The debate over ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ is an example of the culture war (2023)

There’s a good chance you have an opinion on the Star Wars sequel trilogy, or the prequel trilogy. You may favor one, hate another. Enjoyed “The Last Jedi” but hated “The Rise of Skywalker.” Maybe you love one and hate the other. Maybe you wish Colin Trevorrow’s leaked script was real.

Fans of the “Star Wars” universe remain heavily divided, experts say. In fact, there are several different factions to explain fans’ opinions on the film. There are “Last Jedi” fans who hate “Rise of Skywalker.” But there are also J.J. Abrams loyalists who love “The Force Awakens” and “Rise of Skywalker” but dislike “The Last Jedi.” Some hate the sequel trilogy in totality. Some only like the original trilogy or the prequel trilogy.

“And each faction is starting to try to claim that they have the right way of interpreting ‘Star Wars’ and that seems to be part of where the problems coming in, along with more reactionary, both progressive and conservative approaches to the content as well, which is becoming evident across our lives these days,” said CarrieLynn Reinhard, an associate professor for Dominican University.

The debate over ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ is an example of the culture war (1)

Lucasfilm Ltd.

This “Star Wars” divide comes at a time of high political divide in the United States, too. The political polarization of 2020 doesn’t help the “Star Wars” fandom division, either, said Ashley Hinck, an assistant professor for the communication department at Xavier University.

“I would say, yes, there are lots of factions in ‘Star Wars’ fandom, and that there are lots of factions in our politics right now. And that can make it hard to find common ground that can make it hard to create, to do kind of collective action as a group as a community,” Hinck said.

Fandom, after all, is a community. “Star Wars” fans are a community. Marvel fans are a community. Name a product out there and there’s a group to celebrate it.

So what causes fans to turn their backs? What causes fans to create polarization and divide? And can creators do anything to stop it?

Behind ‘Star Wars’ toxic fandom

There’s a disturbance in the force. Many believe the first three “Star Wars” movies are the best. Now there’s a divide between the prequel and sequel series.

Fans fight online over their opinions. Think pieces flourish. Twitter threads sprawl. Nothing is calm. People say the film is terrible when really it just wasn’t for them. Or maybe they call it a masterpiece, even though they really just liked it. Words like “hate,” “garbage” and “trash” linger as fans attack each other.

Saw #RiseofSkywalker

Painful to watch

Lando was cool in it

The visuals were nice. I did like the Ben/Han scene

But otherwise the film was trash.

I will never watch the sequel trilogy films again for as long as I live.

Hopefully Kathleen Kennedy is fired after this

— prices keep going up (@Clark_7593) December 30, 2019

“‘Star Wars’ fandom can be super fun and super awesome, but it can also have these really toxic corners,” said Hinck. “And I think most fans in the ‘Star Wars’ fandom recognize that and know how to navigate that and kind of warn newcomers about that. So like anything, there are positive and maybe negative challenges.”

Jim Jones and A. Ron Hubbard, hosts of the movie and television podcast “Bald Move,” commented on the divisions in a recent episode reviewing “The Rise of Skywalker.” They said in an interview with the Deseret News that the breakdown is complicated.

One factor, Jones said, was diversity. Some fans haven’t supported the recent films because of the way they flipped the script on what makes a “Star Wars” film.

“That’s probably a lot of why ‘Star Wars’ fandom is kind of being torn apart is because you’ve got some ‘Star Wars’ fans that grew up and they are for inclusion and diversity and then ‘Star Wars’ fans that have kind of gotten on board and, you know ... kind of have chips on their shoulders about all this. So it’s not just whether this is a good or bad Star Wars,” Hubbard said. “It’s like ... ‘Why do we have a black Stormtrooper falling in love with an Asian woman and a female Jedi?’”

But “Star Wars” has so much content, some of which has been universally praised. The Disney Plus series “The Mandalorian” seems to unite the fans. Baby Yoda is everywhere in pop culture. “The Clone Wars” animated show has a 92% fan rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Star Wars Rebels” similarly has positive reviews with a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and an 82% from the audience.

“There’s still something that unites our fans,” Hinck said. “There’s still some kind of common love of ‘Star Wars.’ It’s just a question of how that’s captured in things like ‘The Mandalorian.’”

“The Mandalorian” has the qualities of the original trilogy that connect people together, Hinck said. Even in a time of toxicity, it’s a connector between fandoms.

Hubbard of “Bald Move” agreed, comparing “The Mandalorian” to a star quarterback and the sequel trilogy of the Skywalker Saga to a losing team.

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DTCI Media, Disney

Hubbard said “The Mandalorian” is “a really exciting personality” on the team “that gets a lot of good locker room quotes or generates a lot of positive community feeling because they’ve donated a lot of money to the children’s hospital.”

He added: “You got a 4-12 football team but the star quarterback is really charismatic and a good guy and gives good quotes. That is ‘The Mandalorian.’ ‘The Mandalorian’ is a bright spot in an otherwise losing season. And that’s why people are really clinging to.”

Understanding what works for “The Mandalorian” may help “Star Wars” in the future. The show hits on nostalgia and references plenty of easter eggs. It reminds fans of a time when “Star Wars” wasn’t so divisive.

For recent “Star Wars” projects, many fans thought “there was some kind of departure from the original trilogy,” Hinck said. And a heavy portion of the fan community sees that as an unbreakable rule.

“There’s some kind of violation of something that fans value,” she said.

Hinck said fans have values within their community. Fans turn when companies disrespect those values.

Can you kill a fandom?

That said, it’s hard to totally end a fan base, no matter how bad the content is.

“With the hardcore fan bases ... it’s really hard to kill it dead,” Hubbard said.

Jones, his podcast co-host, said the same.

“If you love Batman, if you love Superman, if you love Aquaman, where do you go to service that in a cinematic form? You have to go to the movies, and if these are characters you love, you’re going to go see those movies, whether they’re good or bad,” he said.

He added, “There’s always the hope that the next one will be better. Even if you’ve been disappointed five times in a row — which I have with DC — there’s always the hope that this character I love, when they come back ... they’ll hit on the right formula that will satisfy me and all the other fans.”

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Warner Bros.

Hubbard agreed: “Even if this isn’t like the Batman I wanted, it’s a shard of a Batman that someone has affection for. And they can cling to that, you know?”

Fans have enough lore and examples of content to fall back on. You may see a Batman on screen that was, at some point, seen in the comics. So it’s hard to totally hate on a product because it has existed before.

“There’s almost no flavor of Batman that the public has wholly just spat out of its mouth. And that’s just the general public, let alone the hardcore fan base,” Hubbard said.

A sign of the culture wars?

The divide over “Rise of Skywalker” isn’t isolated. It exists in other fandoms. And the constant divide could be related to the culture wars.

In “Avengers: Endgame,” there is a scene where the female Marvel heroes gather in formation. They battle together to bring the Infinity Gauntlet across the battlefield. Some fans celebrated the moment. Others said it was pandering.

The battle scene — and the divide it caused between fans — may be a reflection of the culture wars, according to the “Bald Move” podcast hosts.

“It’s like everything else in our culture right now,” Hubbard said. “People count who’s winning and who’s losing along those lines. That’s a bummer too.”

The moment was “a tally mark in the culture war,” Hubbard said. “I mean that’s pretty dumb but that’s where we’re at right now — where like no one can win. If someone wins, someone else has to lose.”

Finding a solution

Toxic fandom has played out on her Twitter feed in the wake of “Rise of Skywalker,” according to Reinhold, the professor. She’s seen people argue with each other over what they like and what they hate. She still sees it even weeks after the release of “Rise of Skywalker.”

But she sees a solution: understand how you’re interacting with someone and move on.

“Sometimes it is best to not engage with someone who’s just not listening to you and is just yelling at you, and not to place the blame for such action necessarily on that as if it was a trait of them, but look at it as a situational asset,” she said.

Reconsider how you’re talking to someone. Understand what you’re saying to someone. Only then can you better yourself, she said.

“So maybe there’s something happening at that time at that place, online or in social media, that’s causing problems. And, hey, maybe I’ll try again another time to talk about these things,” she said.

“There’s a lot of different approaches that we can take to work on this. And the reason why I think it’s important to do all of that is because the same processes and actions that we see happening in these fandoms are the same that we see happening with interreligious strife or political polarization disagreements, things like that.

“So the really positive thing is, I think, if you can work on it in one of these areas, I think you can get better in the other areas as well.”

But we can’t discount fans. Fans are going to get riled up over major changes or disagreements.

And nerd culture — those who enjoy science fiction flicks and comic books — is a source of fandom. “Star Wars” fans react the way Patriots fans react to a pick six from Tom Brady. Or how Los Angeles Lakers fans react to a bad play from LeBron James.

“Nerd culture is like any other fandom,” Hubbard said. “Think about the intensity of the rivals in sports culture. ... This is nothing new. When your team has a bad year, when ‘Star Wars’ has a bad year, you’re going to talk about how heads should roll. The complaints don’t really stop until you start winning again.

“You’re talking about what alien and or what superhero or what, you know, fictional character is out on top and it’s almost exactly the same phenomenon.

“It’s fandom. It is short for fanatic. Sometimes we forget that, but there’s a lot of truth to it.”

Correction: This article previously attributed Jim Jones’ quotes to Aaron Hubbard and Hubbard’s quotes to Jones. The names have been swapped back.

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