Re-examining the backlash against ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ one year later

Most images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi celebrated its first birthday last Saturday, though it feels like we’ve been living under its shadow for ages – time moves strangely in the era of American fascism.

Criticism of the film exists at a complicated and troubling intersection of grand artistic ambition, valid criticism, fan entitlement and zit-faced urchins who don’t want women or brown people in their movies or country. There have been several attempts to lay out the various aspects of this intersection, and this piece is going to lean heavily on the work of others, but with a year’s hindsight, I want to at least try and put everything in the same place.

The story of audience response to The Last Jedi is a story that transcends this individual film and several different groups of films. This is a story about how our culture processes media in the late ‘10s and how the political divisions most prominent in this era cross over into other facets of American identity. Let’s get started.

What happened

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, it immediately began production on a long-awaited series of Star Wars films to follow up the original trilogy. The extremely brisk process resulted in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was well-received a majority of critics and audiences despite having some extremely obvious problems and signs of trouble to come, namely the abject and almost prideful lack of an original story and the extreme over-reliance on the “mystery box” storytelling tactics commonly associated with writer/director/producer J.J. Abrams. The film went out of its way to stoke questions about the pasts of several prominent characters in Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) on the implicit promise that those backstories would be large reveals in later installments.

I don’t think there is a single person in the past 20 years who has done more harm to storytelling as an art form than J.J. Abrams, and The Last Jedi is a case study in the problems his tactics create coming home to roost – and a case study in other filmmakers taking the blame for Abrams’ empty stories, as they almost always do.

Going back to the first casting announcements for The Force Awakens, there were already grumblings from seedier parts of the Internet that Disney was going out of its way to diversify the Star Wars cast. A lot of these grumblings centered around Boyega, who is black and appeared to be the new series’ lead, but they soon transitioned to center around Ridley when she became the most important character.

Star Mark Hamill has famously clashed with Johnson over his deliberate lack of concern about making a movie for the fans. Photo by Charley Gallay, Getty Images.

In 2017, after two years of speculating about things The Force Awakens explicitly directed viewers to speculate about, Disney released its follow-up, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. New writer/director in Rian Johnson, who has a history of telling actual whole stories instead of mortgaging the details of his own plots, had made a film that deliberately spat in the face of what he knew viewers would be expecting. This manifested in several ways,  but what drew the most ire was the way The Last Jedi dismissed Snoke and Rey, abruptly killing Snoke off to forward the character of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and revealing that Rey’s parents were just some desert drunks.

Fan reaction was so bitterly polarized that many disputed whether or not it was polarized. Rotten Tomatoes – which is by no means a perfect tool – shows a massive split between critic and audience reaction to the movie. There were accusations that online Russian false flag operations similar to the ones suspected to have been involved in the 2016 presidential election were used to widen this gap, which Rotten Tomatoes has denied. Fan dissatisfaction with the film was widely palpable, leading perhaps most ridiculously to crowd-funding efforts toward remaking the film entirely.

What is undeniable is how the next Star Wars movie, last May’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, suffered in the fallout. Solo finished its domestic run with $213.8 million domestic, which is a significant chunk of change, but represents a small fraction of what the previous three Star Wars movies made. After spending three years running with a Star Wars movie at the top of the domestic box office, Solo is on track to finish the year at no. 9 and could still be overtaken by several films, with this weekend’s Aquaman and Mary Poppins Returns presenting significant threats to push it outside of the top 10.

Solo is the first Star Wars movie in history to flop. Disney has wildly overreacted, putting all of its projects on hold except for Episode IX. Though there are several reasons for Solo’s failure, chief among them being its proximity to films like The Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Incredibles 2 and Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, all direct competitors that will likely finish at numbers two through five domestically behind February sensation Black Panther, fans dissatisfaction with The Last Jedi is generally considered to be a major factor.

That dissatisfaction is difficult to pin down because it takes so many forms. Let’s talk about all of them!

The Last Jedi is far from perfect

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is probably the best Star Wars movie that’s come out in almost 35 years, which isn’t saying much. The film is incredibly ambitious, but it’s plagued by several internal problems that make it difficult to think of as a fully good movie.

All of the valid criticisms come down to the film’s lack of internal consistency. Audiences are constantly asked to switch between the intense melodrama between Rey, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Kylo Ren and the Canto Bight sequences where Finn rides on the silly looking horse. The feels like Disney took the bathos comedy that already undercuts its Marvel movies and crammed it into the script – knowing that both franchises are not just contemporary series but also owned by the same studio makes this feel like a much more sinister addition, like some producer insisted on the comedy’s inclusion and it really is just as alien to the rest of the script as it feels.

The whole Canto Bight plotline is propped up by an elaborate plot contrivance about fuel and hyperspace tracking that doesn’t make intuitive sense, even if viewers are willing to suspend disbelief – even if you assume that the explanation checks out, which you pretty much have to in a space fantasy movie, it doesn’t feel right on the intuitive processes of the brain. Seeing the two fleets locked in a low-speed chase through empty space looks weird, and having Finn and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) fuck off to some casino planet almost immediately after we’ve been told the fleet is in a fuel crisis feels contradictory, even when it explicitly isn’t. The main tension of the situation is the fleet is trapped, but then it’s immediately demonstrated that they aren’t necessarily trapped. An 18 hour time limit is established and repeatedly emphasized, but Finn and Tico spend what appears to be several hours fooling around on the casino planet.

There’s also a discussion to be had on the way the mere existence of fuel radically changes the established Star Wars universe, as this is the first film in which it is even mentioned.

While the comedy undermines the drama, the drama undermines itself, as outlined thoroughly in this Wisecrack essay-

The legend of Luke Skywalker upholds harmful belief systems and has driven him to isolate himself, until he steps out of the shadows to reignite that very legend. He wants to burn the sacred texts and end the Jedi order once and for all, but gets upset when Yoda does it for him. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is reprimanded, with General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) telling him that he can’t save the rebellion by jumping into a starship and blowing things up, but he’s told to jump into a starship and blow things up literally moments later. Finn kamikazeing himself to save the entire rebellion is the wrong approach, but when Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) does it, it’s just fine.

No discussion of the film’s problems would be complete without a breakdown of why Holdo doesn’t work as a character. In order for viewers to take away what the film wants us to take away from her conflict with Dameron, we need to be on her side and immediately recognize that Dameron is too hot-headed, but as presented, it’s far too easy to come away with the conclusion that Dameron was right all along and Holdo was being stupid and mean for no reason.

The idea that Rey’s parents don’t really matter is probably the only satisfying way to handle that plotline.

The problem is that everything in this story is being told from Dameron’s perspective, and even after barely appearing in The Force Awakens, viewers have learned to like him, or at least that they are supposed to. Expecting viewers to sympathize instead with this lady who just showed up and refuses explain herself was unrealistic. What should have happened instead was to skip the part where the rebel bridge was bombed and have Organa play out Holdo’s role in the plot. Where we’re more than ready to root for Dameron in his mutiny against Becky with the purple hair, a mutiny against literal and figurative royalty in General Organa would be much more obviously wrong in the eyes of viewers and a much more serious decision for Dameron personally, who clearly reveres Organa but doesn’t even know what Holdo looks like when she’s introduced.

This dovetails into the next category of criticism levied at The Last Jedi – criticism driven not by cinematic errors, but by long-time fandom.

Fan culture has become fan ownership

A major factor in diehard fans’ dissatisfaction with The Last Jedi was the way it unceremoniously discards the hanging plot threads from The Force Awakens – specifically, the questions of Rey’s lineage and where Snoke came from. While it’s easy to think the people who were mad about this need to get a life, it’s worth examining the increasing connection between consuming pop-culture and owning it.

Fandom as a concept has been growing rapidly more toxic over the past two decades. I mostly relate it to Lord of the Rings and first-generation comic book movies from the early ‘00s – when Hollywood turned these properties into cultural sensations that reached far broader audiences due to the ease and brevity of watching a movie relative to reading a 1,000 page novel or gathering thousands of potentially obscure magazines, a lot of people who had already forged a connection with these stories were really pissed off, and though it seems counterintuitive from the outside, it’s really not hard to understand why.

If you grew up with The Hobbit and spent money on first editions and extended universe books and can list all the old kings of Númenor, and suddenly some 8-year-old who gets real excited when Frodo’s sword turns blue thinks he has something in common with you, it can be a little humbling. It also didn’t help that these properties were considered “nerdy” only a few years before and were viewed as escapist tools exclusively for people who already considered themselves social outcasts.

You could argue that the emotionally correct response is to encourage this new participant in your personal culture, but we’re not necessarily talking about emotionally correct people here. We’re talking about people who, to one degree or another, thought that the media they consumed is what made them special and had built their entire identities around these particular stories, people who thought that those stories were exclusive to them and the way they chose to self-identify and that mass distribution of a film adaptation took that exclusivity away.

That’s why I always get uncomfortable when people talk about “nerd culture” – everything has always been mass-distributed, and all “nerd culture” really is is a sense of ownership directed toward stories that are consumed by everyone.

However, there are significant differences in Star Wars’ case, because much of the extended mythos really is owned by the fans, as explained in detail in this other Wisecrack essay-

Fans had expanded the series’ cannon dramatically during the period after Return of the Jedi when it looked like there would be no more movies, and actively participated in forming the prequel trilogy as the films were being released. Disney invalidated that participation by removing all previously endorsed material that wasn’t the six movies from the cannon.

It particularly doesn’t help that, while Disney was supposed to produce genuinely new stories in that cannon’s stead, all of their movies map directly onto already highly popular stories –the Thrawn trilogy was an already widely accepted version of the sequel trilogy, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story could have instead been an adaptation of Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, the Han Solo spinoff was already written as a trilogy, and so on.

The Emperor is fine in the original trilogy because that series obviously has a past that we hadn’t seen yet, but that’s not the case for Snoke. On Snoke’s introduction, we had seen the series past, and he wasn’t in it. The idea that someone so powerful had already existed in the universe for some period of time seems to contradict a few things, and the question of what he was doing during the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire is a very interesting one.

When The Force Awakens openly begged fans to speculate about the identities of Rey’s parents or on Snoke’s past, fans began participating with the series in the way they always had. Then The Last Jedi came out and made a very deliberate point out cutting off those plot threads.

So it’s easy to say that fans need to stop taking their theories so seriously or that Star Wars is made for little kids, but that’s just not true. A huge part of the series’ built-in fanbase is the at-least-50-year-olds who remember seeing the original in theaters. Attempting to expand the universe is a major mainstream pastime, and the series had previously encouraged and incorporated those efforts. I think Rian Johnson made brilliant use of those obviously empty mystery boxes, but the people who spent two years speculating about what was inside them do have the right to be upset.

Blood and film stock

There’s been a disturbing trendline of racism and misogyny in some blockbusters over the past few years, and the new Star Wars series has been a big part of it.

Probably the first famous example is 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which dealt with a masculist boycott because a girl character talked too much in the trailer, but definitely the highest profile example was 2016’s Ghostbusters remake. From its announcement to its release to months after its release until people finally stopped talking about it, the gender swap and toxicity surrounding this film was front and center. Voices saying the film looked and was terrible, voices saying rebooting Ghostbusters was generally a bad idea and voices calling for mandatory girlfriends blended together, and Sony and the cast members may have actually worked to make those voices harder to separate.

The stream of bile got everywhere, but focused particularly on the film’s black cast member, Leslie Jones, who eventually shut down her Twitter account over abuse related to this film.

As this was happening, Disney cast Ridley and Boyega, a black man – and Oscar Isaac, who is Hispanic but has avoided much of the backlash by looking white enough and barely being in either movie – as the lead actors for its new series. There was a Fury Road-esque boycott over a Force Awakens trailer where the black guy got to hold a lightsaber, which was similarly ineffective and similarly drowned out by the people who were simply excited for more Star Wars, but as the series continued and continued to diversify, so did the racially charged complaints. This eventually came to a head in June, when new Last Jedi cast member Tran, who is an East Asian woman, eventually shut down her Instagram account over harassment stemming from the role.

I don’t want to belabor this element of the criticism against The Last Jedi because it really is a vocal minority in context with filmgoers as a group, but it’s difficult not to see the overlap between the rise of a fascist movement in America built around an explicitly misogynistic and xenophobic leader and viewers who are willing to publicly demand that women and minorities not be allowed to do things in movies.

The willingness of racists to put themselves out there over what minorities should be allowed to do in movie trailers directly corresponds with the willingness to put themselves out there in, uh, other ways. Photo by Samuel Corum, Getty Images.

A popular request among stupid people is for Hollywood executives to “keep politics out of our movies,” but politics are already in our movies. Every aspect of our culture is in our movies. That’s why I insist on writing about them. In the coming years as more Star Wars movies come out, but more importantly, as Disney expands its pop-cultural monopoly and adapts more and more varied media, and as perpetually emboldened fascists embarrass themselves trying to attack the pursestrings of more movies that dare feature non-Aryan men in their trailers, there are going to be more movies like The Last Jedi for which the critical reaction will be a weird cross-section of all these issues.

This is not where the story starts or where it ends, but The Last Jedi is the best and most prominent example of what can happen when all of these cultural trains crash together.

 

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3 Responses to Re-examining the backlash against ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ one year later

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