What, exactly, do we want out of Star Wars?
In one sense, the answer is obvious: the same thing we want from all movies—entertainment, emotion, an epic sense of scope inaccessible in our everyday lives. In another, it’s irrelevant, or would seem to be. What does a multibillion dollar franchise with an intractable hold on the collective conscious care about our whims?
And yet, in the lead-up to the release of The Rise of Skywalker this Friday, the question of what fans expect from the saga has suddenly become an urgent one. Even in a vacuum, the stakes of Rise are objectively sky-high. Director J.J. Abrams and cowriter Chris Terrio are tasked with bringing nine movies’—and more than four decades’—worth of story to a satisfying close, an imposing order for even the most beloved of filmmakers. But with all that lore, legacy, and anticipation comes context. Abrams himself has, as the Lost cocreator candidly told The New York Times, “never been great at endings.” Most of the pre-premiere scrutiny, however, has fallen not on Rise of Skywalker, but its immediate predecessor.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson, lately of Knives Out, The Last Jedi brought in more than a billion dollars worldwide, advancing the bottom line of corporate parent Disney, and earned rave reviews, suggesting a secure spot in the popular imagination as a widely admired piece of monoculture. But from its introduction in 2017, The Last Jedi has gained an outsized notoriety for a mainstream family movie that broadly hews to the traditional hero’s journey, a onetime unifier turned contentious battleground. A Change.org petition to “have Disney strike Star Wars Episode VIII from the official canon” gathered more than 100,000 signatures. The Rotten Tomatoes audience score for the film lags far behind the critical one, most likely due to another coordinated campaign. The Last Jedi objectors make up a statistically minor portion of the Star Wars fandom, but they are an extremely vocal one. More substantively, The Last Jedi made about $700 million less worldwide than The Force Awakens, the new trilogy kickoff also directed by Abrams. There’s no single explanation for the drop, which still left The Last Jedi one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, but it does lend credence to the idea that the sequel is less than universally revered.
It’s important to stipulate that backlash to the new trilogy did not start with The Last Jedi, a film whose lightning-rod status naturally sapped some heat from the tiresome Mary Sue accusations that dogged Force Awakens. It did, however, intensify; the only thing more blasphemous than introducing new heroes into Star Wars’ canon, it turns out, is tampering with old ones. The Last Jedi’s controversy clusters around a handful of choices by Johnson that subvert or contradict widely held notions of where its story was headed post-Force. Heroine Rey spent all of The Force Awakens in pursuit of Luke Skywalker, Star Wars’ erstwhile protagonist turned mysterious hermit. The Last Jedi immediately throws down the gauntlet by following The Force Awakens’ stirring final shot of Rey offering Luke his own lightsaber with a cheeky rejoinder: Luke tosses it aside. Self-serious resolve meets brusque irreverence, as apt a metaphor as any for what Star Wars’ audience was anticipating versus what it got.
From there, The Last Jedi makes Luke a deeply fallible figure, partly responsible for the new trilogy’s main villain and driven by regret into self-imposed exile. That villain, Kylo Ren, proceeded to puncture another one of the fandom’s core assumptions: that Rey—like Kylo, the son of Han Solo and grandson of Darth Vader—would be revealed as a direct descendant of Star Wars’ classic characters. Their conversation follows another surprising pivot: The Force Awakens depicted Kylo as the conflicted deputy to the (literally) shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke, implying both future insight into Snoke’s motivations and a Vader-Palpatine dynamic wherein Kylo betrays Snoke to achieve eleventh-hour redemption. Instead, Snoke was unceremoniously dispatched by Kylo, who cements himself as the new trilogy’s Big Bad by assuming leadership of the First Order. Fittingly, Kylo gets to deliver the movie’s signature line, an indelible phrase that doubles as a mission statement: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”
Part of what’s made the ensuing discourse so brain-breaking is that the aspects of Last Jedi some partisans find most objectionable are precisely the ones its defenders love best. To some, it’s thrilling when art, especially genre narratives more hidebound by convention than most, defies our expectations. That Luke is a failed leader, not the hero hindsight made him out to be; that Jedi mastery is an ideal to aspire to, not a title to be inherited; that Kylo is a villain who chose his own path, not an antihero in waiting—viewed in a certain light, these developments are exciting, and very much in the spirit of the “I am your father” heard ’round the galaxy. (Back then, the idea that a hero and his nemesis could be not just close but related came out of nowhere; these days, it’s so absorbed into the atmosphere the opposite is equally shocking.) To others, though, such subversions violate a legacy Disney and its hired hands have been entrusted to protect rather than tamper with. (No matter that Disney had to sign off on every decision Johnson made.) And there’s no arguing one’s way out of an instinctual response to art, one rooted in deeply held notions about its purpose.
Two years in, this latest round of the Star Wars Wars marks a new escalation, and a break in this uneasy stalemate. Contempt for The Last Jedi is long-standing; in 2019, it appears to be tacitly encouraged by Disney itself. In The New York Times preview piece, Abrams told reporter Dave Itzkoff that Jedi made “all sorts of bold choices,” but—there was clearly a “but” coming—“I don’t think that people go to Star Wars to be told ‘This doesn’t matter.’” These comments weren’t offhand; weaved into a major feature in the paper of record, accompanied by a glossy photo shoot and with the full participation of Disney’s menacing PR machine, they carried an air of official approval.
Nor were they an isolated incident. In an interview with AwardsDaily, editor Maryann Brandon argued The Last Jedi “did present a lot of challenges in terms of where Episode IX had to go to finish the saga … I think Rian Johnson is an amazing filmmaker, and I just think that when you’re doing a trilogy, you can’t just abandon a story,” a reference to the death of Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile, actor John Boyega was more overt in expressing his dissatisfaction. “The Force Awakens, I think, was the beginning of something quite solid; The Last Jedi, if I’m being honest, I’d say that was feeling a bit iffy for me,” Boyega told Hypebeast. “I didn’t necessarily agree with a lot of the choices in that and that’s something that spoke to Mark [Hamill] a lot about and we had conversations about it.” On their own, these quotes can be attributed to particular context and individual preference. Together, they suggest a subtle dog whistle to the anti-Jedi contingent, an impression bolstered by initial reviews of The Rise of Skywalker.
Even before Skywalker’s rollout, some of Star Wars’ structural quirks sent a strange and contradictory set of signals. Under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, Star Wars initially distinguished itself from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney’s other sprawling mega-property with a relative sense of creative latitude afforded to its collaborators. By all accounts, the most distinctive—and polarizing—decisions in The Last Jedi are Johnson’s, a stark contrast with both the MCU’s interconnected, top-down story structure (character X must do Y to set up sequel Z) and the television arcs our largest properties increasingly resemble. (First you break the season, then you write the individual episodes.) Johnson has spoken consistently and appreciatively of the trust demonstrated in him by Kennedy and others, including on The Ringer’s Big Picture podcast. Still, that surprising flexibility for such a sprawling entity cuts both ways. If Johnson could take control of Star Wars and steer the narrative in his preferred direction, his successor could, too.
Besides, over the past few years, this status quo has started to shift. First, codirectors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired from stand-alone prequel Solo, replaced midproduction with a more studio-friendly director in Ron Howard; then, initial Episode IX helmer Colin Trevorrow left as well, also due to creative differences with Lucasfilm. (Trevorrow retains a story credit on the final product.) It’s a familiar story in the current blockbuster era, as anyone from Edgar Wright to Rick Famuyiwa can attest. And it implies that those with the keys to Star Wars can and will make course corrections when deemed necessary. Aggrieved fans have simply taken that suggestion and run with it. Whatever anyone wants out of Star Wars, it seems, they can get—so long as they make themselves heard to those in charge.
After weeks of gracious answers on an awkwardly timed press tour of his own, Johnson recently spoke up in defense of The Last Jedi, not so much as his prerogative as an underappreciated act of fealty. “I think approaching any creative process with [making fandoms happy] would be a mistake that would lead to probably the exact opposite result,” he speculated on the Swings & Mrs. podcast. “Even my experience as a fan ... if I’m coming into something, even if it’s something that I think I want, if I see exactly what I think I want on the screen, it’s like ‘Oh, OK.’ ... What I’m aiming for every time I sit down in a theater is to have the experience [I had] with Empire Strikes Back, something that’s emotionally resonant and feels like it connects up and makes sense and really gets to the heart of what this thing is and in a way that I never could have seen coming.” In making The Last Jedi, Johnson was targeting the same end—a timeless classic with a fresh twist, the impossible standard Empire set with ease—with different means. In fact, he’s arguing, he had to.
For the record, Star Wars’ original auteur seems to feel similarly. In his recent memoir, Disney CEO Bob Iger recalled that George Lucas felt “betrayed” by The Force Awakens. This dismay wasn’t because the new trilogy departed too drastically from Lucas’s creation, but because it stuck too closely to its inherited blueprint. “There’s nothing new,” Iger paraphrases, merely lots that’s old: another Death Star, another Vader, another Skywalker story. Iger’s self-defense is telling in its own right: Lucas “wasn’t appreciating the pressure we were under to give ardent fans a film that felt quintessentially Star Wars. … We’d intentionally created a world that was visually and tonally connected to the earlier films, to not stray too far from what people loved and expected, and George was criticizing us for the very thing we were trying to do.” As with the Last Jedi split, there’s a maddening, circular feel to this disagreement. The same supporting evidence leads to exact opposite conclusions. One man’s cynical rehash is another’s loving homage; one man’s bold innovation is another’s jarring departure. On and on it goes.
With the conclusion of Star Wars’ primary story, it might appear the question of Star Wars fans’ appetites is no longer relevant. But of course, Disney is nowhere near finished with Star Wars, and the culture at large is nowhere near finished with reworking established touchstones for a younger generation. Neither Rian Johnson nor J.J. Abrams will be the last to tackle a question they ended up on contrasting sides of. Obscured by Iger’s framing of novelty and fan service as mutually exclusive is the simple truth that different fans want different things, and appeasing one camp can mean alienating another.
So if you can’t please everyone, why not take a risk?