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The Right Way to Deal With Franchise History

‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ both use their fans’ years of emotional investment as a weapon, but the latter boldly does so without a safety net

Disney/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

With Disney quickly morphing into entertainment’s many-faced, multipurpose god, it’s not the least bit surprising that two of the biggest blockbusters of the past year are Mouse House productions. Avengers: Infinity War and Star Wars: The Last Jedi were capital-E Events—the former a massive cinematic crossover and the culmination of a decade of universe-building from Marvel Studios, and the latter a highly touted continuation of a new trilogy that promised darker undertones. Both movies hit theaters with a built-in audience: the millions who had stuck around to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s prior 18 films were guaranteed to tune in for the payoff in Infinity War. Star Wars, meanwhile, has been a cultural touchstone since its birth in the late ’70s, a phenomenon that with 2015’s The Force Awakens, appeared to have its groove back after a string of disappointing prequels in the early aughts. But where these blockbusters stand apart is in the way they wielded, subverted, and perhaps even exploited the expectations of their most ardent fans.

The history that both franchises have with their fans, some of whom grew up alongside these characters (don’t ask me about the fine additions to my General Grievous collection), engenders a deep emotional investment. Both franchises have cultivated this relationship for years—through their films, companion books, TV series, and fan conventions. But in Infinity War and The Last Jedi, both franchises deliberately disrupted the history the fan bases held so dear, delivering hefty gut-punches. In Infinity War, the long-hyped villain Thanos successfully acquired all six Infinity Stones, and with the snap of his fingers, eliminated half of the universe’s population—along with a handful of superheroes, including Spider-Man, Bucky Barnes, and Black Panther. The Last Jedi transformed Luke Skywalker into an aggravating, pessimistic, alien-milking, reticent Jedi Master, and that was before he sacrificed himself to save the few remaining Rebels, who could comfortably fit inside the Millennium Falcon. Even Mark Hamill had a hard time accepting his character’s arc. Neither movie left you with a warm feeling—watching both of them felt like walking through a thunderstorm without an umbrella.

However, the receptions to Disney’s latest mega-events—both commercially and in online circles—have been noticeably different. Infinity War broke the global and domestic box office opening-weekend records, and its 84 percent “fresh” Rotten Tomatoes rating is on par with the rest of the MCU. Only Black Panther and the first Avengers movie have a higher CinemaScore grade among MCU movies. The same can’t be said for The Last Jedi, which had a box office haul that was disappointing by Star Wars standards. The film had a steep 69 percent drop-off after its opening weekend, and while its 47 percent “rotten” Rotten Tomatoes audience score is more the result of a troll campaign than a unifying consensus, there was an indisputable backlash to Rian Johnson’s movie that didn’t exist with J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens.

But the polarizing reaction to The Last Jedi isn’t a sign of the film’s shortcomings; rather, it’s a sign of its audacity. The Last Jedi let its characters and story evolve, even if that meant destroying the foundations from which the franchise was built, and polarizing some of its fans along the way. Kylo Ren said it best: “Let the past die; kill it, if you have to.”

Today, The Empire Strikes Back may be considered Star Wars’ finest entry, but it had a similarly polarizing reception from fans in 1980. Darth Vader’s “I am your father” moment is now ingrained in the cultural lexicon, but it was one of cinema’s most unexpected, game-changing twists, and Han Solo being frozen in carbonite was a chilling image (literally) that wouldn’t be resolved for another three years. Like Empire, The Last Jedi didn’t retreat from its shocking moments: Yes, Luke wasn’t a flawless, mythological Jedi hero; yes, Rey’s parents were nobodies with no ties to the Skywalker or Kenobi bloodline; yes, the fan favorite Admiral Ackbar really died an unceremonious, off-screen death; and yes, Luke is really gone too.

But The Last Jedi didn’t just impart lessons from Empire’s bold storytelling choices—it used Star Wars’ history to subvert expectations, and make a world that’s been around for decades feel lived in for the same amount of time. Luke didn’t exist in narrative stasis in the decades he was left off-screen; instead, like any compelling character, he evolved. The Luke we meet in The Last Jedi is far removed from the bright-eyed farm boy on Tatooine. He’s been weighed down by the hypocrisy of the Jedi order, and his own failings as a teacher that manifested in Kylo Ren. The Last Jedi is a fluid continuation of Star Wars that asks its audience to reconsider their franchise nostalgia and plunge into the deep end along with its characters.

The MCU, meanwhile, seemingly cleared its roster in Infinity War by wiping out half the franchise’s heroes in a heart-wrenching send-off, but it did so with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in its back pocket. As gutting as it was to watch Peter Parker fear the unknown and say, “I don’t wanna go,” it was impossible not to watch that moment while simultaneously thinking, I know there’s a Spider-Man sequel in the works. The expectation is that Thanos’s Leftovers-esque rapture will be undone—the only question remaining is how. (Leading theories in the clubhouse: the remaining heroes will use the Infinity Stone that can reverse time, or Ant-Man and Captain Marvel will do something involving the “Quantum Realm.”) Characters like Spider-Man and Black Panther, who were ostensibly killed, are the new, young heroes who will shepherd Phase 4 of the MCU, while we know that guys like Captain America and Iron Man, who survived in Infinity War, are played by actors on expiring contracts. What we witnessed wasn’t a bold, sweeping emotional climax, but a gimmick meant to ensure that fans will park their butts in the theater next year to see how this all unfolds.

Perhaps if Infinity War opted to kill its older heroes, or killed off a combination of younger and older heroes—say, a mix of Iron Man, Captain America, Star-Lord, and Bucky Barnes—then the ending might’ve been taken at face value and had a greater, lasting impact. Instead, as most fans probably expect, Avengers 4 should bring its new heroes back and return us to Marvel’s status quo. This is the problem with the MCU in miniature: The emotional and narrative stakes are placated by an infinite loop of new “Phases,” new heroes, and potential franchises to branch out, which will beget more crossover events like Infinity War in the years to come. The franchise doesn’t ponder its own history or how to subvert it; it considers only how to keep feeding its loop ad infinitum. It’s an excellent business plan, but not a way to tell stories with humanity, thematic depth, and real stakes.

And it makes a blockbuster like The Last Jedi feel like a unicorn. By not just considering its own legacy, but letting its new heroes in Rey, Finn, and Poe take the spotlight and represent new values, The Last Jedi epitomizes how a decades-old franchise can handle its history without falling into repetitive traps. Letting the past die is just Star Wars’ way of ensuring its future.