A History of “Star Wars” and Toxic Fandom: Part Two of Two
This is going to get ugly fast.
48 hours ago I posted the first part of this article:
A History of “Star Wars” and Toxic Fandom: Part One of Two
How a once-beloved brand forever polarized a loyal fanbase
Response was swift, from outright denials of the existence of a toxic fanbase, to adamant, admittedly wistful agreement that true fans should come together in solidarity and “celebrate” the saga that once fired their collective imaginations.
Before we get to Disney and the relatively recent canon that many believe irreparably split the fans, I will touch upon a small, cultish project that touched some nerves.
Prequel Trilogy Fall-Out
Three years after the release of 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith,” 2008 brought us “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” the theatrical precursor to the long-running 3-D animated series (not to be confused with Genndy Tartakovsky’s 2003 traditionally animated series of the same name) which itself spun off 2014’s “Rebels” and the upcoming “The Bad Batch” for Disney.
Though “The Clone Wars” feature was roundly criticized, as the years went on the breadth of the subsequent animated product would serve to bring this and the live-action prequel trilogy into focus by adding further substance and depth to their stories. The prequel trilogy itself would be reassessed in time, though it was not fated to attain nearly the acclaim of the original trilogy.
Until that reassessment, substantial bumps in the road would need to be navigated.
“Star Wars” really never left us; even within its breaks there was viewable product in the marketplace, though said product was still prequel material taking place prior to Episode IV.
No, the “Star Wars” saga continued on. It just changed form.
Part One of this article left off with the release of 2010’s documentary, “The People vs. George Lucas,” which since its first run has found a second life on streaming services.
An independent effort directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, the documentary was shot with a comedic slant but along with its laughs were exposed difficult truths.
Some notable fan quotes from the documentary:
- “When The Phantom Menace came out, that’s when I noticed a real shift in fans, from being like fans and they really admired George Lucas, to taking it so personally that George Lucas actually wrote a movie to piss them off.”
- “How could you not feel bad that people who love you and worship you as a god turn against you as if you were some sort of a fallen angel? He was supposed to be The Chosen One.”
- “I imagine George in a crystal castle drinking margaritas, lying in a bed made of people.”
- “He’s just throwing stuff out.”
- “George Lucas is a little devil disguised as a false prophet.”
Check out the film’s trailer, below, which includes a musical version of “George Lucas raped my childhood.”
A joke, right?
Wrong. The song is (still) available for purchase online.
Also, at pop-culture conventions during the time of the film’s initial release, shirts such as this were omnipresent:
Sadly, they too continue to be sold.
In 2018, Ahmed Best, who played the reviled Jar Jar Binks in the prequel trilogy, admitted to the press he contemplated suicide due to the reception of his character.
Jake Lloyd, who played young Anakin Skywalker in “The Phantom Menace,” has since been treated for severe mental health issues.
His mother says he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, complicated by anosognosia which, she explained in statement to Geek News earlier this year, “causes a lack of insight into his illness.”
See here for a wrenching profile of Jake, who several years ago legally changed his name to Jake Broadbent. He has suffered extraordinary personal misfortune since “The Phantom Menace,” including the untimely death of his sister and several run-ins with the law. In the Daily Mail piece, it is said Jake quit acting and destroyed all his “Star Wars” memorabilia due to “cruel bullying at school.”
Though it may not be entirely accurate, or even fair, to tie his reception for a film performance to his difficulties since — assuming the veracity of his mental health issues — recent chatter is nonetheless cause for optimism: Jake of late has appeared on several podcasts denying he hates “Star Wars,” and confirms he is at peace with his cinematic legacy.
And Then There Was Disney
I remember where I was when I read the news. I was sitting in a friend’s office surfing the internet.
The day was October 30, 2012. I was skimming AintitCool.com when this report not only caught my eye but very nearly caused a personal freakout.
When I settled down, I had questions for which I immediately needed reaffirmation: George Lucas sold “Star Wars” to Disney? For $4.05 billion? The House of Mouse purchased all of Lucasfilm in that sale? Including the Indiana Jones IP? Kathleen Kennedy is now in charge of the newly-purchased entity?
Most importantly … NEW “STAR WARS” FILMS WILL BE RELEASED EVERY YEAR BEGINNING IN 2015??
No more three-year intervals?
My day was shot, as I was far too excited to do anything but ravenously read whatever I could find on the acquisition. I had already decided the sale held tremendous promise. Disney was doing well with Marvel, “Star Wars’” closest comparison in terms of scope and rabid fanbase. 2008’s “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk,” 2011’s “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and 2012’s “The Avengers,” collectively Phase One of what the company called “The Infinity Saga,” were treated with reverence and did not pander to children.
Based on the treatment of the intellectual property within that acquired company, the new Lucasfilm group could be the shot the “Star Wars” franchise desperately needed.
The announcement of the Lucasfilm sale not only came as a total and welcome surprise to most everyone reading about it — so close to the vest was the news held — but as word continued to spread it became clear a large part of the fanbase was willing to forgive past indiscretions.
“The prequels may have been subpar at one point in time but the animated series made them work. They really weren’t all that bad.” — Online comment
That sentiment, which became widespread, was too little, too late, for George Lucas. He admitted he was hurt by the reception of the prequels. The sale was of mutual benefit.
The internet was saturated with feedback. Though much of the chatter was positive, just as much was leery and expressed Disney would likely dilute their prized new brand.
Others were angry early, incensed the Expanded Universe of novels would no longer be considered cannon. They would morph into “Legends,” and only Disney-approved IP would, effectively, count as official. Any hopes of one day seeing Grand Admiral Thrawn from Zahn’s novels or Mara Jade as the wife of Luke Skywalker on the big screen were effectively gone.
When word soon leaked, however, of the original main cast (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford) returning, all bets were off. Some of us were concerned with the ages of the actors reprising our human heroes, but what welcome news this was.
As to social media and genre talkback pages? They were clear: Those fans not yet ready to give Disney a chance were at least discussing what the company could do right if they chose to.
Buzz was at an all-time high. Due to our current interconnectivity — Facebook did not begin operations until February of 2004 and Twitter in March of 2006 — we were able to judge global enthusiasm of our favorite addiction for the first time at a keystroke.
On November 6, 2014, “The Force Awakens” was unveiled as the title of Episode VII.
The first teaser for “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” was shown as an Apple exclusive for U.S. audiences on November 28, 2014, then widely shared online thereafter.
In terms of viewership, the teaser was a record-breaking smash. According to Hollywood Reporter, which attributed the numbers to a Lucasfilm press release, the teaser attained an estimated 55 million views in its first 24 hours, and 110 million within its first 12 days.
Director J.J. Abrams and crew did a masterful job eliciting not only the right questions to keep fans talking — “What does The Force Awakens mean?” — but by focusing exclusively on the new cast.
By the time the second teaser was released on April 16, 2015, fan apprehension was at a fever-pitch. We heard Luke’s voice in narration, we saw what we believed to be Princess Leia’s hand … and then the final shot, which is fair to say has since become legendary and cemented the film’s rosy outlook.
Seeing Han and Chewy for the first time in over two decades was nirvana. Pure geek nirvana. And frankly, they looked great!
The press went into overdrive touting the second teaser’s effectiveness and monster success, which premiered at the end of a panel discussion for the film at “Star Wars Celebration,” a four-day annual convention held that year in Anaheim, California.
The second teaser broke the first teaser’s record, attracting 88 million views in the first 24 hours and 145 million in the first week.
A person could barely surf the net without seeing a headline touting the efficacy of that second teaser, usually accompanied by that legendary final shot, such as the above graphic from the KIX 105.7 radio page.
“Star Wars” was once again a tangible theatrical brand. This was the real deal.
As to the first full-length trailer, which premiered October 19, 2015, this was how Hollywood Reporter reported the news:
So far, Disney appeared to be doing everything right. Though some prognosticators questioned moving the brand’s typical May release date to the winter Christmas season, the marketing was immaculate ... and the release did not matter. The interest was peaked.
The official U.S. trailer brought all strands together:
Unfortunately, the trailer also represented the final period “Star Wars” fans were largely united for the positive, as shortly thereafter racist fans threatened to boycott the film over promoting white genocide.
Though some have flagged the above post as a joke, others have pounced upon it and agreed with the sentiment.
A #BoycottStarWarsVII hashtag began trending, but the media blamed a “small group of agitators.”
“The Force Awakens” held its world premiere invitation-only event on December 14, 2015, at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theater (formerly Mann’s Chinese Theater), the El Capitan and Dolby theaters. More than 5000 guests were embargoed from public comment, though word leaked on Twitter from fans and celebrity guests that J.J. knocked this one out of the park.
Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator, displayed unanimously positive critical acclaim for “The Force Awakens” once the embargo lifted. The film opened wide on December 18, 2015. To date, the reviews as listed on Rotten Tomatoes are 92% positive, with an 86% positive audience score, the latter which dropped 10 points since the film’s premiere. Initial praise was fostered on the new leads — Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren — but as perhaps should have been expected based on the ugly responses to the trailer, the film stirred some fan backlash:
- Rey was a “Mary Sue,” an idealized and seemingly-perfect fictional character who could escape any dangerous circumstance.
- The diverse casting of Ridley, the British-Nigerian Boyega, and the Guatemalan-born Isaac led to cries of the film shoehorning diversity and pandering to the SJW (Social Justice Warrior) community.
- Luke Skywalker only appeared in the last two minutes of the film, leaving us to wait until the release of Episode VIII, two years later, to watch our heroes come together for the first time in far too long to fight the good fight.
But there was still hope for that.
“The Force Awakens” surpassed “Avatar” to become the highest-grossing film of all-time in North America, unadjusted for inflation, with $936 million in the till. Counting global dollars, the film earned over $2 billion worldwide. A much-hyped China release proved disappointing, but “The Force Awakens” was a monster most everywhere else.
In the midst of the film’s box office ride another criticism took hold. This one seemed to stick a bit: The film was either a “rip-off” or a “beat-by-beat copy” of “Episode IV: A New Hope.”
We had an upcoming standalone to look forward to while we debated.
“Star Wars” and legitimate fans were mostly still cool.
The goodwill wouldn’t last.
Disney’s initial strategy was to release standalone films every year in-between episodic releases. “Rogue One” was released wide on December 16, 2016. An immediate prequel to Episode IV with a troubling pre-production history that saw replacements of both writers and directors, the film was a surprise critical and commercial over-performer, grossing over $1 billion worldwide with $532.2 million of that total from the U.S. and Canada.
Fans especially loved the return of Darth Vader. We were relieved. Save for some nitpicks, for the two films released to that point Disney wasn’t doing badly at all.
And then 2017 happened.
All that tentative good will?
I will not argue as to the merits of 2017’s “The Last Jedi” here. My thoughts on the film are included within the compilation linked at the end of this article.
No, I want to examine the fall of “Star Wars” fandom from a once-inspired group of geeks who veritably worshipped a blazingly original trilogy of films, to an angry lot who have regularly expressed extreme racism, online bullying, and casual threats of violence.
“The Last Jedi,” of all “Star Wars” films yet released, did more than divide the fanbase. It punctuated the ugliness that frankly made some of us embarrassed to be fans.
Critical reviews were excellent. The film maintains a 90% positive critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes … and a 42% audience score. The latter was dropping further when the site realized a relatively small but influential group of trolls was tilting the scale and so they re-adjusted.
That aside, as time went on those relatively small but influential few became louder and impossible to ignore.
Reason being is they were more than a few.
Some random comments:
- “I’m still lamenting over how terrible this movie was. I have to pretend I never saw it, just to get me through the day. We’re not buying your political agenda.”
- “The film is nothing but feminist propaganda.”
- “It’s built on a foundation of sexism, misogyny, and racism ... The problem is that they tried to make equality and political statements out of a movie instead of making a movie.”
- “Disney should go out of business for good.”
- “Rian Johnson is the antichrist. He killed Star Wars.”
- “Kathleen Kennedy must leave movies immediately. She killed Star Wars.”
- “The story made no sense.”
- “The main characters still are not together!”
- “Thank God Carrie Fisher’s not around to have seen this travesty.” (Carrie died on December 27, 2016.)
Many fans pounced on the perception of actor Mark Hamill, who repeatedly implied some dissatisfaction with the way Luke was written and directed in the film.
- “Hamill was right. They took the most optimistic character in the franchise and turned him into a dour old man.”
The majority of the invective, however, centered around actress Kelly Marie Tran, whose portrayal of Resistance member Rose Tico was met with scorn by the most foul of the fanbase.
Kelly Marie became, by extension, a symbol not of any fictional Resistance, but of a very loud cadre of disgruntled fans who thought an Asian had no place in “Star Wars” lore (despite the co-starring presence of Donny Yen and Jiang Wen in “Rogue One”).
Some did state outright an Asian woman had no place in the franchise.
I’ll be honest. I fought myself sharing the old wound below in this article. However, in the interest of accuracy, this was a typical social media comment:
In defense, Kelly Marie and Daisy Ridley terminated their social media accounts. Rian Johnson spent time debating fans online as to the value of his film while fighting non-stop abuse.
The film made a mint, regardless, but just over 50% of the take of Episode VII.
By the time 2019’s “The Rise of Skywalker” was released, some fans were tired of the fight, and had given up on the brand. The prior year’s standalone film — Ron Howard’s “Solo,” which was even more troubled in pre-production than “Rogue One” — was the lowest-grossing of all the live-action “Star Wars” films by far at $393.2 million worldwide.
Media pundits blamed the low box office of the surprisingly fairly-reviewed film to too many “Star Wars” films being released too quickly.
“The Rise of Skywalker” barely grossed $1 billion worldwide, a strong rebound from “Solo” though considerably less than the other Disney episodics. The film also received the most negative critical response of any film in the franchise save for “The Clone Wars” animated theatrical.
Emperor Palpatine’s return was not explained which caused resentment; for those answers fans needed to purchase canonical books and comics.
Though Rotten Tomatoes shows a current audience score of 86% for “The Rise of Skywalker,” most discussions with those who still openly consider themselves fans tend to consider it the weakest of the lot.
Most egregiously, as with the presence of Jar Jar Binks being substantially decreased in Episodes II and III due to negative fan response, Kellie Marie’s Rose Tico character was barely existent in the new film, a case of Disney listening to the fans maybe a bit too much.
Also, those fans on social media who have expressed toxic indignation about the final chapter of the “Skywalker Saga,” as opposed to honest criticism, received the rightful ire of John Boyega, whose own role was substantially cut in Episode IX.
He wasn’t happy either, though, for other reasons. See here.
Over the past two years, new trilogies and one-off “Star Wars” features have been announced, all of which have been paused for either creative reasons, or canceled outright in the wake of Covid-19.
As I write this, it seems if anything can reunite true “Star Wars” fans and return others back from the abyss, it’s “The Mandalorian.” The Disney+ show has received consistent raves and strong viewership since its debut, and in its second season has not slowed down at all. New shows based “Rogue One’s” Cassian Andor character, as played by Diego Luna, and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s character from the once-excoriated prequel trilogy, returning Ewan McGregor to the role, are in various stages of development.
But, for now, “The Mandalorian” presides over the “Star Wars” throne. There have been few toxic notices in the ether about the hit series, but for how long this lasts remains to be determined.
So I lift my glass to cautious optimism: Happier times — in my case a return to the 1977 promise inherent in all possible things A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away — with the pretense that it’s not over yet for either the brand, or the fanbase, in general.
Not yet. Not at all, one hopes.
Thank you for reading.
In memory …
Sources: BoxOfficeMojo.com, StarWars.com, Wikipedia, Salon, USA Today
For more of my articles on “Star Wars,” see the following compilation:
If you would like new stories and exclusive content sent directly to your inbox, please enter your email address to subscribe to my free newsletter. CLICK here:
Writing For Your Life
Honest, practical advice on the writer's life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters.
For those interested in a special emailed Sunday edition of “Writing For Your Life,” you can click here: