A Disturbance in the Fan Force

By now, it’s no secret that the response to Star Wars: The Last Jedi has caused quite a stir. Having thoroughly enjoyed the film upon its release, as well as subsequent viewings, I was baffled by the negativity from the darkest corners of the Internet being hurled toward the film and seemingly everyone associated with making it. Having taken a closer look at the criticisms, I must say the message being sent is troubling, to say the least.

Troubling not because the film was actually bad (which it most definitely wasn’t), but because of how the disparate reactions to the film have exposed a deep split among the viewing public. The amount of vitriol, name-calling and all-around nastiness that often ensues during arguments about the film on social media and comment boards almost seems like a modern political discussion, given how much each side seems to take any disagreement personally.

Even worse, some of the highest-profile entertainment vloggers on social media in their quest for click-baity headlines seem all too willing to foster this animosity, lest they alienate one side or the other by telling them to shut up (not that there aren’t plenty of videos and articles to be found rebutting various arguments for or against the film).

From my own perspective, it seems those who would rather sling hate at the film aren’t exactly trying to engage in an honest discussion about it, proclaiming how valid their own initial subjective reactions must be as if they were a god-given objective truth, making no effort to understand the filmmakers’ intent and how it fits into the larger whole of the “Star Wars” saga, and basically ignoring any thought-out explanations as to why what they thought was wrong with the film wasn’t actually the case, responding only with repetition of their original premise and, usually, with further-escalating insults.

In finding a “Star Wars” film that challenges their expectations for the franchise, but also forces them to take a hard look at their own fanaticism, some viewers would simply prefer to find any excuse to bash the film, dismissing it as a whole over what would ultimately amount to minor quibbles in the eyes of any rational, reasonable observer.

Much of the acrimony likely stems from viewers who, rather than accept “Star Wars” as an entertainment with a vast story to be discovered, seemingly spent a large portion of their brainpower since Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out two years ago into trying to unlock every mystery of the “Star Wars” universe, and simply cannot accept that The Last Jedi not only didn’t prioritize those storyline elements in the same way, but provided answers that completely contradicted what they came up with in their heads. Rather than ruminate about what could happen based on various clues dropped into the previous films, those viewers afflicted with Jedi Derangement Syndrome became convinced that what they speculated was what should happen, and that no variation would be tolerated. (The film brilliantly provides some meta dialogue that subtly jabs at fanboys obsessing over details that really don’t matter — a fact some viewers seem to have taken personally).

Rather than rehash any specific arguments about the film, which anyone can find anywhere they want online, I’m more interested in the underlying assumptions about fandom that form the basis of much of the debate.

It should perhaps come as little surprise that a film in which one of the central motifs is an examination of hero worship should engender a debate that itself plays out like a treatise on the nature of fandom.

It’s often thrown around that while general audiences liked The Last Jedi, “the fans” did not, or are split in their reactions to it. What fascinates me about the discussion is tendency for each side to retreat to a position that anyone who disagrees with their position of the film is not a “real fan,” as if there were some universally accepted standard for determining who belongs in that group.

The haters, for example, chide some of the filmmakers, particularly director Rian Johnson, for “not understanding ‘Star Wars’” or such nonsense. As if the people making the films weren’t as much fans of the franchise as those willing to insult them, when it’s clear many of these filmmakers were as much fans of “Star Wars” as anybody growing up. Many, in fact, went into the entertainment industry because “Star Wars” inspired their creative impulses (which begs the question, if so many of these people hate the direction Lucasfilm is taking the films since being bought out by Disney, why they didn’t go into the entertainment industry and pay their dues to rise through the ranks of Hollywood so that someday they themselves could be in the position, as J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson and Kathleen Kennedy were, to implement their own visions for what “Star Wars” should be).

So to suggest that Johnson wasn’t a fan is insulting on its face to not only him, but also any viewers who consider themselves fans, appreciate his vision and don’t mind the direction he took the franchise.

To that end, it raises a serious question of what it means to be a fan of “Star Wars” anymore in the first place. Many of the people hating on the film seem to fall into that camp that has had no trouble consistently bashing any “Star Wars” film that has come out since the original trilogy ended in 1983. So, if they haven’t liked a “Star Wars” film in 34 years, how are they still counted among the fans? These are people who even turned against George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” once they decided his prequels didn’t measure up to their expectations either.

On the other hand, if someone loves the original trilogy so much, and felt the prequels and sequels don’t measure up to the spirit and story of the originals, and all they want is continuations to live up to that quality, are they reasonable to be miffed if they think other fans to be too accepting of what they perceive are substandard additions to the franchise they say they love. (Of course, I wonder if, in their zeal to form petitions to ask Disney to remake Episode VIII to be more in keeping with their interpretation of the original trilogy, and “do more justice” to the older characters, they realize that to do so would be wiping out the late Carrie Fisher’s last “Star Wars” performance, and as a result the movie they seem to want would have to rely even more on the newer elements they object to.)

To be fair, this isn’t like criticism of the prequels, where fans were pretty much in agreement as to what the problems were. With those, it was more a question of how tolerable the negative aspects were and whether they were egregious enough to ruin the movie. Now, listening to complaints about The Last Jedi, it’s almost as if the people who didn’t like it saw a completely different movie than I did. And their laundry list of complaints (repeated with a relentless, close-minded stubbornness throughout the Internet, whether anyone asked for their opinion or not) would suggest that the only acceptable interpretation of “Star Wars” going forward is the one everyone can agree on, as long as they agree with them.

Is that what fandom has become?

Now, it’s pretty evident that the complainers are a loud minority subset of the fandom, with voices amplified by the echo chambers of the Internet. Is Disney supposed to ignore the appreciation mainstream audiences had for the film, or the hardcore fans who liked the direction it went? Or is Disney supposed to cater to this loud minority (or, as Red Letter Media jokingly suggests, make a different, personalized “Star Wars” sequel for every single person who complained)?

This is where the fissure in fandom would seem to have the most impact on future films, as we’re very close to the point where each side prefers their “Star Wars” to be something mutually exclusive from the other side (in that a specific plot turn will only satisfy half the audience, while turning off the other half). The things that the haters of Last Jedi hate about it are pretty much the very things that people who love the movie love about it.

Last Jedi haters say they have no interest in Episode IX, but is that really the case? After all, if they don’t see it, they wouldn’t know if they were appeased, or if they weren’t what to complain (not that such a thing would stop anybody from complaining anyway). And maybe fans of The Last Jedi wouldn’t mind easing back on some things to make Episode IX more palatable to the haters, but at this point, TLJ supporters might just insist Disney ignore the haters just out of principle. (Not to mention that a lot of the online criticism may stem from a coordinated effort to attack anything owned by Disney — Lucasfilm and Marvel in particular — out of spite for bad reviews for Warner’s DC Comics movies.)

Of course, the biggest downside of appeasing a small subset of the so-called fan base is the risk that making everything too familiar in the way they would want would make the franchise too stale over time, turning off the mass audiences who are at most casual fans (huge box office numbers are pretty much a balance between getting more people to see the movie once and getting more people to see it again and again because they’re huge fans of it).

This is a lesson J.J. Abrams, director of Force Awakens and the upcoming Episode IX, is rather familiar with. With his Star Trek reboot, he didn’t mind alienating the extreme hardcore fans of the spinoff shows in exchange for a template that let him re-cast the basic elements of the franchise in a more accessible way, and the result was a tremendous box office upside above and beyond what the previous few films had done. Then, when his sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, tried to appease the hardcore fans by rehashing familiar elements, it backfired.

(Ironically enough, Abrams streamlined Star Trek for mass audiences by basically overlaying the story of the original Star Wars on top of it, which he would also do with Force Awakens.)

What’s especially interesting is how this fan rift parallels difficulties marketing “Star Wars” in China, where the franchise has never caught on the way it has in America and Europe. According to an article in Forbes, Chinese audiences tend to prefer relatively unsophisticated fare that doesn’t require much investment in ongoing storylines, the way “Star Wars” does. So the franchises that do well tend to be action-oriented, like “Fast & Furious,” where a coherent story isn’t at the forefront of the filmmakers’ minds.

Forbes also suggested Chinese audiences prefer bright, flashy colors and spectacle over films such as “Star Wars” with meaningful ideas and emotional stakes.

Let’s also not be too surprised that a franchise that is fundamentally about the pursuit of individual freedom over collective tyranny might not appeal to a population inundated with Communist philosophies. (Good job, Last Jedi haters, on this one you managed to be on the same side as China — where the all-time top movie is Wolf Warrior 2, which is about the equivalent of American audiences elevating cheesy action movies like Rambo or Delta Force to the box office heights of, well, the original “Star Wars.”)

What it speaks to, though, is a larger problem Hollywood has in appealing to China as a last resort for growing international box office profits. It was all fine for a while as China simply responded to increased access to Western movies. Then, when studios started pandering to China with curious casting and story elements, American audiences began to take notice, and the filmmaking suffered. Transformers: Age of Extinction, for example, basically turned its final battle into propaganda for the Chinese government, which for many stateside viewers was the last straw in an already problematic franchise — and the next film took a huge hit at the box office. (If “Transformers” movies are going to be propaganda, it better be for the U.S. military, dammit.)

There’s also the question of whether such pandering even works in China. Certainly, adding Asian elements to the past few “Star Wars” films has done little to increase their appeal in the Middle Kingdom.

And so it goes. Appeal to one country, lose another one that might have more money. Appeal to one group of fans, lose another. Make it too niche, lose wider audiences. Make it too familiar so some viewers complain, or worry about viewers tuning it out for becoming stale.

Are these the new metrics Hollywood must deal with? Is box office potential closing in on a kind of peak efficiency, where structural problems in marketability and regional appeal will topple the lofty expectations of the modern mega-blockbuster? Is it even still reasonable to believe that a movie can draw similar revenue from different types of crowds who simply don’t think alike anymore?

Or maybe it’s just the latest version of the same types of problems Hollywood has always dealt with in reaching an audience. Thanks to social media, at least, we have a keener understanding of Hollywood’s relationship with its audience, beyond just pure box office results.

As frustrating as it can be to deal with the diversity of opinions available, it’s also fascinating to watch the dynamics unfold, yielding new lessons for both the studios in understanding who they’re making the movies for, and for members of the audience in coming to terms that not everything is made for them.

Of course, lessons like this are only as effective as the willingness to listen of those who would benefit most by them. After all, the Internet allows almost anyone to express their voice, regardless of relevancy or accuracy. We just have to learn to filter out the noise.

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