This article contains SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
I don't think I've heard the term fan service more in the years since it's become a term than I have since the release of Star Wars: Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. And it's very strange. The complaint comes something like this: There was too much fan service. People wanted two characters to get together and they did. People wanted to see Bill Dee Williams and they did. People wanted C3PO and there he was. People wanted the good guys to win and ho-hum, here comes the music and at the last possible moment the good guys pull out a victory and that's just what everyone wanted.
What sort of bizarre meta-argument with oneself is this? Here's the thing: fan service is not a real thing. What's real is you are bored. That's okay.
If you liked The Last Jedi or if you did not—and I stand as one of those people who liked both that film and the newest one—what stands out most about the film was that it attempted to be a deconstruction of Star Wars films. Deconstruction is where the art itself addresses and defies expectations.
A good example of deconstruction tempered with the meeting of fan expectations is the deconstruction and reworking of the James Bond films. That was done in 2006 when Daniel Craig appeared in the film Casino Royale, which reversed years of winking humor with a harder, grittier Bond. This is kind of a theme with that series because they also did it in 1987 when Timothy Dalton appeared in The Living Daylights and reversed years of winking humor with a harder, grittier Bond, and in 1983, when Roger Moore appeared in For Your Eyes Only and reversed years of winking humor by Roger Moore as Bond with a harder, grittier Bond played by Roger Moore. But if you look closely, deconstruction is still a part of the construction. Daniel Craig might snarl that he doesn't care about his drink mix, but the film itself still has a teaser, a ridiculously convoluted plot, and this ain't LeCarre, so Bond is going to win. The firmaments may be deconstructed, but the Bond Gods are still in their Heavens.
So it is with Star Wars. The cycle came faster this time. After a first film that self-consciously (and successfully) replicated A New Hope beat-for-beat, The Last Jedi wears deconstruction on its sleeve and spouts it in every line of dialogue. Luke tosses a cherished lightsaber over his shoulder and acts like a big goof, disappointing the earnest young warrior Rey. He asks, "did you think I was going to walk out with a laser sword?" (Although, in a bit of deconstructed fan service if there ever were any, he sort of does just that.) The good guys miss major opportunities and end in defeat. All appears lost. Major bummer. Fans loved it.
And yet it was still Star Wars, inasmuch as it was full of sentimentality and sacrifice, and the strange, constant philosophical tug-of-war endemic to the series, that anger and war either solve no problems or solve all of them.
You know when this happened before? In The Empire Strikes Back, almost note for note. Yoda deeply disappointed Luke with his stature and his dismissive attitude, and especially his lack of seriousness as he stole Luke's granola bar and beat R2-D2 with a stick. "Adventure! Excitement!" Yoda huffed. This is Yoda previewing the Luke we got in The Last Jedi. What a big bummer was Empire, and even though fans were sucked in, many worried that Star Wars had misstepped.
Return of the Jedi reversed all that. Psych! It's an optimistic world after all. Teddy bear guerilla warriors can beat a mechanized empire and murderous men can turn good, if only in a last-ditch reversal before they die. And the philosophy of the Jedi was shown to make no sense at all, at least in any way that can be put into grammar. Yoda's all about not needing weapons but Force Ghost Obi-Wan shames Luke for not wanting to assassinate the warlord Darth Vader. "Then the Emperor has already won. You were our only hope." Who's right? Who knows? Obi-Wan has more zany hokum to share: "What I told you was true, from a certain point of view," he says when copping to kind of lying about Luke's parentage. Luke repeats in bewilderment, "a certain point of view?" And Obi-Wan says, in absolutely not the last time this sentiment will appear in this series, "You're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." Oh and Luke has a sister, the planning of which remains open for debate, but probably came as a surprise even to the writers.
But that's what stories—and certainly Star Wars movies—do: reversals. Even deconstruction is really just a motif; in the end, these are adventures just as surely as Bond will win. The stories meet expectations but reverse the plot, over and over again, until the end, which will be a win for good. The Rise of Skywalker comes after The Last Jedi and says psych! Did you forget? It's an optimistic world after all. Just as Han Solo did not die until he was a mentor and not a current lead none of the current generation died in this movie. The scavenger's parents were nobodies until that was true from a certain point of view, in a twist easily as well-planned as the existence of Luke's twin. We have been here before. The story resolves the way music resolves, meeting our expectations. Coincidences abound so much that it's pointless to list them. These movies are written in the grand tradition of Gene Autry versus The Phantom Empire, which is to say they appear to be made up shortly before filming, and occasionally the results are magic.
But it could be that from time to time a viewer is simply tired of it. It may well be that you know what's coming and can't enjoy it anymore, except in a series' flirtations with deconstruction. There's not much to do then except find other works to enjoy. People who were bored with Star Trek fell in love with Babylon Five. Viewers tired of the hope of Lord of the Rings embraced the violence and pessimism of Game of Thrones. Bored out of their minds by met expectations, critics have been writing about the death of romantic comedies for about twenty years, in what I can only surmise is their daily affirmation of hope. But it's not fan service when the work meets your expectations. It's just as predictable as the conventions of music, and it's up to you to walk away.
Jason Henderson is the host of the Castle of Horror and Castle Talk Podcasts, the editor of the Castle of Horror Anthology series, and the author of the upcoming Quest for the Nautilus: Young Captain Nemo from Macmillan Children's Books.