The 'Last Jedi' Backlash Is Another Example Of Fandom Gone Wrong

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: addressing the toxic, dangerous fan backlash to Star Wars: The Last Jedi.)

It's okay to dislike Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Your opinion is your own and no one can take that away from you. However, there's something rotten in the Star Wars fanbase. People on the internet have decided to devote countless hours to tearing down a movie that plenty of others love. And while no movie is perfect — Star Wars: The Last Jedi least of all — what's the point in taking the fun out of movies? Is it retribution for a ruined childhood or vindication that your opinion is right? Or is all this backlash to The Last Jedi simply another product of the internet's penchant for knee-jerk reactions and instantaneous gratification?

This past weekend, Star Wars: The Last Jedi opened to critical fanfare and skyrocketing box office numbers. But those accomplishments have been overshadowed by a looming force in the sci-fi franchise's fandom. Some fans are calling it the worst Star Wars movie yet. A few more are harassing director Rian Johnson on Twitter. Others are petitioning that Last Jedi be removed from the series canon immediately. And the difference between the Rotten Tomatoes user and critical scores are very wide. So let's examine what caused this rift between the critical community and the die-hard fans, and whether it says something about the movie itself, or a growing toxicity in fandom at large.

Warning: Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi ahead.Star Wars: The Last Jedi Score

Burn It All Down

It started Thursday night, immediately after the highly anticipated early screenings of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Tweets began pouring in with claims that The Last Jedi was the worst Star Wars film yet and that its shoddy plotting and characterization were on par with the prequels — which, I would like to remind people, were pretty well-received at first.

Now, some valid criticisms were made about the film, which explicitly tore down the lore and legacy that the previous films had built up and refused to answer questions to fan theories that had been bubbling for the past two years. Jacob Hall says better than me why exactly this works, but like all movies, Last Jedi isn't immune to criticism. First, the overly long run time and extraneous subplots and characters — Canto Bight especially — were some of the film's biggest missteps. The abundance of wry humor and winking jokes may have worn thin on fans who expected a grim, serious follow-up to the nostalgic Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And then there's the absence of nostalgia altogether, a quest to "let the past die." (Though arguably, in handing the power back to the ordinary people, it's more loyal to the intention of the original trilogy than ever.)

And while I don't necessarily agree with them, there are plenty of thoughtful critics and fans who are laying out meaningful criticisms of Last Jedi — Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair gives a detailed breakdown of the reasons that Last Jedi didn't quite work with fans.

However, there's a difference between criticizing something and doing this:

This was just the beginning. Petitions have sprung up demanding that Rian Johnson apologize for his movie, or that Disney remake The Last Jedi altogether. And don't check Rian Johnson's Twitter feed if you have any empathy towards fellow human beings: users are sending nasty messages in response to his tweets, often complaining about inane issues like "too many close-ups."

Plenty more are refusing to acknowledge that Last Jedi is canonical at all, largely on account of the movie's treatment of Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker. The movie takes a radical approach by painting the former hero as a complex, broken man who has fled from his duties as a Jedi, guilt-ridden over a fleeting moment of weakness in which he nearly killed his nephew. And fans who are condemning the film are being fueled by Hamill's own admission that he too was initially disappointed by Johnson's take on Luke:

"I at one point had to say to Rian, 'I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you've made for this character. Now, having said that, I have gotten it off my chest, and my job now is to take what you've created and do my best to realize your vision.'"

But Hamill walked back that statement, later telling Variety that "it took me a while to get around to his way of thinking. But once I was there, it was a thrilling experience. I hope it will be for the audience, too." But with a small, vocal subset of the fandom steadily dominating the conversation surrounding The Last Jedi, it seems like it wasn't.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Canto Bight aliens

Rotten Luck or a Deliberate Campaign?

The complaints range from the ones mentioned above, to hysterical accusations that Star Wars has been taken over by the "liberal SJWs" or race-tinged complaints about new characters like Rose Tico. When limited to Twitter, they would be easily ignored, but those complaints have made it over to Rotten Tomatoes, where The Last Jedi boasts the biggest difference between a critical and audience score in any Star Wars film yet.

last jedi rotten tomatoes

This gives a huge contrast to other polls that measure audience reaction like CinemaScore, where Last Jedi scored an "A," and IMDB, where user ratings give the film a 7.9 out of 10.  So why the disparity? Online scores are often skewed toward reactionary fans who have more extreme opinions about movies. So it's possible that the subset of the fandom who absolutely despised the movie could have overrun the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

But something more sinister may be afoot. One Facebook user claimed to be manipulating the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes through bot accounts, though this cannot be confirmed.

In response to the negative audience reactions on Rotten Tomatoes, Disney president of theatrical distribution Dave Hollis released a statement to Deadline:

"Rian Johnson, the cast, and the Lucasfilm team have delivered an experience that is totally Star Wars yet at the same time fresh, unexpected and new. That makes this a Star Wars film like audiences have never seen – it's got people talking, puzzling over its mysteries, and it's a lot to take in, and we see that as all positive, that should help set the film up for great word-of-mouth and repeat viewing as we enter the lucrative holiday period."

Whether the Rotten Tomatoes audience score will make much of an impact is uncertain — though with The Last Jedi's $220 million haul this weekend, probably not — but it is certain that Disney should not be apologizing for fan reactions to the film. Studios previously have not had to apologize for the way a film played with audiences, nor have directors have had to explain themselves to fans. It's part of a growing phenomenon in franchises with passionate fans, and it's not good.

The Last Jedi questions

Crisis on Infinite Fandoms

This isn't the first time that a movie has found itself victim to malicious fan campaigns. Paul Feig's all-female reboot of Ghostbusters was perhaps the most infamous victim of internet ire, receiving hundreds of negative IMDB scores before the film even came out.

On the other side, Justice League and Batman v Superman fans came out in droves to attack critics who disliked the films, convinced that critics were out to tank the film or that Disney — which owns rival superhero company Marvel — was buying out critics to give the films negative reviews. Hilariously, the "Disney is bribing critics" conspiracy theory is coming back for Last Jedi too, but time time it's for...good reviews?

In both cases, and in the case of The Last Jedi, it comes down to fans feeling ownership of a franchise — ownership that they don't have. It's when passion turns to possessiveness that fandom turns toxic. It's like a weaponized version of the death of the author theory: that the subject shouldn't be interpreted based on the author's biases or influences. But while it's valid to have your own interpretations of your favorite movie, text, or characters, that doesn't make it the only universal truth.

We've seen this fandom ownership spring up long before the internet came about — Sherlock Holmes fans wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle demanding that he bring back the detective after he was killed off in "The Final Problem" — but campaigns have grown in size and malice since fandom went global. Social media and internet forums have helped to cultivate dangerously possessive ideas of fandom. And The Last Jedi backlash is just the latest example of that.

Like What You Like

Just don't tell others what they can't like. That's the easy solution to all this hoopla. While we perhaps can't persuade others that their opinions are wrong — it's their opinion after all — perhaps we can all be a little bit kinder and remember: it's entertainment. George Lucas conceived of Star Wars as a children's film, and to an extent it still is. No, I'm not calling out ignorant man-babies who are harassing directors or petitioning for a new movie — though you better watch yourselves — I'm calling attention to the fact that these films are made to be enjoyed. Maybe don't make it your mission to spoil everyone else's fun.