How nostalgia addiction created middle-aged backlash to ‘The Last Jedi’ blinding fans to the brilliance of the film

David Reddish
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Did I arrive late to this party?


In the two weeks since the wide release of The Last Jedi, the echo chamber of the Internet has reverberated with the bellyaching moans of wounded fanboy geeks, condemning Rian Johnson for ruining Star Wars. Trashy review aggregator has reported users opening multiple accounts to try and sabotage the audience score portion of The Last Jedi, further enhancing the site’s irrelevance. Some angry fans have even gone so far as to start a petition to remove the movie from canon. Imagine what these angsty fans could actually accomplish taking on some of the world’s actual woes like government corruption or world hunger.


Professional critics, though, loved the film, and general audiences seem to have as well. So where does this noisy, angry minority come from? What sin does The Last Jedi commit that so riles so many self-described die hard fans of Star Wars? Other commentators have already postulated their theories. Blogger Melissa Hillman penned a lengthy essay claiming that the fanboy rejection stems from the film’s smashing of patriarchy and white privilege, and that the mostly white male audience can’t stand the thought of women and minorities sharing in the power of the Force. Jacob Hall of SlashFilm posits that Johnson’s deconstruction of Star Wars tropes upset a specific group of viewers, since it subverted the story structure of the original films. Hillman and Hall both make some excellent points, but miss a larger preoccupation tied to Star Wars—one that spans far outside the love of the movies and into the cultural zeitgeist at large.


Some people just hate getting older.


If the success of the fun-if-lazy The Force Awakens, 80s music radio shows and dance nights that have outlasted the decade itself, Stranger Things, the Transformers and Expendables movie series, vintage barcades, toys aimed at “kids” that cost hundreds of dollars, cosplay conventions, a Full House revival, “you know you’re an 80s kid” Facebook quizzes and The Goldbergs prove anything, it’s that Generation X just can’t let go of childhood. The driving force behind Last Jedi hate and Stranger Things love is pure and simple nostalgia. Middle aged Americans just want to feel like a kid forever.


Netflix released another example just after The Last Jedi: The Toys That Made Us is a nostalgic look at toys of the 1980s, and offers fascinating insight into the toy development process, as well as the middle-aged authors and collectors who have spent their lives studying to become experts in the all-important humanitarian field of toy collecting. Fun though the show is, it reinforces the power of nostalgia over children of the 70s and 80s, and the lucrative ways in which businesses can profit from it. The streaming behemoth has already announced a reboot of 80s icon She-Ra, indicating that the thirst for nostalgic content still goes unquenched.


But back to The Last Jedi. Some of the grousing, no doubt, has its roots in racism and sexism, in the same way some movie audiences will always gag at the idea of a female character in charge, or the sight of a person of color in a role that could be played by a white performer. For others, though, Star Wars has always had a white, male protagonist, which inspired white little boys to dream of a heroic future. Now as grown men, The Last Jedi asks those viewers to identify with women, and with people of color. In a different film, many of those audience members probably could accept as much, but not Star Wars. No, in Star Wars, the white guy has to play the hero. Anything else would violate that tradition, and ask white male viewers to stretch their imaginations too far into a place where white men didn’t automatically have a monopoly on lead characters. Luke Skywalker was white, therefore, for these angry fans, every other Star Wars hero should be white too, with token minorities playing supporting and minor roles. That The Last Jedi also features a close to middle-aged white male villain obsessed with emulating the past also provides a meta-comment (albeit an unintentional one) on the middle-aged white male backlash.


Yet the perverse nostalgia obsession far outspans the field of entertainment as well. Donald Trump’s credo of “Make America Great Again” fuels itself on nostalgia—memories of a “better” and “simpler” time. Of course, apart from some great toys and poppy music, the 1980s sucked: American militarism dominated the planet, Wall Street bankers considered themselves (uncoincidentally) “Masters of the Universe,” people only spoke English at the bank, gay people dropped dead left and right from AIDS and people of color found themselves confined to neighborhoods of drugs and crime. That a minority of geographically well placed Americans elected Trump while an overwhelming majority voted in favor of his rival Hillary Clinton also underlines the Trump-Last Jedi hater phenomenon, as does the role of the internet.


But I digress. In other words, it’s not exactly racism or sexism that fuels a resistance to The Last Jedi, or, for that matter, Trumpism, so much as a rabid desire for sameness. When The Last Jedi innovates by having Leia finally use the Force, nostalgia addicts mock the scene. When Admiral Holdo refuses to share her plan with the recently-demoted Poe, they deride the script for plot holes. When Finn & Rose fail in their plan, a scene becomes stupid. When fuel becomes an issue to Resistance ships, grousing fanboys claim the notion violates canon. Had Luke used the Force to survive his ship’s decompression, had a male Holdo barked at Poe to follow orders, these whiny nostalgics wouldn’t have minded. Moreover, that Luke and Han often fail in their plans during the original trilogy, or that fuel is an issue (albeit obliquely) when the Empire pursues the Millennium Falcon in the Anoat system illustrates this point. Angry fanboys will attack any evolution or variation of story as a violation of canon or logical storytelling, thus overlooking the real issue: some viewers don’t want more Star Wars, they want the same Star Wars.[1]


This ache for all things the same fuels the power of nostalgia. Furthermore, lust for aesthetic sameness extends beyond the identity gripes about casting, right into the objections to the plot twists of The Last Jedi, chief among them the role of Luke Skywalker in this new outing. Middle aged men can’t stand the thought that Luke could give up hope, or go into exile. They reject his depression and anger, calling it a violation of the character, and a contradiction of his character arc at the end of Return of the Jedi.


The latter point does hold some truth: the Luke of The Last Jedi is not the same Luke from the original trilogy, nor should he be. Thirty years have past, and in that time, Luke hasn’t existed in stasis. He’s grown, changed and suffered tremendous disappointment. Trying to play the role of the benevolent Jedi master rather than the redeeming Jedi Knight added new layers of insight and complexity to Luke. More importantly though, his failure to start a Jedi Academy and train his sole nephew has, logically, weighed on his mind.


As Luke details in The Last Jedi¸ Leia may have blamed Snoke for Ben’s transformation into Kylo Ren, but Luke always blamed himself. Yes, Ben had anger. Yes, Snoke had begun to play on Ben’s lust for power. Luke doesn’t guilt himself for those things; rather, he blames himself for his own moment of weakness in which he considered killing Ben. The temptation lasted only a moment—Luke never actually planned to kill Ben. But that one second of weakness scared Ben into running to Snoke, killing his fellow Jedi, and plunging the galaxy back into chaos. That guilt and shame crushed Luke’s spirit, and forced Luke to reexamine his entire moral code. By journeying to Ach-To he’d hoped to find some guidance in the original Jedi Temple. But Luke carried his guilt with him, and when the Jedi texts offered no reassurance, he resolved to die in exile.


But Luke never gave up hope. He may act as though he did, but The Last Jedi proves he did not, even if he cut himself off from the Force. Luke could, at any time during his exile, drown himself as he did his X-Wing. He could have burned down the hollow tree of the Jedi Temple, destroying the original words of the Jedi for all time. But he never did, because deep down, Luke still had hope for redemption. Why else would he leave behind a map that only the most devoted of followers could trace? Why else would he not kill Rey as soon as he handed her the lightsaber? Secretly, Luke always wanted someone to find him, and to redeem himself for his moment of doubt. Only by facing his failure, and finding himself underneath the Legend of Luke Skywalker, could he do so. So, in a sense, Luke is the same character—the same whiney, despairing, petulant, pouty, over-ambitious farm boy of the original films.


The problem therefore, isn’t that Luke has changed, it’s that the audience hasn’t. The whiney, petulant, pouty, despairing fanboys that grew up watching the Star Wars trilogy want the same thing over and over without any added layers of complexity or character added to the series.[2] For these angry 40 and 50-somethings, Star Wars can never grow or change. Nostalgia counts more than substance for these viewers, much as a drug fix counts for more than health, jobs, happiness, family or friendship with addicts.


That the vitriol layered against anything new—any growth or change—should disturb conscientious observers. That goes for far more than Star Wars too. That so many Americans—in particular, white men—cannot stand to feel like anything except an idealistic five year old living in a world dominated by white men does not bode well for the future. What exactly it says about American culture, Generation X or the small chorus of Star Wars fans griping about the new—and, one of the best—franchise entry I cannot say. No doubt the same kind of attacks will continue into the future whenever an auteur does something refreshing and wonderful to a long-treaded and retreaded property like Star Wars.


As Yoda tells Luke, “we are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of all masters.” So it is for movies too. Star Wars has long since expanded beyond the original film, or even the original trilogy into something far more epic, wild and rich. And so it is for fandom. The original fans of Star Wars, the children that grew up watching each entry in the cinema, no longer compose the primary audience for the films. Star Wars fandom has expanded and evolved with each new entry in the series. New generations will continue to love the Star Wars movies while paying no mind to aging windbags griping about the ruin of their childhood. Yoda also accuses Luke of obsessing over the past and ignoring the present—a declaration he might as well have directed at the nostalgiac audience.


The Last Jedi has revitalized Star Wars in a way not seen since The Empire Strikes Back, and even matches the original classic in the exploration of the world of the Jedi. Audiences searching for an exhilarating, innovative adventure should head to the theatre. Everyone else can just grow up or shut up.


[1] It also speaks volumes that the nostalgia-obsessed Force Awakens didn’t meet with the same criticisms, even though many of the most attacked elements of The Last Jedi originated in that film.

[2] These same fans voiced the same complaints, incidentally, about the prequel trilogy. They couldn’t stand the sight of Jedi fighting faceless droids instead of faceless stormtroopers, or that Republic forces flew around in something other than TIE fighters. Their complaints, however, got lost in the chorus of other criticism, even if disgruntled fanboy accusations of George Lucas raping their childhood landed as some of the most shocking derision against the films.