Since the 1977 cinema premiere of A New Hope, the Star Wars franchise has left an indelible mark on popular culture across the globe. It’s attracted a following comparable only to the likes of Star Trek, Doctor Who in the UK, and Gundam in Japan. But, in recent years, when its followers have discussed the saga, they’ve focused more on today’s culture wars than on a galaxy far, far away.
Nowadays, one tends to hear as much about the controversies surrounding the franchise as about the works themselves. And—while series fans tend to be their own biggest critics—discussions among members of the Star Wars fan base since Disney’s 2012 acquisition of George Lucas’ creation have been so tense and divisive that the atmosphere has become toxic. Examples include the recent cancellation of Gina Carano from The Mandalorian, marketing promotions like “The Force is Female,” as well as the highly charged backlash against it, the tendency to frame critics of The Last Jedi as “right-wing Twitter agitators,” the attempts to censor and discredit those critics, and the outraged response to such attempts by commenters who have taken to calling themselves the “Fandom Menace.”
And on both sides of this culture war, fans blame their opponents for having all but ruined the franchise for everyone. But all may not be lost. If we understand how the political aspects of the Star Wars saga came to be so divisive, we may be able to reduce that divisiveness and resolve this Star Wars conundrum.
Star Wars Before Disney
The average moviegoer sees the original Star Wars trilogy simply as engrossing entertainment. Much has been said about how these initial films exemplify what Joseph Campbell identified as an archetypical mythical story structure, which he calls the hero’s journey. But nowadays, you are less likely to hear about that, and more likely to hear phrases like “Star Wars has always been political.” And although this phrase is usually deployed as a weapon by culture warrior fans with ideological goals, there is a grain of truth in it: even in the beginning, the series did not shy away from exploring politics or using political motifs.
The political elements in the original films go beyond mere artistic imagery (such as putting members of the Galactic Empire in Nazi-esque uniforms to convey that they were the story’s antagonists). For example, it’s long been suggested that the Vietnam War, and Lucas’ views on Richard Nixon’s ill-fated second term, informed some of the films’ themes—for example, the idea that democracies aren’t so much overthrown as given away to dictatorships. Political themes are explored more explicitly in the prequels—The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith—which include scenes depicting political turmoil that are only hinted at in the previous films. And Emperor Palpatine’s rise to power in the prequels explores a theme that was widely discussed after 9/11: whether it is worth surrendering one’s liberty in exchange for security.
Political themes are even more prominent in the old expanded universe (the collective term for the myriad novels, comic books, radio plays and video games set in the Star Wars universe that have been produced over the decades). For instance, Timothy Zahn’s books, written in the 1990s, feature fan favourite characters like Mara Jade and Grand Admiral Thrawn, add backroom intrigue and a fleshed-out military component to the franchise, while emphasising realistic military tactics and strategy. Obsidian Entertainment’s 2004 Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords deconstructs the Jedi and Sith as part of an interconnected moral dynamic, and asks players to make difficult moral choices with no clear right or wrong solutions.
The depictions of politics in the Star Wars universe haven’t always been well received. For example, many felt that the Galactic Senate scenes in Attack of the Clones dragged. Nonetheless, most fans were generally accepting of the increased inclusion of political motifs. Indeed, there was an outcry when Disney decided, a few years ago, to downgrade the status of the (more political) expanded universe, characterizing its stories as mere legends that were not part of the official canon. Another focus of Star Wars cultural debate has been the argument that the series was somehow immature before the recent arrival of more progressive content. This argument seems weak, since the series has long offered up enough political material to inspire a number of academic essays.
Despite the franchise’s history of exploring these serious themes, until recently one would have been hard pressed to find anything like the divisiveness—and sometimes vitriol—that all but defines the current fandom. In hindsight, the heated mockery of The Phantom Menace, the Jar Jar Binks character, and the notoriously bad Star Wars Holiday Special—and the controversies over Lucas’ “Han shot first” retcons—seem like mere friendly spats by comparison.
The Force Mishandled
Not all of Disney’s decisions have floundered. For example, it has reintegrated some elements from Legends into the canon, including characters like Thrawn. Meanwhile, Rogue One (2016) and The Mandalorian television series (2019–present) have been generally popular, which demonstrates that, in the hands of competent creators, the saga can still deliver compelling stories. The success of these recent efforts has helped bring the fandom together to some extent, but such unity remains tenuous.
Fans are troubled by how Disney has handled the development of the saga and how it has marketed the franchise. One concern is that, whereas Lucas succeeded in part because he took daring leaps at times, Disney has been so concerned with commercial success that they have been risk averse, to the point where quality has suffered. For example, The Force Awakens (2015) rehashes so many of the themes of A New Hope (1977) that it’s essentially a retread. And The Rise of Skywalker (2019) brought back Palpatine as the overarching villain although he dies in Return of the Jedi (1983)—presumably because Disney felt that it was safer to use a tried-and-true character as the villain than to create a new one. Part of the fans’ current divisive contempt, then, may stem from what they see as Disney falling between two stools: choosing nostalgia and faithfulness to the original stories over creative innovation, but utterly failing to reproduce those stories’ magic.
Yet these problems don’t entirely explain the fans’ discontent. While trying to stay true to the original stories, Disney has also attempted to bring Star Wars into the twenty-first century by appealing to new audiences. In its advertising and promotions, it’s made much ado about the idea that the franchise is politically progressive—from making Rey a highly powerful heroine (although she has been compared unfavourably to a stereotypical Mary Sue), to promoting its productions as racially representative, (although one of their lead actors, John Boyega, has claimed the contrary). The Last Jedi has been criticised both for “subverting expectations,” and for doing the opposite—deviating too much from established canon. Many of Disney’s fumbles have amplified or created divisions among Star Wars fans, for example: the subplot about war profiteering, which many feel is pointless, and which makes the prequels’ Galactic Senate scenes look subtle by comparison; the attempts by some to justify Admiral Holdo’s questionable plan and personal sacrifice by calling it a testimony against mansplaining; and the attempts at achieving diversity that have been characterised as mere window-dressing.
By 2018, Disney had earned $4.2 billion in box office revenues worldwide, more than recuperating the cost of buying out Lucasfilm over five years earlier. Yet one would be hard pressed to call the corporation’s tenure a true success. The Rise of Skywalker had the lowest net earnings of any of the sequel films, in spite of positive critical reviews, suggesting that the franchise may be yielding diminishing returns. Some believe that the divisive response to The Last Jedi has contributed to that trend, by reducing the appeal of side-story projects such as Solo.
What are we to make of the vehemence of the recent culture war fights about Star Wars films? Many who praise The Last Jedi have not only described themselves as progressive, but have characterised critics of the film as “Russian trolls” and anti-progressives. The attempt to cancel Gina Carano is not an isolated example. A number of articles have characterised Disney’s attempts to appeal to long-time Star Wars fans as enabling bigotry, and have even described anyone who disagrees with the series’ direction as alt-right.
Although the term fandom menace has been around since at least 2000—and became especially popular after independent comic artist Ethan Van Sciver adopted the label—it has recently been applied to online commentators who tap into Star Wars fans’ frustrations and criticisms against such progressive attacks. Their comments have in turn spurred a proliferation of self-described anti-woke commentators with sizable online followings. Some on both sides are presumably simply trying to garner clicks or publicity. However, there now seems to be a pervasive worry—almost a paranoia—that nerddom is being infiltrated and attacked by progressives. The result of all this has been a vicious cycle of politicization and hostility in online discussions among fans.
The vast majority of fans are caught in the middle, but seem to be under increasing pressure to take sides. Whether they like Disney’s changes or prefer the old expanded Star Wars universe, in the current environment it is reasonable for them to fear being cancelled for expressing the wrong opinion, derided as blindly consumerist for simply expressing enthusiasm about any Star Wars product, or branded as an enemy of either progressivism or “true” nerddom on a theory of guilt by association. The resulting toxic environment echoes the hyperpartisanship of the wider culture wars: everyone becomes defined by solely by their identity and ideological allegiance.
Not even a franchise as massive and financially successful as Star Wars is immune to the damage such a divisive and toxic fan climate can inflict. Opportunists may profit from the controversy, and Disney may still be able to capitalise on brand recognition for a time, but the longer this drags on, the more likely this ignoble development will permanently blemish Lucas’ legacy. The current toxicity within fandom could worsen to the point where it destroys any sense of community at all among fans—and any prospect of a reliable audience for future projects.
Disney thus faces a conundrum: there is an imbalance in the franchise’s Force. Restoring balance would require them not only to produce new products that build upon existing successes, but to establish a stronger rapport with the fanbase. That won’t be easy, particularly in light of the corporation’s recent track record—for example the technical failings and ethical controversy that have dogged its live-action Mulan remake. But there is a hope: the popular reception of The Mandalorian and of video games like Star Wars Squadrons and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order shows that individual creators are still capable of delivering high quality content.
Strengthening the fanbase will require mending rifts within the fan community. Although this task is made considerably harder by the current level of partisan contempt, fan communities have pre-existing explicit and implicit rules that may serve as a foundation for healing—for example, they have common standards of conduct and penalties for bad-faith or toxic behaviour. And the potential payoff makes it worth a try: if fans could rediscover what brought together such a diverse batch of people from across the globe in the first place, this could help reorient them away from partisan politics and rekindle the old spirit of camaraderie and shared joy in the experience of fantasy fiction.
These rifts may take years to mend. They are exacerbated whenever civility is devalued, whenever fans view those who disagree as though they’re evil Sith, and because almost anything Disney does is likely to anger one camp or the other. It would be ignoble to allow the malaise around such a classic franchise to fester, or to simply abandon the Star Wars project altogether. But it remains to be seen whether Star Wars will avert its fall from grace, or recover to thunderous applause. Let us hope it will be the latter.