Dealing with fandom is like a political campaign. Should franchises cater to their staunchest fans, or reach out to new audiences? Should those franchises repeat tried-and-true formulae, or try fresh ideas? Just like political campaigns, fan opinions are passionate and divided enough to dominate the narrative around a work. It’s hard to envy anyone the task of producing fan-facing material in this kind of atmosphere. It’s a wobbly tightrope indeed.
Obviously, we’re talking about Star Wars here. The same conversation can be had around any franchise, but right now Star Wars is the granddaddy of them all. When The Force Awakens came out, we celebrated how true it felt to the original trilogy, even as we criticised the degree to which it repeated the past. The Last Jedi both engaged and enraged people by challenging core Star Wars precepts and audience expectations. And now, fandom is again divided, between those who love The Rise of Skywalker's energy and "for the fans" callbacks, and those who see it as a muddled step backwards after the thematically ambitious Last Jedi. There’s no real consensus in any direction. There never was.
Should we even expect franchises to try new things? Once an original piece of art (like Star Wars was in 1977) becomes sufficiently commodified, does it move beyond considerations of artistic merit to become mere product? From a studio point of view, playing the same tune in a different key is the most reliable way to guarantee people listen. When playing to an audience hungry for more, why mess with success? Leave the art to the independents, not the studio machine. Hell, even the most unconventional franchise entries still generally fit into a common mould - they’re merely wider variations on the same theme.
But if artists didn’t take risks within that structure, many franchises wouldn’t have thrived - and we’d have missed out on many of our greatest pieces of entertainment. The Beatles would never have made Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, or the White Album. Many albums from artists like David Bowie, Björk, and Kanye West wouldn’t exist, and Queen would never have recorded “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series would have lost its most startling qualities. Max Rockatansky wouldn't have stepped aside for a female-led narrative (and his best film), and Eon wouldn't have stripped back James Bond to produce Casino Royale. We’d wouldn't have the slapstick comedy of Evil Dead 2 or the space-marine action of Aliens, and Fast and Furious would have stayed anchored to the dragstrip. The Terminator would have stayed a villain forever, and Will Smith never would have become an actor. Worst of all, we'd lose Babe: Pig in the City, the low-key greatest sequel of all.
Frankly, you know what else wouldn’t look like it does, had fans been pandered to? The Empire Strikes Back. To many people, the original Star Wars trilogy (and all films of that era) have simply always existed; they’re enshrined forever as immutable canon. But those films were new once, and they weren’t universally well-received. Empire was a huge departure from the serial-adventure formula of Star Wars, shrinking its scope, splitting up its main characters, telling the audience the villain was the hero’s dad, and introducing a Muppet - voiced by Frank Oz, no less! - in place of Oscar-nominated Alec Guinness. Many moviegoers were irate. Sound familiar?
Return of the Jedi was no different, with its bizarre first act and teddy-bear-filled second. BBS records still exist wherein fans complain about Leia being Luke’s sister, or about the Emperor’s lightning powers. The franchise is practically defined by left-field turns, and it’s only through the passage of time that we’ve accepted them as, simply, Star Wars. Even the prequel trilogy’s strengths are seeing greater appreciation today, alongside continued criticism of its weaknesses.
Time is the key factor in all this. Early reactions to new work are always going to be contentious. Emotions run high, hot takes abound, and divisiveness tends to be seen as a negative. But as time advances, we stop seeing art as new and controversial, and start engaging with it on its own terms. When Halloween III: Season of the Witch came out, fans were outraged that a Halloween film would dare drop Michael Myers; it flopped, and the series quickly returned to the Myers saga. Decades later, though, Halloween III has been widely reappraised as one of the stronger Halloweens, while the subsequent Myers films meet ever-decreasing critical returns. You see this pattern everywhere: given enough time, risk-taking becomes appreciated more and more.
Time will be kind to The Last Jedi. The Rise of Skywalker may benefit from distance, too, when we look back on the saga as a whole. What’s undeniable, though, is that Rise was created "for the fans" first. It made many fans happy in the process, but its shotgun blast of delightful moments doesn’t feel as singular or whole as the series' best films. When trying to fit in as many “moments” as possible, you lose track of the bigger picture: theme, character, story, and so on. But at least you get lots of little applause breaks.
For artists, the argument around following fan expectations is a circular one. Artists gain their first fans through work they make for themselves that just happens to connect with others. Fans are fans in the first place because they align with those artists’ tastes and instincts. The artist-fan relationship doesn’t start with pandering, so why should it progress through it? Fans of an artist - as opposed to individual works - will follow that artist where their instincts take them. That’s why they’re fans. Sometimes, surprise and experimentation itself is the reason fans become interested in a particular artist.
This brings us to an uncomfortable truth about Star Wars, which is who makes them, and for whom. Star Wars changed when Disney bought Lucasfilm. Most obviously, it lost its original creator George Lucas, shifting to a model wherein an executive producer corralled together filmmakers whose visions didn’t follow a consistent philosophy or plan. The most significant change, though, is in who Star Wars is for. Where once Lucas produced Star Wars films through an independent, private company, now Star Wars is made to create profit for Disney shareholders. Investors are Disney's principal audience, and financial expectations like merchandising deals and quarterly profits all but guarantee safe, unremarkable choices.
That’s not to say that artists can’t be brave within that framework. Expecting and accepting the bare minimum from blockbusters is short-sighted and pessimistic. It takes courage and cleverness to sneak originality under corporate overlords' noses, but it’s all the more exciting when studio product emerges with something unique to say. Singular voices and unexpected choices are significant in mainstream entertainment, because reaching large audiences fucking matters. You or I could make a short film about systemic racial oppression or learning from failure, but it’s not going to have the impact that it would under a brand that reaches millions more people. Most franchise films serve to entertain and make money, but when they matter, they really fucking matter.
A weirdly perfect example of both approaches exists, in the form of Alien: Covenant. Reaction to Ridley Scott’s prequel-sequel leaned negative, but the content presents a fascinating case study. The first and third act are mostly retreads of Alien films past - a crew finds spores on a strange planet and gets picked off by a xenomorph - and were panned as rote and unimaginative by critics and fans alike. But the second act - a deeply strange character study of Michael Fassbender’s android David, replete with musings on creation, destruction, and omnipotence - was truly divisive. Many critics (including me) adored that middle section, finding some of the richest material in an Alien film in decades. But for people who wanted an Alien film, it was just a little too far outside their comfort zone. Paradoxically, this meant the film got criticised for being both too similar and too different to its predecessors.
Ultimately, there’s a place for both schools of thought. It’s nice to be entertained by low-impact nonsense. But we shouldn’t be expected to “turn our brains off” all the time. The belief that big blockbusters needn’t ever strive to be something greater is truly damaging to art. Being challenged can be as delightful as being comforted, and what’s more, it’s more important. A lot of entertaining movies have been made for the fans. But none of them have stayed part of the cultural conversation years or decades later. None of them are truly great.