Playing in the Fanboy Sandbox

The home video availability of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker  is sure to rekindle discussions over the legacy of the “Star Wars” franchise and the latest film’s contribution to it.

Star Wars fans mostly agree that Rise of Skywalker is a disappointing final chapter of the saga, but are embroiled in an online debate over which filmmaker is most responsible for “messing up” what has been termed “Disney’s trilogy.”

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Fans of J.J. Abrams will say that Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi deviated from the storylines set up in The Force Awakens, and that Abrams was merely doing the best he could with Rise of Skywalker. Johnson’s defenders will point out that Force Awakens was a superficial copy of better “Star Wars” movies, and Last Jedi at least tried to offer some depth to the new trilogy while simply extrapolating what was set up in Force Awakens. Last Jedi haters complain the film veers too much toward political messaging, and so forth. But it’s generally agreed upon that the trilogy as a whole suffers from a lack of planning a three-film storyline from the beginning of the production process. And this lack of planning has had a spillover effect on tie-in materials such as novels, comic books and reference books that suffer in quality for having to both explain the story gaps apparent in the new films, and exist with the new canon established therein.

Even the divisive qualities of the prequel trilogy haven’t sparked such animosity among the fanbase. So how did it come to this?

Certainly, the way the Internet tends to present some users with the false perception of expertise in any field of study has been a major contributing factor. But that’s true with just about any disagreement on anything these days. When it comes to the consideration of pop culture and fiction, there is definitely something deeper at play.

The reason that “Star Wars” endeared so many among the ranks of Generation X in the 1980s was the way it sparked our imaginations. Whether it was younger kids carrying on the battles between the Rebellion and the Empire on the playground, or older viewers pursuing careers in filmmaking and art, the franchise had an undeniable, tangible impact on the storytelling impulse of a generation.

There, in the backyard, we could swing our toy lightsabers to re-create epic moments of sacrifice; at the playground, we could chase each other with light-up blasters in pursuit of glory; in the sandbox, we could use our “Star Wars” action figures to continue the adventures of the characters we idolized on screen.

The unifying force through it all was the understanding that it was George Lucas’ story that was being told. He was the storyteller, and we were buying those action figures to play in his world. Even as some fans were disappointed by the prequels, there was still a grudging tolerance of them because Lucas had made them. Fans were willing to let him tell his story, absorb the lessons as they came, and react appropriately. And with many fans, they began to see the franchise in the new light of older eyes.

But the films of the Disney era are the first to be made by the generation influenced by the storyteller, not the storyteller himself.

As far as the fans were concerned, they had just as much a stake in the ongoing story as the likes of J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson, who for all intents and purposes were just playing in the sandbox too. If they didn’t create the thing, then why should their interpretation of the stories be any more valid than any fan who had spent decades analyzing the franchise?

This potential perception of legitimacy makes it a smart move for any franchise to carry over creative forces from one regime to the next. So it’s not just J.J. Abrams working on The Force Awakens, but Lawrence Kasdan, one of the primary screenwriters Lucas worked with in creating the original trilogy. Or why the name of Dave Filoni, who worked with Lucas on the “Clone Wars” animated series, carries a lot of clout with fans.

Without the air of legitimacy in the fans’ eyes, subsequent adventures might seem like shallow re-creations of what came before.

Disney’s sequel trilogy itself offers a fitting metaphor for this phenomenon. Its villains, the First Order, come across as posers in their efforts to re-create the Galactic Empire, a generation of children seeking to emulate what their parents did, not unlike the way Abrams was just the templates of the earlier films without much regard to the lessons of them.

Johnson’s The Last Jedi, to its credit, pushes back on this a bit, allowing the characters to ruminate about the struggles of carrying on the legacy of the previous generation while recognizing the role their stories have in inspiring those who would come after them (symbolized quite literally at the end with a scene of kids on an alien planet playing with their own makeshift ‘Star Wars’ figures).

It’s Filoni, and even Jon Favreau to an extent, who are hailed by fans as the true heir to the “Star Wars” storytelling legacy, rather than the likes of Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy or Abrams or Johnson, who are more prone to complaints of appropriating the saga for their own purposes. Hence, “The Mandalorian” served as something of a calming salve fans could unite behind.

Even such a respite, however, has done little to stop the kind of playground bickering we’ve seen from fans online when considering the movies, as if reduced to 10-year-olds arguing over their action figures by shouting “you’re doing it wrong!” Only the Internet lets them shout this at the studio itself.

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But the Internet and the wide dissemination of information even down to the flimsiest of rumor has added a new wrinkle to the fans’ relationships with their favorite franchises. Instead of just going to see the new movie every few years, they now can follow nearly all aspects of the production, from casting news, to leaked photos from shooting locations, to potential in-fighting between producers and directors. The race to post spoilers is so intense that it seems some fans aren’t even going to the movies anymore to enjoy the films, but just to confirm that what they didn’t like in the production rumors they heard actually came to pass. And when the story being told doesn’t meet their approval, they will complain until the studio caves in, or they denounce the franchise as having lost its way, putting so much stock into fictional characters as if they don’t have anything else to fixate on.

And thus, we are left with a caricature of the modern fan who wants both to have the story told to them while also dictating the direction of that story.

It’s not unlike the phenomenon that impacted professional wrestling in the 1990s, when the Internet let fans in on all the behind-the-scenes details that flew in the face of the in-ring storylines, and rather than be turned off by the idea that wrestling was “fake” only became more enamored with it. As promotions began blurring the lines between their backstage and storyline realities, the fans who had been known in the industry as “marks” because they were meant to believe the in-ring story (generally referred to as “kayfabe,” a term that encompasses the fiction of the wrestlers’ characters), thus took on a new title, the “smart mark,” or “smark” — the fan who appreciates the in-ring performance as an exhibition representing the more complex realities of locker-room politics.

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Another venerable franchise continuation being torn apart by the fan base lately is the CBS All Access revival of “Star Trek.”

Thus far, the new shows include “Star Trek: Discovery,” a prequel to the original 1960s series, and “Star Trek: Picard,” a sequel to “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” There are also a series of tie-in short films called “Short Treks” that expand upon the canon of the new Trek era.

While the shows exhibit high production values and dazzling visual effects, response from longtime “Trek” fans to these new shows has been overwhelmingly negative. “Discovery introduced so many bizarre plot elements right off the bat that it was hard to reconcile the show existing in the same timeline as the other “Trek” shows. It then spent its second season walking back all its high-concept ideas in an attempt to better conform to established canon — but the show’s attempt at self-negation makes it seem largely pointless. About the only aspect of the two seasons fans reacted positively to was the addition of Anson Mount as Capt. Pike, reintroducing the character from the 1960s show’s original unused pilot episode.

“Star Trek: Picard”

“Picard” at least started with some sense of hope, anchored by the assured presence of Patrick Stewart returning to the title role. Yet the story-arc of the 10-episode first season quickly began to spiral out of control with slow pacing, poor character development, disparate story threads and a muddled attempt to add to established “Trek” mythology.

Despite the high budgets and production values, these shows just aren’t that good on their own, never mind how they’re supposed to fit in the franchise (though on this latter point, most fans agree they don’t fit very well).

Tonally, these shows stem from Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot movie, an ill-conceived attempt to turn “Star Trek” into “Star Wars” simply to match Abrams’ own proclivities toward science-fiction. Much like Abrams’ “Star Wars” efforts, the reboot films were a shallow re-creation of established “Trek” lore and fizzled out once they squandered the audiences’ nostalgia for the property.

The new stewards of the brand who emerged from the Abrams films, such as Alex Kurtzman, aren’t even copying what “Star Trek” has done before as much as they are borrowing from other sci-fi franchises. The “Discovery” A.I. gone rogue plot smacks of “The Terminator.” And “Picard” bears similarities to the likes of “Blade Runner,” “Battlestar Galactica.” “Mass Effect” and even “Game of Thrones.” These connections are well documented on YouTube.

It is just another prime example of the gulf between audience expectation for a favored franchise, and the ability for new producers to deliver when they aren’t tied to the creative teams that gave life to the franchise to begin with.

The “TNG”-era shows of the 1990s, themselves viewed skeptically at first by fans of the original series, at least had executive producer Rick Berman, who worked with “Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry on formulating the philosophies of the new shows, and worked to maintain them after Roddenberry died in 1991.

At the very least, in the absence of a connective creative presence, fans at least want to think the new shepherds of their favorite franchises are just as much fans as they are. Part of the problem with response to Johnson’s Last Jedi is that it exposed a rift in the fanbase about the interpretation of the “Star Wars” mythology (and Rise of Skywalker’s attempt to placate once set of fans over the other didn’t do anyone any favors).

“Star Trek,” it seems, has had the opposite problem, with new writers and producers coming in claiming to be fans and yet demonstrating a serious ignorance of the sandbox in which they’re supposed to be playing, not so much from an interpretative point of view, but just details of the canon that should have some impact on the new stories.

Unlike the kind of pass-the-baton storytelling fans didn’t like about the new “Star Wars,” the new “Star Trek” seems to have too many runners. The abundance of creative minds, very few of which having actually worked on “Star Trek” before, and some of which have hardly worked on anything good before, just leads to muddled story arcs, resulting in several attempts to retooling the show to respond to poor feedback and backlash.

“Star Trek: Picard”

“Picard” comes off as a bizarre appropriation of canon, excising what would be appropriate and fan-appreciated references to specific, relevant story points, in exchange for vague generalities about how established characters progressed from where we last saw them to where they are on this show.

Nostalgia, it seems, is the only thing keeping “Picard” afloat, but it’s hard to say how long that will last.

Without a course correction to deliver the type of “Star Trek” fans can enjoy again on a consistent basis, these new shows might end up tipping the scales the other way, enticing fans to tune in simply out of sheer morbid curiosity to see how bad it can get, almost to the point of wanting something to complain about if only to appreciate the earlier shows more (not unlike how the “Star Wars” prequels have earned a bit more appreciation from fans disenchanted by Disney’s sequels).

The ironic twist in all this, of course, is how the long (and overstated) rivalry between “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” fans would find itself defused by J.J. Abrams, uniting them over a shared distaste for his efforts to restart both their beloved franchises.

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