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It was the trailer that launched a million tweets.
A few weeks ago, we got our first look at Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Since then, we’ve seen a slew of discussions about nearly every tiny piece of the trailer. Facebook feeds are full of images and GIFs poking fun at the ruby cross-guarded lightsaber debuted in the trailer. There are a huge number of video reviews on YouTube that are significantly longer than the trailer itself.
All of this begs the question: are we setting the movie up for failure a year before its release?
“Uh, everything’s under control . . . situation normal.”
The massive reaction to the TFA trailer isn’t an isolated incident. Putting a monumental amount of thought and time into Star Wars is becoming a bit of an internet tradition — take Red Letter Media for example. They released a 7-part review of The Phantom Menace, a 9-part review of Attack of the Clones, and their review of Revenge of the Sith runs to an amazing one hour and 45 minutes. This means they’ve published over 4 hours and 15 minutes of review on the prequel trilogy, meaning their commentary is about about two-thirds of the length of the entire trilogy.
A search for “The Force Awakens review” on YouTube brings up 254,000 results, with some of them running to over 15 minutes (the trailer itself is a minute-and-a-half long). People have spent quite a bit of time analyzing the trailer (and they’ve come up with interesting things—check out this video for five things you missed in the trailer). It’s easy to find videos of people reacting to the trailer as they watch it. There have also been a number of hilarious trailer parodies, including ones inspired by Michael Bay, George Lucas, Spaceballs, and my personal favorite, Disney.
It’s no surprise to anyone that Star Wars has a huge fanbase. But the true size of it is staggering.The Community page at StarWars.com lists 7 fan organizations, 18 fan news and blog sites, 21 fan podcasts, and 12 collecting sites. And it’s a sure bet that there are dozens more not listed on the page. There are events around the world, innumerable expanded-universe books, and a number of fan films (including the very impressive Revisited versions of the original trilogy). There’s even a website dedicated to Star Wars in the classroom.
With the dedication of this worldwide fan group, the amount of content and conversation online based around Star Wars isn’t really surprising. But some people are surprised by the amount of negativity inherent in some of the discussions, from prequel-bashing to the “this better be good, JJ” posts we’ve been seeing lately.
“This is a dangerous time for you, when you will be tempted by the Dark Side of the Force.”
In looking at the sorts of issues at stake in these conversations, two different questions come to mind: what makes internet fandom what it is, and what about Star Wars creates such diehard, committed fans? The two are difficult to disentangle, and there are a lot of cultural factors at play here.
The Internet, of course, has radically changed the idea of what hardcore fans look like; older stereotypes of secluded, anti-social “nerds” have been thrown out for the idea of a highly connected fan with online social circles that span the globe. These sorts of circles make it easy to become totally engrossed in any passion, not just one for a piece of fiction (just look at the maker and DIY communities and how they’re pushing technology forward).
It’s not surprising that combining this connectivity with an expansive, immersive universe like Star Wars results in the sort of worldwide network of extremely dedicated fans that we see now. Now, when someone wants to talk about Star Wars or get a recommendation for the next expanded universe novel to read, they can converse with hundreds or thousands of other fans in seconds. This connection and enthusiasm builds on itself over years, and suddenly, we have a global fanbase of millions of people talking to each other.
This is a big change from when the Star Wars saga got its start. The operating of The Star Wars Prequel Association Society (henceforth, Ms. SWPAS) points out that “There’s a peanut gallery on the Internet and pervasive media that didn’t exist in the ’70s, all of which are merciless.” The rise of extensive connectivity, the redefining of “nerd” culture, and the anonymity of the internet have all contributed to Star Wars fandom being what it is.
But what does this have to do with The Force Awakens and the high expectations set for it by the community?
“Right now I feel like I could take on the whole Empire by myself.”
In an essay called “The Dynamics of Fandom: Exploring Fan Communities in Online Spaces,” Myc Wiatrowski provides a long and detailed discussion of the battle between online fan groups and the producers of the works that they consume. While his discussion centers primarily on fans of Firefly and Serenity, the lessons learned in his analysis could certainly be applied to Star Wars fans. By creating huge online communities, fan groups begin to develop a sense of ownership of the comics, books, movies, or TV shows that they love.
As this develops, it often evolves into an us-versus-them mindset, with the fans on one side and the producers of their beloved media on the other. (Interestingly, the narratives that they construct around these conflicts often parallel the struggles in the works under discussion — the valiant rebel fans striving against the iron rule of the imperialistic George Lucas / Disney rulers.) In the end, it comes down to who the work belongs to. Does it belong to the creators? The companies who own the distribution rights? Or the fans? This is a battle that’s waged in countless forums, online essays, and courts around the world.
“Fans operate in a space where they are constantly negotiating complicated ideas of power and ownership,” Wiatrowski told me in an email;
[F]an communities find something in these cultural objects that speaks to them on a personal and communal level — and they use these texts to construct a sense of self and a sense of community both ideologically and emotionally. So films like those in the Star Wars franchise are imbued by consumers (and producers) with a tremendous amount of meaning.
It’s clear that he’s right about the ideas of power, ownership, and the personal and communal levels on which people interact with Star Wars. When I asked Reddit about who Star Wars belongs to, one Redditor stated that it doesn’t belong to anyone, but is better described as being a part of the people who who enjoy it. The emotional and cultural impact of the series is clear (interestingly enough, there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the cultural impact of Star Wars).
It’s easy to see how Star Wars fans feel they have a right to claim ownership over the Star Wars universe. George Lucas produced six films, three of which created the universe. Fans have created — and consumed — countless books, essays, card games, board games, video games, toys, costumes, and limitless other Star Wars-inspired items.
Without this worldwide fanbase, Star Wars as we know it would not exist. But without George Lucas, there would be nothing to be a fan of. It’s a never-ending argument. The Star Wars universe is, to a great degree, a creation of the fans, and knowledge of this fact further contributes to a sense of ownership.
The phrases “Disney owes us” and “Lucas owes us” come up over and over again. Fewer people are on record saying that the owing works the other way around.
It’s this sense of ownership that generates what many people discuss as the “entitlement” of fans (though I try to avoid using this word because many people immediately assume that it’s negative and critical). On one hand, it’s a simple economic principle: if the movies are bad, and no one likes them, fans won’t spend money watching them, and the producers of those films will be forced to stop making them. On the other hand, it’s a highly ideological argument: should fans expect to be pleased? And if they aren’t, whose fault is it?
But fan expectations can’t be the guiding principle behind a movie. Another Redditor summed it up quite nicely: “Fans don’t know how to make a good movie.” Wiatrowski went a bit more in-depth in his email:
For texts that have a built-in fan base, such as Star Wars, I believe producers are cognizant of the need to service that community to some degree. [They’re] very conscious of the need to try and please and impress fans; however, they also do not want to limit themselves in terms of audience. Producers of film, television, and literature are also very conscious that pleasing a fan base and producing a “quality” product are not necessarily the same thing, and accessibility is important to them.
The fine balance between pleasing fans and creating a great movie is difficult to achieve, though Wiatrowki pointed out the fact that some producers have managed to do both, and gave the Lord of the Rings trilogy and many of the Marvel and DC comics movies as examples
All of these issues are easy to see, not only in the reaction to The Force Awakens, but also in the vitriol targeted at the prequel trilogy — this is not a new phenomenon. Some Star Wars fans “feel personally wronged, in a way that’s totally out of proportion, by the direction Star Wars has taken the past 18 years,” says Ms. SWPAS, “and ‘talking trash’ is a way of giving themselves control over that.”
It’s clear that Star Wars fandom and the many widely varied responses to both The Force Awakens and the prequel trilogy are multi-faceted cultural phenomena, and that trying to completely understand them, if possible at all, would require years of intense academic study. But there’s a larger question here that needs to be addressed.
“If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”
It’s no secret that being a part of a large group who exercises ownership over something that they love is an exciting, enthralling, and generally very pleasurable experience. Being a part of an online fan group is no exception. But we have to ask ourselves—does engaging in all of this debate, criticism, and calls for producers’ heads make being a fan better? How does it affect the overall experience of loving Star Wars?
Wiatrowski and the webmiss of SWPAS have interestingly contradictory views. Wiatrowski states that, in some parts of the fan community, vitriol is commonplace and expected—and that taking part in these sorts of conversations is enjoyable. He also pointed out that finding common ground with other fans of a movie, book, or TV show through sharing views, including critical ones, can be a source of enjoyment as well. It seems like an understatement when he added, “It’s a really complicated tightrope that we have to walk when we talk about something as elusive and intangible as enjoyment.”
Ms. SWPAS disagrees. When asked if the critical, sometimes vitriolic, conversations enhance the experience of being a Star Wars fan, she was emphatic:
Absolutely not. The only way you can enjoy being a fan is to not interact much with other fans [who engage in these negative behaviors] or have such an incredibly thick skin, you don’t mind spending time around people who trash what you love and make you feel like you’re crap for loving it.
No matter which side of the discussion you fall on, it’s clear that the experience of being a Star Wars fan is a complicated, though highly rewarding, one. There’s no doubt that the expectations for The Force Awakens are sky high, and that meeting them will be a huge challenge.
The fans have made it clear to JJ Abrams: you may be the new captain at the helm of the ship, but it’s still our ship.
But, as with many complicated arguments, it’s important to remember that the loudest section of the population isn’t always the largest.
There’s a huge amount of excitement over the continuation of the Star Wars saga. Even Mark Hamill has weighed in and said that he “loved” what he saw in the trailer, and that he got a bit choked up seeing how happy it made people. We’re absolutely on the edge of our seats over this movie — it’s a year away, and it’s already an important cultural talking point.
As for myself, I can’t wait. I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since I was very young; I’ve read the books, played the video games, assembled the LEGO sets, played the card games, and seen all six movies countless times. I feel as strong a sense of ownership of the Star Wars universe as anyone I know. I have very high expectations, but I’m confident in Abrams’ ability to deliver. He knocked the Star Trek movies out of the park. And no matter what happens, the Star Wars universe will be a bit bigger. What’s not to love about that?