The cyclical nature of storytelling is one of my fascinations, and something I fully intend to write more about on Cultural Conversation. Star Wars is one of many major franchises which taps into deeply mythological, archetypal stories which end up telling cyclical narratives about characters and worlds which repeat history, repeat myth and cleve to prophecy. These concepts are all over fiction, in myriad ways. What people don’t always realise, however, is that cyclical narratives are all over Fandom too, and yes that is Fandom with a capital F. Insert your own word appropriately. Fandom started as a beautiful thing, a coming together of like minds. Much like the rest of our society circa 2017, the Force no longer seems, sadly, to be with it.
If the reaction to The Last Jedi, the latest entry into the legendary Star Wars lexicon, proves anything, its that Fandom cannot cope with change. This is no startling revelation. Many writers have been discussing the toxicity of Fandom for some time now, particularly since the advent of Twitter and the rest of social media gave a voice to a legion of what many would consider ‘trolls’; intentional rabble-rousing, mischief making naysayers who love nothing more than to be reactionary and tear down anything the majority love. /Film has written recently about the toxic reaction to The Last Jedi, a film which as I discussed is not without its problems. It does, however, expose the issue of change and Fandom in greater detail.
The mistake Fandom consistently make—and by Fandom I don’t mean everyone but rather an entrenched, vocal group of ‘loyalists’ who fit the description above—is in believing the property they love belongs to them. And moreover that they deserve to be the gatekeepers and decide what does and what doesn’t qualify as, in this case, Star Wars. They constantly mistake the creation of art as an inclusive phenomenon, that they should be consulted every step of the way by filmmakers or writers as to the direction ‘their’ franchise should go in. If all art was created in this way, almost all of it would be terrible. Great or even good work is always the product of a singular vision actualised by a close-knit team of collaborators.
So it was with JJ Abrams & Lawrence Kasdan on The Force Awakens, and so it is on The Last Jedi with Rian Johnson. They made the movies they wanted to make, and would want to see. Johnson’s just happens to be fairly subversive in its own way.
Fandoms don’t like change. They balk at innovation or outside the box thinking. Because they feel their have ownership over the property they have invested so much time and energy into as a fan or hobby, they believe said property should essentially remain the same. What this actually means is that the property should always be exactly what they loved about it, and nothing else, essentially on repeat. It was more critics who took issue with The Force Awakens rather than Fandom, believing it largely re-trod the same beats as A New Hope.
Fandom had no problem with this, not akin to the issues they now have with The Last Jedi, a picture which is bold enough to challenge the accepted preconceptions of what Star Wars is, or could be going forward. Johnson wants to keep Star Wars alive and relevant to a new generation of film fans and while The Last Jedi is no masterpiece (though its score might be), it’s trying to do precisely what other Fandoms have backlashed against in half a dozen major other franchises. Change our expectations.
Star Wars has come late to this party. Some of the longest running, biggest franchise properties in fiction have all strived to try and reinvent or redefine themselves over the last decade or so.
James Bond, for example, ditched the colourful, cod-Austin Powers camp of 2002’s Die Another Day for the stripped back, hard hitting 2006 introduction for Daniel Craig, Casino Royale. Many will remember the ‘Blonde Not Bond’ campaign against the wild card that was Craig before he even filmed a scene of Martin Campbell’s film. Fandom couldn’t cope with the idea of a 007 who even looked different from the Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan established template. Even though Craig’s films are perhaps the most faithful to Ian Fleming’s original source material in brutal tone, there is still a major corner of Bond Fandom who refuse to accept Craig or his less quippy, Jason Bourne-inspired bone crunching style; indeed most recent Craig outing Spectre felt the most like a ‘traditional’ Bond film precisely because the producers were trying to please fans. As a result it’s among Craig’s objectively weaker films.
Fandom has an expectation, based on decades in many cases of established continuity. They are obsessed not just with canon but the enforcement of canon and in-universe rules. Oddly enough, Bond Fandom works differently in that the original run of films never were canon or held to any continuity; the issue for many fans come Craig’s revisionist era was a problem of tone. Craig’s Bond has held to a connective tissue of continuity (sort of, and more retroactively come Spectre) but Fandom rejected the evolution of Bond’s stylistics. Gone were the cheesy, world-destroying villains with giant lasers which we had seen since 1960’s Bond and in came grounded bad guys riffing off modern day anxieties: scarcity of water, terrorism, global unwarranted surveillance.
Fandom accused Bond of selling out to modern audiences and modern aesthetics, becoming Bourne essentially, and many refused to acknowledge Craig’s film as ‘true Bond’. This is despite the fact his first movie was the first significant cinematic adaptation of Fleming’s original novel. That tether to Bond history and Bond origin in this case meant nothing. Craig didn’t look like Bond. His films didn’t play like Bond films of old. Hence – they were not Bond films. End of discussion.
Star Trek Fandom, if anything the most obsessive about detail and continuity of any collection of fans, have long argued about what does and does not constitute ‘real’ Star Trek, but to an extent they can be also among the more forgiving. When The Next Generation premiered in 1987, boasting a new crew and characters almost a century removed from the now legendary Captain Kirk and company, fans at time wrote to newspapers and periodicals, or spoke at conventions in outrage that Trek could exist beyond the 1960’s original series and subsequent movies. Star Trek was Kirk and Spock, they argued. It wasn’t Picard or Riker or Data.
In the end, Fandom came to accept this new era and now embrace The Next Generation and the two shows that exist in the same space and time as Star Trek. A new argument formed when Enterprise debuted, a prequel series to the Kirk age. It’s characters were encountering Romulans or bumping into Ferengi long before ‘the timeline’ suggested they would. Fandom refused to accept the writers working around in some cases loose continuity to tell stories. Canon and continuity, however slight or indeed throwaway in previous incarnations of Star Trek, was fixed. Compromise the sequence of events at your peril.
You can therefore imagine the cultural bomb that exploded when J.J. Abrams ‘rebooted’ Star Trek, creating an entirely new timeline in order to have another run at the adventures of Kirk, Spock and the original 1960’s Enterprise crew, reimagined for the modern day with a huge budget. The irony lies in how Fandom twenty years earlier rejected a Trek future without Kirk and Spock, yet here they were rejecting those new incarnations, despite the fact Abrams respected continuity enough to wrap his first movie around the very idea of not compromising it, and featuring Leonard Nimoy’s original Spock as the bridge between both narrative realities. It wasn’t enough for Fandom. This wasn’t their crew. It didn’t look or sound or feel like their Trek, much like Craig’s Bond films didn’t play like their Bond.
There we have the entitlement. There we have the mindset. Fandom, in its worst and most toxic form, believe these worlds belong to them. Not the writers. Not the actors. Not even the audiences en masse who may enjoy them. These worlds are *theirs* and if you try and compromise what they consider these worlds, or the characters within, to be, then you will be hounded to the ends of the Earth. This is now happening with The Last Jedi and to Rian Johnson, who has been receiving vitriol from Fandom by the bucketload for the challenging narrative choices he made to Star Wars. This is where Fandom has taken us.
To use the most recent example, what is it about The Last Jedi that Fandom, in this case Star Wars Fandom, cannot cope with? The major accusations against Johnson’s script and story appear to be aimed at the character arc of Luke Skywalker. A level of vindication was seized upon from comments by Mark Hamill in which he admitted he was at first uncertain about Luke’s journey, but this has nothing to do with Hamill’s reservations. If anyone had a right to feel a level of entitlement when it came to Star Wars, it was one of the key figures who helped make it into a success, but instead this outrage was adopted by fans who protested Luke’s nihilistic, self-destructive approach to the concept of the Jedi. To them, Luke was always going to be the heroic Jedi who defeated Darth Vader and went on to create a new legion of Jedi Knights, or part of a dozen stories where he remained the true, uncompromised hero of the franchise.
Another major Fandom criticism has involved the villain, Supreme Leader Snoke. Established in The Force Awakens as the shadowy, one-dimensionally evil figure pulling the strings behind the First Order and responsible for the fall into darkness of Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo, Snoke is unceremoniously—and unexpectedly—offed at the end of Act Two (or should that be Ahch-To?) of The Last Jedi . Fandom has been up in arms, having spent two years developing a legion of theories about who Snoke was – the first Jedi, the Emperor’s mentor Darth Plagueis (mentioned in Revenge of the Sith), and on and on. Now, Fandom angrily declares, they may never know, given Johnson makes no effort to even hint at how Snoke appeared out of nowhere and revived the Empire with new branding.
This exposes two key problems with this kind of rabid Fandom. Firstly, with Snoke, the need to have everything explained. To them, Wookiepedia exists for a reason. Everything must be catalogued and codified, from the barest mention of a town on Chewbacca’s home planet Kashyyyk, all the way through to the names of every Jedi who fought in the Clone Wars. If a creative coming into Star Wars gets that wrong, or tampers with it, out comes the Force lightning. Perhaps worse, in Johnson’s case, is not supplying an answer in the first place. Fandom cannot handle the idea Snoke may well remain a mystery and, in all likelihood to appease fans, Abrams The Rise of Skywalker or a future Star Wars film will answer the question. It’s not enough to leave Snoke surrounded by tantalising enigma, having avoided becoming a simple re-tread of Palpatine. Fandom wants his backstory.
The second problem, is that Fandom doesn’t essentially understand how drama works. They think they do, but in reality they don’t. Fandom refuses to accept change because change challenges the notion of what their beloved movie or TV show can be. Johnson’s key choices in The Last Jedi, which I discuss more in my analysis of the film—employing the Force as an egalitarian allegory for socialist uprising, killing Snoke, and of course having Luke complicit in burning the secret and legend of the Jedi itself—are not intended to dishonour Star Wars but help evolve a trilogy which was sorely in danger of repeating what George Lucas originally created. Johnson’s film is still as much as a space fantasy as Lucas’ films, or Abrams’ predecessor, but it offers the Skywalker saga the opportunity to move in an unexpected direction.
Fandom don’t have to like these choices, just like many in the audience don’t. What they should at least do is respect them. James Bond evolved from the camp colour of Die Another Day into the stylish grit of Casino Royale because the very genre its franchise helped create was leaving it behind – Bond may not have survived another picture where an ageing Pierce Brosnan fights a smug guy with a big laser. Star Trek had one foot in the grave before Abrams revived the franchise on the big screen, its TV dominance having been overtaken by cable television making new strides into prestige, serialised storytelling. One of the greatest science-fiction sagas gained a new lease of life thanks to Star Trek 2009, leading to two further movies and now TV series Star Trek Discovery which may well usher in a new era for the franchise on TV, where it’s always belonged.
Why can’t Fandom respect these creative decisions to, as Kylo Ren suggests in The Last Jedi, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to”? Change shouldn’t be feared but welcomed. Change keeps fiction alive. It challenges audiences to accept the properties they love in new paradigms, evolving with the changing landscape of movies and television around them. When they don’t, they grow stale. They wither. They become a shadow of their former selves or fade into obscurity, or even worse simply repeat past glories. Fandom, at its most toxic, want their cake and eat it. They want what they love to survive but on their terms. They don’t embrace creative challenge because it threatens their entitlement, their self-obsessed, vain belief these properties belong to them, and them alone. They have supported it all these years. They saw it ten times in the cinema. They bought the T-shirts and the action figures and the video games. It’s theirs.
To cut a long story short, and sorry (not sorry) for ending on a political note, but Fandom are essentially like Brexit voters. They think they know what they want, they’ll moan when they have it, but they’ll damn sure make your life a misery until they get it.