Star wars is a weird movie franchise. Other than Fast and Furious, it is the only other major movie franchise that is an original property (meaning it was not adapted from a book/comic-book/other art form).
Unlike Star Wars, the rest of the franchises on this list have a pretty clear criteria on how fans measure the merit of each individual entry.
For marvel fans, it’s:
- How accurately did the movie portray the version of the characters established in other mediums
- How hard/how many times did I laugh?
- How good were the action set pieces?
- How well did it tie into the other Marvel movies?
For Harry potter fans, it is generally:
- How accurately were the characters copied from movie to book
- How accurately were the locations/magical things from the books emulated in the movies
- How good were the action set pieces?
(Incidentally, the last Harry Potter movie was entirely original material, and so probably qualifies as its own thing. This thought alone fascinates me to the point it will probably be its own article at some point)
Even Fast and Furious, the other major original property franchise, has a pretty clear set of criteria:
- How good were the action set pieces?
- How good were the one-liners?
- How good were the gratuitous butts/cars shots?
- How many times was the word “family” used during the movie?
(It sounds like I’m dissing Fast and Furious, but I semi-unironically love these stupid, oddly sincere things for what they are)
The point I’m getting to here, is that unlike other franchises, Star Wars has very little agreement as far as ranking all 8 main films+the two theatrically released side stories. As a purely anecdotal experiment, here is my ranking compared to a few friends (based entirely on personal enjoyment) and rotten tomatoes’s “Tomato Meter” rankings.
The only consensus on this list is that Empire was a classic (either first or second on every list) and Clones/Phantom were disappointments (bottom 2 on all lists). Compare this to Harry Potter (3, 7.2, 5, 4, 7.1, 6, 1, 2 – Goblet is controversial but everyone’s list is usually pretty close to this) or Marvel (Almost every movie is liked. Ragnarok/Iron Man 1/Black Panther are the top dogs. Iron Man 2/Thor 2 are the worst).
My personal criteria for Star Wars is essentially the same criteria I have for any action/adventure driven movie:
- How complex the characters are and how they evolve over the course of the movie and/or franchise as well as how interesting and/or complex their relationship to other characters is
- Does the movie make me feel feelings? (Sad when the movie is sad, nervous when it means to be suspenseful, etc.)
- How pleasant is the movie to look at? – Exciting and visually dynamic action scenes, cinematography, set design etc.
- How good is the dialogue?
- How good is the rest of the sound design? (The musical score, sound effects, etc.)
It’s not that I’m completely disinterested in say, how accurately a Harry Potter movie recreates a character or a magical creature. It’s just that the book-accurateness of the movie has less impact on my viewing enjoyment than the average Harry Potter fan. They’re not wrong and I’m not wrong – it’s purely subjective.
It’s sort of a problem with movie critique in general. Writing with constant disclaimers and subjective qualifiers is weak writing and fails to entertain or draw eyeballs. Video game reviews often try to solve this by objectively breaking down games by categories (graphics, sound, gameplay etc.). Instead of adding clarity, it usually creates a disconnect between what was said and the “score” the game receives as a “TL;DR” of quality.
What most critics do is to state their opinions as fact. It’s stronger writing. Being controversial and hated/beloved in equal measure is much better than invoking neutral feelings over an entire audience. The criteria of a critic can only be inferred by points they make and movies they like/dislike.
I dont’ review things, but I do the same thing when I write article titles titled “Why Avengers: Infinity War Sucks” or “The Marvel Problem.” In the latter, I argued that the airport hero v. hero fight in “Civil War” was actually quite bad contrary to popular critical opinion. I based it on the fact that the motivations in the movie contradicted previously established character traits in order to get two even sides and that the constant jokes were completely out of place during a scene where the heroes are supposed to be either attempt to kill or incapacitate each other.
If you view Civil War through the lens of the general Marvel fan criteria I listed above, it knocks three of the four out of the park. It’s got a good joke to movie time ratio, the fight scenes are well choreographed and shot, and how it ties with the rest of the Marvel universe speaks for itself. It fails my criteria but is generally considered one of the better movies by its target audience because it matches their criteria.
That’s how you run into the wildly different varieties of star wars opinions. The original trilogy appealed to a wide variety of different star wars fans, that reacted differently to each installment based on criteria. These differences, of course, blew up after The Last Jedi was released. I’ll seperate them into four main groups:
The majority of movie critics I would say fall under this umbrella, as well as people who spend the time to write long blog posts about why people react to movies and what not. People under this umbrella tend to look at how well the movie is crafted from a technical standpoint. They view the script’s merits on how well it develops its themes through its characters and how its characters interact with one another.
People who fall under this vague umbrella have fairly similar criteria to my own, so I won’t recap them here.
The Classic Star Wars Fan:
These two excerpts from Roger Ebert’s original review of Star Wars best describe this group of fans.
“Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When the ESP people use a phrase like that, they’re referring to the sensation of the mind actually leaving the body and spiriting itself off to China or Peoria or a galaxy far, far away. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it’s up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them.”
“…The most fascinating single scene, for me, was the one set in the bizarre saloon on the planet Tatooine. As that incredible collection of extraterrestrial alcoholics and bug-eyed martini drinkers lined up at the bar, and as Lucas so slyly let them exhibit characteristics that were universally human, I found myself feeling a combination of admiration and delight. “Star Wars” had placed me in the presence of really magical movie invention: Here, all mixed together, were whimsy and fantasy, simple wonderment and quietly sophisticated storytelling….”
What really captures this type of star wars viewer is not necessarily the plot or the characters. Both are still interesting to them, but the primary concern is with the immersion in Star Wars’s world. This viewer, I think, tends to be the most forgiving towards the prequels as they did mostly succeed on this front (They’re still too clean/artificial, but things like Darth Maul, Droidekas, Geonosis and so on were still absolutely inspired from a world-building perspective). I think George Lucas views the Star Wars movies through this prism, which is why he really liked Rogue One and disliked The Force Awakens.
This is sort of the “superfan” category, but not exactly. More specifically, it is the sort of fan who has invested heavily into the depth of lore outside of the movies.
I think most of these people are around a specific age group, age 25-40ish. People just old enough to have experienced the original trilogy in their youth, but also didn’t get to experience brand new star wars (prequel or otherwise) in their formative years. For nearly a decade after Return of the Jedi’s release in 1983, there was essentially just the original 3 movies. Timothy Zahn’s 1991 New York Times #1 Best Selling Book “Heir to the Empire” broke that. It launched the aforementioned wider media of Star Wars stories. Everything that happened before, after and in-between the movies was thoroughly explored by books, comic books and video games. This was truly the first cinematic universe.
Disney essentially squashed that by declaring all of these works of wildly varying quality (some, like Zahn’s books, were fantastic. Others, not so much…) no longer valid. They were relegated to “Legends” so that the new movies could occur.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was tentatively accepted. It was, in many ways, a plot point by plot point rehash of A New Hope. These fans essentially got to relive the experience of seeing A New Hope for the first time.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi explicitly turned the entire star wars formula on its head. It explicitly rejected the light side/dark side binary morality as well as Luke Skywalker as an unassailable paragon of good, which had essentially been reinforced for these fans by 20+ years of material.
There’s no easy way to say this:
The young, white, aggrieved, internet culture social conservative that is generally from a privileged middle-class family is very much a thing that exists. These are the pepe the frog memers on websites such as 4chan playing off blatant racism as “for the lulz.” They are, to be frank, a large part of Trump’s core audience, but unlike the classic alabama racist, they are rarely talked about.
They were not exactly fans of The Force Awakens, but Obama was president then and their abhorrent worldviews were generally not socially acceptable. The Force Awakens was a far less controversial movie and people generally liked it.
Trump as well as the more controversial nature of The Last Jedi gave a social pass to shit on the movie from the “SJW ruined this movie” perspective. It is a minority for sure, but one that disproportionately loud and, unfortunately, influential. I have talked before about how hollywood movies, despite Hollywood’s liberal reputation, generally reinforce conservative worldview. The Last Jedi explicitly does the opposite, particularly with the casino sequence, which was also probably the most critically panned sequence in general by other audiences. Basically, this was the perfect stew for this type of audience to get up in arms about.
It is unfortunate for people who disliked The Last Jedi that these people often loudly misrepresent them in the eyes of those who liked the movie much in the same way that it is unfortunate that feminists are often misrepresented by Tumblr users who think all sexual attraction is a sexist form of female objectification.
What does it all mean?
It doesn’t mean that every star wars fan falls into one of four specific boxes. That type of binary thinking would go against the very message of The Last Jedi, which as mentioned above, is one of my favorite Star Wars movies. It simply means that people tend to eventually self-organize into very generalized groups in which there is a significant amount of fluidity and which there are always some people who simply do not easily fit into any one category.
Star Wars’s inevitable decline, whether it has already begun or it’s two decades from now, doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. It simply means that satisfying such a wide variety of audience criteria is essentially an impossible task.