Fandom has always been an us versus them proposition. In the early days, it was because you loved something that the world at large found silly, be it comic books or Doctor Who. It was you and those who felt like you, against everyone else. Star Wars redefined fandom because it built a bigger tent than had ever existed before. Suddenly, the “everyone else” also loved Star Wars. Your mom knew what The Force was. Mark Hamill was on The Tonight Show. There was Yoda underwear. It was the first real “fan” thing that exploded into a phenomenon. But fandom always needs a “them.”
Star Wars is in an interesting place right now. The most recent film, Solo: A Star Wars Story, has been drastically underperforming at the box office. After two weeks in release, it had pulled in a mere $271 million worldwide. Analysts believe Disney will lose $50 million or more on the film, and Solo comes on the heels of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which — despite making $1.3 billion worldwide — proved itself an incredibly divisive film. While critics loved it (judging by the 91 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes), fans were split.
Some loved the bold liberties of writer-director Rian Johnson. They understood that there was room under that big tent for characters like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), women placed alongside Carrie Fisher’s Leia and Ridley’s Rey at the center of the Star Wars drama.
But others hated it. Hated everything it stood for. Hated what they saw as a social justice warrior remix of the Star Wars they grew up with. And they hated Tran’s Rose most of all because they decided that she was the avatar for all that was wrong with the franchise. Those fans — a minority but a loud one — found their “them” in the very thing they used to love.
Those who chose this particular vein of the Dark Side, emboldened by the faceless intoxication of the internet, went hard on Tran. Racist invective, misogyny, rape and death threats all hurled at her constantly, unrelentingly, transforming what had been a Cinderella story — The Last Jedi was Tran’s first major film — into a modern-day nightmare. On June 4, she all but quit social media, stripping everything from her Instagram save for a profile picture and a bio that says “Afraid, but still doing it anyway.”
(It shouldn’t go unnoticed that when this stripe of fan decides they don’t like a new take on an old favorite, they level their hate on the woman of color. Leslie Jones bore the brunt of the backlash to the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters and the racist, sexually violent tweets she got also caused her to withdraw from social media to find her balance.)
All of this raises the question: What exactly do Star Wars fans want? For so long, all they were asking for was more. It was 16 years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, and then 10 years between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens. Just getting Star Wars on the big screen was enough … at first. But then fans wheeled on the prequels: too much Jar Jar, too convoluted. (The vitriol was strong enough to chase Lucas away from directing and perhaps from Star Wars altogether.)
When J.J. Abrams signed on for The Force Awakens and built his narrative around a young woman with The Force and her black friend, it triggered the anti-SJW brigades. (Never mind it also gave them Han Solo, Chewbacca, Leia and a pair of familiar droids.) The #BoycottEpisodeVII hashtag spread, targeting Ridley and John Boyega, though it probably had more headlines than effect, as the film topped $2 billion worldwide.
But if The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were too progressive for some fans, why didn’t they comfort themselves in the warm blanket of Solo, co-written by Star Wars standard-bearer Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Lucas’ Willow collaborator Ron Howard? It should’ve been everything they wanted in the prequels they didn’t get, without the “too many ladies and people of color” issues they claimed hurt the new films. But judging by the gross, they didn’t want Solo either.
What is Star Wars fandom against? Turns out, the answer: itself. Or, rather, the realization that Star Wars is and always has been for children, and they aren’t children any more. Star Wars fans — I count myself among them — look to the original trilogy as an anchor of youth. They want anything Star Wars to make them feel the way they did when they saw “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” roll across the screen 40 years ago.
No diehard fan wants to imagine himself as old Luke Skywalker, hiding on an island from everything new, anything that might shake his steadfast belief in how the world is supposed to be. But if you saw the original Star Wars in the theater, that’s who you are, unless you find a way to open yourself to heroes designed to hook a new generation while still resonating with yours. Those who haven’t are lashing out at everything that reminds them that they’re no longer young Luke, staring off into the horizon of a future still dawning, like twin suns.
They are forgetting the very things that spoke to them about Star Wars in the first place — and the warnings of a little green puppet about the perils of anger.
Marc Bernardin is a former THR editor and a comic book and television writer whose credits include Hulu’s upcoming Castle Rock. He also co-hosts the Fatman on Batman podcast with Kevin Smith.