Star Wars: The Force Awakens Is a Story About Fandom

Star Wars: The Force Awakens' characters mirror real fans and their expectations of the film. Here's how...

Before Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, I knew that I wanted it to be about the fans. That was the logical course of action for a behemoth property with so many years of arguments and love behind it: the next generation of characters would inevitably parallel the generation of directors and writers behind them. It did not disappoint. Both the Resistance and First Order characters show different types of fandom and the way fandom can influence people. Kylo Ren is perhaps the most obvious candidate, since he idolizes Darth Vader, but the others also approach fandom in their own way.

Rey, Finn, and Poe all look up to the heroes of the Original Trilogy, even if they have very different amounts of knowledge about Han, Luke, and Leia. Rey seems to admire Luke Skywalker, responding positively when Finn mentioned him even though she thought he was a myth. In fact, the entire story of Rey in The Force Awakens is about her realization that she is inside a story. She runs from that story at first, but then embraces it. She has heard of Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon, too, although she knows Han as a smuggler, not a general in the Resistance. She never directly states what she thinks of these apparently mythic figures, but Daisy Ridley’s expressions convey her awed surprise.

Why is it important that the characters of The Force Awakens were written as metaphors for fans? From a marketing standpoint, it lets Disney grab the very nostalgic and personal connections fans have with Star Wars. It helps people identify with the characters, since they also grew up hearing the stories of Han, Luke, and Leia. It gives writers and directors a chance to make a statement about the fans they are trying to please and the franchise with which they also grew up, and it’s wonderfully meta. What happens when people become too consumed by obsession, The Force Awakens asks? What happens when people don’t have all the information about their heroes? What happens when people, simply and without fuss, realize that they are the hero of a story?

Finn’s experience is slightly different from Rey’s, because he was raised in the First Order. We never see the propaganda or revisionist history the First Order probably taught its stormtroopers as children, but we can assume that the troopers knew to an extent who they were fighting. Finn probably thought of Leia as a general who led the enemy fleet, but he didn’t hesitate to help Poe after he realized how evil the First Order was. He had heard of Luke Skywalker like the others, and immediately understood the importance of the search for the map. Finn was a fan who didn’t think he would like the story he was told. However, he ended up eagerly stepping into that story, even though it led him to an enemy base where people were happy to embrace him. Finn didn’t know he would like Star Wars, but once he was in it, he was really, really ready to like Star Wars.

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Unlike the other two characters in the main trio, Poe was raised on Star Wars. He knows Leia as much more than a legend or a historical figure, because his mother served with her in the Rebellion, and it’s quite possible that he grew up around the Solo family. Poe is used to living with heroes, so his story isn’t one of discovery, just of continuation. Poe has been a fan for a long time, and he welcomes other people in.

Rey is the most important out of the three. However, comparing her to a particular type of fan is difficult, since parts of her story are still unknown. She is at first reluctant to leave Jakku. In an inverse of Luke’s story, she hopes her missing family will come back for her. Her mindset is otherwise hidden, until she unlocks her latent Force powers and agrees to follow the map to Luke. Unlike Luke’s destruction of the Death Star, Rey’s story doesn’t have a very clear arc. She needs to be captured in order to unlock her potential, and she has a brush with the dark side before overcoming Kylo Ren with bravery and skill. Those are important, but they don’t tell a complete story in the same way that Luke learned to “let go.” I don’t think we’ve seen the moment where Rey truly embraces her powers yet, or where she is fully joyful because of them in the way that Luke was at the end of A New Hope. If all goes well, though, we’ll see that as the trilogy continues.

Without this, Rey still represents a nevertheless hugely important group of fans—women. She’s the first female Jedi hero to star in a Star Wars movie, even if Leia and Padme held important roles before her, and her most critical moment is when she pulls the lightsaber out of the snow, bypassing both Kylo Ren and Finn. Rey is the little girl who wanted to grow up to be Luke Skywalker, and there are plenty of fans who can see themselves in that. We might just have to wait until Episode VIII to find out more about her emotional journey and her stake in her own family.

In the world established by The Force Awakens, fandom can be both a good thing and a bad thing. The First Order characters and the First Order as a political and military entity show fandom too, none more literally than Kylo Ren and his idolatry of Darth Vader. The First Order as a whole was made as an effort to keep the Empire alive, while the Resistance was a reaction to it. In this way, the First Order characters are perhaps even more pointedly fannish than the heroes.

In the Visual Dictionary, we see that the First Order has homages to the Empire written into its essence: the names of Imperial leaders such as Tarkin are used as rank indicators on the uniforms of First Order officers. General Hux is perhaps the least blatantly fannish of the First Order trio, but he also runs the whole show, carrying on Palpatine’s dictatorial political ideals and forming his own ideas based on the performance of the Empire’s troops. He’s also a fan because of his family. His father was an Imperial trainer who pioneered some of the Empire’s most severe ideas about indoctrinating young children.

Captain Phasma doesn’t agree with all of Hux’s plans, but she is also a collector: her armor is made from a Naboo ship once owned by Palpatine when he was a senator. For all we know, she might idolize Vader or Palpatine as much as Ren does.

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The most obviously fannish character, and the one who is most clearly an indictment of fans behaving badly, is Kylo Ren. His psychology is more frightening than his appearance, because he has an attitude that fans have probably seen before: an entitlement, a willingness to run other people over in the course of his obsession, tied with a self-destructive lack of confidence. He also speaks for the franchise when he says, after Han Solo’s death, “It’s only us now.” Ren is a cosplayer, a collector, a cultivator of an aesthetic. It makes sense that Darth Vader would be an idol to him: Vader was family and a perfect target for someone disillusioned by their own, possibly highly public upbringing and impatient to become part of a powerful legacy of Force users.

However, Ren failed to learn any lessons from Star Wars. He didn’t learn about redemption and forgiveness, or about letting go and trusting something beyond yourself, or about “your weapons, you will not need them.” Ren learned that the dark side is easy.

The film and the novel differ on one of the most interesting aspects of Kylo Ren’s fannish nature—exactly how much he knows about Darth Vader. In the movie, we don’t know whether he knows how Vader died. In the book, he and Snoke discuss that death, showing clearly that Ren knows about Vader’s redemption, but considers it a weakness that crippled an otherwise glorious Empire. This distinction is important, because without it we don’t know whether Ren is a fan without all the information, or one who willingly picks and chooses to like the parts of the story that fit his personal philosophy.

He’s consistently irritated that the world isn’t falling into place around him because of the power he has gained from the dark side. In the final fight, he exacerbates his own pain, having failed to get either satisfaction or power from what he thought would be the expression of ultimate evil—killing his own father. He lashes out at other people because of his own failure—failure caused by his working in the wrong direction all along.

The Star Wars fandom can also be angry. Some fans have been outspoken in their desire to scrap Disney’s ideas for the future of Star Wars and return to the continuity in which the older books operated. Some of them launched a plan to spoil The Force Awakens for anyone who visited high-profile Star Wars related websites, leading to the temporary closure of the Star Wars Books Facebook page on Dec. 16.

Having enjoyed Legends is great. I enjoyed it, too. But these are the actions of a Kylo Ren, not a Rey or a Luke. People have failed to internalize the kindness at the core of Star Wars, and instead fetishize Imperial values of destruction and inarguable rule. Kylo Ren is unfocused and entitled, and Star Wars fans recognize that because they have seen it before.

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With this in mind—the Resistance and the First Order both as fans who react in different ways to the legacy of their heroes—we have a new framework in which to think about the upcoming movies in the Sequel Trilogy. I look forward to being able to write about what Episode IX says about heroism, both its lessons and its twists on old formulae. Will Kylo Ren be redeemed? As much as I enjoy him as a villain, I think that Star Wars is, at its core, about redemption. Will Rey take up Luke’s mantle? I think Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, and the directors who will bring us five Star Wars movies in the next four years already have.

Megan Crouse is a staff writer.