clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The ‘Star Wars’ Fan Wars

Social media has supercharged the passion and toxicity of ‘Star Wars’ fandom, but the long-running space opera was an object of great debate long before hashtags  

Disney/Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

The movie theater was a charmless box of late-20th-century architecture— concrete blocks and stucco—planted on the edge of a mostly barren riverfront boulevard in South Philadelphia, within spitting distance of some strip clubs and a Walmart. But on a frigid night in January 1997, the place was buzzing like a carnival.

Ticket holders fidgeted on the sidewalk and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the lobby, some of them dressed like their heroes: a shaggy wannabe Luke Skywalker here, an aspiring Leia there, even a guy with a stuffed Yoda on his shoulder. The occasion was the rerelease of the original Star Wars trilogy, which had been gussied up with CGI flourishes that would later stick out for their video game cutscene-like quality. It had been 14 years since a Star Wars film had graced the big screen, and these “special editions” were catnip for a hungry fan base; A New Hope alone pulled in $256.9 million.

I was there on that opening weekend with my then-teenaged friends. What I remember most—aside from the theater giving away Luke Skywalker action figures, which we promptly sold to a guy in a trench coat for five bucks a pop—is how the experience was so simple, the stakes so low. Just a bunch of strangers piled into a dark theater together, soaking up the galactic weirdness of George Lucas’s imagination: the opening crawl, the creature-filled cantina, Darth Vader’s menacing swagger, all the implied history of the Jedi.

Fun. The word for that was fun.

Twenty-two years later, fun is the one thing that seems to be missing from Star Wars. Last week brought The Rise of Skywalker, the final chapter in Lucas’s epic saga. It should have been easy cause for celebration—the Star Wars movie to end all Star Wars movies!—but chatter about the film turned sour a few days before it opened, when the first batch of critical reviews resembled eyewitness descriptions of a 10-car pileup. You’d have to go back to 1999’s The Phantom Menace to find a Star Wars movie that was so widely panned. The Eye of Sauron–like gaze of Twitter spun toward Skywalker director J.J. Abrams, and unleashed a hashtag: #jjabramsisoverparty.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that this new trilogy, and the Skywalker saga itself, would end on a muddled, conflicted note. Certain pockets of the fan base never stopped arguing about 2017’s The Last Jedi, the film that infamously saw some accuse director Rian Johnson of ruining their childhoods, and racist trolls harass actress Kelly Marie Tran (who played a Resistance member in the The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker) until she quit social media. Abrams apparently shared some of the criticisms expressed online, and recently told The New York Times that he doesn’t think “that people go to Star Wars to be told, ‘This doesn’t matter,’” a not-so-subtle poke at how Johnson subverted fans’ expectations about a Chekhov’s gun like Rey’s mysterious lineage.

The result of all this is … Skywalker, a movie shaped by the most exhausting part of Star Wars—the 24/7 churn of sports talk radio-like complaints. “I think, knock on wood, that the fans are going to feel … listened to,” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said earlier this month. But which fans had Lucasfilm listened to?

Die-hards, after all, have wildly divergent interests. There are shippers rooting for any number of unions; others who view the original trilogy, or the prequels, as their Star Wars; followers of the expanded universe, which includes years’ worth of comic books, novels, and video games; cosplayers, cartoon devotees, and—look, it’s not a short list. There’s no way a filmmaker can please all of those factions. Abrams chose some over others; Tran’s role shrunk, Rey was revealed to be a Palpatine, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill returned for gauzy farewells. This is what happens when fan service becomes a chore.

I talked recently to Johnson while he was promoting his acclaimed whodunnit, Knives Out. He didn’t sound surprised to face renewed questions about the fan reaction to Jedi; he regularly mixes it up with supporters and detractors on Twitter. “I think there’s a fascinating documentary to be made about this era of Star Wars movies, especially about that level of fandom,” he said, with a diplomat’s even tone. He avoids diving too deeply into debates about what fans do and don’t want out of the films. “I sort of get the ripple on top of the water, whatever leaks into my Twitter feed.”

Disney’s plans for future Star Wars movies are still up in the air, and the fact that Skywalker collected a smaller opening box office haul than its predecessors won’t go unnoticed. But the franchise’s stewards would do well to figure out who will be in charge of mapping out its future, and which pockets of the fan base it might want to avoid trying to please.

Fan backlash to a Star Wars movies predates social media; even in the franchise’s earliest days, plot choices were scrutinized to the nth degree. But somewhere along the way, the tenor evolved from simple bitching into something more harmful.

After the 1999 release of The Phantom Menace, the first installment of the divisive prequels, the British film magazine Empire asked Lucas about the angry reaction some fans had to one of the new characters he created: Jar Jar Binks. Lucas responded with the equivalent of a long, heavy sigh. “That same group of fans absolutely hated R2 and C3PO in the first film,” he said. “[I]n the second film, they hated Yoda, he was not a well-liked character—‘we can’t understand what he’s talking about, he’s green, he’s a muppet.’” (What would those monsters think of Baby Yoda?)

What Lucas perhaps didn’t count on was those fans channeling their dislike of Jar Jar into actual harassment of Ahmed Best, the actor who portrayed him. Some told Best that he had ruined their childhoods—an evergreen complaint—and he was dismayed to see his acting career stall after the film. In a 2018 tweet that referenced the fallout from Phantom, he wrote: “This was the place I almost ended my life. It’s still hard to talk about.”

Best’s admission should have been an invitation to dig deeper into the dark side of fandom, especially since he wasn’t the only Star Wars actor with an unsettling anecdote to share. When director J. J. Abrams cast John Boyega as Finn in 2015’s The Force Awakens, online commenters complained about the specter of a black Stormtrooper—progressive values, run amok! —and other trolls called for a boycott of the film after seeing a trailer they felt was short on white, male protagonists. The movie earned more than $2 billion.

And then came the slurs Kelly Marie Tran faced after she starred in Jedi. A user on a fan-run Star Wars encyclopedia changed the name of Tran’s character; others haunted her on Instagram, driving her to ultimately delete her photos. “Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me,” Tran wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories.”

Boyega and Hamill jumped to Tran’s defense, as did Johnson, who recently summed up his feelings towards people who oppose a more diverse Star Wars cast: “fuck ‘em.” Abrams said earlier this year that he was grateful to Johnson for casting Tran, but her presence in Skywalker was limited to a handful of lines in a film admittedly overstuffed with cameos and MacGuffin searches.

It’s easy for a filmmaker or a corporate executive to disavow behavior that’s so transparently ugly—to say, in so many words, These are not the fans we are looking for. But none of those episodes came as a surprise to women or fans of color who have felt unwelcome in certain Star Wars circles, or had encounters that didn’t merit news coverage.

Tricia Barr, an author and podcaster, recalled getting harassed years ago by male fans on message boards that she visited, an experience that inspired her to create a Star Wars–centric blog for female fans. That undercurrent of hostility, she told me, has been “an ingrained part of the culture of Star Wars fandom for as long as people can remember, especially in online communities.” Barr, who coauthored Ultimate Star Wars and Star Wars: The Visual Encyclopedia, came to believe that a segment of male fans were used to being catered to, and recoiled when Lucasfilm built its latest trilogy around more diverse characters.

But she also found that venom could spring from unexpected sources. She wrote a story in the October issue of Star Wars Insider that examined Kylo Ren’s attempts at manipulating Rey, filtered through the lens of an abusive relationship. The article earned the animosity of mostly female Reylo shippers, who lashed out at Barr and the magazine on social media. “You think, ‘Wow, they just come after people,’ but it’s about their own sense of identity,” she said. “They attack other people who impinge on their identity. They stop acting in a logical manner. It’s hivemind.”

Holly Quinn, a tech reporter in Wilmington, Delaware, traces her passion for Star Wars back to the original trilogy. “I’m Gen-X. So I go back to the days of paper mailing lists,” she said. The prequels prompted her to begin exploring online forums, which were then in their infancy. “At that time, I was more intimidated as a woman than as a black person,” she said. “It was much more of a boys’ club.” She started a Tumblr and connected with other female fans who were concerned with the way characters of color were being treated by the fandom, and dismayed by story lines they felt sidelined minority actors. (A hashtag, #WhereIsFinn, summed up their frustration.) But Quinn said that nuanced criticism of these issues was overshadowed by the toxic backlash to The Last Jedi. “It all really becomes very convoluted.”

Other fans aren’t looking for more inclusive stories; they just want to rewrite cinematic history. Last year, a Twitter account and website popped up called Remake the Last Jedi. (Their aim was to ... well, you know.) A person responding to Remake’s email account refused to identify the individuals who are involved, but insisted they “have the means to fund it ourselves, if Disney gave us the green light.”

Jedi’s production costs were more than $300 million, but let’s set that aside for a moment. The Remake crew objected to a number of narrative choices that Johnson made, especially his depiction of Luke Skywalker as a jaded recluse disillusioned with the legacy of the Jedi. “We’re waiting on Disney,” the Remake emailer wrote, “to realize that course correcting is the only option.”

The Force ghost Luke who shows up in The Rise of Skywalker has a notably sunnier disposition. He exhumes the X-Wing that he had once submerged on Ahch-To, and chides Rey for chucking her lightsaber. She questions him about the hard-won convictions he held in The Last Jedi, the failures and fears that led him to lead a life of seclusion.

“I was wrong,” he says.

Star Wars fans aren’t the only ones who want to have a hand on the wheel of a mega-budget franchise. For much of the last two years, supporters of Zack Snyder have been lobbying Warner Bros. to release the director’s version of 2017’s middling Justice League, which was partially reshot after Snyder left the film in the wake of his daughter’s death.

When the movie’s anniversary arrived in November, the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut hashtag was retweeted hundreds of thousands of times, led by tweets from stars Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, and Ray Fisher. Clay Enos, who worked as a photographer on Justice League, and other Snyder films like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, told me the show of online support in November was “cathartic” for Snyder. “Millions of people spoke up,” he said, “and put their voice behind some abstract notion of artistic integrity.”

But Enos was also struck by the fact that so many people expected they could force the studio’s hand, simply because they wanted to. “You have competing understandings with competing desires,” he said. “It’s lovely to hear from fans, but I think it takes a discerning ear and eye to siphon out or distill out the essence of their message.”

And Star Wars die-hards did get to put their stamp on 2010’s Star Wars Uncut, a collaborative project dreamed up by Casey Pugh, an easygoing creative technologist. Pugh assembled a shot-for-shot remake of A New Hope that was comprised of 15-second scenes submitted by fans, with styles that included live action, animation, and stop motion. “It was so silly and so fun,” he said. Uncut won an Emmy for outstanding achievement in interactive media, and Pugh followed up with an uncut version of The Empire Strikes Back.

The fans he interacted with were just happy to relive a part of their childhood. “Fortunately, I did not get any backlash, so I’m lucky. I dodged that bullet. If anything, people were just upset they didn’t get the scenes they wanted.” But Pugh grew up playing Star Wars video games online, and knows that fans can rage if they feel a filmmaker hasn’t stayed true to the franchise’s spirit and lore. “The biggest fans are also the loudest complainers,” he says. “That’s sort of the story of the internet, right?”

And sure: Social media is not real life. But it is always there, isn’t it? Humming in the background, like an old television set that you forgot to turn off in the attic, with a message that might not be worth deciphering. We shouldn’t want that sound to influence a film as blatantly as it affected The Rise of Skywalker.

A cinematic vision ought to come from someplace deeper, even if it’s a franchise that’s been as commercialized and commodified as Star Wars, and owned by Disney, the ultimate corporate collector of intellectual property.

But then even the purest of intentions isn’t a guaranteed recipe for success. When The Phantom Menace was cheered and then torn to shreds in 1999, George Lucas puzzled at the fandom his films had created, at the millions of people who expected him to make lightning strike again and again so they could feel a little magic inside.

“The fans’ expectations have gotten way high, and they wanted a film that was going to change their lives and be the second coming,” he said at the time. “You know, I can’t do that. It’s just a movie.”

David Gambacorta is a writer-at-large at The Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s also written for Esquire, Longreads, and Philadelphia Magazine.