Expectation vs Reality: How Fandom Can Stoke Excitement, Disappointment and Hate

Caution: This piece contains potential spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is finally here, Episode VIII of the mega-franchise known as Star Wars and critics love it while a vocal group of so-called ‘super-fans’ hate it. How can this be? Many praised Lucasfilm’s decision to hire Rian Johnson to write and direct the latest installment because he was known for making bold and challenging films, most notably his debut feature Brick and his most popular pre-Star Wars film Looper. Both circumvent expectations and deliver some truly remarkable films. Now, some are complaining that too much is different, that some characters don’t act the way they should and still others are useless.

These problems that are being voiced seem to be coming from those that have termed themselves as the true keepers of the flame of Star Wars. These are the same lot that chastised George Lucas’ prequel trilogy for not being what they wanted and that it was time for new writers and directors to take over the franchise. Now that has happened and they are lobbying for Lucas to return to ‘right a wronged ship’ so to speak. There are simple explanations for this and perhaps some darker underlying reasons.

The most obvious explanation is that people do not know how to deal with the unexpected. Like the fans that were angry when (spoiler alert?) Darth Vader proclaimed he was Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back because they didn’t see it coming, today’s theorists are lashing out because the two years they spent speculating on where the story would go were proven to have been wasted by a truly creative approach to a franchise that, while it was producing good to great films, may be beginning to overload the general populous. To walk into a theater after posting countless videos on YouTube saying how you’re absolutely certain that Rey is Obi-Wan’s granddaughter or Luke’s daughter, or Han and Leia’s daughter or Palpatine’s descendant and how Snoke is really Palpatine or his master Darth Plagus or somehow Luke Skywalker, only to walk out of said theater knowing that everything you spent actual time speculating on is completely and utterly wrong must be upsetting. But that is the folly of public speculation. There are those in the Star Wars fandom who seem to do nothing but offer their opinions on where the story is headed next and the verbally abuse the filmmakers that don’t conform to their (wildly differing) ideas of what should be happening.

So, is it expectation and theorizing that damages the franchise for these folks? Partly, but there is more to it for many. There are those that claim to love Star Wars, or the DC Extended Universe or the Marvel Cinematic Universe or any other wide variety of franchise, only to deride everything that isn’t the same as what they were expecting. And if a filmmaker plays it safe and more or less delivers what the ‘fans’ seem to want, they’re attacked for being unoriginal and trying to cash in on the success of the originals. The short answer is that these people like the originals and that’s it. They aren’t fans of the franchise if they only like the original Star Wars trilogy or just like the Avengers movies and one or two of the stand-alone pictures, they are just fans of those films, and there is nothing wrong with that unless it becomes toxic, as it has in much of “geek” fandom.

“Geek culture” has evolved from its humble perceived beginnings as conversations amongst the unpopular white boys in basements, either talking with their equally unpopular friends in person or on burgeoning online communication programs like ICQ or AIM Instant Messenger. The truth is that not everyone who grew up loving sci-fi and comics were white males. Girls and minorities like them too because their themes are universal. In fact, sci-fi and comics have been singularly inclusive for longer than much of anything else in media, with black superheroes, women with powers, confronting issues like racism, misogyny, and an incredibly wide variety of other forms of bigotry. But, much in contrast to their messages, white men claimed it all as their own and anyone not them who enjoy any aspect of it is not a ‘true’ fan. Media has not been blind to this and has, in fact, stoked the flames of this exclusionary attitude with representations of those in the culture as being anything-but-desirable white men. A show like The Big Bang Theory is a prime example. The nerdy white guys salivate over the pretty girl (who is also kind of dumb) and when a woman is introduced that is part of the culture, she’s white and frumpy. This show mocks what it claims to praise and encourages bigotry amongst the people who genuinely love the genera and the various mediums in employs.

So, when a franchise like Star Wars puts women and minorities front and center as the main new characters, these people lash out. They call Rey a ‘Mary-Sue’, a female character that has powers and some control over them without training. If it were a man, they’d say he has natural abilities, since it’s a woman, they don’t believe it’s possible. Many theories pertaining to Rey included that she was one of Luke’s students, regardless of her parentage, and he must have taught her how to fly and some measure of using the Force, because a woman could never have been able to have natural abilities or taught herself a skill such as piloting, obviously a man had to be involved somewhere. Similar outrage was sparked when Finn took off his Stormtrooper helmet and revealed that black people were Stormtroopers too and further outraged that he and this young woman were the new main characters, along with a Latino man who has so far escaped a lot of wrath because many people don’t seem to realize that Oscar Isaac is, in fact, Latino or it bothers them less because of the other two leads.

That is not to say that everyone who dislikes the new Star Wars films are bigoted. There are legitimate reasons not to like the films, and criticizing those real, legitimate points is not wrong. As a critic, it’s my job to publicize my informed opinion, but it is just that: an opinion. Opinion is not fact, no matter how hard you believe in it. As a lifelong Star Wars fan, I personally relish these new films and the new generation of fans they are creating. I even like the prequels, though as a critic I cannot defend them, I simply enjoy them on a fan level. I am also encouraged by the move to more realistic representations of people in these immensely popular films. As the white father of a bi-racial child (who absolutely adores Finn), I am encouraged by the move away from a monochromatic, male dominated galaxy far, far away.  

It is also in the capacity as both fan and film critic that I am completely beguiled by the backlash caused by these new films. These so-called fans only want the version that they envisioned and nothing else will do. Few of them agree with one another on what should be the direction of the story, but they do agree on the fact that they don’t like what has been put forward. In this regard, I can only say that they really don’t want anything new, they just want to sit with the original films and spin their own yarns about what happened before and what came after, and honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that as I stated before. What is wrong is attacking filmmakers who are introducing new and exciting changes to the franchise and the fans who take it and love it as it comes. The idea that if they don’t like it, then no one should and they’ll make people sorry for having their own opinion is the heart of internet trolling and cyberbullying. Yes, as a critic I voice my opinion on films and say if I think they are good or bad. But I use education and experience to inform that opinion and at the end of the day, it’s still my opinion. If you like a film I hate, I don’t hate you for it. Your opinion is your own. You are not wrong for liking it and I am not wrong for hating it. Where it is wrong, again, is when it becomes toxic and hateful toward fan or character that isn’t a white male. So go ahead: tell me you hate Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rogue One and/or Star Wars: The Last Jedi, that’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it. But if your reasons are because the main characters are women and minorities, or because it contradicts a theory you spent two years or more on, or it’s just not like the original trilogy, stop right there, you’ve lost creditability.