When thinking about projects universally beloved by Star Wars fans, the list is awfully short. Aside from The Mandalorian on Disney+ and 2016's Rogue One from Gareth Edwards, most of the recent Star Wars projects garnered mixed reactions.
Critics and audiences are at odds according to Rotten Tomatoes over the last two Star Wars films. Rian Johnson's Last Jedi (2016) earned a certified fresh rating from critics at 91 percent while audiences scored an average of 43 percent. The Rise of Skywalker from J. J. Abrams saw the trend almost reverse with 57 percent of critics holding favorable reviews while 86 percent of audiences approved.
Star Wars fans become an enigma. The harshest criticism from fans of The Last Jedi was how derivative the work seemed from previous films. Much of the discourse comes from what is characteristic of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and accepting the idea Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a believable enough character in Star Wars.
Ever since Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, fans experienced an overload of the Star Wars franchise unlike anything seen before. Financially, Lucasfilm provided one of the most lucrative IPs the company ever acquired aside from Marvel. While the public's largely accepted the Star Wars' franchise permanent place in pop culture, there seems to be an ongoing internal struggle between fans and the conglomerate.
Why We Can't Have Nice Things
Since Return of the Jedi's release, George Lucas decided to renovate and reinvent the Star Wars franchise through his Special Editions and the prequels. While the changes lobbed at the original trilogy were controversial, a growing number of the base scoffed at the cosmetic enhancements. The resentment grew with Lucas' refusal to make his original theatrical cuts of the trilogy available digitally. He even denied the National Registry from obtaining the 1977 theatrical cut.
With the prequels came its share of praise and criticism. As organically marketable as the prequels became to younger audiences, the films didn't appeal as much to older audiences. Backlash despite the Internet's lack of high-speed sophistication focused on Lucas and the actors. Lucas, Jar-Jar Binks actor Ahmed Best, Anakin Skywalker actors Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen carried the brunt of the criticism. The sequel trilogy saw the ongoing harassment of Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran.
What was once praise turned to years of scorn until Lucas finished the prequel trilogy in 2005 with Revenge of the Sith. Once ownership changed hands in 2012, momentum returned with fierce determination with Kathleen Kennedy and Abrams. The end result was the massively successful The Force Awakens in 2015. Returning were Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher to pass the torch off to Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac.
Despite setting record domestic box office numbers, fans didn't connect with the new core as with the original trilogy core. Regardless of the reasoning, a vocal minority emerged determined to "take" back the franchise that wasn't ever theirs. They came to reject Rey as the last hope of the Jedi in The Force Awakens. The dissonance continued at what the seasoned Luke and his motivations were on Ahch-To in The Last Jedi. With The Rise of Skywalker, the gratuitous use of fan service and backtracking creatively sabotaged its predecessor.
While Edwards relatively escaped harsh criticism from the malcontents, the toxicity continued beyond Abrams, Johnson and Solo director Ron Howard. The struggles don't end with the released films. Chris Miller, Phil Lord, Colin Trevorrow, D.B. Weiss, David Benioff are among the revolving door of directors tied to the franchise at one point before leaving.
Variety listed names of female directors who should lead the next Star Wars film. Some like Deborah Chow have prior experience directing The Mandalorian. It's premature to say where Star Wars should go creatively. If the Dave Filoni animated shows and The Mandalorian prove anything, the franchise has plenty of sources to draw from. It doesn't necessarily have to be a grand scale or even focused on the Jedi.
Worth the Challenge or Not Worth the Headache?
When it comes to the film canon, the creative changes, and reception, would any fresh director want to take on the vocal minority of a very toxic fan base or find themselves creatively constricted, because it doesn't evoke enough nostalgia? Johnson admitted he attempted to appease Star Wars fans too much when he shot The Last Jedi. The harshest criticisms lobbied at The Rise of Skywalker is not only initial pacing, the retcons, and overabundance of exposition, but also lack of creativity to move the story in a meaningful way.
Can a film thrive if a director can't feel like he/she can challenge him/herself as long as bullet points get fulfilled? Should the base be the sole determining factor if a film can work? Can a franchise thrive with minimal risks? At what point does it get stagnant?
The Rise of Skywalker is in theaters.