There is a saying: “No one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans.” I have found that sentiment to be unarguably correct but I have spoken to many people who find themselves confused by this. Detractors exist in all fandoms but I have yet to see a fandom as passionately divided as Star Wars can get. I believe the answer is buried in the core of what made Star Wars work in the first place.
I’d like everyone to take a minute and think about the very first Star Wars movie. A New Hope came out in 1977 and back then it wasn’t even called that. It was simply Star Wars. Now, ask yourself “What genre was this movie?” Not a list of genres it included, but a singular genre to describe the movie. No matter what you said, there are millions of fans who think you are wrong.
This is because George Lucas and his team did something amazing with that first movie. He successfully blended several different genres into a single coherent story. There was gritty realism side by side with idealistic fantasy. There were clear direct inspirations from samurai films and westerns (two closely related genres) but there were also shot for shot recreations of hyper-realistic “based on a true story” war movies. There were large-scale conflicts with stakes on a galactic scale but also personal conflicts that didn’t matter much beyond the individuals involved. There was esoteric mysticism, but also well explained hard sci-fi. There were tightly choreographed action scenes, but also boardrooms of old men discussing detailed politics. There was light comedy, and also heavy emotional topics. It could appeal to children, but also to adults with no children to speak of.
Balancing all of these things was a difficult proposition. There have been many other stories that try to hit as many notes in the same work that failed in that task. Following Star Wars as an inspiration, many other writers have tried to mix genres to the same extent, but few have done it successfully. Even then, the successful examples that I can think of still didn’t hit quite as many different genres as Star Wars. It was why the movie was able to pull in such a large crowd. Almost everyone who went to see the movie walked away getting something they wanted out of it.
The next two movies followed much the same pattern. They expanded on many elements and even brought in some new ones, but largely didn’t deviate from the path set by the first movie. The whole trilogy maintained a consistent tone. However, once the third movie was over, the franchise faced a problem. There was a clear audience for more content, but Lucas didn’t feel like he had the right content for another movie trilogy ready.
So, the story continued through other media. Small budget movies, books, comics, video games, etc. Almost every format you could put a story in carried the Star Wars name. Whether consciously or subconsciously, writers started to realize something. These quieter forms of media didn’t need the same kind of viewership as a movie to be successful. So, many of them began to be written in a way to be more targeted to their audience.
Slowly, the Star Wars fandom began to diverge. People who were excited by certain aspects of the franchise would seek out material that focused on those aspects while other people would be doing the same thing with other aspects. This worked perfectly fine when it was different groups of people quietly reading different books. This balance was shaken when work began on new movies.
The first signs of trouble happened when the Special Edition version of the Original Trilogy was released. For the most part, it was simply a special effects upgrade. However, there is one moment, in particular, that got a lot of flak. Han shooting Greedo.
In the original version, Han shot first. This was done as a clear reference to some classic Western scenes. For those coming in from the perspective of interest in that genre, the scene solidified Han as a calm and practical man. It made him seem hard, but not immoral. For those coming from a direction of Star Wars being a family-friendly movie, it made him seem overly violent.
So, a change was made to have Greedo shoot first and Han retaliate. To the family-friendly crowd, this was a subtle change that softened the edges of his character slightly but didn’t majorly change the scene. To the Western fans, it undermined his character and completely changed the scene. To the extent that many called the whole movie ruined for that one change.
This was an early example of the genres shifting to better appeal to one group only to find it made the story worse for another group. The reaction was subtle compared to the reaction to the Prequel Trilogy. Here, major shifts were made to the entire tone of the story that solidified a rift in the fanbase that has never been mended.
The Prequels shifted largely away from mysticism and heavier into sci-fi. A particular example was there being a blood scan that could tell how powerful someone was in the Force by measuring “midichlorians”. For people coming from a more sci-fi direction, this was a tiny bit of worldbuilding fluff that could be easily forgotten but helped set the scene for the tech level. For people coming from a more fantasy and mysticism side, this undermined the entire concept of the Force. By bringing scientific understanding to the Force, the magic of uncertainty was removed.
The Prequels also got larger and flashier with the action scenes. For fans of the action genre, this just brought some more fun and spectacle to the show. For those who were fans of a more “down to Earth” political struggle, it was distractingly flashy. It didn’t help that in the Prequels less effort was put into smoothing out the dialogue leaving many of the political scenes feeling half-assed. Something that is fine for the action genre where the backstory is simply the “why” behind the cool fight scene. But, for political drama, it takes all of the interest out of it.
One of the most famous points of divisiveness is the character of Jar-Jar. He was clearly intended as a comic relief to appeal to kids, and he was successful at that. Many children thought he was hilarious and wanted more of him. But, to those expecting a more serious adult movie, he was completely out of place. I will say that personally, as a child watching him I was amused. As an adult rewatching the movies, I find him aggravating.
A more nuanced issue was the concept of a strong female character. Leia was for the most part a Damsel in Distress for the first movie but she did show a fair amount of grit and decisiveness. In the second and third movies, she is unambiguously an Action Girl. Padme was clearly written with the intent of her following a similar profile. However, in the third movie, she becomes a passive element that lacks those strong female character elements. This left many people disappointed. They were hoping that they could see a feminist icon similar to Leia emerge for a new generation but Padme fell short of that goal. This was something that some people did not notice (indeed, I only noticed later) but for some people was an immediate major failing of the film.
All of these complaints were given an easy voice by the fact that the Prequels were released right when the internet really started to take off. This meant that opinions which in earlier decades might have stayed within small groups spread like wildfire. So, the studios had an easy time listening to people pick apart everything they didn’t like about the films.
When it came time for Disney to make the Sequel Trilogy, they remembered all of these complaints and so tried to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. What they failed to understand was that for every complaint one group had, there was another group that was either indifferent or even liked that element. So, as Disney backed away from previous complaints they only drew new ones.
I’ve previously covered my personal complaints about the Sequels in detail. What I would like to emphasize is that there was one particular thing that really got to me. You see, before Disney owned Star Wars, there was a low amount of quality control going into the various entries to the story in various mediums outside of the main movies. Some of it was correctly described as low quality. Others complained about confusing inconsistencies.
Disney heard these complaints and decided to “wipe” the canon. They made it so that only the movies were officially the story and that new material would be added by them. The moment they did this, I was hesitant but optimistic. They were in a similar boat to where they were with Marvel when they acquired it. I have loved what they’ve done with the MCU. Even if they have changed around so stuff to make their story more consistent, they still regularly draw from the older material for content. I was hoping to see a similar thing with Star Wars.
That is not what’s happened. While some minor elements are taken here and there, for the most part instead of doing a live-action interpretation of the Star Wars that existed, they have made their own. Here, I find I’ve run into a fanbase distinction I was previously unaware even existed. Much like other genre shifts I’ve discussed, while I sit in a group of people angry that their favorite elements of the franchise are being ignored as if they never existed, there is a large group of people for whom nothing outside of the movies ever really happened. To them, no matter what Disney made it would have been fresh material.
This is where you see things like people calling Rey the first female Force-sensitive protagonist in the franchise while longtime fans of other mediums can point to dozens of other characters. It’s a disconnect that is difficult to reconcile. For decades, different groups of people who all call themselves Star Wars fans have been consuming different parts of the franchise. The fandom has ceased to be a single entity and is instead about 15 different fandoms stacked in a trench coat.
I did notice that after the backlash that Disney got from The Force Awakens, they tried to course-correct and swing the pendulum back the other way for the next movie. However, this came off as tonally inconsistent with the previous movie and only served to piss off the people who had previously been appeased without really appeasing the people who had been pissed off. This left no one happy. When it came to the third movie, no one was happy going in and I think the story had backed itself into such a corner there was no way to make people happy coming out. So, no one was happy with it.
But, there is hope. Star Wars seems to be returning to the model of smaller works with more targeted audiences. This is where Star Wars seemed to thrive in the past by giving each of the different parts of the fandom a chance to have some works that were tailored for them. Perhaps, this is how Star Wars will move forward and the divided fandom can live in peace if everyone has their section to enjoy.