Blockbusters have changed a lot since the term first entered the cultural lexicon. What started originally as shorthand for a financially successful film, which included films like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), has morphed to mean something quite different today. Now, blockbusters are synonymous with huge mega-corp films, careful million-dollar franchises that are designed to appeal to the masses. While there is a simple pleasure in blockbusters — sometimes you just want to see the good guys blow the bad guys up — they have reached a point of cultural saturation where these franchises have become the default. Just look at the highest-grossing films of the last decade, a list littered with remakes, reboots and recognisable IP. It seems the money is on nostalgia, and that is what these films are ultimately about — money. This IP-based filmmaking is directly changing the way we see and consume movies, reaching a kind of apex in the past few years. If a major film doesn’t pass the billion-dollar mark it is now seen as a box office flop which sets a worrying precedent for smaller scale films. Why bother investing in something without a guaranteed return?
When Martin Scorcese deemed the Marvel franchise the cinematic equivalent of theme parks, designed to thrill but devoid of any real risk, he faced a real backlash. In responses to Scorsese, there seemed to emerge a leftover defensiveness from pop culture nerds, back from when comics were decidedly not mainstream. Fan culture, historically relegated to the shadows as something embarrassing, has had a cultural renaissance in the last decade and is now the cultural default if we go off box office success. It doesn’t end there: it extends to streaming services, comics, books, clothing and merchandise. There’s no escaping it. The idea of Marvel fans somehow being oppressed by his comments when the films they champion regularly cross the billion mark worldwide is laughable. With Disney now owning just about every piece of media we consume, they have a creative (and cultural) stranglehold on cinema itself. Scorcese points out a lack of risk in these films, either thematically or emotionally, designed to reinforce their own worldview. Audiences are not challenged or tested — even death has no hold on these blockbusters, with characters being revived and rebooted in an endless fashion. Black Widow, who died in the latest Avengers film, will be given new life in a prequel film this year. These characters are never really dead — as long as they keep making money, they’ll be back.
This current trend of blockbuster filmmaking that’s carefully designed to please fans can be directly traced back to the ways we have historically consumed media and fan content. New research suggests there seem to be two subsects of fandom. One is the ‘curative’, a focus on preservation and memorabilia often associated with male fans; and the other is ‘transformative’, where the focus is on creating new work — fanfiction, for example, long associated with female and queer fans. There is a hierarchy embedded in fan culture, a belief that this ‘curative’ mode is proper fandom and ‘transformative’ fans are just a bunch of gross girls focused on shipping. Of course, there is a lot of crossover within these two broad identities, and as fan culture becomes more mainstream we‘ve seen a development of casual fans who exist beyond this duality. This kind of fandom thinking has been around for a long time — we can trace this kind of behaviour back to Star Trek (1966-1969), for example. It’s just that this kind of cultural fan warfare between what is and isn’t canon has expanded beyond the internet to concern billion-dollar filmmaking.
This fan distinction can clearly be mapped onto the dichotomy of the contemporary blockbuster audience — one subsect who wants their perfect world reflected back to them, and another who’d rather their world be interrogated. It also explains some of the routine backlashes we see from fans: they don’t really want to see something new, they just want to be comforted by the old. Despite steps in the right direction, blockbusters are still viewed and created with a white male gaze so much so that when a non-white actor is cast in a major franchise there is an immediate racist backlash. This wave of cultural conservatism isn’t something new: we saw it with the Ghostbusters (2016) reboot, in the toxic discourse surrounding Captain Marvel (2018) — not to mention the female Bond arguments that crop up every few months. There is a loud faction of fandom where — just like the memorabilia perfectly preserved for the highest monetary value — fans are more focused on the preservation of a seemingly perfect cultural artifact bubble-wrapped in an entitled sense of nostalgia. They have had the dominant world view in their community for a long time, and the idea of empathy with someone who does not look exactly like them proves difficult to grasp.
What does this have to do with Star Wars?
This push and pull between conservation and transformation not only exists in fandom, but also exists in blockbusters themselves. There isn’t a clearer example of this than JJ Abrams’ and Rian Johnson’s contrasting entries into the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Whereas The Last Jedi (2017) boldly argues that we should let the past die and move towards a new future, The Rise of Skywalker not only neatly packages the past into cheap fan service, it (literally) crawls it back from the dead.
Following the strange backlash towards The Last Jedi, Star Wars returned for its alleged final mainline series outing in The Rise of Skywalker. Given its rocky road to the screen — the previous director Colin Trevorrow was dumped from the project in 2017 — and given how divisive The Last Jedi was to fans, it seemed like Abrams was an easy, if not extremely safe choice, to round out this trilogy. The Rise of Skywalker, however, is so devoid of any original thought, too interested in fan theories and fan service to even make room to say anything of importance, that it fails to satisfy on any level. It seems a film designed by committee, a strange hybrid of previous Star Wars narratives concocted by the Disney overlords deep in their money-making dungeon. ‘The dead speak!’ the opening crawl tells us, immediately filling me with dread at what was to come.
The Last Jedi tears away all the franchise’s iconography, from Luke’s lightsaber, Kylo’s wannabe-Vader Mask, even the very idea of the Jedi as being a singular force for good. Again and again, this film shows us that it is not things and trinkets that give story meaning, it‘s the people. And in an age of nostalgia baggage — where recognisable reference points are tossed from one film to the next to elicit emotional engagement — that kind of thinking in a blockbuster felt like a breath of fresh air. If anything, The Last Jedi was about failure. Characters are tested, the bad guys win, and no one comes to your rescue. They don’t act like the blockbuster heroes we have been conditioned to see. Here, Johnson has taken a transformative lens, interrogating both the world of Star Wars and the blockbuster structure at large. It felt timely, the echoes of real-world fascism mirrored in the film: Rey’s desperate attempts to bring Kylo to the side of good are fruitless, indicating that perhaps we should not be giving space neo-nazis a dozen extra chances. Between all the porgs and space battles, the film ends on a poignant message: anyone can be a hero.
The Rise of Skywalker rejects all this. It’s curative in every sense, so hyperfocused on restoring deconstructed iconography and abiding by fan theories that it forgets to be emotionally engaging. Here, the focus shifts back to cheap shots of nostalgia, with a sprinkling of cameos designed to make you feel something but come across cheap and hollow. Characters too seem to have defaulted back to their The Force Awakens (2015) selves, and lessons learnt from the previous films are tossed aside in favour of MacGuffins and drawn out duels. Most disappointing of all is Rose’s complete removal from the narrative, which feels like an endorsement to the most toxic of fans. The film lives in the past.
Abrams is a vocal advocate for mystery box storytelling: the idea that the mystery is greater than the answer. Nowhere is this type of storytelling clearer than in The Rise of Skywalker. In The Force Awakens, he proposes a huge dramatic question — just who is Rey? In a masterful stroke, The Last Jedi tells us Rey is a nobody, but that doesn’t make her less powerful. It suggests, if anything, that this makes her more powerful — she’s simply a person from nothing who is capable of great change and power. Much like you and I.
But, unfortunately, the arc didn’t end there, and the sequel trilogy needed a final episode. This structural necessity leads to a narrative choice so bewildering, so left of field that it seems pulled deep from a pool of YouTube Star Wars analyst videos. Yes: Rey Palpatine. Not only does this decision carry no emotional weight in the film — a decision that has left many viewers cold — it throws the franchise back into the past. Rey is no longer her own hero; instead, a product of previous icons, her power gifted to her by a man. As Rian Johnson explains, having Vader as Luke’s father completely changes the lens we have viewed the narrative. Not only has your own blood showered death and destruction on the galaxy, but it is up to you to stop him. It’s devastating. Rey Palpatine, by contrast, seems like a fizzle, something added in the third act as a sort of gotcha moment. A woman going up against her own family legacy to create good in the world is compelling, but finding out your grandad is an egomaniac Sith lord, well… isn’t that all baby boomers? The furore surrounding Rey’s heritage shows a clear line between curative and transformative fans. Because of Johnson’s decision to deliberately subvert these notions, many curative fans found The Last Jedi so challenging, whereas transformative fans — those likely primed on the idea and existence of divergent stories — found these detours so engaging.
Rey, the film’s supposed lead, comes second to the narrative in The Rise of Skywalker. Kylo, the story’s clear villain, is even given redemption that’s completely undeserved. Finn and Poe are left hanging, and while there are some glorious moments of friendship, it all feels hollow at the core. At the end of the film, there is no great balance in the force, and I can’t help but feel like we are all doomed to repeat this franchise in another 10 years. The Rise of Skywalker tells us that we are governed by our past, trapped by our own legacy. Star Wars seemed ripe to break free of its curative roots, to transform into something new and bold. The characters held so much promise — a girl from nowhere, a turncoat stormtrooper, and a legacy rebel pilot, who came with the suggestion of bold new stories. When Rey tells us moments before the credits that her name is ‘Rey Skywalker’, there’s no relief, no great emotional weight lifted. Her unique voice is gone, absorbed into the greater amorphous Star Wars legacy. The ending feels so open, as if leaving room for another round of spinoffs and reboots that will surely come to Disney Plus soon.
This barely touches on any of the other truly bizarre choices made in this film (any of the terrible kisses? Sith GPS? “He must have been on another transport???”), and I’m sure we will get endless discourse and critical thinking on the ways the franchise has handled race, gender and sexuality in the coming months. I love the world of Star Wars, one that I feel has been part of who I am for such a long time. A world that inspired me to want to write my own. It’s a love that has been passed down in my family, as I’m sure it has been for many others. With the power and reach these franchises have, it’s only fair that we treat them as important storytelling. Stories shape our lives and our understanding of the world, and as such, they should challenge us. Star Wars started as a mad, hopeful, singular vision that has kept people coming back again and again for decades. Seeing that reduced to a blockbuster checklist is, well, a bummer, to say the least. The good guys win, the bad guys get beat up and the world goes blissfully on. There’s no stakes, no challenges; scenes simply existing to propel them into the next with no dramatic stakes. The film has become exactly as Scorsese suggested: a theme park ride, jolting so quickly from set piece to set piece that in the end you feel nothing at all.
Despite all this, I’m not going to make an online petition, I’m going to bully anyone off social media, and I’m not going to review bomb Rotten Tomatoes. There’s a sense of frustration, that Disney has cut away everything weird and unique from this story, a sentiment shared by Oscar Isaac who has delightfully gone rogue on the film’s press tour.
We sit now at a cultural crossroads, with big studios so blindly fixated on box office returns and pleasing fans that we are forgetting what makes cinema truly great — the unexpected. Blockbusters, corporations and fandoms themselves are living in the past, treating their franchises with such preciousness that they’re afraid of innovation and transformation. In this new cinematic world obsessed with backstory and connecting the dots, just once I want to recklessly look into the future. We have to let the past die — not by destroying it, but by growing beyond it.
Madeleine McRae is a screenwriter and genre tragic who watches far too much TV. She desperately wants to live in a haunted house, but until then you can find her in Melbourne, or lurking @madsmcrae/ madeleinemcrae.com