I will never forget hearing that on the heels of a rather lackluster showing at the box office for his passion project Red Tails, George Lucas was selling Lucasfilm and all the intellectual property that went with it to Disney because my immediate response afforded me a rare instance of infallible precognition.
“Here comes Episodes 7, 8, and 9” I said. And of course, I was right. When George Lucas first hatched the idea for Star Wars, it immediately began growing prodigiously in his mind like some sort of enchanted fauna from a fairy tale. It went from one story to a trilogy to two trilogies. And by the time Star Wars was released it had somehow leaked into geek common knowledge that the film and its sequel were but the centerpieces of a saga that consisted of three trilogies: the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy, and the Sequel Trilogy. I very clearly remember being a kid and having my cousin explain the Prequel Trilogy to me (and I know it was before Empire Strikes Back when he did because his explanation involved Obi-Wan and Luke’s father meeting a young Darth Vader in the second film, rather than Luke’s father becoming Darth Vader).
When Lucas wrapped up his Prequel Trilogy he dashed the hopes of many a geek by declaring he had no intention of ever making the Sequel Trilogy. This did not surprise me one iota, as I had already known for some time that Anakin/Darth had supplanted Luke as Lucas’ alter-ego quite a while ago and if the series no longer focused on saving the soul of Anakin Skywalker then it simply held no allure for its creator.
But Capitalism finds a way. The billions to be harvested from a Sequel Trilogy would not be left to lay fallow in the fields. Not even the creator of Star Wars had the power to stop that Force. And so he sold, grew his personal fortune to over $5 billion, and Disney immediately set out to begin work on the new films.
As I write this, Episode VIII, entitled Star Wars: The Last Jedi, has just come off a stunning first weekend that grossed almost half of a billion dollars worldwide. Reviews have been pretty enthusiastic. And yet, another story has taken root having to do with the film’s low audience score on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. When this score emerged on Thursday night it was regarded with surprise and curiosity. And then on social media the haters began venting their spleen about the new film.
Let’s note that this is the first Star Wars film to be written and directed by one person who isn’t George Lucas. When it was announced that Rian Johnson would be earning this distinction it indicated an unusual vote of high confidence in Johnson from the new lords of Lucasfilm, chief among them producer Kathleen Kennedy. Rather than the typical blockbuster designed by committee, this promised to be that rarest of creatures: a very big film that was also a singular vision.
We were warned that this Star Wars film would be a departure, something unlike any episode that had come before it. But for a minority of fans that warning was a call to arms. Let’s be clear: The Last Jedi is a film like all films and therefore subject to any reactions from cheers to jeers. And the film itself can be criticized on many levels, but what do we make of fans burning their Star Wars t-shirts, and demanding an apology from Lucasfilm or a do over?
What it says to me is the time has arrived to have a conversation about what it means to be a fan. This moment has been coming for a long time. In this particular fandom, it bears mentioning that the first shot may have been fired when the new Lucasfilm announced that they were liquidating the Expanded Universe. For non-SW geeks, that means the company announced that the decades worth of stories (specifically those set after the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, wherein our heroes help build the Second Republic and confront those who would revive the Empire and/or the Dark Side of the Force) written by novelists and comic book writers were to be effectively erased so that filmmakers like Johnson and J.J. Abrams could approach the Sequel Trilogy as a tabula rasa, not be beholden to characters and events written by legions of writers since 1983. What this meant is that self-designated Star Wars superfans wouldn’t be able to approach the Sequel Trilogy with insider information. They’d journey to the new films seated in coach with the rest of us.
Fan reaction in some quarters was quite volatile. Star Wars nerds had spent decades reading about Jacen and Jaina Solo, the twin Jedis that came from the marriage of Leia and Han (along with their younger third child Anakin Solo). They knew of Luke’s struggle with the Dark Side and the love interest he’d eventually find in that struggle. And suddenly, Kathleen Kennedy blithely destroyed that in one fell swoop.
Of course, she destroyed nothing. Those stories are still there. But she used her power as the head of Lucasfilm to demote the entire Expanded Universe from semi-canonical to fan fiction. To understand the rage this generated, one has to consider the way fandom can curdle into toxic masculinity. If you are denied status in most mainstream endeavors in life, your stature within a fandom can become the pedestal upon which your fragile sense of self rests. Geekdom is a community but it is also an arena. It can become a place to prove you know more than others and are therefore better than others. And that superiority comes from consuming as much ephemera as possible and being able to outdo your fellow geeks at every turn.
Fan theories are another manifestation of this phenomenon and bear special mention. Creators of science-fiction and fantasy have always wanted an active, engaged fanbase. But fan theories have turned genre storytelling from an aesthetic or intellectual experience into a game. And games only have winners and losers. So when those fan theories prove to be nothing more than theories, fans who watered and tended to them for years like bonsai trees feel angry and betrayed. Or they are proven correct and they feel somehow they are now part of the creative team.
As this kind of geekdom enters middle-age, we’ve also begun to see that some fans feel that their devotion (it’s amazing geeks haven’t adopted some sort of belt system as in martial arts) entitles them to ownership. Cosplay, fan fiction, conventions, social media, podcasting, all of it is harmless on its own. But tie it to toxic masculinity that constantly needs an Other to best and suddenly fanaticism around pop culture looks similar to religious or nationalist fervor.
[I saw this coming in 2010. Read this, my review of Tron: Legacy which foretells the rise of toxic fandom.]
We’ve seen critics get death threats from geeks and have to go into hiding; we’ve seen patently absurd conspiracy theories take root to explain why one group’s franchise of choice gets poorly reviewed. And we’ve seen GamerGate.
Someday, it seems inevitable that violence will happen because some geek disagreed with a review or an interpretation of their favorite character. The pressure cooker of self-importance, fury, and machismo that geekdom has become makes it just a matter of time.
So who owns Star Wars? Lucasfilm, of course. But our impotent and angry geeks believe they own it too because of the lifetime (and specifically time and money) they’ve devoted to it. It’s not that The Last Jedi is a perfect film beyond criticism. It’s that the fury it has engendered is completely absurd until you view it from two depressing perspectives.
First: geekdom is inherently reactionary. It is backward thinking. It is fixated on a glorious past. It is built on the idea that mastery of what has come before is the only metric for “true” fandom that matters. It is also built on vertical hierarchy rather than lateral co-existence. Therefore, regardless of how left-wing most science fiction is, the fandom acquires a right-leaning edge.
Second: this is the most diverse Star Wars that’s ever been made (although I’m still waiting to see Billy Dee Williams’ Lando reappear). It also contains the idea that the typically male heroics that usually act as an engine in genre films may not be as important as listening to a smarter, older, more experienced woman.
So if you take these two ideas as filters through which to look at Star Wars: The Last Jedi in Trump’s America, the backlash seems hardly out of place (the backlashers appear to be mostly, if not all, white dudes).
“BURN IT ALL DOWN” is the true chant of the Trump Era, not “Make America Great Again.” And the backlash against Episode VIII grows from this. Just as the Trump voter gives voice to this idea when faced with a woman president or a minority-majority America, so it goes in geekdom. Women are participating in and creating geek culture like never before. Men of color are no longer content to be sidekicks. So these Make-The-Force-Great-Again geeks are on the offensive. There’s even some suspicion bots are being employed to tank the audience rating of The Last Jedi.
Meanwhile, the backlash is but a sad footnote. The Last Jedi will become one of the all-time great moneymakers in film. But this small and furious minority will continue to use social media to inflate their numbers and importance. As in politics, the problem of the 21st century seems to be resisting a new apartheid, a tyrannical rule of the minority; and the struggle in geekdom will continue to parallel the larger struggle in the American body politic. The Star Wars Saga is all about political struggle against a reactionary toxic masculinity, and I suspect the films will continue to give hope to those who are against toxic geekdom as witnessed by the the touching ubiquity of Princess Leia’s image at the Women’s Marches in January.
UPDATE: since initially posting this article, an “alt-right” group has come forward to take credit for tanking TLJ’s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes for avowedly patriarchal & white supremacists reasons. Read about it here.
Also, racist vandalism was found on the Wookipedia page dedicated to Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico character. Read about it here if you’re not already depressed enough.