Like many, I was excited for the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker last December. From the comfort of a cushioned, reclining seat reserved a month in advance, I settled in and watched as the Skywalker saga came to a close—for now. After all, Disney’s been cashing in $1 billion-plus per movie, so there’s more than a remote chance that some kind of post-script, addendum, or sequel will emerge.
I enjoyed the film. Sure, there were some things that were stretches of the saga’s thus-far established rules and history, but I didn’t think about those until well after the movie was over. When you’re dealing with a vaguely mystical science fiction universe populated by neo-fascist First Orderites, brave Resistance fighters, talking ghosts, cute aliens, gross aliens, valiant Jedi, and nigh-immortal bad guys, two hours of suspended disbelief ain’t bad.
A multitude of other strange characters and creatures have appeared in Star Wars films, TV shows, books, and assorted spinoff merchandise. I don’t ever recall seeing a troll in Star Wars, but that’s okay, because it seems there are plenty of Star Wars trolls online.
In the days after the movie release, I received daily smartphone notifications about Star Wars-related articles at Screen Rant, Showbiz Cheat Sheet, and many other websites. Some articles talked about the fact that critics didn’t seem to like the movie. Some talked about inconsistencies between this film and the one before it, The Last Jedi. Some complained about the movie’s fast pace. In classic clickbait format, The Wrap listed “The 23 Worst Parts of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”. Even though most people I had talked to liked the movie—and there seemed to be a grudging acceptance at online news outlets that most fans felt the same—almost every headline was negative: Why wasn’t this character featured more? Why was this character featured so much? Why didn’t A, B, or C do or not do X, or Y, or Z?
A troll, in the modern parlance, is someone who is intentionally disruptive online, who baits and insults other people, usually with no reward except the satisfaction of having done so. The website articles may not strictly qualify as trolling, because they’re pushing controversy for a reason—the almighty buck. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, and at least the articles feature bylines; it’s only behind the shield of anonymity or semi-anonymity, as with Twitter, Facebook, and other online caves, that the transformation from human to troll becomes complete. Those caves are where the really stupid, nasty stuff comes from, and such was the case with The Rise of Skywalker. Some trolls trolled the actors. Some trolled the director. Some trolled all.
Director J.J. Abrams was trolled for reducing the role of a particular supporting character; this, after the actress who played the role, Kelly Marie Tran, was apparently trolled off social media entirely. Another actor, John Boyega, made headlines via his back-and-forth battles with trolls, during which he sometimes spoke incautiously, his comments giving the trolls new fodder and renewed energy.
Some perpetrators would bristle at being dubbed trolls—most would simply call themselves concerned fans, but that distinction is blurry. In the dimly lit tunnel-network of isolated caverns we call the internet, everyone pretty much looks like a troll if you stare long enough. One wonders if this sort of thing is part of the reason George Lucas called it quits and sold to Disney in the first place.
Two years ago, suspicion and outrage reigned when Star Wars: The Last Jedi garnered a comparatively low audience score on the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes—43%, as opposed to a 91% rating from critics—and blame was cast on Russian trolls. Hey, you can mess with our elections, but don’t mess with Star Wars.
In contrast to The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker earned only a 56% movie critic score, but an 86% audience score. I liked both movies, and though there are flaws in the Rotten Tomatoes methodology, those numbers illustrate the apparently polarizing nature of these two films. Many of the critical comments about The Rise of Skywalker revolve around accusations of “fan service,” or giving the fans exactly what they want. Granted, making movies by poll or committee is a pretty bad idea, but asking people to pay to see movies they don’t like seems even worse. “Fan service” at least doesn’t sound so bad; some critics openly accused Abrams of making The Rise of Skywalker with the express purpose of smoothing things over with the online trolls. I doubt that was his intent—Abrams is a filmmaker who’s firmly set in the Steven Spielberg, “big happy blockbuster” style, and he naturally leans toward audience-friendly storytelling. But if satisfying the trolls was his goal, he failed, because if the aftermath of the movie’s release has shown anything, it’s that a troll’s gotta troll.
I’m not easily satisfied by films, and have criticized plenty, even writing the occasional essay-length review to do so. But at the risk of self-aggrandizement, I would posit that my critiques are more thoughtful and polished than troll rants like “Rise of Skywalker suxxx!” or “This movie blowzzz!” What can I say? I’m a stickler for spelling.
All this troll trouble was, in its way, as interesting as anything in the movie. But at every turn, all I could do was count myself lucky to have grown up in the Star Wars era that I did.
In those early days, anything that provided even the smallest glimpse of the wider Star Wars universe was eagerly anticipated and studied (it helped that the word “retcon” hadn’t been invented yet). Books like Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and Brian Daley’s Han Solo novels, Marvel’s comic book series, NPR’s Radio Drama, and even the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special met with approval from my wide, naive eyes—everything was a vital part of the lore. Sure, they’ve been wiped away from the canon since those days, but my pleasure was unadulterated (it helped that I wasn’t an adult), in part because there were plenty of spaces, gaps in which a kid’s imagination could run free, filling those holes with original stories, theories, and ideas. Many were acted out using the original Kenner Star Wars figures, which lacked the many “points of articulation” of today’s collector-targeted toys, but always impressed with their raw indestructability.
With no internet, there was never a question of what some self-proclaimed expert on YouTube had to say about it. The only people whose theories you heard, or cared about, were your friends’, and the only “trolls” were those few bullies whose bland disdain for Star Wars prefigured their soon-to-be-fulfilled destinies as juvenile delinquents.
It’s easy to dismiss these musings as mere nostalgia, but really, don’t we all want a world where people don’t go straight to hyper-aggressive hysterics over every perceived slight? There’s a dark side of fandom, just like there’s a dark side of the Force. As Yoda warned in The Empire Strikes Back, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.”
That apprentice, of course, was Darth Vader. For fans who’ve taken things a bit too far—and there are a lot of them—a lesson here, there is. But despite the truth of Yoda’s words, if the Star Wars saga shows us anything, it’s that it’s never too late to abandon the dark path and seek redemption—even if your name isn’t Skywalker.
Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton-based writer. His website is peterdabbene.com. His books can be purchased at amazon.com.