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The “backlash” against Star Wars: The Last Jedi, explained

Why the latest film in the galaxy-spanning franchise has proved so unexpectedly polarizing.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Who could be mad at Luke Skywalker? Some Star Wars fans, that’s who.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A divide between movie audiences and critics happens all the time — especially with blockbusters.

Consider the recent case of Justice League, which brought together a bunch of big-name superheroes, to the delight of 79 percent of those who saw it and bothered to register their opinion on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics, however, only liked the film to the tune of a 40 percent score — a 39-point gap. There’s also 2016’s Suicide Squad, with a 26 percent score from critics and a 61 percent score from audiences, for a 35-point gap.

These gaps are normal. If you’ve bought a ticket for a movie — as opposed to having seen it at a free critics screening — you’re far more likely to have self-selected as a fan already, and thus, you’re far more likely to be into the movie. (If you were to make the argument that Rotten Tomatoes is a deeply flawed system at best and actively harmful to the future of criticism at worst, well, I wouldn’t stop you.)

So there’s a pattern. Critics savage a blockbuster. Audiences feel it’s better than its reputation. Rinse and repeat.

It rarely happens in the opposite direction. Critics aren’t supposed to like blockbusters more than the general public. We’re supposed to be snooty snoots, with our noses turned up in the air at all of this populist garbage, as we head into the theater for the latest from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul. And even if this sort of divide happens occasionally, it’s certainly not supposed to happen with Star Wars.

Except it has. Despite a 93 percent “fresh” critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Last Jedi (the latest Star Wars film) has the lowest audience score of any Star Wars movie on Rotten Tomatoes. As of Monday, it’s at 56 percent. (Yes, that’s lower than any of the prequels.) What the hell is going on here? Beware, though. To explain why, I’ll have to engage in some plot spoilers.

Let’s start here: Is there actually a backlash to Star Wars: The Last Jedi?

The problem with using any online voting mechanism to gauge opinions on a movie (or anything, really) is such systems are really easy to game. The 56 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and the 4.9 average user score (out of 10) on Metacritic (where critics gave the film an 86 out of 100) are certainly shocking to behold. (There’s also an ineffectual online petition you can sign.) But flip over to IMDb and you’ll see Last Jedi has a 7.9 user score. That would lag behind critics’ scores, but it’s not far off the 8.1 IMDb user score for The Force Awakens.

Similarly, all of the evidence we have from actual audience surveys and box office returns suggests The Last Jedi is performing well with audiences. It received a Cinemascore of “A,” exactly the same as The Force Awakens and Rogue One, and its average rating from moviegoers surveyed by Comscore was five out of five stars, which is actually slightly higher than either of the two most recent Star Wars films. (Deadline has more on both surveys and how they’re conducted here.)

Finally, the box office opening for The Last Jedi was exactly as you’d expect a blockbuster movie with good word of mouth, going up on Saturday from Friday and slightly overperforming initial estimates for the second-biggest opening weekend of all time (behind only The Force Awakens). The real test will be how it performs in the lucrative Christmas-through-New-Year’s-Day week. (It should have a steep drop-off next weekend, because Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday, but no one expects it to utterly collapse.)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Except maybe for Kylo Ren. He wouldn’t mind if it collapsed.

Naturally, whenever there’s such a massive divide between certain online voting metrics and everything else, it’s easy to suspect some sort of brigading of the vote, campaigns from unruly and discontented fans who (for whatever reason) slam the lowest-rating button over and over again — or program a bot to do so for them — in hopes of dragging down the overall score. And at least one Facebook message (from someone who seems disgruntled about Disney consigning much of the old Star Wars expanded universe to non-canonical status) hints that just such a campaign has gone on for the Rotten Tomatoes score in particular.

Yet it’s important to understand that even though a lot of the most obvious examples of The Last Jedi backlash are probably — probably — bunk, that doesn’t mean there’s not a Last Jedi backlash precisely where it counts: among Star Wars fandom.

Star Wars fans are mad about The Last Jedi, but it’s impossible and irresponsible to boil down their anger to any one cause

Just to put my cards on the table, I thought The Last Jedi was pretty darn great. I’ve never been a huge Star Wars fan, but it was the first movie in the franchise that made me feel something other than, “That was neat,” and made me realize what it was that fans had always loved about the franchise. After I saw it the Monday before its release, I looked forward to finally feeling like part of the club.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. The fan/critic divide seemed stark, almost right away. (I should probably note here that Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson has a more or less cordial relationship with many critics, since he uses social media in a more open and friendly way than most major filmmakers. I don’t really think that colored critics’ opinions — I love the movie and have never interacted with the guy — but I also can’t pretend it’s an impossible notion to think about.)

Almost immediately on Friday morning, after Thursday night preview screenings, The Last Jedi was being dissected by Star Wars fans for its purported failings. And it’s important to note here that those “purported failings” are going to differ wildly from person to person.

With a movie as big as this one, which sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 million tickets in the US and Canada alone, the response is always going to be all over the place, and finding one simple answer as to why it’s so divisive is impossible. There is undoubtedly somebody out there who’s mad at the movie for not having enough porgs, just as there’s somebody mad at it for having too many porgs.

But, broadly speaking, the fan criticisms of the movie fall under five broad umbrellas.

Too much progressivism: In the early going of the backlash, this was the easy culprit to point to. The broad strokes of the Last Jedi response sure looked like the broad strokes of Gamergate or the backlash to the all-female Ghostbusters remake. And there are lots and lots of tweets and user reviews and responses that focus on the idea that the film’s strongest characters are almost all women, who usually know the right thing to do, while its most evil characters are white men with complexes about being given what they think they deserve.

In particular, as Dave Schilling points out at Birth Movies Death, The Last Jedi is more or less a metaphorical depiction of the baby boomer generation (a generation that featured a lot of white dudes — good and bad — in positions of power) handing off leadership roles to younger generations, particularly millennials, who tend to be more racially diverse and to advocate having more women in positions of power. The series’ millennial good guys are a young white woman, a black man, a woman of Asian descent, and a Latino man, while its millennial bad guys are two white dudes.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Finn and Rose save the world. Sort of.

But saying there’s a lot of cultural anxiety around this particular generational handoff is an understatement. And when you consider that Star Wars fandom has long been presided over by white guys, it’s natural this would lead to angry policing over what Star Wars is and isn’t. And that policing can be ugly and lead to toxic fandoms in which people who aren’t white men don’t feel comfortable.

But while there’s a lot of this going around, and it’s tempting to write off the backlash as wholly defined by anti-progressivism, that also wouldn’t be accurate. There are plenty of other complaints and criticisms from fans that range from nitpicky to more concerning.

The jokes are too jokey: Of the “nitpicky” complaints, this is the most nitpicky, in that plenty of fans don’t like The Last Jedi’s sense of humor. And to be sure, the film has its share of broad jokes, which seem to be written in comic idioms that are slightly more modern than the original trilogy’s more vaudevillian style. The movie opens with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) launching into an elaborate “your mom” routine, and you either go with it or you don’t. And there are a lot of jokes. Even if you like 90 percent of them, the 10 percent that don’t work are going to stick with you.

In digging through tweets and other comments about this particular strain of criticism, however, I found an intriguing common thread: A lot of people who found Last Jedi too jokey also made subsequent tweets where they compared something in Last Jedi unfavorably to something in the prequel trilogy. And the prequels … definitely had their problems with humor and self-seriousness, beyond even Jar Jar Binks’s antics.

The Star Wars fandom’s own generational handoff involves a generation raised primarily on the original trilogy to one raised on that trilogy and the prequels — right as the movies in theaters are revealing themselves as more indebted to the original three films. It’s an interesting theory, at least, and one that may explain many of the other criticisms.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Who are Rey’s parents? Who cares!
Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios

The movie is uninterested in fan theories: Remember the part where I mentioned the guy who’s mad at Disney for making the so-called expanded universe non-canonical? On plenty of Star Wars message boards, there’s always been a little anger at the new trilogy for not adhering to established expanded universe ideas like Han Solo and Leia being happily married, or Luke Skywalker running a Jedi Academy. Instead, the movie suggests that after Return of the Jedi came a slow devolution into disappointment and ruin. (Hey, just like how the ’60s panned out, right, baby boomers?)

And even if you can get with the new trilogy’s ideas about how things ended up after Jedi, then The Last Jedi spends a lot of its running time telling you that a lot of the things fans have obsessed about since The Force Awakens was released just didn’t matter.

The 2015 film was directed by J.J. Abrams, who never met a mystery he couldn’t tease. But Johnson immediately quashed many of those mysteries in Last Jedi. Who was Snoke? Who were Rey’s parents? Who cares, The Last Jedi ultimately concludes.

Rey is impressive because of who she is, and Snoke is just a distraction from the real villain, who turns out to be Kylo Ren, who’s all the more terrifying because of his ultimate choice to embrace evil. But these storytelling choices weight the characters’ choices more heavily than their destiny, and if you spent a lot of time over the past two years trying to prove that, say, Rey is a Kenobi, well, you might find yourself disappointed at the casual disposal of something that seemed so important to the last film.

Individual plot lines/moments don’t make sense: As with all movies of this scope and size, there are seeming plot holes in The Last Jedi if you start to pick it apart. (One that kinda bugs me: How does Benicio Del Toro’s character know a very important piece of information late in the film? You can hand-wave this away, but it takes a couple of logic leaps to do so*.) This is especially true of the film’s pacing, with Rey’s Jedi training seeming to take months, while everything else in the movie takes place over a matter of hours.

The most common complaint in this regard is that Finn and Rose’s journey to the casino planet of Canto Bight is a slow, pointless distraction from the more immediately involving plots involving Rey and Poe, one that gums up the middle of the movie and doesn’t amount to anything in terms of the plot. And I can certainly see this, since the Finn/Rose plot nearly lost me the first time I watched the film.

But when you reach the third act, and the thematic impact of this plot clicks into place (as the Atlantic’s David Sims has written about here), it becomes more impressive within the whole of the film. Put simply, Johnson’s film, on a first watch, seems to have a lot of pieces that don’t fit, because he’s not planning to make them fit until the film’s very end. And that can be taxing to watch.

Ultimately, these sorts of plot holes and storytelling choices are of less interest to critics, who tend to focus more on a film’s craft and its themes, than fans, who like to pick apart the nitty-gritty details of a movie. And I’d argue that almost all of the so-called “plot holes” fans have brought up are ultimately explained away within the film, or justified by how they play into the movie’s overall storytelling structure. It’s rare in this film that a setup doesn’t have a payoff and vice versa. But they’re not always where you’re looking for them, and that can lead to confusion and consternation.

*-Yes, the film includes a quick moment where Del Toro’s character — named DJ in the credits, but never identified as such in the film — overhears Poe and Finn talking about their plan. But it’s a very quick shot, and we still have to make a few leaps to figure out how he got that information to the First Order.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Maybe especially Luke’s.

The characters’ journeys aren’t what was expected: This is probably the fan critique with the most meat to it. But it’s also, ultimately, the one that has the most personal spin on it. Do you think that Rey’s journey in the film shows the slow dawning of her realization that she has agency in and of herself and doesn’t need it to be given to her (as I do), or do you think it silos her off in the middle of a plot that takes her movie from her?

Do you think that Luke Skywalker is an old man who learns a lesson about aging and wisdom, or a cranky cynic who never would have become what he is? Do you think the movie is optimistic about the future, or unable to compete with the wonders of the past?

What’s interesting about the critiques of The Last Jedi is how often, when you talk about them, many of the above criticisms fall away, and you’re left with a distinct philosophical difference between people who love the film’s insistence that the future can be better if we make it and those who don’t like the way it forces us to grapple with the sins of the past, with the way it argues the Rebellion might have won at the end of Return of the Jedi, but it largely upheld the status quo.

Or consider the way that the film seems as if it’s largely left behind the central Force Awakens trio of Poe, Finn, and Rey — who are split up into three separate plot lines in Last Jedi — in favor of more focus on Kylo Ren’s journey through his own indecision toward something darker and more foreboding, as well as Luke’s journey from cynicism back to hope. I don’t think this is a terribly accurate read of the film, where all three characters get full, complicated character arcs and are tested in interesting ways, but if you really keyed in on, say, Finn and Rey’s interplay in Force Awakens, I get the disappointment.

This philosophical difference of opinion extends to none other than Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker himself. While Hamill has turned into one of the film’s biggest boosters, he’s made no secret of the fact that he disagreed considerably with Johnson’s vision for the character. (For his part, Johnson took Hamill’s criticisms to heart and changed certain things about Luke’s arc — though we don’t know what.)

That push and pull between director and star resulted in one of the best performances in any Star Wars film, but its existence gave lots of fans leeway to question Johnson’s intentions, as Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson has written about astutely.

It’s impossible to figure out, too, where any given Star Wars fan will fall along this divide. Consider this Twitter exchange between authors Rainbow Rowell (who loved the film) and Noelle Stevenson (who didn’t). It’s clear they’re both huge Star Wars fans, but it’s also clear they were looking for very different things in Last Jedi. One found it, and the other just didn’t.

And if you think about that exchange for just a little longer, you’ll realize something key: What works about The Last Jedi for some of us is also what doesn’t work about it for others. And that’s intimately tied to what this film and what this trilogy as a whole are.

The Last Jedi is Act 2 of a story about letting go of the past and embracing the future. Maybe it was destined to be divisive.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Except everybody can agree Poe is dreamy, right?

If you look back all the way to 1980, to the earliest reviews and reactions to The Empire Strikes Back, now almost universally acclaimed as the best Star Wars film, you’ll find lots and lots of people talking about what a disappointment the film was compared to its predecessor. (Look, here’s the New York Times doing just that!) What’s more, if you look to reviews of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, now largely written off as the weakest of the original trilogy, a lot of them talk about the film as a return to form.

My point is this: Beginnings and endings are (comparatively) easy; middles are hard. And, as Rian Johnson points out in an interview with Vox’s own Alissa Wilkinson, The Last Jedi, like Empire before it, is a very middle movie:

Especially when your job is to make a good movie, and making a good movie means drama, and drama means throwing roadblocks in the way of the easy answers and the expectations. That means in some ways you’re going to be butting up against your own instincts as to what you as a fan want. You have to defy wish fulfillment in order to tell a good story — especially to tell a good second act of a story, which is what the middle chapter basically is.

The central theme of The Last Jedi isn’t good versus evil. It’s not figuring out how to be good. It’s not even about flirting with temptation (as Empire arguably was).

It is a movie about knowing what’s right and doing that, even though everything else in the universe is stacked against you. It is a movie about why you might start a rebellion against a fascistic order, rather than simply going along with the status quo. Part of the movie is about how the worst people in the universe aren’t even the First Order, but the rich profiteers who are happy to go along with whoever’s in power, so long as they keep making a few bucks.

The theme of The Last Jedi, then, is about being tested, about having everything you value thrown into question and figuring out for yourself the right thing to do. You can’t make the world perfectly safe for your metaphorical children. You will fail them, and they will fail you.

But sometimes they fall into simpering self-pity (as Kylo Ren does), and sometimes they rise above what even you expected of them (as Rey does). It is easy to be a good guy in other Star Wars movies, because the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn. They aren’t in The Last Jedi, and that makes the moments when good and hope triumph all the more powerful.

And the movie does, occasionally, undercut itself in this regard. To wit: I’m not precisely sure why Holdo’s sacrifice is noble but Finn’s thwarted sacrifice was considered foolhardy. But even when it can’t seem to reconcile its headier ideas with the fact that it’s a swashbuckling space adventure, the movie will always save itself at the last minute — as when Rose explains that she saved Finn because you need to save what you love, not destroy what you hate (something Holdo did as well, if you think about it).

To say that a movie espousing these ideals being released at the end of 2017 is timely is, once again, an understatement. But even if it didn’t have political resonance with this particular moment in history, The Last Jedi would have resonance with this particular moment in Star Wars history.

The first Star Wars film debuted 40 years ago. The fans who grew up with it not only have kids of their own, but those kids have grown up to have their own ideas of what Star Wars is and what it should be. It’s a franchise that is torn between the lefty ideals of George Lucas (who initially envisioned the Rebels as the Viet Cong and the Empire as the United States) and the fact that it became a major capitalist cash cow.

It’s a franchise that seems to want to break new ground with this new trilogy, but is also sprinkling in prequels about old, beloved characters amid its new chapters. The Force Awakens was attacked for being too slavish to the old Star Wars movies; The Last Jedi is being attacked for not being slavish enough.

An idea I’ve seen bandied about a lot online in the wake of the backlash is that Star Wars is for everyone, not just a certain subset of fans who feel a certain way about the projects. Whether you love Rey or Luke best, whether you think Jar Jar Binks is hilarious or not, whether you think Han shot first or not — Star Wars is for you, and for everybody who disagrees with you too.

But having that big of a tent (and Star Wars just might be our last big-tent American pop culture thing) means you inevitably have to rub elbows with people who’ve entered the tent thinking something very different from what you think. If Star Wars is going to continue being a major force in pop culture, then it needs to keep adapting.

But if it’s going to keep pleasing those who love it most, then it needs to stay preserved in amber (or, if you will, frozen in carbonite), leaving Luke Skywalker as the best boy who ever lived and continuing to tell endless variations on the story of a young kid from a nowhere planet who learns he’s part of the biggest saga of them all. But that kind of fetishization of what’s come before is the quickest way to kill off a pop culture artifact.

The Last Jedi is about this tension, about the ways that generations uneasily give way to other generations and the ways we all learn to accept that our parents (or parental figures) sometimes have the right answers and sometimes don’t. It’s a big, bold, complex film, full of contradictory notes, a little like Empire was. I suspect, in time, it will age just as satisfactorily, but it’s also possible I’m wrong. Loving it means letting go, just a little bit, of some rosy past and embracing a future that might lead to disappointment.

The people we were aren’t always the people we become, and that’s both a necessary lesson and a bitter disappointment, but you can’t become yourself without learning to live alongside that discomfort. And now there’s a Star Wars movie about that very dilemma, right when we all might need it most.