dawson, in an understandable but massive miscalculation, felt he needed to spice up with the broad comedy of his Youtube videos.
This leads to Dawson ruining a perfectly mediocre exercise in teen-friendly formula by playing a pair of hideous grotesques in drag, one a drug-crazed party girl, the other a sex-crazed old Jewish woman. As chronicled in The Chair, Dawson thinks he’s giving fans what they want, but in doing so, he alienates a mainstream audience that has no idea who Dawson is, and, judging by his famously racist, sexist and homophobic videos, are blessed by that ignorance.
The following year director and youth-culture guru Jon M. Chu (whose filmography includes G.I Joe, and multiple Step Up sequels and Justin Bieber concert films) decided to make Youtube central to his little-loved film adaptation of Jem and the Holograms. The title character rockets to fame via a Youtube video and Youtube videos act as a Greek Chorus commenting on the action throughout the film. The idea was to update a beloved 1980s artifact for the Youtube era but the move backfired. Instead of making the film hipper and more current, the prominent role Youtube plays in the action just makes it seem less like a real film and more like a Youtube video.
Therein lies the inherent limitation of Youtube movies. They exist because Youtube videos and entertainers are popular and beloved and understandably interested in segueing from the ephemeral world of Youtube to something more sustainable and respected, like feature film. Yet the more these hybrids are rooted in the aesthetic of Youtube videos, the less they feel like actual movies.
When given a choice between appealing to a mainstream audience or pandering to a large and loyal fanbase, Youtube superstars almost invariably choose to go with what they know. But what what works on Youtube has consistently not worked at feature length.
2015’s Smosh: The Movie, for example, has a whole lot of Back To The Future and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in its creative DNA (which makes sense, since it’s directed by Alex Winter, Bill S. Preston himself) but like so many of its peers, it’s self-referential to an almost exhausting degree. A plot that finds the cute boys of Smosh entering Youtube itself to try to track down an embarrassing video serves primarily as a springboard for loving jabs at make-up tutorials and video-game narration and all the other strange ephemera that is huge and hugely lucrative on Youtube and utterly perplexing outside of it. Like the rest of Youtube movies, this has the stale air of an inside joke writ large.
Smosh: The Movie is pitched unmistakably to cultists for whom the resurrection of a Pokemon parody song popular in Smosh’s Youtube videos is a cultural milestone on the level of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Smosh: The Movie is genially mediocre, which may be the most we can hope for in a Youtube-spawned motion picture.
2016’s Electra Woman and Dyna Girl resurrected a pair of half-forgotten Batman types from the Sid and Marty Krofft’s stoner entertainment for children as a vehicle for Youtube favorites Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart. It’s an audacious conceit that recalls the stoned irreverence of Adult Swim’s wild re-imagining of crap from Hanna-Barbera catalog like Space Ghost: Coast To Coast.
It’s an audacious idea, bringing back a kitschy pop artifact from the 1970s for a superhero-obsessed present. The film, which initially ran as serialized segments online, recalls a superhero version of Clerks at best. Helbig and Hart have fantastic chemistry. It’s a joy just to watch them kibitz about nothing and everything. Unlike the vast majority of her Youtube peers, the adorably gamine Helbig has the charisma, charm and presence to be a movie star but Electra Woman isn’t much of a showcase for her or the winning and delightful Hart.
Electra Woman and Dyna Girl is at its best when it’s content to simply watch its lovable leads interact so it’s unfortunate that the film devotes so much of its running time to a plot it would be better off ignoring. Even more disastrously, the film takes itself awfully seriously for a goofy lark, and what begins as a fun diversion grows progressively heavier and more joyless as it proceeds.
Youtube superstars have had a tough time making the transition to feature films. Making a four minute video for teens and a 90 minute film for adults are very different enterprises so you’d imagine someone used to working in a 6 second medium like Vine would have an even harder time segueing from funny little videos to satisfying feature films.
Yet comedian, writer, director, actor and Vine star Jason Nash took the template of Youtube movies for his Vine movie FML—cameos and collaborations with other stars of the medium, self-referential jokes, a ramshackle plot that serves largely as an excuse for a series of sketch-like segments—and made something both emotionally satisfying and surprisingly funny.
Nash has made professional desperation the core of his career so it’s not surprisingly also the theme of FML. It’s a mismatched buddy road comedy about a grizzled old man (Nash, who also wrote, directed and produced) who hooks up with sardonic teen Vine superstar Brandon Carvillo for a cross-country trip in a heroic quest to win a million followers for Nash.
About twenty minutes after watching FML I logged onto social media and discovered that Vine, and the weird little world it created, was shutting down. Judging by Facebook, Nash himself discovered this news about ten minutes after I did. In a weird way, it’s the perfect ending. Vine was posited as the next step for both Youtube (Why waste your time with an endless six minute video when you can watch a six second one instead?) and Twitter yet it ended before it really ever began. Though the track record for Youtube personalities making the leap to the big screen is consistently dire, it still seems possible, if not terribly likely, that a Youtube superstar could buck the odds and become a legitimate movie star. It’s all over for Vine, however.
It sucks for Nash that a short-lived, intensely youth-focussed medium that had done great things for his career has shut down but he can take solace in knowing that, hey, there’s always Youtube. And if he does really well there, heck, it could even lead to movie opportunities. Wouldn’t that be ideal?