After its December 15th debut, The Last Jedi has proven to be one of the most divisive Star Wars films of all time. New problems are pointed out every day, only to be met with disagreement from someone else. The weirdest part about this, though, is where those lines are drawn—and typically, from the bizarre complaints about the modern humor to the cultural anxiety around the diverse main cast, the crack reveals itself to be positioned between the old fandom and the new fandom, not the critics and the fans.
Speaking of fandom: What does the Star Wars fandom look like these days? One might typically interact with two types of people in their daily fandom life: First, the hardcore fan who grew up with the Luke Skywalker as their hero and who hold the original trilogy up as perfect cinema, and second, the equally as hardcore fan who had their awakening sometime between the prequels and Carrie Fischer’s death, who embraces the evolution of the media with open arms.
The old fandom and the new fandom simply don’t have the same relationship with the content, and not just because older members of fandom are generally more sentimental. The original trilogy was a product of George Lucas’ vision. It rose in an era of film where movies were being perfected, took elements of the 70’s and worked them into a classic aesthetic that lives beyond its era, and were advised in storytelling stages heavily by Joseph Campbell. Lucas took the trilogy seriously, synthesizing the best elements of his vision to create a movie series that would live up to its decade, and the fans responded accordingly.
Meanwhile, the new fandom had their Star Wars glorification bubble popped early. For those of us whose earliest memories of Star Wars are the prequels, rather than the original trilogy, imagining the franchise and its characters as untouchable is rather silly. The prequels were also taken as a good excuse to push the franchise to the next level for money-makers at the top—the Jar Jar Binks Happy Meal toys, Jaba the Hut plush pillows, and Anakin Halloween costumes oversaturated the new fandom’s childhood, more so than they did the old fandom’s movie premiers, although I would wager there was some money-making happening then too. Maybe the reason the porgs didn’t bother the new fandom so much is because we’re used to Star Wars selling us stuff already; it’s as par-for-the-course in our media landscape as the bi-yearly Marvel movie.
This split might fall across generational lines, but there are purists and radicals everywhere, so of course not all fans will fall neatly into old or new. But generally, younger fandom members, unburdened with nostalgia and practiced at accepting franchises as the living, breathing businesses that they are, are eager for more content rather than focused on protecting the golden trilogy. And where there’s a thirst for more, thankfully, there are fans ready and willing to create it in the form of fanfiction.
It just so happens that The Last Jedi is perfect fanfiction material, and not-so-perfect classic Skywalker-obsessed fan material. There are some who’d like to say that the entire new trilogy (including the not-yet-released third installment) could effectively be considered fanfiction given that Disney, not the original creator George Lucas, calls the shots. I’m not so sure I buy the argument that fanfiction is all content not written by the original creator, though—The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi both can be considered canon in the Star Wars universe by virtue of the franchise owners producing the content, but the Disneyfication of the franchise does represent the blurring lines between content creation and the creation of content for fans.
Make no mistake, Disney was aware of the fan split before it took this project on. A measured hand made sure The Force Awakens hit audiences as successfully as it did. The major complaint around the movie was that it virtually played as a redux of A New Hope, stealing particular shots and storylines and re-introducing old favorites like Han as their best, funniest, most charming selves. Yet this was also the movie’s biggest accomplishment; the nostalgia helped much of the old fanbase buy in. Content for a fanbase, but content nonetheless.
Meanwhile, in The Last Jedi, nostalgia is nowhere to be found. The movie takes extreme liberties with canon. While most of the shocking moments have a basis in the world George Lucas built, it also moves the universe forward scene after scene. From the psychic Force-laden conversations between Ryn and Kylo to Holdo’s suicide-by-space-warp all the way to Luke’s spectacular astral projection, The Last Jedi proves its disinterest in letting the past control it.
Luke’s death is especially emblematic of the retirement of the old ways—the hero many grew up loving is now permanently out of the picture. Even Yoda’s cameo had an anti-establishment attitude: He told Luke the future was in the hands of the next generation already, and literally burned the past to the ground.
The drastic changes have given older fans enough anxiety to start policing newer fans’ ideas about what constitutes good additions to their beloved story and what ruins it, but younger fans have always known that canon is malleable rather than rigid. In the past two decades, fanfiction has proven itself to be a useful tool for fans to amend the fiction they love, and it has become, thanks to the rise of the internet, a staple for developing fandom communities. Fanfiction allows fandoms to explore new ideas and test the established ones, to elaborate on stories they love, and to see themselves reflected when they might otherwise not be. In other words, it makes the fandom experience more rich for those who utilize it.
So what makes a film good fanfiction material, and why does The Last Jedi hit the mark? Back when fanfiction-dot-net was all the rage, I used to joke that I wrote fanfic to make the source material better; I would literally fix scenes from Twilight to make sure they played out the right way, rather than the canon way, and add dimension to interesting but underdeveloped characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Even in TLJ, there were underdeveloped characters—Holdo, DJ—who I could see myself writing fic about just to figure out who they are to me, because canon didn’t provide.
Chronically underrepresented groups often fabricate relationships that show themselves represented, too: Supercorp, Remus/Sirius, and Stucky come to mind as ships with heavily queer fanbases using fanfiction as an identity access-point. In the Tumblr 2015 Year in Review’s list of the 20 Most Reblogged Ships, 15 were queer couples, and only three of those 15 were canon; in the most recent Fandom Metrics that number jumps to a shocking 18, with Kylo/Hux, or Armitage, and Finn/Poe, or Stormpilot, representing Star Wars. Queer Star Wars fans are all but begging to be seen on screen. Fanfiction, for many, provides a temporary respite.
It’s not an accident that most of the writers you’ll find in such communities are gender, sexuality, or racial minorities in some capacity or another. The use of fanfiction helps fans fill in the blanks about characters whose storylines are less fully developed. Marginalized groups have the most blanks to fill when it comes to representation.
This doesn’t have to come at the expense of canon, but can rather be a much-needed addition. In an avalanche of white heroes, what’s going on in the black kid’s head? Taking a magnifying glass to minority characters’ arcs enriches the content fans love because they can finally see themselves reflected in it. Queer BFFs, female love interests, and background minorities all theoretically have stories too; in fanfiction, these sidekicks become main characters.
If underrepresented fans love writing themselves into their favorite works of fiction, they certainly love actual representation more. For the Star Wars fandom, episodes 7 and 8 launched us into a new era. The new trio—Finn, Rey, and Poe—became beloved instantly. The Last Jedi adds Rose, played by the Vietnamese Kelly Marie Tran, to its lineup. (Not to mention the robust cast of Rogue One.) Used to a predominantly white, male cast, the old generation of fandom gets a healthy jolt by this diversity that, let’s face it, makes them squeamish. But in a trilogy made for the children of Obama’s America, the cast’s diversity and the deliberate choice to put women in power reflect the values of the newer generation with intent.
Still, fans write their favorite ships into existence the same as they always have (Finn and Poe are the new, less tragic, Remus and Sirius; Rey and Kylo, or Reylo, are the updated, bastardized Zutara, subtext galore), but concretely having the representation is a glee unlike anything else, especially when it makes a few old crones mad.
The Last Jedi reveals that Disney knows how to milk fan service without overdoing it to the point that it ruins the film. While some hardcore older fans complain about the move away from tradition, The Last Jedi really does do everything it can to stoke the fire of new fans creative energy, and there are plenty who recognize that’s what makes it good.
There are perfectly legitimate reasons to not find this the best Star Wars movie of all time—the first act was weirdly paced, there were underdeveloped characters, the anti-capitalist message failed to echo beyond Finn and Rose’s storyline, to name a few personal criticisms. Yet the addition of new characters, new ideas, and new emotional heartstrings will provide fanfic writers with things to throw around in fic for years. How well does Rose/Finn hold up to a coffee shop AU? How many drabbles about chosen families can we get out of the mother-son relationship between Poe and Leia? What kind of wild romance would Holdo and Captain Phasma have had, were they to ever interact? The best part is that someone else has probably already asked the same question and written fanfiction about it to find the answer. I think that’s what the new fandom knows, more than anything—you never have to wait for the solution once you realize you can create it yourself.