Solo bombed. It may not have deserved to (I liked it), but it bombed. The Last Jedi didn’t do nearly as well as The Force Awakens. The narrative has switched from endless-franchise-money-machine to “maybe we have a problem with the fans“.
And they do. Whether or not they want to acknowledge it, they do.
There are many reasons for this. Some of it is Disney’s fault, some isn’t. But it’s a blunt reality that the Star Wars fandom has a lot of anger inside of it. Disney chose poorly treating the SW universe as it did Marvel.
I’m going to put my premise here, and let you decide how well I argue it:
All problems within the Star Wars fandom hinge on the creators of Star Wars not showing the same respect to the story that the fans do.
Compared to Star Wars, the Marvel Universe is an easy lay-up. These are a set of comic book characters that have never been successfully translated to the screen. The bar for a successful Iron Man, Avengers, or even Thor movie was low enough for any reasonably competent film to clear. They cleared them (and then some, as far as fans are concerned).
The exception to this is Spider-Man, which had been a trilogy already, and then rebooted, with mixed results.
Note how this explains the issues the DC Universe has been having. Batman has already had critically and commercially successful film franchises. Superman has, too. You know who hasn’t? Wonder Woman.
See the pattern?
Now translate that to Star Wars, a film trilogy from the late 1970’s-early 1980’s that had a mass of fan canon and even a second, inferior trilogy, long before Disney got its hands on it.
See the problem?
Marvel fans did not have a very clear idea of what good Marvel movies would look like, and so were content to accept anything not horrible (I’m on record has having enjoyed all the Marvel movies I’ve seen, so that’s not me damning them with faint praise). DC fans do have a clear idea of what good movies in their universe look like. Star Wars fans have a very clear idea of what a good Star Wars movie is, and a clear idea of what a bad one is. They are bound to be a great deal more picky, right out of the gate.
On top of that, the fandom has been feeling very disrespected by Lucasfilm for a very long time. Not directly disrespected, mind. Lucasflim loves fan events and fab merchandise and Fan Experiences.
But it’s been a long time since Lucasfilm treated the story with anything like respect, as far as the fans are concerned.
And unfortunately, this goes all the way back to the beginning.
A Long Time Ago, in a Retcon Far Far Away
As The Secret History of Star Wars has it, George Lucas hates writing. The last thing Lucas cares about is flawless devotion to continuity. He based Star Wars on the Flash Gordon-style adventure serials he grew up on, and those things were wild and sprawling and made up on the fly. Star Wars was, too.
Darth Vader was not originally Luke’s father. Princess Leia was not originally Luke’s sister. Both of these were retcons that got turned into Surprise Twists. There really was supposed to have been a Father Skywalker, separate from Darth Vader. Indeed, some early drafts of The Empire Strikes Back has Ghost Anakin training Luke. They were changed because after Obi-Wan Kenobi started Luke on his journey, another father-figure would have been redundant, while the Vader reveal creates a powerful low-point for Luke’s character. There was also supposed to have been a lost twin-sister from Luke, on her own journey, whom Luke was to find, perhaps in the second Luke Skywalker trilogy (there was originally supposed to be nine of them). This is what Yoda’s line in Empire about “There is another” meant. Leia became Luke’s sister in the writing of Return of the Jedi to cover this plot hole up so that Return of the Jedi could wrap the whole story up, as by 1983 Lucas was exhausted from making Star Wars and wanted to do something else.
The fact that these changes made whole scenes of exposition from the first movie nonsense or early Luke-Leia scenes suddenly weirdly incestuous was papered over with silly dialogue (say it with me: “A Certain Point of View?”) in the third film. But Vader being Luke’s father worked for the characters, and Leia being Luke’s sister at least settled Leia’s romantic affections without need for further competition between Luke and Han. So fans shrugged and accepted it.
But Lucas’ takeaway from this was apparently that he could get away with anything. Which he began, it the 90’s, to do.
The Shot Heard Round the Galaxy
In 1997, Lucas re-released the first SW film, cleaned-up and re-edited, under the title “Special Edition”. Most of the changes to the film were unnoticeable. Some, like the bigger Death Star explosion, could even be called an improvement. But none of that mattered when Lucas changed the scene Han Solo-Greedo scene to make Greedo get a shot off first, missing Han at point-blank range, while Han hits from under the table.
It looks ridiculous, and it scuttles Han Solo as a character. The essence of Han is an anti-hero who looks out for number one, thus making his double-back to save Luke from Vader at the end a meaningful turn. Shooting first to shut Greedo up is in line with that. Waiting until Greedo shoots first, hoping he’ll miss, is what Luke would have done. Han is not Luke. That’s the whole point of Han being in the movie.
George Lucas does not care. He even shoehorned in a discarded scene in front of the Falcon with a CGI Jabba the Hutt (initially Jabba had been human) in which Han states much the same dialogue we just heard in the Greedo scene. It ended up on the cutting room floor for a reason. It doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know. Jabba actually works better as an offstage threat, until appearing in full monstrosity in ROTJ.
And when fans protested the changes, Lucas told them they were wrong, that Star Wars was his, and that he had always intended Han to shoot second, despite the fact that the shooting script, as tweeted by Peter Mayhew, said the exact opposite.
— Peter Mayhew (@TheWookieeRoars) March 2, 2016
And in a Mini-Truthian turn, the Special Editions stopped being labelled as such and became the definitive versions of the films. You cannot currently buy the versions of the original Star Wars trilogy as they appeared in theaters. Lucasfilm has decided they don’t exist.
This is How Not to Treat Your Fans for $500, Alex. This is Customer Relations 101. You don’t get to memory-hole a movie this popular. This early instance of Lucasfilm showing no respect for the story paved the way for much of the rancor that followed. The fractious relationship between Lucas and fans, leading to a documentary called The People vs. George Lucas had its beginning here.
It’s difficult to quantify how much The Phantom Menace divided fans when it appeared in the summer of 1999. Very few people were just okay with it. There were those that loved it, and those that hated it. Time has not been kind to it. Lucas himself has admitted that it was a “jazz riff” on a Star Wars that did not particularly pay off.
The rest of the Prequels are hardly better. Many, including myself, actually think Attack of the Clones is worse, for it’s dreadful Padme-Anakin romance and it’s barely-there plot. But the fans kept buying tickets, hoping that This Time we’d get something like the original trilogy. We never did. Revenge of the Sith was borderline-competent, but still felt flat and uninspired. I spent a long time trying to like them, but I no longer do. I don’t ever watch them. I’ve seen enough of them.
The combination of the Prequels and the “Special Edition” sundered the fandom into TrueFans, who like everything, and Original Trilogy Purists (“Gushers” and “Bashers” as they were known in the 90’s) who really only like the first two movies and tolerate Return of the Jedi. We see a similar dynamic today, between critics of the Disney films and those content with anything after the John Williams fanfare plays. Only the names have changed: from “Bashers” and “Gushers” to “Toxic white male fanbois” and “idiot SJW harridans” today.
The online slapfights of the prequel era were obnoxious, but this was before Twitter, so unless you were specifically logged on to various Internet fan message boards, you would have known little about it. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, George Lucas made some dull CGI-borefests that pale in comparison to the originals, but they made a bunch of money, so whatever. But the schism was real, and never healed, even as the balance of opinion moved slowly in the direction that the “Bashers” were more or less right: the Prequels are inferior. This is not enough. For many, the existence of them is an insult.
In 2012, over a decade after The Phantom Menace premiered, a YouTube channel called Red Letter Media created a 70-minute video dissertation, intermixed with silly, macabre, and gross-out humor, explaining why the movie doesn’t work. It’s something of a masterpiece, if you’re into that sort of thing, but the fact that it exists at all is a sign that the Star Wars fandom was still arguing about it, thirteen years after the fact. Here begins that sense of memory tainted, of “childhoods raped” as the more hysterical ones put it, that sits underneath the nostalgia. Disney had no idea what they were getting into.
You Will Pay the Price For Your Lack of Vision
Even the news that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm in the first place met a divided response. There were those who thought Disney would finally Ruin Star Wars, and those who thought Disney could fixing the saga by showing respect to the franchise. I was in the latter camp, bone-weary with Lucas’ meretricious shenanigans and reasonably hopeful that Disney, at least, knew how to make popcorn movies.
And The Force Awakens met that expectation. I remember thinking, back when I saw the Star Trek reboot, that J.J. Abrams would be a good director for a Star Wars movie, and The Force Awakens vindicated this belief. You can look at the whole movie, with it’s Find-Luke maguffin, as a metaphor for getting back to Old-School Star Wars. I was satisfied, and a great many other fans were, too.
But again, not all. The biggest problem in TFA is the character of Rey. Despite a very charismatic performance by Daisy Ridley, Rey remains too underwritten (so far) to center the series as Luke Skywalker did. I don’t really know what she wants, other than to sit on Jakku and wait for her parents to return. And that’s fine as a start. But it’s less than heroic, so making her the victor in a lightsaber fight with Kylo Ren comes off as unearned. Luke spends three movies becoming strong enough to hold his own against Darth Vader. The Force is supposed to be something you can access on your own, but must slowly learn to master against someone more experienced than you. This is what the story had told us.
And yes, Kylo Ren isn’t as powerful as Darth Vader. Yes, he was wounded by Chewbacca’s crossbow. Yes, there’s something to the reveal that Rey is mega-Force-powerful, a Diamond in the Rough. I get all that. But to a disgruntled fandom, it looks like Big Corporation throwing the Rules of the Universe out the window, because It’s Our Story Now.
Which brings us to The Last Jedi, which compounded all of that. I suspect the idea behind this episode was to open up the possibilities of what could happen in a Star Wars movie, by teaching people not to expect what they had expected. And in this respect, it was a hard turn away from the criticism leveled at TFA for being a carbon copy of A New Hope. But to a lot of fans it felt like the universe they knew being wrecked for no other reason than Because We Can. Which, after The Special Edition and the Prequels, carries a whiff of Because Screw You, Nerds.
Now, I liked what the movie does with Luke Skywalker, and the movie in general, for reasons I’ve gone into before. The Disillusioned Old Hero is as much a trope of the heroic cycle as any other. But the combination of subversion, and subversion, and subversion started making people feel like they weren’t watching Star Wars so much as a Star Wars parody made by people who don’t like Star Wars.
And it doesn’t really matter if you think they’re right or not. It doesn’t matter if you think they’re just spoiled nerds who need to get over themselves. It doesn’t matter how goofy and obnoxious it is to get this torqued over a space fantasy adventure. I’m not here to do anything other than tell you what the problem is and how deep it goes.
The problem is the makers of Star Wars have not respected the story well enough, have not even understood it well enough, to satisfy a large swath of fans. The really spiteful ones, who send death threats to news commentators and chase actors off of social media platforms, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is the ones who’ve quietly decided that they’re done, the ones who didn’t bother seeing Solo and may well not bother seeing Episode IX. No amount of internet shaming is going to stop that Irish Democracy (if anything, it will accelerate it). Because you cannot shame people into liking something they do not like. You can only make them withdraw from the conversation, and inevitably, withdraw from you.