A History of “Star Wars” and Toxic Fandom: Part One of Two

How a once-beloved brand forever polarized a loyal fanbase

Joel Eisenberg
Nov 22, 2020 · 11 min read
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Copyright The Walt Disney Company

“Star Wars.” At once my greatest geek pleasure, and the bane of my existence. No work of pop-culture before or since has fired my imagination to the degree of 1977’s original work, and the collective of the series — in whatever form — has remained appointment viewing.

So how then could something so grand, so mythic that nearly everyone seemed to rave about over 40 years ago descend into a whirlpool of negativity and, well, abject hatred?

Read on …

My family and I stood on line in the early summer of 1977 at a tiny theater in Monticello, New York. There was no “A New Hope” back then, nor was there an “Episode IV.”

There was only “Star Wars,” and it took the universe by storm.

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From the opening moments of the film’s crawl, to that classic first shot that included our first glimpse of an Imperial Star Destroyer … to the twin suns of Tatooine and the adventures of a lifetime for a bored farm boy … by the time the medal ceremony concluded I was thunderstruck.

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Indeed most filmgoers it seemed were enraptured, if one could judge by repeated viewings, stratospheric box office, and a vocal demand for more. We had never experienced anything like this outer space joy ride. Not to this degree, anyway.

“Star Wars” quickly became the highest-grossing film ever made unadjusted for inflation, and a close #2 adjusted behind “Gone With the Wind” on a worldwide basis. According to Box Office Mojo, the adjusted worldwide numbers for the first film in the series — counting multiple re-releases — total over $3 billion.

Thank the maker George Lucas was unable to attain the rights, as intended, to “Flash Gordon.”

I was a 13-year-old Brooklyn boy, not a farm boy, when I saw the film in ’77 for the first time, but the yearning to escape a boring reality — school, homework, no girlfriend (I yearned early) and part-time jobs I loathed — and fighting for a cause, any cause, was already deeply imbedded in me.

But back to those twin suns, which perfectly encapsulated this teenager’s pining for a more adventurous existence …

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That was the moment the film grabbed me emotionally. Though “Star Wars” was notably not released in China, it broke records nearly everywhere else.

And Planet Earth had adapted a new mythology.

Not everyone, though, enjoyed the film. I was stunned when hearing several of my high school peers discussing how “corny” or “stupid” it was. Several high-minded critics called it “banal,” or “child-like.”

As if there was anything wrong with appealing to our inner-child. It didn’t hurt the “Harry Potter” franchise any, recent author controversies aside.

Pauline Kael, perhaps the most influential critic of her generation, lamented the film’s lack of a “sense of wonder.” I was aghast when I read her review all those years ago. See here.

Regardless, “Star Wars” would go on to become one of the most important films ever made. Expectations were so high for an immediate followup, that the planned low-budget adaptation of author Alan Dean Foster’s “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye” novel sequel gave way to the epic “The Empire Strikes Back.”

But first, in 1978, came this videotaped misfire …

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The less said about this camp musical follow-up, the better. Fans could not abide it; critics trashed it. Lucas said, when he still owned the brand, he would never allow this television special to be either aired again or released on home video.

He kept to his word.

But, since I’ve now reminded myself of this abject disaster …

You decide.

“The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” followed in 1980 and 1983, respectively. The former is considered in many circles as the finest of all “Star Wars” films, and the latter, while not attaining the acclaim of the the first two films in the series, is nonetheless a beloved episode of the canon.

(Note: In 1981 re-releases, “Star Wars” became numbered and subtitled as “Episode IV: A New Hope,” and “The Empire Strikes Back” as “Episode V.”)

As far as “child-like,” certainly the Ewoks were controversial even back then. They were clearly a marketing/merchandising effort, and for some fans they in part marred what was otherwise a worthwhile — if slighter — continuation.

Another criticism is some of the creatures, especially in the Max Rebo Band at Jabba’s palace … looked as though they too were designed for kids.

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Regardless, the film’s box office gross was not impacted. “Return of the Jedi” earned more both domestically and worldwide than the darker “The Empire Strikes Back.”

1984’s ABC television movie, “An Ewok Adventure,” took place between Episodes V and VI, and featured “Jedi’s” Warwick Davis reprising his role as Wicket the Ewok. The film was released as “Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure” for a limited theatrical run, and was followed by a 1985 sequel also featuring Warwick, “Ewoks: The Battle For Endor,” that took place within the same timeframe.

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“Star Wars” was fallow for several years following, save for a 1985–1987 animated series, “Droids and Ewoks,” and the continuing mass merchandising, including action figures and Marvel comic books.

When author Timothy Zahn published the first of his Thrawn Trilogy, “Heir to the Empire,” in 1991, followed by “Dark Force Rising” in 1992 and “The Last Command” in 1993, the commercial and critical reception of this latest iteration was roundly, and loudly, cheered. The books ushered in a new era of “Star Wars” novels, then known informally as The Expanded Universe and now considered out-of-canon “Legends” in our modern Disney era.

Soon after the release of “The Last Command,” Lucas announced the formal development of a filmed prequel trilogy set to begin release in 1999. The creator of the “Star Wars” franchise, who had teased in the press for years variously another three or six films (and also stating he was done after the first trilogy), said Episode I of the new saga, would be the first to lens.

On September 25, 1998, five years following the announcement of the prequel trilogy, “The Phantom Menace” was announced as the title for Episode I.

Prior to the release of “The Phantom Menace,” though, Lucas returned to the well and released “Special Editions” of the first three films in 1997, with new edits and additional footage. However, much of the initial new footage was maligned as overly CGI-enhanced, including an expanded Mos Eisley sequence inclusive of Jabba the Hutt, and, in perhaps the most egregious moment in all of “Star Wars” lore … Han no longer shot first.

Still, the releases were successful, and further releases with still more edits and tweaks regularly returned to theatrical and home video viewing.

Why? Because Lucas was notoriously difficult to satisfy, and completists kept spending their money.

Meantime, “The Phantom Menace” beckoned …

We’ll get there in a moment. To recap …

  • “Star Wars” changed the world.
  • The first chink in the brand’s armor was noted during the “Star Wars Holiday Special,” though not enough to wholly alienate the fanbase.
  • The love resumed in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
  • “Return of the Jedi” was criticized (but Vader turned good and all was right in the world).
  • The Special Editions were financial successes despite the criticisms.

And …

  • A new trilogy was about to be unleashed: Episodes I-III.

Most of us wanted sequels, and many of us would have loved to have had Zahn’s trilogy presented as Episodes VII-IX, but it was tough to complain.

Finally, we had our first new “Star Wars” film in 16 years to look forward to.

It seemed like a dream.

I waited on line with friends, overnight for nearly 25 hours, to score tickets for the first midnight show at Hollywood’s then-Mann’s Chinese Theater. It was a party, really.

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The line was snaked around the block; several dozen of the most hardcore fans waited outside, in shifts, for two months.

So much for my sacrifice of losing a day at work.

I received advance word of an early review of “The Phantom Menace” from the New York Daily News. Though I tried to avoid peeking, curiosity won:

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I was stunned. Two-and-a-half stars (out of four) for the first “Star Wars” film in a generation?

Couldn’t be.

The film finally unspooled at that first midnight show and, after 16 years of breathless anticipation, I … fell asleep.

At a “Star Wars” movie.

I’ve since rewatched the film several (dozen) times when re-watching the saga, and I discovered I initially missed everything after Anakin’s pod race to the astounding Darth Maul vs. Qui-Gon Jinn and Ben Kenobi lightsaber duel.

It was the ending, though, that made the biggest impression on me during that midnight screening.

As the end credits began the applause was scant, only increasing when the equivalent of one person rising for a standing ovation made some much-needed noise and was followed by others. As my friends and I stood to leave, the response in the aisles seemed conflicted at best. Further, those mingling in the lobby spoke as though they wanted to love it, but the story did not serve their purpose.

Neither did the stoic, humorless characters or acting of several of the leads. Jar Jar Binks, the lone attempt at a humorous antagonist, was largely derided. The film was called both a “kid’s film,” and “an incomprehensible mess about the taxation of trade routes.” Gone for many was the chemistry of the first trilogy’s characters.

“This isn’t our Star Wars,” said one.

Many of us got that message early …

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As the days went on, confusion turned to anger. The reviews were by far the weakest of all the “Star Wars” product to date, save for perhaps television’s “Holiday Special,” but that was nothing compared to the ire of the fans.

“George Lucas raped my childhood!” became a common cry of despair as it related to Episodes IV-VI. George Lucas, who prior to the opening of “The Phantom Menace” admitted, “I may have gone too far in a few places” during a “60 Minutes” interview, later defended himself against the kickback.

Star Wars was always meant for children,” he would say, arguing many of the fans of the first three films were children when they were released.

That defense was not easily digested, and a shift was in the offing: It became clear that George Lucas’ “Star Wars” was no longer his; it was ours. 2002’s “Attack of the Clones” did not fare much better, though for awhile 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” was largely considered the best of a bad lot.

But “Star Wars” defied gravity. All three of the films were global money makers. “The Phantom Menace” was the highest-grossing of the lot, with a worldwidetake of $1.027 billion adjusted for inflation.

Clearly, fans returned to the theaters for multiple viewings of each of the films, perhaps to see if they could find something, anything, to praise. To be sure, the films certainly also had their share of support but for hardcores, their releases equated to blasphemy.

“George got carried away with CGI at the expense of humanity!” was a common refrain when discussing these episodes.

Fans threatened to boycott future “Star Wars” product. Finally, in 2010, a documentary was released detailing the widespread dissatisfaction of the once-beloved brand: “The People vs. George Lucas.”

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And a disillusioned fandom was about to turn very, very toxic.

CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO.

Sources: BoxOfficeMojo.com, StarWars.com, Wikipedia

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Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Writing For Your Life

Honest, practical advice on the writer’s life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters, and an uncensored forum for provocative thought.

Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Writing For Your Life

Honest, practical advice on the writer’s life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters, and an uncensored forum for provocative thought.

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