Over the weekend, Warwick Davis, noted for his performances in various Lucas-directed films, weighed in on current controversies around The Last Jedi: "It's a piece of entertainment, it's not about making political statements. It's just there for people to enjoy. You go in there and are supposed to lose yourself in the world the director has created. Star Wars has always been a great example of that - it's pure escapism and you can forget the 21st century for a couple of hours. That was George Lucas's philosophy with Star Wars - to make a fun adventure." This is characteristic of a Hollywood move which seeks to distance itself from politics and thus absolve itself from critical discussion: "Get a life! It's only a television series." The reality is that Star Wars has always been about politics — if nothing else, Lucas's choice to base the stormtroopers on, well, stormtroopers or to tap the aesthetics of Triumph of the Will for the final moments of A New Hope means that he was tapping certain political narratives to give the story much of its punch.
So, the question is not whether one group or another is "politicizing" Star Wars but whether what kind of politics seems "natural" within the context of a Hollywood blockbuster franchise and whose politics seems intrusive, whose politics gets read as, well, "political." The discussions around The Last Jedi allow us to take certain soundings about where our culture is at in terms of embracing an ethos of diversity and inclusion, in terms of rethinking old genre formulas to encompass people whose stories have not been told in that term before.
This is an important part of the story of The Last Jedi's reception, but it is ONLY one part of the story. There are also questions about how we define notions of quality in a transmedia era -- and what notions of quality are appropriate when factoring in somewhat different and still emerging narrative expectations, ie. what information needs to be contained in the film, what we may legitimately access from other sources, what expectations we have about closure or plot development as the unified Hero's Journey narrative which Star Wars helped to popularize in Hollywood gives way to what Jeff Gomez has called "the collective journey" structure.
And there are also issues around how fandom gets represented in the media, how we break through what is often a monolithic conception of Star Wars fans in the hand of journalists, and how we deal with a legacy of gender politics which still breaks fandom down into male and female binaries despite efforts towards greater fluidity.
William (Billy) Proctor's contributions last week raised many of these questions, including legitimate questions of "journalistic ethics" which seem important for us to address as the news media is still trying to figure out how to incorporate social media discourses into their expanded coverage of audience response to popular media. This week, he has organized a panel of aca-fan scholars to weigh in on these many issues and he has helped to prod the discussion along, constantly expanding its agenda. By the way, Proctor has nicely stepped up lately to help me with some of the behind the scenes work of proofing and uploading the blog installments. Thanks. This has been a solo job for more than a decade and it's great to have some extra hands here.
The resulting exchange is lively and thoughtful. I don't necessarily agree with every perspective represented -- I am personally pretty enthusiastic about The Last Jedi (not necessarily as the best of all possible Star War Movies but as a step forward for the franchise) -- but I have learned something from all of the participants here.
There are moments of tension in the discussion, but the participants are able to work through their disagreements with some degree of mutual respect and with some openness to each other's arguments. You will get four installments of this discussion. And the discussion will continue further as, coming soon, we launch a new podcast, How Do You Like It So Far?., which I am developing with Colin MacClay from the Annenberg Innovation Lab and which will take up The Last Jedi as our first extended case study. Watch for more soon.
For me, the main problem of The Last Jedi (TLJ) is that The Force Awakens (TFA) came first. Abrams’ set up some of the overarching plotlines, conflicts and themes that would develop in the subsequent instalments of Disney’s Sequel Trilogy. In other words, TFA established the “reading contract,” as renowned Argentinian semiotician Eliseo Verón may have put it (Scolari’s 2009 paper in the International Journal of Communication is a deft introduction to both Verón applied to transmedia storytelling).Metaphorically, this contract contains clauses directed both at old and new generations of fans who are the "implicit readers" (Umberto Eco says hi) of the new movies. For a good bunch of 1970 and 1980s kids that grew up dreaming with a galaxy far, far away like myself, TFA felt pretty much like an undercover remake of A New Hope with fresh faces. However, I still could recognise some familiar tropes and motives in the narrative universe unfolding in front of me and the warm feeling of seeing Harrison and Carrie back into their characters’ skins. The canon was steadily being transformed despite the film’s shortcomings in the form of ridiculous villains and questionable plot decisions. Not to mention, as a female fan, I was elated to finally, finally, get to see a female Jedi wielding a lightsaber as one of the protagonists of a saga film (but clearly not the first female Jedi as some commenters have suggested —Aayla Secura? Asoka Tano?). It was my childhood dream come true because I never really identified with Princess Leia, and even less with Padmé Amidala. Blame Lucas for his lack of attention to female characters and for making me like Luke and Darth Vader more instead. So, why so serious and angry about TLJ? Because TLJ simply breaches the reader contract that TFA put into official record, and it even tears into pieces the constitution of the Star Wars narrative universe as a whole. Nothing in that film seems to make sense narrative-wise when confronted with its predecessor and the other two trilogies. There is no continuity to the mysteries seeded in TFA — I still want some receipts on the Knights of Ren; Rey’s parentage reveal is anticlimactic to say the least after one entire movie revolving around that. There is no coherence — wasn’t Snoke supposed to be very powerful? Those are major mishaps when it comes to storytelling at a great scale and also worldbuilding, especially in a saga that has always been a staple of that.
The breach of the contract does not just occur at the deep level of the film as a text, though. It also takes place at the superficial level with Yoda abjuring from the old Jedi ways. That scene can be symbolically interpreted as showcasing the films’ clear intention to cut loose from the canon it belongs to. Is the old Jedi code a proxy for veteran fans, or Lucas, or the galaxy altogether? Why the sudden need to destroy what was working in the name of an urge to subvert and modernise a saga that could have achieve that in more organic ways with a better script and a director in-tune with the canon (no matter how much research he now claims to have done)? Furthermore, not only has Rian Johnson wiped out the foundations of the Sequel Trilogy in a barren attempt to mend whatever mistakes Abrams’ vision had, but he even managed to hinder the development of the film’s feminist hero by demoting her to being the helper to the male characters, to Luke and Kylo Ren’s subplots. Where’s her agency in TLJ? I’d take that over 100 scenes of Laura Dern kamikazing, to be honest.
Why don’t you say what you really think, Mar?
In all seriousness, I had a similar reaction so, in the spirit of Mar, I won’t mince words: I hated The Last Jedi. But more than that, I was taken aback by how vehemently betrayed I felt as a first-generation fan. Being reflexive, my reaction certainly bowled me over — my academic identity was chucked aside, and my fan identity moved to the forefront, crying foul-play to anyone who would listen ("that's not how the force works!"). Obviously, I’ve had strong reactions to fan-objects in the past — during the screening of Star Trek Into Darkness, I actually shouted at the screen in the local cinema — but I wasn’t prepared for the affective tempest that brewed within after viewing The Last Jedi. I berated myself frequently (“it’s only a film”) and internalised fan stereotypes (“get a life,” “grow up”). I ended up embroiled in minor internet infractions, so I forced myself to withdraw from social media because I was so hopping mad!
Personally, I don’t mind shifts in canon and mythos as long as they’re deserved, foreshadowed, explained etc. It does show that Johnson listens to complaints closely as he has mounted a number of defences on social media and in press, as Mar points out — perhaps as damage control or at least to potentially resolve fan disputes. The last such defence, I believe, was centred on Luke’s fate and, more pointedly, his 'new' Force power (i.e, projecting a form across the galaxy). What happened to Kylo’s “raw, untamed power” there, then? How come he could deceive Snoke and slice him in two, but didn’t know that Luke was, for all intents and purposes, a hologram (albeit one which could be both corporeal and/ or “astral”)? Johnson’s cheeky tweet showing him reaching for The Jedi Path book to ‘prove’ that the power has precedent seemed destined to irritate detractors. First of all, the book only states that a Jedi has the power to construct a doppelganger to fool enemies, not that one could project across time-and-space. Second, for EU fans, that must have felt like a slap in the face: erasing hundreds of novels and comics from canonical status, and then marshalling evidence from an excommunicated text? Whether or not the novels and comics, etc., were ever really canon anyway is another thing entirely, but I certainly understand fan readers who have purchased EU materials in the past feeling wounded by Disney’s genocidal mandate. Incidentally, I learned from interviewing EU fans that it’s not about the canonical status at all — rather, it’s about the discontinuation of the ‘Legends’ timeline altogether. Many readers would be overjoyed if the series continued despite being non-canonical. Moreover, if a director has to defend a creative choice by showing 'evidence' from an external text, and one not connected to Disney’s now-canonical EU means, I would argue, that the film failed to provide a coherent narrative on its own terms. I’m all for 'subversion,' but I don’t quite see what’s subversive about The Last Jedi. The film seemingly deconstructs the binary between light and dark, only to reify the distinctions by the end; the whole 'burn it all down' sequence is rendered null and void when we see that Rey managed to save the Jedi texts from incineration. I also find it quite absurd that there were more Jedi left alive after Emperor Palpatine’s purge in Revenge of the Sith than at the end of The Last Jedi! In fact, in Disney’s version of Star Wars, there are no Jedi left at all, or as far as we know. Obviously, Rey will be the last Jedi in future, as signposted by Luke (“I won’t be the last Jedi”), so I don't expect that she’ll register as a PhD candidate to study the Jedi texts because, as Yoda explained to Luke, “she already knows everything in there.” What changed Luke’s mind so quickly after decades in hermit hibernation? I could go on (and on and on).
At the risk of porg-piling on to what has already been said, I had many of the same gut fannish responses and narrative issues that Mar and Billy have detailed above. I loved TFA, not for its nostalgic interplay with the original trilogy (which, admittedly, I quite enjoyed), but rather because of its deft approach to characterization. Potentially controversial fan statement time: To my mind, Rey and Finn and Kylo are far more complex and compelling characters than any of their analogue A New Hope protagonists. Diversity is certainly a part of this for me, but it is not the entire picture.
Which brings me to this...In processing my own disappointment with The Last Jedi, I keep coming back to the interplay of two concepts: Jonathan Gray’s work on how promotional paratexts function as a form of “speculative consumption,” and Kristen Warner’s excellent recent piece on plastic representation. I was thrilled when I heard Rian Johnson would be taking over the helm, precisely because we were promised something different. The teaser trailer reiterated this, culminating in Luke Skywalker’s promise (or threat, depending on your perspective): “It’s time for the Jedi to end.” I was excited at the prospect of Johnson blowing up canonical conventions, which based on speculative consumption of the trailer might have ranged from Rey going dark to Luke nihilistically refusing to train her. “Let the past die…kill it if you have to” thus became the lens through which the film was inevitably read.
My own speculative consumption of the various promotional paratexts leading up to the film built excitement around the introduction of Rose and Holdo, and the potential of them finally doing something vaguely interesting with Phasma. After watching the film, I couldn’t help but share Warner’s complaint that in the “diversity matters” era, “the degree of diversity became synonymous with the quantity of difference rather than with the dimensionality of those performances.” To my extreme disappointment, characters like Rose and Holdo felt decidedly like an exercise in “plastic representation,” which Warner defines as “a combination of synthetic elements put together and shaped to look like meaningful imagery, but which can only approximate depth and substance because ultimately it is hollow and cannot survive close scrutiny.”
Sure, I have some general old/cranky fan gripes, particularly around the entire Canto Bight sequence, which visually and narratively took a particularly dumb page out of prequels playbook and utterly wasted an opportunity to develop the dynamic between Finn/Rose in any meaningful way, perfectly encapsulates the film’s facile attempts at political commentary. That said, my primary complaint is that the film so consistently pulls its punches both representationally and mythologically. It’s not trying to kill the past so much as zombify it...and on close scrutiny, it can’t “pass” as either a nostalgic throwback OR as something progressive. In the process, it reveals its conservatism even as it is credited for its deconstruction, or even destruction, of the ultimate “sacred Jedi texts,” the original trilogy. Perhaps the best example is Kylo’s speech to Rey, which begins with an admittedly awesome and unprecedented pitch to abandon all of the institutions and binary logics that are central to the Star Wars universe (Sith/Jedi, Rebellion/Empire)…and ends with that age-old dark-to-light force wielder pick-up line: “we can rule the galaxy together.”
Rogue One suffers from the same set of issues, to my mind, and has similarly been given far too much credit for “radically reimagining” what a generic Star Wars franchise text might look like. While it checks boxes for diverse representation, perhaps more so than any other film in the history of the franchise, it fails miserably in terms of fleshing out those characters with a sense of history and motivation (Chirrut Imwe being the exception). The raw materials are there, but the execution is lacking. It speaks volumes that the film doesn’t end on the inevitable, poignant death of the film’s protagonists, but rather routes the viewer directly back to A New Hope’s uncanny valley holodeck.
To be crystal clear: I am thrilled that people love The Last Jedi, particularly if they genuinely feel as though the franchise is finally acknowledging them as a demographic. I haven’t gotten into debates on Twitter, or even publically shared my own deep dissatisfaction with the film, for precisely these reasons. But I do think we need to take a step back and move beyond the #representationmatters positive gut response to the new film offerings and consider if the execution is effective, or even sufficient.
I fell asleep during my second viewing of The Last Jedi. I have never fallen asleep during a Star Wars film before, and I think that’s an unfortunate reflection on this one – especially as I’ve seen people claim that the second viewing is where the film comes into its own, on its own terms. So on one level, I simply feel this movie is too long, and that its Canto Bight sequence in particular is desperately unengaging.
I enjoyed The Last Jedi more on my first viewing – parts of it, at least. I felt that the opening scene, with Poe’s X-Wing facing up against the dreadnought, captured brilliantly what Star Wars is classically about – bold, maverick individualism against ridiculous odds, the tiny rebel squaring up to the massive organisation – and that this was a neat way of giving us that visual dynamic at the very start of the film, rather than building up to another run against a super-sized big bad at the climax. I thought Poe was clearly an analogue of the Original Trilogy Han Solo, and that it was equally neat to have his flyboy cockiness quashed by Holdo – again, a classic routine with the new twist that he’s being put in his place by an older woman, rather than the younger Princess Leia of A New Hope. Equally, the combat in Snoke’s chamber was a visually-stunning revisiting and revisioning of the climactic duel at Return of the Jedi¸ signalled by a near-echo of the earlier film’s two-shot where Luke and Vader share a few brief words on their way to meet Palpatine. All of these sequences really hit the mark for me: not nostalgic replays of earlier scenes, but moments which nodded back to dynamics we’d seen before, while giving them a different context, situation, direction and outcome. ‘Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it's all totally different,’ as Alan Moore said of Frank Miller’s revisionist Batman.
As mentioned above, the whole Canto Bight section lost me. I felt it was ultimately pointless, a subplot or fetch quest with no real result, though I’ve read the arguments that claim its purpose is about failure and the fact that plans don’t work out. Aside from the fact that I found its characters and dialogue bland – with the exception of D.J. – its worldbuilding shallow, its CGI unconvincing, its child performances cheesy and its political aspect simplistic, I think this excuse for the Canto Bight storyline gestures towards one of the fundamental issues I had with The Last Jedi. While there were many enjoyable, memorable moments, like the scenes I’ve mentioned above, and other spectacular visuals like the hyperspace kamikaze and the ships digging scarlet trails into Crait’s surface – it seemed to me as though The Last Jedi was keen to sabotage our expectations from earlier Star Wars, without leaving anything rewarding in their place. I watched A New Hope this week and I think it’s very hard to understand how Luke Skywalker could go from that character, or from his more serious and mature incarnations in Empire and Return of the Jedi, to the character we encounter in The Last Jedi. I find it almost impossible to reconcile this Luke Skywalker with the one we’ve seen before, in any of those three earlier films. On my first viewing, that dissonance was made up for by the fact that his cranky old man routine was surprising and funny. On the second viewing, I didn’t laugh at the jokes at all: they only seemed to work once, and of course the surprise was gone. We are left with long, tedious, visually-dull scenes of him and Rey on an island of over-exposed skies. The enthusiasm and energy of young Luke, and his controlled, balanced confidence in Return of the Jedi, are gone, and we have instead the kind of character Alec Guinness was afraid Obi-Wan would be – not a Gandalf figure, but a grumpy hermit, more Ben Gunn than Ben Kenobi.
The point of The Last Jedi is meant, if we read the defences for it, to be about throwing away our expectations and letting go of what we thought we knew. But as Suzanne suggests, any more radical possibilities are glimpsed, then withdrawn and replaced by half-hearted returns to the old system. Kylo seems to be suggesting a complete change to the Jedi/Sith binary, but then invites Rey to rule the galaxy with him: he’s smashed his Vader mask, but still uses his grandfather’s old lines. Luke argues that the Jedi must end, but by the end of the movie, Rey seems to be confirmed as a Jedi, much like he was. The old books should be burned, but then we see them kept safely in a drawer. Hotshot pilots are put in their place by older women, but those older women are then retired or killed, and the hotshot pilot gets his reward of becoming a ranking rebel leader – just as Han and Luke did, back in the early 80s. We’re introduced to Rose Tico, a plucky woman engineer played by an Asian-American actress, but she seemed more to embody a meta representation of Star Wars fandom, rather than a fully-fledged character in her own right – her short-lived sister Paige, it seemed to me, had more potential. Representation is, of course, incredibly important, but it should surely feel integral to the story and its world, rather than self-consciously inserted. That said, I’m aware that some viewers genuinely embraced these new characters, which is why, like Suzanne, I’m cautious about criticising them even if they didn’t work for me.
There’s an intriguing hint that these Star Wars we’ve been watching for decades may be funded by wealthy arms dealers, who bid equally on either side when it suits them. This suggestion of a deep-seated deconstructive dynamic – of two seemingly-opposed sides caught in a process of mutual dependency and exchange – seemed to tap into exactly what I’ve theorised underpins the previous six films, where the Republic leads to the Empire, which leads to Leia’s Alliance to Restore the Republic, which has apparently forgotten that the Republic enabled the Empire in the first place. An open acknowledgement of that endless cycle would have been truly subversive, exposing the pointless nature of these wars as a process of interchange, a series of symbolic reversals. D.J’s dismissive assessment, ‘good guys, bad guys — made up words’ is the most interesting line in the film, and if developed, could have broken open the whole galactic conflict that’s been going on for generations. Luke’s observation that the Jedi allowed the rise of Darth Sidious is another welcome acknowledgement of this destructive, deconstructive, circular and cyclical process.
But this fascinating idea is abandoned almost as soon as it’s mentioned, in favour of a black-and-white fairy-tale binary about evil rich gamblers being mean to downtrodden kids and animals. The spiritual end of the redundant Jedi order is also quickly forgotten, in favour of Rey in the hero role, levitating rocks, and D.J.’s political assertion about cynical, independent dealers doesn’t seem so plausible when mapped out into the broader fictional universe: would a colonialist military power really work with suppliers who also arm their enemy? At the finale, we seem to be left exactly where we were in the original trilogy, with an overwhelmingly powerful galactic empire, a scrappy team of rebels, and a lone, last Jedi. The names may have changed, but the situation seems barely different, for all the claims of subversion. And in the name of that superficial, short-term subversion, I think important things have been sacrificed: narrative satisfaction, character consistency, the coherence of this universe and its internal rules.
And what have we gained? Cutely scruffy children – a Broom Boy and his Dickensian friends – who give worse performances in their brief moments on-screen than Jake Lloyd in 1999. The supposedly ground-breaking, democratic notion that anyone can be a Jedi, not just the Skywalkers? Surely we saw that plainly in the Prequel Trilogy, with its diverse, interspecies legions of Jedi warriors; surely this was implied way back in A New Hope, where Vader – with no knowledge that he even has children – comments mildly that ‘the Force is strong with this one’, sensing ability in the anonymous X-Wing pilot he’s about to blow out of the sky.
As noted, I know many millions of people thoroughly and sincerely enjoyed The Last Jedi, and while I also enjoyed several isolated scenes from the movie, I sometimes feel that like Han, Luke and Leia, in their own ways, it may be time for me to let a younger generation gain the joy from these new movies that I got from the old ones. But I believe it would have been possible to entrance that younger audience while still fully engaging older fans like me. I think that would have been preferable to this showy pretence of throwing out the old stuff, switching things up a little superficially, and claiming that a few crowd-pleasing additions count as radical change.
There seems a prominent discourse in journalism and social media that takes pleasure, even pride, in the fact that many viewers who grew up on the saga were dissatisfied with this most recent film. This discourse seems to assume that their objections are based in conservative attitudes -- even outright misogyny and racism -- and to dismiss them as (at worst) bigots, or at best, reactionaries who can’t let go of the past and accept new possibilities. As I’ve suggested, I don’t believe The Last Jedi is as radical as it pretends, and to assume that everyone who criticises it must fit a caricature of basement-dwelling, ‘butt-hurt’ fanboy is extremely lazy and misguided. It’s no doubt reassuring to feel that you are on the right side of history, embracing the future of the saga in all its democracy and diversity -- but to shut down discourse by stereotyping those who raise problems with the film is not an attitude I can admire.
Professor Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University, and author of Using the Force (20020 and the BFI volume on Star Wars (2009) among many other books.
Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico works as a research assistant at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain). Her articles have been published in journals such as International Journal of Communication & Society, International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, Signo y Pensamiento, Comunicación and Sociedad (Mexico), Palabra Clave and Cuadernos.info. Her research interests include transmedia storytelling, fan cultures, narratology, television shows and media education.
Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on numerous topics, including Batman, James Bond, One Direction, The Walking Dead, Stephen King, and Star Wars. William is a leading expert on reboots and is currently finishing up his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, for Palgrave Macmillan. He is co-editor of Transmedia Earth: Global Convergence Cultures with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Routledge, 2018); co-editor of Disney's Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception with Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Iowa, forthcoming); and co-editor, alongside Bridget Kies, of the themed-section of Participations: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on "Toxic Fan Practices" (May, 2018).
Dr Suzanne Scott is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her current book project explores the gendered tensions underpinning the media industry’s embrace of fans as a tastemaker demographic within convergence culture. In addition to co-editing The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, her work has been published in the journals Transformative Works and Cultures, New Media & Society, and Cinema Journal, as well as numerous anthologies including Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (2nd Ed), How to Watch Television, and The Participatory Culture Handbook.