“We seem to be made to suffer,” moaned C-3PO in A New Hope. “It’s our lot in life.”
The Star Wars fans who took to the web to register their grievances over The Last Jedi may identify somewhat with C-3PO’s sentiments: anger and frustration have been woven into the fabric of Star Wars fandom, it seems, almost from the very beginning.
We’ll begin with a brief anecdote, if you don’t mind: back in the early 1980s, maybe a couple of years after Return of the Jedi came out, I found myself in a brief playground argument with a few Star Wars fans. They were a couple of years older than me, and absolutely hated Ewoks. I still remember being completely taken aback. I was about six at the time of Episode VI‘s release, and I was clearly the right age to just take the Ewoks at face value: they were primitive, but made up for their lack of weaponry through bravery and cunning. They were like the rebels, but covered in fur.
These older Star Wars fans, meanwhile, despised the Ewoks and everything they stood for: as far as they were concerned, they were just teddy bears with spears – the kind of things their little sisters or female cousins would play with, and not something that belonged in the Star Wars universe. In those pre-internet days, this was my first glimpse into how intensely fans of the series could feel about George Lucas’ storytelling decisions.
Let’s face it, Star Wars fandom’s an odd beast when it’s studied up close. One writer, Adam Summers, got right to the heart of it back in 2005, in a superb piece called “Why do Star Wars fans hate Star Wars?” In it, he made the argument that, unlike Star Trek, whose fandom broadly loves Gene Roddenberry for the franchise he created, Star Wars fans generally dislike – or at least feel frustrated by – George Lucas. He sparked a fire with Star Wars, stoked it with The Empire Strikes Back, but then left it spluttering with the disappointing Return of the Jedi, in which Emperor Palpatine’s clanking war machine was brought to its knees by those irksome Ewoks. Then he went and started tinkering with things in the Special Editions. And then came the prequels. Then George went and sold Lucasfilm to Disney, which is a whole other saga in and of itself.
It’s a great, funny piece, and still relevant today, with all the petitions and fan reviews of The Last Jedi doing the rounds. This all begs an obvious question, though: if Star Wars fans are so perpetually frustrated by the franchise, why do so many of us stick with it? And what exactly caused all this antipathy in the first place?
To begin with, the flipside of all that frustration is, surely, passion. Whatever you make of the decisions Lucas made after 1977, the original Star Wars was arguably a work of passion, in its own way: a love letter to all the fantasy, samurai epics, matinee serials, and comic books that Lucas loved growing up, all folded into a big-screen spectacle. There was nothing quite like Star Wars at the time, either: hit genre properties like Star Trek and Planet of the Apes created believable alternate worlds, but the Star Wars universe’s heady mix of futurism, great age, peril, and innocence was something else entirely. Obi-Wan’s description of the Force as something that binds the galaxy together added a spiritual dimension beyond all the lightsabers and military hardware. The Star Wars universe felt tactile and lived in – something you could exist in yourself, if only you could somehow cross the silver screen’s impenetrable barrier.
Whether Lucas consciously realized it or not, toys gave young fans a means of engaging with Star Wars lore. There had been action figures and merchandise for shows and films before, but never on this scale, and none had Star Wars‘ level of success. Kids couldn’t physically go to Tatooine or the Death Star, but they could still create their own adventures with characters and ships that looked like the ones on the big screen.
Star Wars was quite unique as a film franchise that actively encouraged engagement from its fans. Little wonder, then, that Lucas’ later decisions, from the infamous Holiday Special to the Ewoks to Caravan of Courage, caused so much debate and consternation among fans. By the time Return of the Jedi came out, kids had played with their Star Wars toys for years. They’d already formulated an entire sequel to The Empire Strikes Back in their heads. Little wonder that what emerged in cinemas could never quite match up.
Beyond the toys, there’s another fundamental reason for fans’ sense of ownership. In creating Star Wars, Lucas created a modern myth on a par with Tolkien. Star Wars‘ sci-fi edge gave it relevance for a generation just getting into computers and arcade games (Pong had appeared in 1972; 1977 was also the year of the Atari 2600). Its Jedi and Force lore gave it a sense of mythical depth; the sheer variety of creatures and landscapes provided the breadth.
Again, viewed like this, it’s unsurprising that fans didn’t always take kindly to Lucas’ tinkering with Star Wars history. What to an outsider seemed like a minor nitpick – Greedo suddenly attempting to shoot Han first, say – was a matter of huge importance to hardcore Star Wars fans. It was like someone rewriting the words to a classic Beatles song, or throwing a new line into the Lord’s Prayer.
Then came the Prequel Trilogy. Even with the changes made to the Star Wars re-releases in 1997, The Phantom Menace was hugely anticipated – at least, until most fans saw the finished film. Jar-Jar Binks’ pratfalls, the flatulence… somehow, it felt as though Lucas now had less reverence and passion for the franchise than its own fans.
All that, I’d suggest, explains the growing chasm between the creator of Star Wars and its followers – something explored at length, of course, in the documentary feature, The People vs. George Lucas. So with all this being the case, what about that other question: why do so many fans remain devoted to a cause they find so frustrating? On this subject, Adam Summers made a great point in 2005: “We hate everything about Star Wars. But the idea of Star Wars… the idea we love.”
“To be a Star Wars fan,” Summers wrote, “one must possess the ability to see a million different failures and downfalls, then somehow assemble them into a greater picture of perfection.”
For all but the most ardent detractors, even the bleaker moments in the Star Wars franchise have their good points. Amid the Prequel Trilogy, for example, we had John Williams’ reliably magnificent music and Ian McDiarmid’s lip-smackingly fun performance as Palpatine.
Besides, Star Wars fans aren’t some hive mind, as the anecdote from the top of this piece underlines. Cast your eye across the web, and the overwhelming opinion appears to be that Return of the Jedi was a colossal disappointment. For this writer, whose affection trumps the quite reasonable criticisms of that chapter, Return of the Jedi remains an absolute treat – bursting with colorful characters and ending with a rip-roaring space battle. Look beyond the petitions and other knee-jerk reactions from some quarters, and you’ll find a more nuanced response to The Last Jedi. Once again, it’s possible to like some parts of the movie, but others, less so.
From 1977 onwards, Star Wars has established itself as a franchise that thrives on emotion rather than cold, hard logic. We accept the sounds of pew-pew lasers in the vacuum of space because it’s a fairy tale. We know a war machine like the Death Star doesn’t make technical sense, but the child’s part of our brain marvels at the concept all the same. Maybe this also explains why Star Wars fans have persisted, through the dark times between 1983 to the late 90s, when the franchise vanished from cinemas, to some of the more controversial decisions that have emerged from Lucasfilm under Disney’s ownership. We don’t just love the idea of Star Wars, but also the stirring of emotion it gives us when we think back on it.
In this regard, maybe we really are like C-3PO, trudging through the sand and moaning about our lot in life. We may grouse and complain, but secretly, the frustration and anger is all part of the Star Wars adventure.