Did Star Wars: The Last Jedi's trailers and marketing help create the movie's backlash? The Star Wars fan divide has never been bigger, and it's mostly blamed on the release and surrounding decisions Lucasfilm made with Episode VIII. But could Disney have released the exact same movie to a much more accepting audience if they'd only marketed it better?
Rian Johnson's entry in the Skywalker Saga upended many of the open-ended questions established by J.J. Abrams in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, revealing Luke was a cut-off hermit, Rey's parents were nobodies, the Knights of Ren a side note, and making former leads Poe and Finn into supporting failures. Throw in shock deaths for Snoke and Luke, Leia using the Force to fly through space, a heavy leaning into bathos, and a prequel-esque jaunt in Canto Bight, and you have one seriously broken fandom. But many of these problems are less to do with the movie itself and more expectations; The Last Jedi doesn't directly contradict anything in The Force Awakens - Luke is already a nomad and Maz indicates Rey's parents aren't actually important - and all of its story choices and plot twists are logical when viewing the Star Wars sequel trilogy as the story of supreme villain Kylo Ren and its second entry and deconstruction of the whole franchise through the prism of failure.
Simply put, so much of Star Wars: The Last Jedi's backlash seems to come from it not lining up with what had been speculated off the back of Abrams' reboot than it was actual criticisms of Episode VIII as a film. And while there's an argument that Rian Johnson shouldn't have been so aggressive in his bid to subvert those expectations, it's also true that some of these aspects would have landed better with the proper establishment. Essentially, the trailers missold the movie.
In recent years, we've seen advertising become a bigger part of a movie's narrative. Trailers giving up too much of the plot or spectacle reflects badly on movies, and missold tone leads to threats of lawsuits (see Drive presented as a Fast and Furious riff), which has seen a rise in spoiler-phobia and secrecy. Unfortunately, in 2017 it went too far. Box office bomb Blade Runner 2049 preached only to the converted fans of the original cult classic, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi failed to prep its already guaranteed audience for what was to come.
- This Page: How The Last Jedi Marketing Stoked The Backlash
- Page 2: What Infinity War Got Right & How Mystery Is Hurting Star Wars
- Page 3: What Lucasfilm Should Have Done (And What They Should Fix For Star Wars 9)
How The Last Jedi Was Marketed (And Why It Was Wrong)
Star Wars 8's marketing technically started in February 2016, less than two months after The Force Awakens released with a production announcement video showing Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill picking up where they left off. However, things didn't really kick off until a year later with The Last Jedi title reveal in January 2017. The first teaser released at Star Wars Celebration in April, a behind-the-scenes reel at D23 in July, a Force Friday merchandise launch in September, final trailer (and tickets sale) in October, and then the usual blitz of tie-ins and TV spots leading up to the December release. All in all, it was a pretty standard rollout for one of the big movies of the year. Indeed, it basically mirrored the approach for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, except that had an earlier teaser in November the previous year to announce the entire Saga's return under Disney after a decade away.
Scheduling wasn't the only thing The Last Jedi borrowed from The Force Awakens, however. J.J. Abrams' Star Wars 7 had been made under an air of extreme secrecy, with the director employing his classic mystery box storytelling to keep as much of what was in store a secret. Who was Rey? Kylo Ren? Where was Luke? All these secrets and many, many more were maintained from casting through to release, with the movie resolving some and leaving others as dangling questions. It was a move that worked on many levels: it made the prospect of more Star Wars unpredictably exciting, brought focus onto the new story, and helped build hype for the trilogy to come.
The Last Jedi followed a similar level of secrecy. From the very start, the identity of the Jedi in the title (and whether it was singular or plural) was the topic of much debate that director and stars kept up for months, and the trailers aimed to obfuscate just about everything. All you'd really know about the film based on its two primary trailers that played in cinemas is the following: it picks up straight after The Force Awakens; Rey trains in the Force (sort of); Luke wants the Jedi to end (for an unclear reason); there's at least one space battle (where Kylo may contemplate killing Leia); there is a salt planet battle; Finn fights Phasma; Snoke captures Rey; Rey and Kylo Ren may consider teaming up (but there was questionable trailer editing); Porgs exist. That's it. More could be gleaned by TV spots and tie-in materials, but even then, anything approaching the big questions left by The Force Awakens or refuting of baked-in fan theories that were flat-out wrong was in short supply.
And this was a problem. Yes, The Last Jedi's secretive marketing protected from any and almost all spoilers, but it also didn't establish what the movie itself was going to be. There was none of Luke's personality, none of Rey and Kylo Ren's growing relationship, none of the comedy. Audiences had simply no idea what Star Wars: The Last Jedi was.
The Last Jedi's Marketing Sold A Force Awakens Sequel, Not The Last Jedi
On a basic level, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a sequel to The Force Awakens. But just as Star Wars 7 was a sequel to Return of the Jedi, start of a new trilogy and legacy-quel reboot, so too was its follow-up doing more than just continuing the story. The Last Jedi takes characters we've known for multiple movies and evolves them. Luke is a tortured figure when we meet him 35 years later; Leia is able to tap into the Force in a moment of mortal threat; Kylo Ren is more confused than all-evil after killing his father; and Rey's parents really aren't important. These are big topics that go against previous understandings, and the themes are just as unexpected: failure as a teacher; learning from the past while moving beyond it; and on a more intimate scale, Star Wars is not just about the Skywalkers.
It's not hard to see that these are challenging ideas for Star Wars. The two previous Disney-era films had been a spiritual remake new beginning and war-is-hell evoking of original trilogy aesthetic; they were firmly in the Star Wars ballpark. The last time Star Wars truly deviated from expectations was when Episode I: The Phantom Menace slowed the pace, provided political backstory and explained the Force. There, it was also held back by wooden dialogue and weak filmmaking, but the lessons of surprise should be clear. Yet Star Wars: The Last Jedi's marketing did nothing to prep people for what was coming beyond promising a ride that was more of the same. The most the trailers did were include choice quotes like Luke's "This is not going to go the way you think" or Kylos' "let the past die, kill it you have to", which is frankly not enough to work against those theorizing Snoke is Darth Plageuis or other madcap irrelevancies.
This undoubtedly made everything more affronting. Luke's personality shift was bigger, the jokes more extreme, the deaths more shocking. And with that comes a bigger backlash. It's easy to point at Star Wars: The Last Jedi itself as being the root of all these problems, but it's really all in the build-up. And we can see that best when comparing to Disney's other major franchise...
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019