Last Jedi and Infinity War spoilers ahead.
Last year, when Star Wars: The Last Jedi instantly turned into one of the most divisive blockbusters of all time a popular theory emerged that much of the rancor and debate was less about the movie and more about the fans themselves. YouTubers, bloggers (ahem), cosplaying convention-goers and casual fans alike spent years arguing over and predicting which direction the story would go after The Force Awakens. Then The Last Jedi came along and spit in the face of all of that, burning down the past – and all of the fan theories with it – in order to face the future.
No Anakin cameo. No Palpatine or Ben Kenobi-related reveal. No grand backstory for Rey. No origin story for Snoke, who doesn’t even survive to see the end of the trilogy. Just a whole lot of “In order for Star Wars to survive, it has to evolve” storytelling decisions. Disney, turns out, followed a more or less straight remake of New Hope with the franchise’s most progressive film, one which second-guesses the dynastic approach of the saga to this point and aims to empower even the lowest among us, regardless of bloodline. Luke Skywalker, once the embodiment of baby boomer optimism, morphed into a sad, beaten down old man stuck in the grip of an inescapable despair over what’s become of the world in light of his many failures. What an accurate, but deeply depressing reflection of real-world malaise.
And the fans just weren’t having it:
The response was so harsh, the theory went, because fans spent too long obsessing over their own expectations and simply forgot how to actually be fans of something and accept new ideas. Last Jedi’s not broken; fandom is. Sure, Last Jedi, as a film, has some genuine flaws and plot holes, but that’s not enough to justify the level of hate thrown its way.
Or is it really that simple?
It’s half a year later, and here we are again. Another Disney-produced, geek-leaning franchise has delivered its biggest movie yet, and it also absolutely blows through most fan theories. Avengers: Infinity War is not the movie most people were expecting. Neither Cap nor Thor nor Iron Man nor anyone we expected to go out in a blaze of glory actually does. The heroes lose, but not quite the way we thought they would. Even if you’d read the Infinity Gauntlet graphic novel (the most direct source material) and guessed Infinity War might similarly end with Thanos wiping out half the universe it was still stunning to see who exactly Marvel decided to finger snap out of existence: Spider-Man, Black Panther, all but 2 of the Guardians, Winter Soldier…pretty much everyone other than the original Avengers.
Who died? Oh, just everyone we know still has films left on their contract, several of them with known sequels in active development. In this case, our collective knowledge of the behind the scenes realities of Marvel Studios worked directly against our on-screen expectations. Kevin Feige, The Russo Brothers, and screenwriting duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely just laughed at all of our incredibly wrong predictions (well, most of them – Loki did die, and just about everyone saw it coming) and gutted us.
And fans…are actually kind of okay with it. Unlike Last Jedi, there’s no comically wide divide between the critics and the audience on RottenTomatoes:
At last check, #InfinityWarAwful isn’t trending on Twitter. The box office isn’t dwindling and thus validating the film’s critics, though it might be too early to make that call since Infinity War hasn’t even reached its second weekend yet.
That’s not to say the love for Infinity War is universal or unconditional. The ending is shocking but also hallow since we know this will all be undone. It’s only half a movie. In doing so little to cater to anyone who hasn’t already seen all 18 prior MCU films, Infinity War asks a lot of its audience and should be an exception, not the rule for just how serialized Marvel’s storytelling gets in the future.
These are but some of the arguments being waged online at the moment, with that last one happening right here on this very site over the weekend. Literally, after I started writing this article, I fired up the We Hates Movie podcast review of Infinity War and the usually Marvel-friendly hosts graded it no higher than B and actually as low as a D- from their most contrarian member. The consensus: the action is too hectic, the ending cheap, it’s all too comic booky for its own good, and until we see Avengers 4 none of us can really give Infinity War a complete grade. These, I should add, are the same guys who vigorously defended Last Jedi against its critics.
Opinions obviously differ, and there might yet be an Infinity War backlash building, but if there is it’s far slower-coming and decidedly more muted than the Last Jedi reaction. The question, as The Guardian posed, is why.
Infinity War is the culmination of a decade of storytelling, years of fan predictions and comic book store debates, and comes on the heels of three of the MCU’s most successful/popular films (Homecoming, Ragnarok, Black Panther); Last Jedi pays off not only two full years of fan theories about Rey, Snoke, and Kylo Ren but also several decades worth of anticipation over what Luke Skywalker would be like post-Return of the Jedi, and the prior two Star Wars films each grossed over a billion worldwide. Both Infinity War and Last Jedi defy expectations. Both films generally pleased film critics. Only one of them was rejected by superfans. WTF?
It’s really a question of the differences between the films themselves and their respective fandoms. As The Guardian argued:
Infinity War rarely sends up its most preposterous excesses. There are more than enough laughs amid the misery of Thanos’s assault on the galaxy, but the Russos resist the temptation to lampoon the mad Titan himself, his gauntlet, or any of his deeply silly minions. All are treated with a reverence that will have helped to keep fans of the comics, and the wider MCU, feeling like their much-loved source material is being respected.
The same cannot be said for Last Jedi. For example, why bother to whet our appetites for revelations about the Jedi and their origins, as teased in trailers for Johnson’s film, only to disappoint us with such a curveball [as Yoda gleefully burning down the Jedi’s ancient texts]? Lampooning those aspects of a much-loved saga that made fans fall in love with it in the first place is probably best left to Lego Star Wars.
To put it another way, despite its occasionally ponderous, DC-leanings, Infinity War still feels like a Marvel Studios movie, with crowd-pleasing jokes aplenty right up to the final battle; Last Jedi, to its critics, doesn’t feel like Star Wars. The plot structure actually has more in common with Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica pilot. Moreover, even if it doesn’t do it in the way we expected Infinity War ultimately delivers on the promise of its marketing – Infinity Stones are sought, characters die. Last Jedi, by comparison, actually makes a dramatic point out of invalidating all those little those things we’d been led to believe actually mattered. It’s understandable to feel cheated by such a quick, exposition-free disposal of Snoke, even if half the audience – myself included – found the surprise invigorating.
The Infinity War equivalent, according to The Guardian, “might have been for Thanos to have clicked his fingers, only to discover that the myriad cosmic gems he spent so long collecting from various members of the Avengers were fakes and that we had all been worrying about nothing.”
Beyond that, Marvel comic books may be far older than Star Wars, but these Marvel Studios movies have only been around for 10 years now. That’s more than enough time to build up a hostile relationship with fans – just look at WB’s flailing DC Cinematic Universe. However, beyond the cries for more diversity, better villains, and more auteurs (sorry Edgar Wright) the MCU has enjoyed a strong relationship with its fans to this point. The movies come out to crowd-pleasing and stock portfolio-padding numbers and only the most cynical among us fret over when or if Marvel will ever release an outright terrible film. More importantly, they remain the product of a singular vision advanced by uber-producer Kevin Feige.
Star Wars isn’t nearly as fortunate. Prior to selling to Disney, George Lucas had been stuck in a combative relationship with franchise fans for years, particularly since the days of the digitally-restored theatrical re-releases in the late 90s. At a time when the internet was democratizing the concept of ownership, Lucas aggressively told fans Star Wars was his to do with whatever he damn well pleased, and if that meant never releasing the original versions of the films then so be it.
Then came the prequels.
That…um…didn’t go so well. The debates over those films still rage today.
When Lucas eventually peaced out and entrusted his far, far away galaxy to Bob Iger and Kathleen Kennedy that brought about several swift sucker punches. A hotly anticipated video game was canceled. Ditto for a beloved animated serie (Star Wars: The Clone Wars). Decades worth of expanded universe storytelling was instantly deemed irrelevant and little more than outdated fan fiction. Now fans had to buy all new books, comic books, and video games to get the real, canonical story. It’s one thing for an industry maverick and franchise originator like Lucas to milk fans for money; it’s another for the Disney corporation to do it. They’re both capitalistic endeavors, but one far more transparently so, especially when Iger broke from franchise history and mandated making one new Star Wars a film a year to goose the company’s annual profits.
Kennedy, an industry legend and long-time Spielberg collaborator, has now seen over one troubled film production after another, though, Last Jedi, oddly, went by without incident. After J.J. Abrams presented his nostalgic version of Star Wars, Rian Johnson ripped it all up in ways that sometimes felt like hostile rejections of Force Awakens instead of natural progressions. With Abrams at the helm of Episode IX, fans are already wondering if he’ll undo any of Johnson’s work.
That level of uncertainty and inconsistency just isn’t there with Marvel Studios. With the MCU, you never have to ask who exactly is in charge and whose vision is being serviced. In Feige we trust. Star Wars – um, Johnson? Abrams? Kennedy? Iger?
We can wring our hands over whether Infinity War went too far into event comic book territory, yet at the same time, we’re having fun guessing what’s going to happen next. Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson, for example, just put forth a theory Avengers 4 might delve into a parallel universe where some of the Avengers never even existed, and while I don’t completely buy it I loved reading her argument. Last Jedi, however, left us with little to no idea where the story goes now, and that’s allowed the conversation to linger less on what happens next and more on just how much people hated the movie.
In a way, this reminds me of the ongoing debate over how exactly Donald Trump won the Presidency. In that case, the answer isn’t nearly as simple as pundits and analysts would like to believe. The stakes are far smaller here, but the answer to why fans hated Last Jedi is similarly multi-faceted. Some status-conscious viewers might feel threatened by the new push into diversity. Some were reacting more to the marketing and online hype cycle than the movie. Some were genuinely critical of Last Jedi for its various plot holes and story deficiencies. Others got sucked into the reinforcing cycle of hate once the film’s negative reaction became part of the story.
I personally ranked Last Jedi pretty high on my films of 2017, but around half of the fans would have put it at the top of their most-hated films of the year. As we move through the stages of grief post-Infinity War, maybe we’ll get to a similar anger, but I doubt it will be nearly as overwhelming.
Source: The Guardian