Mirroring of visuals, parallelism in themes, rhyming story beats. The Star Wars franchise has become famous for the way it deploys recurrence and inversion to make connections across its stories, not only in the ten live-action films but also animation, books and comics, and other storytelling. This use of symmetry is part of what helps to give Star Wars the feel of a modern epic myth, creating the sense that the stories and characters inhabit the same ongoing tale in the galaxy far, far away.
Recurring patterns arise in the real-world Star Wars franchise and its fandom, too – and sometimes those parallels across time are cautionary tales for Lucasfilm, ripples from the past that must not be ignored lest history repeat itself. It may be that Star Wars never lost its luster for its devoted hardcore fans during the “dark times” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, or in the post-Prequels contraction in the late 2000s, but when Star Wars is prominent in the pop culture conversations of the day it is easy to forget how quickly it can fade among the broader, general audience. Fans who experienced the Prequel era remember the huge surge of participation in the fandom – and the significant ebb that followed, when the franchise failed to hold interest after the thrill of the third movie dissipated. The idea that Star Wars is an inevitably dominant franchise is belied by its past, and its present.
In the months since the release of The Last Jedi, and now in the shadow of the opening weekends for Solo, the public narrative about the state of the Star Wars franchise has striking similarities to the fandom conversations surrounding the precipitous decline of the Expanded Universe. The same rationalizations and dismissiveness proffered by Star Wars pros and fans in favor of the books, despite the negative feedback and collapse in sales, are now appearing widely in discussions of the franchise after The Last Jedi and Solo, including Star Wars pros and fans on social media along with general interest venues such as movie reviewers, film industry reporters, and pop culture commentators. Those justifications did not save the Expanded Universe from implosion into a reboot. With billion-dollar movies on the line this time, Lucasfilm cannot afford to ignore the lessons of these recurring themes.
Sales Figures Are Important Data on Franchise Health
Over time from The New Jedi Order (1999-2003) to Legacy of the Force (2006-2008) to Fate of the Jedi (2009-2011), the flagship Star Wars novel series declined from selling hundreds of thousands of copies to tens of thousands copies per book. Fans who did not like the direction of the story or the portrayals of iconic characters walked away in droves, and most of them silently voted with their dollars rather than agitating loudly online. The defenders who remained frequently pointed to the books appearing on the New York Times bestseller list as evidence of continuing success, while dismissing the significance of the books not reaching as high on the list and staying on the list for fewer weeks. The authors too refused to change course, rationalizing the declining sales as the effect of fandom doldrums without movies in the theaters rather than customer disenchantment with the books themselves.
It is probably true that the box office achievement and merchandise boon of The Force Awakens, like The Phantom Menace before it, set a Star Wars relaunch bar that would be quite difficult for a subsequent contemporaneous Star Wars film to meet or surpass. But other measures are available to compare the films. The Force Awakens and Rogue One, for example, had fairly strong legs after their opening weekends, continuing to hold interest for several weeks, comparable to other Disney blockbusters such as Beauty and the Beast, Finding Dory, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and holding better than Captain America: Civil War. By contrast, The Last Jedi had earned nearly 85% of its domestic gross by the end of its third weekend, a lack of longevity on par with Justice League and reflecting much weaker performance in word of mouth and repeat business. Solo’s opening weekend barely cleared half as much as Rogue One’s despite featuring three of the saga’s most iconic and beloved characters in Han, Chewie, and Lando; its second weekend suffered a comparable percentage decline to The Last Jedi, suggesting similarly poor longevity. Imperfect information is publicly available on the financial success or failure of Star Wars films in serving as the franchise anchors beyond the box office, such as sales figures and profit margins for toys, clothing, and other tie-in merchandise. Indicators suggest, though, that Rogue One and The Last Jedi did not meet targets for those budget lines – with Deadline reporting that The Last Jedi missed its mark by fully 25%, amounting to $150 million and leaving Lucasfilm significantly short of its expected multiplier for overall profitability.
Fans and professionals alike are known to opine the sentiment that because it’s Star Wars, fans will buy it regardless. The past shows that this is simply not true, even among the hardcore fanbase – and it is certainly not true among the broader general audience. When Star Wars books had the height of their popularity in the Prequel movie period, they were outsold by an order of magnitude by the Harry Potter books, then later by Twilight. Star Wars books did not dominate simply by being Star Wars, and were surpassed by stories and characters that readers found more compelling. Now we have undeniable evidence that this can happen at the movies, too. Both Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War surpassed The Last Jedi at the box office: Black Panther exceeded The Last Jedi’s entire domestic gross in 37 days, while Infinity War had a bigger opening weekend than The Last Jedi and passed its total gross in 31 days. Star Wars must earn its place at the top of the box office, and The Last Jedi and Solo show that it has not done so. If Lucasfilm again listens to the rationalizations instead of taking its steep decline seriously, the results could be even more catastrophic for the franchise this time.
Selectively Avoiding Unpleasant Feedback
The Expanded Universe period predated the arrival of today’s social media, but internet fandom very much existed, particularly on prominent Star Wars message boards at StarWars.com and TheForce.Net’s Jedi Council Forums. Much of the fandom dialogue on the novels took place in two venues: the literature boards, predominantly male, focusing on lore details, retcons, and continuity of factoids (the predecessor of Wookieepedia fandom), and the fanfiction boards, predominantly female, focusing on favorite characters, favorite ‘ships, and continuity of characterization (the predecessor of AO3 and Tumblr fandom). The fanfiction boards contained extensive critique of the direction of the novels, sometimes in the content of the fanfic stories but also in lengthy and in-depth discussions in the threads. The Expanded Universe pro authors consistently refused to engage with feedback from such perspectives, however, relying on the excuse that copyright law concerns prevented them from reviewing unsolicited story ideas – even though pro authors regularly visited and participated in the literature forums, where fan retcons later ended up being made official and where The Essential Atlas geography was crowdsourced. It was not coincidental that the literature forums remained generally positive on the novels throughout their decline, while the fanfiction forums accurately reflected the fans’ disenchantment with the official storylines by increasingly trending into alternate universe tales. By avoiding the feedback they didn’t want to hear, the pro authors doubled down on the destructive trajectory of the novels until it was too late to earn back the audience.
The social media era has brought unprecedented ability for global fandom to celebrate their favorite franchise, but also the dark underbelly of giving voice to attention-seeking trolls and coordinated malicious activity. Especially in a political environment where bigots feel emboldened to lash out at the proponents of diversity, inclusion, and equality, it is easy to dismiss negative feedback as nothing more than vitriolic bile rightfully to be ignored. There are plenty of legitimate critiques of Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath book trilogy, including the quality of its prose and storytelling, but the one-star review-bombing on Amazon by anti-diversity bigots, some of whom pretextually mentioned aspects like present-tense narration, gave cover to Wendig and his defenders to dismiss criticism as trolling. The same effect repeated on The Last Jedi, which produced an even larger bigot-troll reaction, complete with hashtags and coordinated replies, that Rian Johnson and his supporters cited as grounds to ignore the negative feedback on the film and downplay the extent of the disenchantment among the aggregate fanbase. The danger is that Lucasfilm and its creators will again listen only to the feedback they want to hear, use the excuse of ignoring the trolls to avoid the criticisms they don’t want to hear, and double down on decisions that will only compound the losses already suffered.
Inherent in the social media era is a risk of drawing the wrong inferences from the online community, as well. Unfortunately, trolls and their ilk are vocal and obnoxious at best, full of hate and personal attacks at worst. Salience bias makes it easy to focus on those visible actors and miss the importance of the many disaffected fans who will simply walk away quietly and vote with their dollars on the following films, just as similarly minded fans stopped purchasing the novels a decade earlier. Trolls and bigots surely are a small fraction of the negative feedback on The Last Jedi and Solo, and using their presence as an excuse to avoid the legitimate concerns with the direction of the franchise risks detrimental repercussions.
Ignoring the Value of Constructive Criticism
Sometimes fans are able to reach past the feedback filters and have their constructive criticism heard by Star Wars creators. One of the biggest points of critique in the Expanded Universe flagship series was the story’s treatment of its prominent female characters and their relationships. Women in particular held strong views that the novels were not doing right by Leia, Mara, and Jaina in their own rights, nor by Leia/Han, Mara/Luke, and Jaina/Jag as heroic couples. Even secondary characters like Tenel Ka and Tahiri suffered from problematic decisions for their stories, too. Yet the authors and editors consistently rejected the import of this criticism and continued these character arcs in directions that alienated more and more fans the further the stories progressed.
The pattern is repeating in the new flagship series. Once again, fans – especially women – are raising significant concerns about the portrayals and story arcs of the prominent female characters in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The characterization of Han, Leia, and Han/Leia faced substantial pushback after The Force Awakens, and so did the story arcs for Rey and Rose in The Last Jedi. Fans again raised concerns about the stories given to secondary characters, too, like Phasma and Holdo. Similarly, The Last Jedi’s pattern of subverting the heroic themes of Star Wars has very different connotations for POC fans, who celebrated their inclusion by representation onscreen in The Force Awakens only to see characters like Finn, Poe, and Rey denied the heroic progressions that the franchise’s white male characters have received. Lucasfilm ignores the implications for the franchise at their peril.
Perhaps most disturbing as a reflection of the disinterest in constructive criticism, though, is the recurrence of a highly problematic story element with seemingly no self-awareness from Lucasfilm about the ramifications in either instance. During the Fate of the Jedi novel series teenage Ben Skywalker, a Jedi and the son of Luke and Mara, endured a star-crossed romance with Vestara Khai, a young woman raised as a Sith. In the eighth novel, Ascension, their relationship turned toxic, with Ben perpetrating relationship violence toward Vestara, followed minutes later by their first kiss. Neither Ascension nor any subsequent story ever showed recognition by the characters that anything unacceptable had occurred in his actions, and Ben and Vestara ultimately parted ways for unrelated reasons. After fans explained the issue, public remarks from the author and other pros disclaimed the idea that Ben’s actions or the story’s direction were problematic. Yet the Sequel Trilogy films have returned to this notion, complete with a Skywalker lineage heir named Ben. In The Force Awakens Kylo Ren abducts and tortures Rey, kills her newfound mentor Han, and nearly kills her friend Finn. Yet Lucasfilm allowed The Last Jedi to develop a relationship of emotional intimacy between Rey and Kylo – to the point that Rian Johnson publicly analogized their touching of hands through the Force to a sex scene – while at the same time showing Kylo engage in the very kinds of manipulation, deceit, and gaslighting that fans rightfully have decried as the hallmarks of domestic abuse. Fully aware of how some fans have interpreted those scenes as an incipient love story, Johnson and other Lucasfilm affiliates continue to partake in ‘shipper-baiting those fans, offering the prospect that Rey and “Ben” might find open romance in Episode IX. While the backlash to Fate of the Jedi’s turn of events was fairly contained, with only the thousands of remaining novel customers at the time meaningfully aware of the storyline, the massive scale and public awareness of the Sequel Trilogy films make the stakes far more significant for the franchise.
What Kind of Fanservice, and For Whom?
The dichotomy in the Expanded Universe online community carried through into the kinds of fanservice that were perceived as valued by fans, then ultimately reinforced by official sources. The literature boards lauded references to obscure factoids and retcons of real or supposed inconsistencies. Deep cut lore from long out-of-print West End Games roleplaying manuals was held in high esteem, even though most fans did not have access to them. Fans who told their own Star Wars stories in the form of roleplaying games were seen as creative participants in the ongoing franchise, while those who wrote prose fanfiction were spurned for their creation of and interest in unofficial material. Lucasfilm reinforced these norms in places like Star Wars Insider and Star Wars Gamer, StarWars.com, and the “What’s The Story?” contest, giving official platforms to lore nuggets and retcons while continuing to ignore the fanfiction community – except to twice give a prominent man in fandom a stage at Celebration to showcase his fanwork
Unfortunately, this trend has largely continued in the new era of Star Wars stories. Once the Expanded Universe tales were rebranded as Legends, conscious choices would have to be made about which elements to carry forward into the new canon. The vast majority of Legends resurrections have been obscure lore references, including many from West End Games materials, which appeal predominantly to a small subset of Gen-X and Millennial fanboys. Some have appeared in the movie guidebooks by Pablo Hidalgo, a longtime central figure among that cohort of fans, while others emerged on Star Wars Rebels, where he answered questions weekly for the web series Rebels Recon. Co-writer Jon Kasdan, another Gen-X lifelong Star Wars fan, inserted numerous Legends references into the screenplay for Solo.
In a similar vein, The Last Jedi is chock full of homages and references that appeal to those steeped in film history, a full panoply of winks and nods to films classic and obscure, suited to the tastes of film school grad and cinema connoisseur Rian Johnson. Fans and movie reviewers with similar sensibilities naturally praised Johnson for his eclectic pastiche. Those approaching the film expecting to see the eighth installment in the epic Skywalker family space opera saga perhaps wished that Johnson might have focused more on earning the acclaim of the broad general audience of Star Wars fans than an elitist clique of cinephiles.
Whether deep cut Star Wars lore or self-indulgent cinema homage, the new era of Lucasfilm has shown little interest in another kind of fanservice valued by other types of fans, particularly fangirls: appearances by longtime beloved characters. From the word go, Lucasfilm apparently signed off on erasing two of the most popular female characters in the franchise’s history, Mara Jade and Jaina Solo, from the new canon. The only major Legends character to return has been Grand Admiral Thrawn in Rebels, a villainous Imperial who debuted in the same series as Mara. Even minor characters have fared poorly; in the comics Leia was given a blonde friend who isn’t Winter, for example, while X-wing pilot Hobbie was killed off in the Battle of Hoth through a namedrop in a sourcebook. So long as Lucasfilm keeps its fanservice narrowly focused on a slim subset of its fans and their interests, Star Wars will struggle as the fandom as a whole watches the franchise reward only certain small segments of fans for their loyalty.
Keeping Star Wars Fresh …
One of the few points of common agreement in discussions of the future of the Star Wars franchise, whether today or previously, is that one of the greatest dangers an ongoing storytelling property can face is stagnation. Fans will only watch or read the same thing over and over again so many times before they get bored, and move on. The early era of the Expanded Universe novels (1991-1999) struggled with a “warlord of the week” dynamic that did little to keep fans invested in the stakes, whether mortal or emotional, for the main characters. When the flagship series moved into its second era (1999-2012), forty books comprising over fifteen in-universe years, the stakes increased – Chewie and Anakin Solo sacrificed themselves to save their friends, Jacen Solo fell to the dark side and murdered his aunt Mara, and more – but a fundamental flaw remained in the unwillingness to truly pass the torch from Luke, Leia, and Han to the next generation of heroes. Stuck in a pattern of telling more stories about those same iconic characters, authors like Troy Denning and Karen Traviss moved to deconstructing their heroism and subverting their moral values as means to advance their character arcs. Though other authors, especially Aaron Allston, resisted this trend, the damage was done.
The Force Awakens did not hesitate to correct one problem, quickly putting Han, Leia, and Luke in the background to focus Episode VII on new characters like Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren. The enormously positive fan response, both financially and in fandom inspiration, vindicated the importance of refusing to rest on the laurels of nostalgia. Yet Lucasfilm did not remain committed to this idea, with the first two standalone films, Rogue One and Solo, inextricably tied into the notion of filling in backstory for A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. And Episode VIII fell into the same patterns as the later Expanded Universe novels: subverting fan expectations, undermining the heroes’ moral compasses, deconstructing the very idea of Jedi heroism, building both Luke’s and Leia’s arcs around the theme of failure, and more. The final act of The Last Jedi even centers not on the new hero, Rey, but on rehabilitating the legacy of Luke after spending the first two hours of the movie tearing him down. The Force Awakens had marked the path for a new era of Star Wars, only to have The Last Jedi regress the Skywalker saga story in nearly every way.
Importantly, outside of the films the Star Wars franchise has done a remarkable job of offering a wide variety of fresh and exciting stories for fans. Over four seasons, Star Wars Rebels took its characters from a small-scale family story of the Ghost crew on Lothal to the broader struggle of the Rebel Alliance and epic confrontations with Vader, Maul, and Thrawn, culminating in final episodes that fulfilled Star Wars themes without subverting or deconstructing them. Two seasons of The Freemaker Adventures likewise delivered storytelling unlike anything seen previously in Star Wars, while never losing sight of the optimism and hope that permeates the franchise. The books and comics similarly have run the gamut from Lost Stars’ love story to Phasma’s gritty survivalism, Last Shot’s humor to Screaming Citadel’s horror, Vader Down’s menace to Poe Dameron’s flyboy shenanigans. It is unfortunate that a franchise centered on its tentpole films has struggled the most with its movies.
… While Preserving the Tone of Aspirational Heroic Fiction
Star Wars is a massive franchise, and its galaxy far far away has room for all manner of stories told in its sandbox. The Expanded Universe experimented with a wide variety of genres for Star Wars stories, as have fanfiction and other fan works since the earliest days of the franchise. The new canon, too, has showcased a variety of different kinds of Star Wars stories. Yet at its core, Star Wars is centered on its films, and the Skywalker family space opera as the flagship storyline within the cinematic narrative.
In the new era, Star Wars is not writing on a blank slate. It builds especially on the six films by George Lucas, and to a lesser extent The Clone Wars animated series he also created and supervised. The themes, ideals, and values of the Star Wars franchise are found in those stories. When new materials stray too far from them, as the later era Expanded Universe novels did, negative responses from numerous fans should come as no surprise.
Star Wars is space opera, and modern myth. It is aspirational heroic fiction, seeking to inspire the audience to want to be the best version of ourselves. Even when it takes a tragic turn, such as Anakin’s fall to the dark side in Revenge of the Sith, it counterbalances that darkness with heroism and optimism in characters like Obi-Wan and Padmé, and the safe arrival of the twins at their foster homes. From this perspective, it is easy to understand why the treatment of the iconic Original Trilogy heroes in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi has disaffected many longtime fans of the franchise.
It is a straw man argument to allege that fans don’t want their heroes to change over time. No one is asking Lucasfilm for character stagnation – fans want to see character growth, not character regression, from the icons of their aspirational heroic fiction.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe understands this. In Captain America: Civil War the heroes disagree profoundly about the correct moral choice in the quandary they face, but all of them seek to make what they believe is the right choice under the circumstances. Avengers: Infinity War presents an affirming portrayal of heroism in the face of the worst stakes imaginable – “we don’t trade lives” even with half the universe on the brink – and ultimately allows the heroes to fail in their quest at the end (though with the promise of a more uplifting sequel in a year’s time). Nowhere along the way do these Marvel films deconstruct the notion of heroism or subvert the very idea that the superheroes are the good guys.
Yet the two Sequel Trilogy films so far have approached the Star Wars icons very differently. In The Force Awakens, Han Solo has regressed to a washed-up failed smuggler, hopelessly indebted to unsavory gangs, estranged from his wife and best friend, sacrificing himself in one last desperate plea for his fallen son to come home. Leia Organa is arguably the beacon of hope and optimism from the original trio, leading the Resistance to oppose the rising First Order despite her personal tragedies, yet even she learns on Crait that none of her allies are coming to rescue the survivors from their siege by her son’s war machine. In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker is a grumpy hermit, a failed Jedi Master in self-imposed exile from those he loves, a flawed and tragic figure like his father who similarly sacrifices himself in one final act to attempt to atone for years of ignoring his duty and destiny. Rejecting the precedent of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, who suffered immense tragedy and lonely exile without becoming miserable curmudgeons, Johnson and his supporters have scoffed at the idea of writing Luke as a heroic aspirational Jedi Master character, deeming it inferior fanservice compared to subverting expectations by writing a story that “is not going to go the way you think” – only to discover that perhaps Mark Hamill’s decades-long connection to the fandom had taught him the difference between offering up merely reflexive fanservice and honoring the foundational norms of the franchise.
Given the way it treats its legacy heroes, is it any wonder that significant numbers of Star Wars fans do not feel that the Sequel Trilogy, and The Last Jedi in particular, delivers on the tone of aspirational heroic fiction at the core of the saga? Why should fans of Rey, Finn, Poe, and Rose have any confidence that the Star Wars franchise will not ultimately undermine and regress their favorite new characters someday, too? And is it any surprise that fans who disliked the portrayal of Han in The Force Awakens might have stayed away from Solo, which offered another take on the character from the same writer? It is worth considering whether Lucasfilm asked these questions and deliberately chose to push ahead with the answers they gave, or whether the delegation of storytelling autonomy to the directors and screenwriters abrogated the obligation to ensure that Star Wars remains true to what the franchise is supposed to be.
What Next for Lucasfilm and Star Wars?
If lessons are to be learned from past experience with the franchise and its fandom, then the recurring patterns in the public narrative about Star Wars after The Last Jedi and Solo suggest that Lucasfilm has reached a dangerous point in a short amount of time. For the Expanded Universe novels the decline was gradual, slowly losing more and more customers as later decisions compounded the disaffection from earlier books. The films have a dramatically larger audience, far higher financial stakes, and much greater public scrutiny.
Prior to Solo, prominent voices in the fandom openly mocked the assertion, made in part by trolls but also in good faith by fans genuinely concerned about the direction of the franchise, that Han’s backstory was not a movie that fans had asked for. In a literal sense, of course, fans do not really get to ask for anything; the franchise leadership at Lucasfilm decides what Star Wars stories will and will not be told. The underlying notion in the assertion, though, is probably accurate: unlike Episode VII, which some fans had dreamed about since 1983, or the understandable fandom interest in seeing now-middle-aged Ewan McGregor return to play Obi-Wan Kenobi during the Dark Times, the tale of Han’s escapades prior to A New Hope was not particularly more intriguing than any number of other possible concepts for standalone Star Wars films. Opening weekend box office returns bear out that assessment: while hardcore Star Wars fans went to Solo in its first days, and many of them had highly positive reactions to it, millions of fans in the casual audience – including significant quantities of whom had felt sufficient interest in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to attend their respective opening weekends – stayed home. The colloquial turn of phrase that Solo was not what fans asked for, then, reflected a simple assessment that Han’s backstory was not an inherently compelling premise for much of the casual Star Wars audience – and that Lucasfilm’s marketing and promotion for the movie failed to turn that sentiment around in time for release.
Course-correcting the direction of the films will not be painless, but that is the consequence of failing to safeguard the franchise in the first place. On the one hand, fans who enjoy The Last Jedi and Solo likely will react with consternation, if not outrage, at changes seen as repudiation of those movies. Some might even become toxic, as happened with a small contingent in Star Wars fandom who reacted with trolling and hate-mongering to the Legends reboot, or the similar lashing out within DC Comics movies fandom after Justice League’s flop solidified the pivot away from Zack Snyder’s vision for that franchise. On the other hand, online bigots and trolls who have viciously agitated against Lucasfilm’s leadership presumably will claim victory when changes are made, even though the actual reasons for such a corporate decision would be far removed from either their purported grievances or their appalling tactics. Neither of these considerations, though, is a valid reason to stay the course. The long term fate of the franchise must be grounded in the soundest possible judgments about what direction provides the best opportunity not only to preserve, but also to expand, the massive fandom that has built around Star Wars over four decades.
Ultimately, the public narrative surrounding The Last Jedi and Solo serves as a powerful reminder about who Star Wars is for: a multi-generational global fandom comprised primarily of casual customers and the general movie-going audience. Hardcore fans are valuable to any franchise, but their reactions alone cannot sustain Star Wars at the level of financial success and fandom enthusiasm that its heights demonstrate is possible. Movie reviewers and cinephiles may opine on the artistic merit of Star Wars as cinema, but the success or failure of Star Wars as epic modern myth rests in the hands of the audience and the fandom. And Star Wars has grown far beyond simply its films, and even its storytelling, into one of the world’s biggest entertainment merchandise brands. Disney did not greenlight the largest theme park expansions in company history – simultaneously on both coasts – except because Star Wars held the promise to surpass Marvel and Pixar in brand prominence and reliable profitability across all metrics. Past experience with the franchise and its fandom suggests that it is still not too late to get Star Wars back on the right track toward attaining those goals, but quick action is necessary – and incorporating accurate data along with constructive feedback from insightful voices is more important than ever.
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