Star Wars is both the greatest thing on Earth and the worst thing on Earth. At its best it brought together a community. It created the kind of world-building that was yet to be found in the cinematic medium – only in niche fantasy/science fiction novels.
At its worse it turned portions of that community into a bunch of entitled, vicious brats. Death threats, suicide attempts – had there ever been a moment in history when art was so divisive? Were mobs established around the works of Monet or Picasso early in the 20th century or during the Renaissance?
I want to start in 2015. A quick recap: In the 1970s there was a trilogy of films that were considered some of the best films ever made. They merchandised the hell out of it. 20 years later, the creator, George Lucas, created a prequel trilogy that was scorned deeply by fans and critics. Nearly 10 years went by with “Star Wars” appearing only in the occasional graphic novel or video game. The prequels did not stop the lore from expanding.
Then Mickey Mouse came along…
Episode 4: A New Trilogy
2008: Disney acquires Marvel in August of 2009. Disney took a gamble at adapting Iron Man. A gamble that, like Star Wars before it, changed the landscape of cinematic history.
Iron Man made an astonishing $318m domestically on a $140m budget. In 2008 they also rolled out The Incredible Hulk. Both films tease what would be the early stages of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Incredible Hulk made 134m domestically on a 150m budget (worldwide it made 263m).
Budget’s only increased from there.
As you can dictate from this chart, the name “Marvel” can single-handedly generate a billion dollars, as it has for the past 3 films.
Personal Note: I have never fully enjoyed a Marvel film from Disney. They’re not for me. I dropped out after Black Panther. My favorite may have been Civil War. I tried for so long to hang with the franchise. I finally opted out when seeing the new Marvel film felt like a chore.
I began to feel this early on; expressing various issues with The Avengers and Iron Man 2, and 3. Which is why I wasn’t exactly thrilled when Disney acquired LucasFilm and announced a similar model.
October 30, 2012 – Disney announces a deal to acquire Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion. Kathleen Kennedy, co-chair before the acquisition, became the company’s new CEO.
Immediate fan reaction was skeptical, but in many ways healthily revitalized.
It had been nearly 15 years since the prequel trilogy concluded, so fans were thirsty for more. It helped knowing that there was this vast array of successful novels, graphic novels, video games and all sorts of spin-off franchises that they could pull from.
April 24, 2014, months away from the release of 7: The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm announced that the Star Wars expanded universe, established in various novels, comics, games etc., would no longer be canon.
Fans didn’t like this, but a lot of them had plenty of confidence in Force Awakens. There was an extensive marketing campaign. The film broke various box office records. It became the highest grossing Star Wars film, the highest grossing film in North America, the fourth highest grossing film of all time.
After initialing declining the offer, J.J. Abrams agreed to direct Force Awakens. This only added to the hype.
Abrams had just finished reviving another revered franchise. Star Trek in 2009 was met with high-end critical and financial praise with only die-hard Trekkers having reservations.
J.J. Abrams once gave an interesting Ted talk about the “Mystery Box.” This was around the time he gained fame for producing one of the greatest shows on television – Lost. Abrams was a hit and, viewed by many, as only a positive for Star Wars.
Upon release, 7: Force Awakens was met with an 81 on MetaCritic with the major complaint from fans being that it was a bit of a retread of 4: A New Hope – the first Star Wars film.
The theorists went wild. Who was Rey? Who was Snoke? Where is Luke Skywalker? How did Rey get so powerful?
Personal Reaction to The Force Awakens:
In the theater I was as giddy as a person could be. The title crawl released a massive amount of dopamine for me and I had a goofy grin on my face the entire runtime. It made my Top 10 films of that year.
Months later, upon further reflection, I felt more mixed on Force Awakens.
It didn’t quite spark the curiosity in me that the prequels and originals did. Albeit I was much older. I would go on to rank it among the prequels better than 2: Attack of the Clones and 1: Phantom Menace, but worse than 3: Revenge of the Sith.
To me, the original trilogy is, and has always been, untouchable. So nothing about this mixed reaction was surprising. I would go on to buy every single 6-inch action figure, naturally.
To this day I still have Christmas ornaments of Kylo and Finn as well as a 3-foot tall Kylo Ren sitting behind me as I type this.
The nerd in me rejoiced!
Episode 5: Fans Strike Back
Rogue One released in 2016. Critics were moderately-high/mixed while fans enjoyed the film. One common complaint was the jarring CGI effects that recreated Tarkin and young Princess Leia.
8: The Last Jedi was slated for 2017, with only hype behind it.
When Rian Johnson was announced as director this piqued many people’s curiosities, my own included. Up to this point you could argue Rian had a perfect track record. Brick was an excellent independent film. Looper was a well-received sci-fi, action film. And he had just directed some of the best episodes of one of the greatest TV shows of all-time – Breaking Bad.
Critics fell in love with the new film. It currently holds a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes with a consensus that reads: “The Last Jedi honors the saga’s rich legacy while adding some surprising twists – and delivering all the emotion-rich action fans could hope for.”
Well, maybe they spoke too soon.
The film has a 43% fan score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 4.4/10 on MetaCritic. Some would go onto argue that vote brigading caused these low scores – it’s quite possible, but I’ve seen in my day-to-day life about a 50/50 split on the film.
The prequels were generally regarded as “bad.” The dialogue was bad, the acting was bad – many people found consensus on these issues. 8: The Last Jedi was the first to tear fans right down the middle. Many of the mystery elements abandoned in search of a larger theme of change and killing the old in favor of the new.
Within lies another key component in this entire saga – the growth of the internet and, unfortunately, online discourse.
I often advise my friends and family this: Online discourse is discourse at its most passionate. It’s not by any means reflective of public view.
Personal Reaction to The Last Jedi Common Complaints:
I can go on and on about what I like and dislike about this film. Instead, I’m going through common criticisms and I’ll let you know if their valid or invalid.
Leia Flying – Valid
I can believe that she has this ability. It was setup in both 5: Empire and 6: Return that she is force sensitive. But to have a power that is unheard of in a moment of danger is devastating to our suspension of disbelief – If she can fly in space, next time she’s in danger, I’m not going to be that worried.
Broken/Cliche Plot Points – Valid
Maz tells Finn and Rose to find a code-breaker on the casino planet of Canto Bight and that they need find him wearing a specific symbol. They find him at a casino table, but then they’re immediately capture where they meet DJ (Benicio Del Toro). After eavesdropping DJ, quite easily, convinces them that he could do the job.
Of course he betrays them later.
I’m okay with our lead character’s failing, but these mistakes are below the character’s we met in 7: Force Awakens. DJ’s message about war not being “black and white” doesn’t feel earned. It’s a great message that could have many uses in Star Wars, but it felt forced.
Force Fed Sentimentalism – Neutral
Linsey Ellis did a great video on “Woke Disney” that says a lot about Disney’s bad habit of virtue signaling for profit. Recently the same-sex kiss that appears for a split second in 9: The Rise of Skywalker spawned several articles about it being a “first” in “Star Wars.” It was promptly edited out for other countries.
The theme of “anyone can be special” is done excellently in The Lego Movie, but here it feels forced. The kid with the broom at the end feels cheesy. Rey’s parents could’ve been no one – I’m fine with that, the force is mysterious and we never knew how Anakin had the high mitochlorian count, but also keep in mind this convinces our brain “Anyone can have it,” therefore when any of the characters are in danger that risk factor is diminished – if anyone can have it, everyone’s protected with plot armor. Similar with Leia’s flying sequence.
Luke Skywalker Backstory – Valid
It helps to view this new trilogy without considering the original trilogy. Luke, Han and Leia seem don’t seem to remember hard-learned lessons from that era. Darth Vader committed mass genocide, blowing up Alderaan. But 6: Return shows Luke throwing away his lightsaber and refusing the temptations of the dark side – telling Vader “I see the good in you.”
6: Return does a great job completing Vader’s redemptive arc. In this new trilogy Luke saw the dark side in his young nephew (Ben Solo/Kylo Ren) and his first instinct was to kill him due to his fear of the dark side – doesn’t sound like the same Luke. Many people believed we’d have more context in 9: The Rise of Skywalker, but we did not.
The condemnation of Rose – InValid
I liked the concept of Rose’s character, it showed similarities to Finn’s character. To me Finn was arguably one of the more interesting characters in the sequels. She was interesting and had a strong arc throughout the film. The notion that she’s deserved of “Jar Jar” levels of hate is absolutely absurd and reaching.
The disdain for the cast’s diversity – InValid
Disney does try to flex its “diversity and inclusion” muscles when they can, or when China permits it. We gratefully live in a world where diversity is profitable. It often feels exploitative with Disney, but this is not the case with the sequels. The cast is diverse, that’s true, but it takes absolutely nothing away from the plot and never feels preachy.
Breast Milk – InValid
Is what it is. Paraphrasing George Lucas: “At their core, these films are for kids”
Overall I did not like the movie. I’ve been called a variety of things on Twitter because of this. I’ve been told that I’m an apologist and don’t go far enough. I’ve also been told I’m a “whiny nerd who lives with his mother.”
More recently I’ve seen the notion resurface that my negative reaction was influenced by Russia. Professional critics resorted to name-calling and writing op-eds to try and rationalize the negative reactions. Maybe they were more concerned about their reviews being considered illegitimate.
One thing I’ve learned after years of tiring online discourse is that you can’t please everyone. The best you can do is be honest and hope your message of nuance rubs off on the angry people – the crusaders. Only Sith’s deal in absolutes. Only Social Media users deal in absolutes.
Episode 6: The Return of Abrams
I enjoyed 9: The Rise of Skywalker, but after 8: The Last Jedi my walls were down. I wasn’t taking the franchise as seriously as I use to and these low expectations allowed me to enjoy the film much more.
It’s riddled with plot holes. So many plot holes it makes everything in 8: The Last Jedi seem rational. All of the characters were rendered invincible by plot armor. Some ridiculously absurd things happened in this film.
Many have told me that in fantasy I should’ve never cared about logic. Unfortunately, like any narrative, a lack of ground rules in fantasy can detach you psychologically. If anything can happen, why should I care? Game of Thrones learned this lesson recently as their rushed finish was encumbered with fast travel, plot armor and other fallacies.
Critics panned Rise of Skywalker with a 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, users were a bit more happy with it (86%) – fan service will do that. I often joke with friends that Star Trek got their film series right – starting with the low bar of The Motion Picture, and keeping expectations level throughout the franchise – it could be serious, it could be goofy and fans allowed for both.
The discourse, as ever, remains toxic. With many citing the fan backlash to 8: Last Jedi as ruining 9: Rise, and other fans calling out Rian Johnson and company for stalling a trilogy Abrams had planned for.
One thing is for certain though – Disney went into this trilogy without a real plan. They made adjustments as they went along. Many fans have stated to me – with their excessive commitment to the extended universe, the toys, the movie tickets etc. – they were owed more. Some claim now that they are being vilified by both the creators of the sequels and the critics who they don’t see eye-to-eye with.
Criticism is healthy. Criticism is how we express to content creators what we like and dislike about things. The volatility of some fans diminished this criticism. Disney was listening, but with a grain of salt. Nothing has become more aggravating to me than diminishing the criticism with statements like “It’s fantasy guys, quit complaining.” Yes, people have over-reacted, but criticism is our service to the industry. Letting our voices be heard inspires change in art – it tells these corporations what we’re looking for.
In the last year a big moment in this saga occured, however, when one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time Martin Scorsese expressed disdain with Disney’s direction with Marvel. Calling the films out for being void of risk: “What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”
That’s Marvel though. It would appear, however, that Disney is trying to push Star Wars into that same box.
A lot of critics on my Twitter feed immediately took the side of Scorsese, it was a pleasure to see. Scorsese spoke the words I had thought for so long with Marvel, but critics don’t realize Star Wars is the same. The Marvel films found a way to consistently profit while being void of any real risk. It’s predictable that Disney would want to mirror the model of the financial juggernaut they created.
9: Rise performed well, but fell significantly on past numbers. Making nearly 70 million dollars less in its opening weekend. Disney has produced 5 “Star Wars” films since the acquisition, and the numbers have fluctuated with “Solo” performing the worst domestically.
We’re seeing more of a downward trend, albeit still fluctuating and still wildly profitable, for Star Wars under Disney. Perhaps the Marvel model doesn’t work as well here.
There were a number of things wrong with the film. How you felt about Rise depended on what you, as a viewer, could excuse.
Personal Reaction to The Rise of Skywalker Common Complaints:
The minimization of Rose – Valid
So much is jam-packed in Rise but they still found reasons to introduce new characters. As I mentioned previously, I thought Rose was a fine addition in 8: Last Jedi, but could’ve been more fleshed out. This was an opportunity to do that and they minimized her role. Keep in mind she nearly got herself killed saving Finn in Last Jedi, there should’ve been more of an arc with her.
The return of The Emperor – Neutral
They just needed to set it up better. An opening crawl was not the best way to drop this plot on us. Also I think it would’ve been fine to just keep this character as Snoke and maybe find a tie-in where Snoke was operating at The Emperor’s will. Keep in mind it was huge for Vader’s arc to kill him and save Luke – now that’s diminished.
Leia’s role – Valid
It was just awkward. Carrie Fisher will always be a gem, and they definitely needed her to do “something” here. Close-up shots to minimize the amount of visual effect work, and all her dialogue sound-boarded, didn’t work for me. Her death doesn’t feel impactful or meaningful like it should either.
Rey/Kylo’s arc – InValid
I loved their devastating ending together. Kylo gets his redemption by paying a heavy price, Rey brings a final balance to the force. These are strong concepts and, at its best, Rise brushes on them.
Overpowered characters – Valid
The moment Rey takes hold of a ship using the force and Kylo follows suit was the moment I completely let go of any investment. It was pure absurdity how powerful these characters were. Even some exposition of how “The Force” has been operating differently may have sufficed. If Leia flying in 8: The Last Jedi was random, gosh the force seems like it can save them from any plot now. Healing powers and the Emperor stalling hundreds of Star Destroyers didn’t help either.
Awkward Lando moment – Valid
Should’ve been cut. Don’t even think we had a real reason to have Lando in this movie. Most of the time he doesn’t even seem invested in the plot. That scene toward the end didn’t fit at all. Makes it feel like the film was rushed out.
Lando/Chewie Plothole – Valid
They couldn’t get the help they needed at the end of 8: The Last Jedi or the beginning of this film. But don’t worry, right when the plot called for it Lando and Chewie show up with thousands of volunteers. It’s a pretty lazy plot hole.
The Near Death Cliche – Valid
8: Last Jedi exhausted me with this as does many Marvel films. In this film Chewie appears to have died only to be okay. C-3PO appears to have his memory wiped only to have it restored by R2D2. I want to use an example here from The Mandalorian:
In episode 3 Greef Karga (Carl Weathers) is seen being shot by Mando. It seems like a blaster to the chest should’ve got him, but he pulls out of his shirt pocket some steel credits that stopped the impact. This works because earlier in the episode he showed off those credits and we saw him put it in his shirt pocket. This small, basic act of foreshadowing helped with the payoff of him still being alive.
People are still debating if the blame lies with Rian Johnson. Did 8: Last Jedi minimize all the mystery Abrams set up in 7: Force Awakens? Or if Rian’s attempt to do something new with Star Wars was retconned for 9: Rise of Skywalker. Maybe it was a bit of both.
Blame is a weird thing. It’s really only there for us to feel better about our disappointment. But if you’re going to lay blame, it’s at the hands of Disney and Kathleen Kennedy. One thing is for sure – they never had a plan.
In many ways though, all of this, is history repeating itself.
Episode 1: A Perfect Trilogy
In 1977 the biggest shift in cinema history occurred. 4: A New Hope, blew everyone’s mind – and that’s not an exaggeration. The visual effects were unheard of. The massive world-building was accompanied with characters that had unparalleled chemistry.
In film school we learned that this movie and Jaws, began a shift in creative control from directors to producers. The blockbuster was essentially created. High investments with high rewards.
One issue – a blockbuster failing meant devastation for a studio. In 1980 Heaven’s Gate released with a budget of 44 million dollars and it made an astonishing 3.4 million. Brutal. This would ultimately be cited as the collapse of United Artists. The company would be absorbed by MGM.
Studios didn’t find it advantageous to let a director’s imagination run wild. Production needed to be controlled, focus grouped. Like any business, investors had to be involved in big decisions. That’s only become more prevalent as films have made more money. Now we get many films that are made, in many ways, by committee.
I often argue to my friends “Did The Avengers feel like a Joss Whedon film?” In fact, based on his earlier work and his new, excellent, film Knives Out, did 8: Last Jedi feel like a Rian Johnson film?
Irvin Kershner, director of 5: Empire Strikes Back, would make, what many consider, the greatest Star Wars film of all-time. Empire introduced us to Lando, Yoda, The Emperor. As well as a variety of locations including Hoth, Dagobah, Cloud City.
Irvin Kershner was adamant about Empire not being science-fiction, but fantasy. More akin to a fairytale. Fantasy, at its most successful, is the art of world-building. Creating, not just literal worlds, but races and a written history.
Star Wars had already become a cultural phenomenon with many lining up to see 5: Empire and 6: Return. The additional characters also allowed the development of additional toys. I would highly recommend the episode of Netflix’s Toys that Made Us, because the toys warrant an essay of their own.
In the history of pop culture had there ever been a devout following like this? No. Almost unequivocally no. In the history of art had there ever been a devout following like this?
6: Return of the Jedi, had its first real backlash from the fans – over the Ewoks. Originally planned to be more of the wookie race, Lucas advocated for a change – likely to help generate more toy sales. Afterall – these movies are meant for kids. Apart from that the conclusion of Luke and Vader’s arc felt unanimously earned.
Episode 2: Attack of the Fans
6: Return of the Jedi, released in 1983. 17 years later The Phantom Menace premiered to record-breaking ticket sales – one of the biggest openings of all-time.
Critically, it was poorly received. Most fans left the theater scratching their heads.
If you were a pre-teen during the original trilogy, you were now in your late 20s. Star Wars was an essential part of your childhood. The anticipation for 1: Phantom Menace couldn’t have been higher. So you can imagine the blowback was volatile to say the least.
Thank God we didn’t have social media then.
Phantom Menace was riddled with questionable moments, poor dialogue and poor performances even from some of the more veteran actors.
Many fans felt betrayed. They didn’t feel heard. People who had devoted time and energy, and more importantly merchandise money, to the franchise couldn’t help but feel the rug had been swept out from underneath them. They were angry and simply put – some took that actor way too far.
Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks) spoke out not long ago about his depression and suicidal tendencies following 1: Phantom Menace. Jake Lloyd would retire from acting a year after the release of Phantom Menace citing bullying in his school. Lloyd has since found himself in trouble with the law and suffering from schizophrenia. In 2016 he was transferred from jail to a psychiatric facility because of this condition.
George Lucas would backpedal Jar Jar Binks in 2: Attack of the Clones. The criticisms remained about the same though. The dialogue, the writing, the acting – it just wasn’t working. This carried over into 3: Revenge of the Sith.
I was 8 years old when 1: Phantom Menace released. So guess what – I loved it. I wanted ALL the toys. I remember being filled with giddy excitement when I got my hands on the last 6-inch Anakin action figure at KB Toys.
The games were great too. Pod Racing on the N64 is still one of my favorite racing games of all time.
After a more recent rewatch of the prequels – they don’t hold up. Now riddled with outdated CGI, the magic has faded quite a bit for me. But someone could make an argument that the films did exactly what they were meant to – inducted a new, young, generation of fans.
This was an important realization for me. Especially because I have felt little to no magic in the sequel trilogy. I realize though that there is a generation of children now who will overlook the flaws of these new films, buy the toys, and it will become an essential part of their childhood.
One caveat though: They may want Marvel toys instead.
Episode 3: Revenge of the Studio System
3: Revenge of the Sith concluded the prequel trilogy in 2005. Many to this day claim it was the best of that trilogy. During this time the expanded universe, well, expanded. Several graphic novels, novels, video games. Television shows Clone Wars and Rebels gave much-needed depth to the prequel trilogy.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in 2003 would win multiple “game of the year” rewards. There was still A LOT of quality Star Wars content.
In January 2012 George Lucas would announce his retirement from producing blockbuster films, saying he wanted to shift his focus on smaller, independent features. It was announced in June 2012 that Kathleen Kennedy, a long-term collaborator with Steven Spielberg and a producer of the Indiana Jones films, had been appointed as co-chair of LucasFilm.
“I’m moving away from the business.. from the company, from all this kind of stuff.” Lucas said in a statement.
Later that year Lucasfilm was sold to The Walt Disney Company for $4.05 billion. “For 41 years, the majority of my time and money has been put into the company. As I start a new chapter in my life, it is gratifying that I have the opportunity to devote more time and resources to philanthropy.”
April of 2016 it was reported that Lucas had donated between $501,000 and $1 million through the Lucas Family Foundation to the Obama Foundation, which is charged with overseeing the construction of the Barack Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side.
I only mention his philanthropic work because it’s important to see the good that came from Star Wars, and the good that continues to come from such a magical franchise. At its worst it’s an exploitative cash grab; at its best it’s defining the childhoods of the last 3-4 generations.
A Love Letter to Fans
Dear fellow Star Wars,
I get it. You’re upset at the lost potential with the sequel trilogy. You may have also been upset by the lost potential in the prequel trilogy as well.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all of this, it’s this: In this world we aren’t owed good art.
The magic captured by 4: A New Hope and 5: Empire is lightning in a bottle. Elements of that magic have resurfaced in the expanded universe and we’ll always have that.
Kathleen Kennedy and Disney were wrong when they said the expanded universe is no longer canon. Because, only you, the individual consumer, can decide what’s canon.
Please work hard to transfer that hate/resentment into something positive. Write fan-fiction, create a Youtube series, or, better yet, create something fresh and new – the next Star Wars.
I love you all. I always will.