A disturbance in the Force: Decoding the fan response to ‘The Last Jedi’

It’s now been about a month since “The Last Jedi” opened in theaters, and I feel like the dust is finally starting to settle a bit surrounding this surprisingly polarizing entry in the Star Wars franchise. By now everyone has probably decided how they feel about the film, one way or the other, and I don’t really want to stir up the controversy again. ? This article isn’t designed to be another discussion of the film itself; rather, I’d like to take a look at the overall fan reaction to this film, which has been absolutely fascinating to watch. In one camp you have some fans who loved it and have called it the best Star Wars film since “The Empire Strikes Back,” and others who hated it and think it’s worse than the prequels. The people who had reactions somewhere in between have found themselves in a sort-of No Man’s Land, trying to dodge the shots fired from both sides. While it is probably still too soon to analyze the legacy of “The Last Jedi,” I want to dive into some of the issues that are playing into this fan divide and what this means for the Star Wars franchise — and the state of fandoms as a whole.

Box office backlash?

Determining the overall public response to “The Last Jedi” is tricky, with the waters muddied by a variety of factors. There’s already been much discussion about the now 49 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes — a rather stark contrast to the critics’ 90 percent score for this film. There are rumors of bots and angry fans artificially deflating the audience score — take that as you will. Personally, I have a hard time believing that 50 percent of the people who saw this movie hated it with a burning, fiery passion (although if you didn’t like it, that is 100 percent okay — no one should be forced to love a movie!) ? I also really don’t believe that Disney simply “paid off” critics to give this a positive review.

Online I’d say the split between fans who loved it/hated it feels like an even 50/50 (at least based on the chatter on Reddit and social media), though again, this type of online community is not necessarily a real-life sampling. Anecdotally, I’d say the split amongst my friends, family, bloggers I follow, and other acquaintances is somewhere between 70/30 and 80/20, with more people liking it or at least enjoying it than those who did not. But that’s just within my own personal bubble.

It does feel strange to have a genre film that is praised by critics but is generating a backlash from fans; more often, it seems to be the other way around, with fans loving a movie more than critics did. Perhaps the closest equivalent is “Iron Man 3,” a movie that was generally praised by critics but received some pushback from fans for its unconventional narrative choices, not unlike “The Last Jedi.”

“The Last Jedi” had an impressive opening weekend — to the tune of $220 million domestically — and so far has grossed about $600 million domestically and close to $1.3 billion globally. That’s a lot of money, and is easily the highest domestic grosser of 2017, beating Disney’s apparently less controversial flicks like “Beauty and the Beast” and the trio of Marvel films. Still, it’s not anywhere close to touching the massive $930 million domestic, $2 billion global gross for “The Force Awakens.” Now, is it fair to say “The Last Jedi” would have made more money if it was less divisive? That’s entirely possible. But how much more is difficult to determine.

“The Force Awakens” was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that probably won’t happen again for a very long time (although it will be exciting to see just how big “Avengers: Infinity War” opens — I can see it breaking a lot of records). “The Force Awakens” was the first new Star Wars movie in a decade; the first Star Wars movie after the generally poorly received prequels; and the first Star Wars movie from new owner Disney, plus on top of that the return of the original trilogy cast. “The Last Jedi” also seemed to have more competition at the box office, with “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” turning out to be a surprisingly fun and entertaining family film that played very well with audiences over the holidays. I really don’t see how any movie that earns $1.3 billion is disappointing, especially since Star Wars still beat out a lot of superhero flicks, which tend to play better overseas than the Star Wars franchise. I think Episode IX will do just fine. ?

However, another discussion for another time is my concern that Disney may eventually over-saturate the marketplace with Star Wars content. I think one Star Wars film every year (or even every two years) is a good amount and shouldn’t go higher. It’s a different type of film than the Marvel superhero flicks, which I think are sustainable at two to three a year, at least for now. Another question is if Hollywood’s blockbuster bubble will eventually burst — how sustainable are these billion-dollar movie expectations and how risky is it for studios to rely on these billion-dollar grosses to be profitable? But moving on…

A house divided

So, just why was “The Last Jedi” so controversial? I haven’t really seen any obvious patterns in who liked this movie and who didn’t; it really does seem to be a mix based on personal preference.

In some ways, I think the backlash was unavoidable, and may be a holdover from “The Force Awakens.” Inevitably, the Star Wars sequels had to directly address the legacy of the original trilogy, in a way the prequels did not. Whether you enjoyed the prequels or not, they didn’t really have an impact on the legacy of the original trilogy, since in terms of the Star Wars timeline they happened in the past. Now, we have the sequel trilogy revisiting beloved characters like Han, Luke, and Leia, whom fans feel a very personal connection to and understandably have strong opinions about.

I’m of the opinion that Disney made the right call to retire the old Star Wars Expanded Universe. There’s some truly great stuff in there that is still very much a part of Star Wars for me (hint, hint: Timothy Zahn). ? However, there was some not-so-great stuff in there too (let’s all collectively agree to forget that time Luke fell in love with a computer) and some plot developments fans disagreed on, as is the case with any franchise. Even if Disney had decided to adapt Zahn’s well-received Thrawn trilogy, they would have had to cast younger actors as Han, Luke, and Leia, which I feel would have been too risky for their first Star Wars film. The return of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill is a big selling point for this sequel series.

I admire Disney for being willing to take a risk with “The Last Jedi” and allowing director Rian Johnson to make some choices they probably knew would be a little controversial. “The Force Awakens” was a fun but relatively “safe” film, though I think after the prequels, that’s exactly what it needed to be. It needed to remind fans of what they loved about Star Wars and to assure them the franchise was in good hands. But in order to move forward in a meaningful way, Disney had to try something gutsier for the sequel, and inevitably, some fans would like whatever direction they chose, and some wouldn’t.

While to me “The Last Jedi” still feels very much like a Star Wars movie, it does feel different than what’s come before. In terms of cinematography, it’s probably the most beautifully shot Star Wars film, and it uses a little different narrative structure. One of the major themes is failure, and we see many of the main characters make plans that end up coming to nothing. I can respect that some did not like the way Luke Skywalker was portrayed; for me it was a bold choice that really paid off, but it is hard to see a childhood hero as a more broken, flawed person than we may have expected. I’d argue that this makes the film much more interesting and powerful than if we’d simply seen Luke as a wizened Obi-Wan type mentor figure, but I can see how others might have a different reaction.

“This is not going to go the way you think…”

Another topic I’ve seen debated is how “The Last Jedi” subverted expectations, and whether that was a good thing. Fans had a lot of theories about Snoke’s background and Rey’s parentage in particular. The movie revealed those were red herrings. I personally loved those twists, because sometimes a reveal that’s too hyped can ultimately feel like a bit of a letdown, even if it’s what you might have originally wanted. If Snoke hadn’t died and was the “big bad” in Episode IX after all, would he have felt too much like a Palpatine knockoff? To me, a power struggle between an unhinged Kylo Ren and a scheming General Hux (neither of whom is really ready to lead an empire) makes for a more interesting villain dynamic, but again, I can respect how others would disagree. I originally theorized Snoke was maybe Darth Plagueis returned to life, but now I wonder if that really would have been a cool reveal or if it ultimately would have felt too beholden to the past? It’s an interesting question to ponder. I also think the same thing could have happened with Rey’s parentage. The fact she’s a “nobody” feels more authentic and exciting to me now, even though originally I wanted her to be connected to the old Jedi Order.

In short, some of the same reasons people loved “The Last Jedi” are the same reasons other people didn’t — and that’s okay. Some of the factors that may have been small issues for some fans were big issues for others. Not every fan will agree on every film, and I think it’s exciting to have a Star Wars movie that has provoked some genuine, meaningful debates and deep conversations. I honestly believe that “The Last Jedi” will hold up well over the long run, especially as we see how Episode IX turns out. I hope fans who didn’t like it the first time will wait several months, and then give it another chance. I re-watched “The Force Awakens” right after my second viewing of “The Last Jedi” and thought they flowed well together, despite some shifts in tone.

My one fear is that Disney will react to the backlash by trying too hard to make Episode IX “safe.” I don’t want them to retcon Rey’s parents and make them somebody significant to Star Wars lore. I think it’s really powerful that she’s a “nobody” who can become a hero. I don’t want Snoke to come back to life; I absolutely would love some flashbacks with him in Episode IX that include a little more on his backstory, but Kylo unexpectedly killing him and (temporarily) siding with Rey was, in my opinion, one of the best twists in the movie.

We’re all in this together…

My closing thought is one that I’ve been trying to remind myself of as I get excited about upcoming films and such. As geeks, we get pretty passionate about our fandoms. It’s great to have discussions and debates, and we don’t all have to agree. At the end of the day, they are just movies. They’re meant to be fun, and if a franchise stops bringing you joy, it’s absolutely okay to peacefully walk away. I know some who have said the Disney Star Wars movies aren’t for them, and that’s okay too. I personally would argue that they’re missing out ? but there are plenty of great geek properties to be a fan of.

What’s discouraging is seeing fans put others down and posting hurtful things to each other. I’ve seen it happen not just in threads about Star Wars but in Marvel vs. DC debates, the new Star Trek movies and TV show, and too many other discussions; this seems to be occurring more and more as social media becomes a venting ground and people are maybe having less conversations face to face. I worry that some of the negativity generated by these fan vs. fan throwdowns will eventually drive the general public away from these fandoms and make them seem less welcoming. Especially since the general public is what helps turn these Star Wars and Marvel flicks into billion-dollar hits and thereby guaranteeing we get more. That’s why I’ve been increasingly turning to WordPress and our own ESO community for film discussions; these are places where I’ve found fellow passionate fans that are not toxic communities. They’re both great places with lots of fun discussions!

In closing, we fans shouldn’t let our passion for (or against!) something turn into anger that we then use as a weapon to pummel other fans, like Darth Vader in that famous “Rogue One” hallway scene. ? Criticizing and debating a film is definitely okay, and it’s always fascinating to hear another perspective. I’m a pretty passionate pro-“Last Jedi” crusader (as you’ve probably gathered), but have been reminding myself that it’s okay people thought differently. Let’s make sure that geekdom stays a fun, friendly place that is welcoming to all!

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