The Last Jedi Broke Star Wars Fandom
Johnson knew he didn't want to make a "conventional" Star Wars movie when he got the Episode VIII job. He wanted to craft something that he would like to see as a fan - something that would thrill, entertain, and even surprise viewers. In a way, that's what The Empire Strikes Back did in 1980, receiving polarizing reviews as viewers left the theater seeing their favorite heroes fail (sound familiar?), trying to make sense of the open-ended finale, and reeling from the Darth Vader twist. Today, decades after its release where fans have had plenty of time to marinate on Empire, it's hailed as the best entry in the entire franchise. But at the time of its release, it was divisive like The Last Jedi is right now.
And it's one thing for a movie to be divisive. Especially when something as massive as Star Wars is involved, it's impossible to please everyone. Individual tastes are subjective, and the millions of Star Wars fans around the globe had their own ideas for what they wanted to see in The Last Jedi. Conversations and debates about a film's happenings are commonplace and quite typical. However, a case can be made things went a bit too far in the case of The Last Jedi. The discourse was particularly toxic, going well beyond intentionally sabotaging the film's audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Extreme instances of distaste for the movie boiling over included constant harassment of Johnson and star Kelly Marie Tran (who ended up deleting her Instagram after numerous attacks), the call for Kathleen Kennedy to be fired from her position as Lucasfilm president, and even a petition demanding The Last Jedi be removed from Star Wars canon. There's also a case to be made the Last Jedi discussion had (some) negative impact on Solo, as evidenced by Ron Howard retweeting praise for the spinoff that simultaneously bashed The Last Jedi. Overall, it was a nasty few months that highlighted the worst the fandom had to offer. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion of the film, obviously, but there was no need for things to reach this point.
In many ways, it bore resemblance to the reaction to the prequels - only amplified due to the presence of social media. Instead of George Lucas ruining childhoods, it was Johnson ruining all of Star Wars. It speaks to a larger fundamental issue with the fandom; everyone has their own ideas of what Star Wars "is" and what they want to see happen. There's a strong sense of ownership over the property Star Wars fans feel, virtually unlike anything else in the film industry. Yes, all major franchises have passionate fandoms, but Star Wars arguably leads the pack in that department - and it affects conversation about the movies. Rather than talking about the actual content of the film, it becomes more about how it lined up (or didn't) with expectations. Some people became so possessive of Rey and Snoke theories that they found it difficult to accept anything that diverged from that path. When The Last Jedi deviated from their idea of Star Wars, things boiled over. It didn't matter how compelling or fascinating Johnson's ideas were. They angered certain circles of the fan base because viewers couldn't compartmentalize and accept there was more than one way the story could go.
And, honestly, The Last Jedi was doomed to this fate from the very beginning. As stated earlier, fans had two years to ruminate on The Force Awakens and develop hypotheses (however farfetched) for what would happen next. Last Jedi would have been just as divisive if Rey turned out to be Luke's estranged daughter from a broken marriage or Obi-Wan Kenobi's granddaughter (which would have required retcon acrobatics to explain in convincing manner). In that case, the people who loved Johnson for breaking from tradition and freeing Star Wars would have blasted him for rehashing tired tropes. If Supreme Leader Snoke was really Darth Plagueis, it would have appeased corners of the fan base who yearn for everything to be connected, but wouldn't have sit well with others. All Johnson could do was put his head down, cancel out all the noise, and make the best film he felt was possible. He was never attempting to insult anyone or deliberately prove popular fan theories wrong (he was writing the script well before The Force Awakens opened in theaters). Like any director on any film, he was just trying to do a job.
It's also worth pointing out that the worst of the Last Jedi dissenters are not wholly indicative of the Star Wars fan base at large. In a recent social media post, Johnson thanked viewers for the past year and has repeatedly said many of his interactions with viewers have been positive. That said, there's no denying the fan community is in a less harmonious place now than it was a couple years ago, riding off the highs of the nostalgia-driven Force Awakens and Rogue One. Hopefully, Episode IX will be able to soothe things over next December and end the saga on a high note. After all, part of the reason why Empire was so divisive initially is because audiences didn't know how the story ended. The same can be said about The Last Jedi, and its final reputation has yet to be decided.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019