Rian Johnson was behind the camera for one of the best episodes of television ever made, Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias.” The centerpiece of the episode, the death of DEA Agent Hank Schrader, is not just unceremonious — Hank is cut off mid-sentence with a bullet to the head — but unexpected. The murder happens at the beginning of the episode, catching viewers off guard, but also causing the death to fester like an open wound for the rest of the hour. Instead of focusing on the brutality of the murder, as you might expect, Johnson’s camera lingers on the anguished expression of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White. In a show about a science teacher turned drug kingpin — which at one point depicts, in gruesome detail, Walt’s biggest adversary turning into Two-Face — it’s what Johnson doesn’t show that stands out.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which Johnson wrote and directed, was saddled with expectations not just because of the mysteries of The Force Awakens, but also due to decades of Star Wars lore. Fans wanted to know: Who are Rey’s parents? What’s the deal with Supreme Leader Snoke? Is Luke Skywalker still the hero we grew up loving? Will the Jedi return to their former glory? Well: Rey’s parents were nobodies, Supreme Leader Snoke was sliced in half before we could get a referral to his great interior decorator, Luke finds the Jedi way to be a hypocritical mess, and Yoda returns as a Force Ghost to destroy the final remnants of the Jedi’s library. Surprising, all this was.
Not surprising, however, was the fact that some fans didn’t take to Johnson’s bold new direction. There was an outpouring of criticism on Reddit, while Rotten Tomatoes’ audience score currently sits at a paltry 56 percent approval, a stark contrast to the near-universal praise by critics. Though the gap between critics and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes is probably a bit exaggerated — CinemaScore, which is a more reliable aggregator of fan reaction, still gave The Last Jedi high marks with an “A” rating — no doubt there is a visible backlash to this movie. And while much of the criticism is originating from reprehensible corners of the internet — the same people who take issue with the trilogy’s strong female protagonist, and who were upset with Rogue One’s diverse ensemble — some of it is understandable.
The Last Jedi incites a negative reaction from fans because it is, in many ways, an affront to the culture of internet theorizing that surrounds beloved franchises. Fan theories drive conversations about some of the biggest films and shows — the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Westworld, Mr. Robot, Game of Thrones, and yes, Star Wars — moving the news cycle beyond a release and into a yearlong phenomenon. An exhaustive, 18-minute breakdown of a Last Jedi trailer has 2 million–plus views on YouTube; a thread on Reddit theorizing why Luke Skywalker exiled himself has more than 300 comments. On sites like Reddit, these speculative conversations — even if they’re as silly as Jar Jar Binks being a Sith Lord, which has more than 8,000 comments — grow like weeds, and through outsized passion and conviction on behalf of the participants, they become as important as the TV show or movie that inspired them.
The Force Awakens and director J.J. Abrams — who, it should be noted, made his name with the show that practically birthed this culture, Lost — invited feverish speculation by shrouding Rey’s parentage and Snoke’s origin story in ambiguity. It was hard not to get sucked into the theory vacuum, because so much of the canvas was purposely left blank. Could Snoke be Darth Plagueis, the former master of Emperor Palpatine? Is Rey actually Obi-Wan Kenobi’s daughter, since Daisy Ridley got to keep her English accent and John Boyega, as Finn, did not?
Getting answers to The Force Awakens’ biggest questions was perhaps the main point of The Last Jedi for many fans — from that perspective, it’s no wonder the movie seems offensive. The film doesn’t care about the things that some expected it to care about. In fact, it came right out and told people not to care about the groundwork laid by the decades of earlier Star Wars movies: As the perpetually gloomy icon Kylo Ren says, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” But again, this is Johnson’s forte; he’s a master of subversion.
The conflict between the core fans’ expectations and the reality presented to them isn’t just a Star Wars problem, but a problem for all franchises. It’s a conflict rooted in creative vision, and who deserves to own it. Is it a franchise’s responsibility to reward eagle-eyed fans who drive certain corners of the web, like Westworld’s first season inevitably did? Can Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss end the saga the way they want, or should they try to outsmart their fans, who have become hyper-aware and vigilant after a couple deadly weddings?
The Last Jedi asked: Is any of that even necessary? Johnson prioritized his story over the whims of the internet, and in doing so changed the ethos of the franchise. Destiny in Star Wars is no longer synonymous with the Skywalker bloodline, and the Jedi way isn’t inherently good, or beneficial, to the galaxy. Even the main villain is less an intimidating, towering force in the vein of Darth Vader; rather, he’s a moody millennial and the most complex character the franchise has ever seen. Luke Skywalker was right: This was not going to go the way we thought it would.
Because Johnson’s choices were made with the biggest movie franchise on the planet, it caused an earthquake. But a reaction is inevitable when a creative vision competes with someone else’s expectations — on a smaller scale, look at David Lynch’s radically different return to Twin Peaks. The best art — the best multimillion-dollar blockbusters — strives to be new, bold, different, and challenging, rather than appeasing.
Though it’ll die down with time, the conflict between Star Wars and its fans will continue into 2019, when Episode IX comes out. Then we’ll see whether those behind the franchise make concessions to the fans or forge ahead. Ironically, that resolution falls in the hands of J.J. Abrams, the man who arguably set all of this off. Maybe that’s for the best; maybe it’ll keep the peace. If his résumé is any indication, Abrams may take Johnson’s lead and carry the franchise to creative new lengths, while also packing the last chapter of this trilogy with enough obscureness to keep the theorizers busy for years.