It's been a year since "The Last Jedi" was released, and thus, a legion of online arguments about the merits of said film was born. But "The Last Jedi" was not the first Star Wars movie to diverge from the predicted path.
At this point, a generation of fans watched, absorbed and memorized the original Star Wars movies like it was their Bible. And then George Lucas produced a prequel trilogy of films that, regardless of quality, echoed many of the same moments, plots and quotes from the original films. Those films were critical disasters, particularly in the fan community, and the prospects of the Star Wars franchise on the big screen seemed dim until Disney stepped in and bought the whole kit and caboodle. The first film out of the gate, "The Force Awakens," again echoed many of the same moments, plots and quotes from the original film itself.
Fans of the Star Wars franchise, passionate and casual alike, have an concept of what "Star Wars" is supposed to be, mainly because almost every film released since the originals have continually reinforced the same themes and moments from Episodes IV-VI. By the time "The Force Awakens" came around, the world snuggled into its love for the film like it was a familiar, comfortable blanket they've had since 1977.
And then "The Last Jedi" came out.
The eighth film in the saga was financially successful, but became as divisive as a presidential election. Some people loved it. Some people hated it. What some saw as bold, dynamic cinema for an aging franchise, others grew angry over a number of reasons: misplaced nostalgia, unreasonable expectations and misogyny. Some critics made valid points, but most of the conversations wandered into areas that didn't make sense.
Personally? I loved it, and while I can see not liking "The Last Jedi," I couldn't understand how passionate the hatred and backlash to the film was. To hear some people say it, "The Last Jedi" and everyone associated with it committed one of the greatest crimes in human history. It's a bit much, considering it's a space fantasy movie made for families. I think "Attack of the Clones" is pretty awful, but you're not going to see me start an online campaign to remake the movie as I see fit, as some have decided that this is the hill they want to die on about "The Last Jedi."
It does make me wonder about the initial reaction to "The Empire Strikes Back," the original sequel to "Star Wars" that was released almost 39 years ago. Those original films are so implanted in the minds of fans that they are unassailable (although they are quite assailable, IMO), but imagine a world where only the original "Star Wars" exists, and then "Empire" comes out.
What's this ice planet? How is Obi-Wan milling about? When are Luke, Han and Leia going to meet up? Wait, the Force can lift objects now? Who's this little green dude? Now he's retroactively important? I thought Luke and Leia were supposed to get together? Who's the guy in the grey helmet armor, now I have to buy a toy to find out who he is? Why are they making Han and Luke look stupid? WAIT, Vader is his father?! That completely contradicts everything they told us in "Star Wars!" WAIT, WAIT, WAIT, that's the end? Is Han dead? Are you kidding me?!
What makes "Empire" great is that it's such an expansion of the original "Star Wars" movie in myth and scope, while still leaving us on the edge of our seats because it defies our expectations at nearly every turn. We accept it now because it's part of our childhoods, or we just binged through all the movies later on without waiting years between releases. Perhaps we know all the twists through cultural osmosis. It's also become the high standard for sequels, where other franchises will hype their latest offering as "our Empire." Even George Lucas and company were selling "Attack of the Clones" as a return to form after the critical drubbing of "The Phantom Menace."
And yet, we just accept its' greatness without fully appreciating how much "Empire" pushes the boundaries of "Star Wars" in a way that no other film in the franchise has come close to until "The Last Jedi." "The Empire Strikes Back" radically expands just how powerful a Jedi can be with new tricks and abilities, re-contextualizes the relationships of several key characters, reveals the true parentage of our hero in a way we never expected, and consistently pushes the walls in on our protagonists who continually get knocked on their asses, again and again.
What does "The Last Jedi" do? Radically expand just how powerful a Jedi can be with new tricks and abilities, re-contextualizes the relationships of several key characters, reveals the true parentage of our hero in a way we never expected, and consistently pushes the walls in on our protagonists who continually get knocked on their asses, again and again. Like "Empire," it beautifully defies the expectations of what came previously, but instead of one movie, it offers homages, payoffs and twists to 40 years of film.
We just never saw it coming because Star Wars has spent decades of telling and reminding us of information we already knew. To be surprised and challenged this far into a familiar story is an amazing feat.
I don't know what the online reaction would have been to "Empire" had there been social media around in 1980, but I'm reasonably sure that there would have been vocal haters (because haters are nothing but vocal). But there's a trend here: Whether it's Ewoks, Special Editions, prequels, Disney-trilogy or "Solo," Star Wars fans are usually complaining about whatever the most recent Star Wars thing that came out. Whatever it is, is an insult to the legacy of the franchise.
But since Memorial Day of 1977, Star Wars was conceived as a family-friendly space fantasy franchise designed to capture the imagination, and also sell lots of toys. Some are good, some are not, a few are great, but at its heart, that's never changed, and fans have grown to love even the most decried entries. Even "The Star Wars Holiday Special."
So while "The Last Jedi" may be debated today, keep an eye on those critics who come to live with the film over time, and watch how it slowly but surely will rise in estimation. Even "Empire" wasn't built in a day.