In Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Finn makes an elaborate assumption about the workings of the Force, to which a disgruntled Han Solo declares “That’s not how the Force works!” At the time, this seemed like a nostalgic and instructional remark signaling just how much Finn and the new cohort of characters, namely Rey and Poe, had to learn about their place in this new world in which they had found themselves—perhaps it was going to be up to legacy characters, like Han, Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and of course Luke Skywalker, to mentor these younger characters. Similarly, it might have been be up to long-time fans of the Star Wars franchise to pass on their own wisdom and teach a new generation all about how the Force works.
Fast forward two years to the recent release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and long-time fans of the Star Wars franchise have disapprovingly (and also approvingly) identified some changes in the ways of the Force: new abilities, new philosophies, and new manifestations. It appears that now Han’s exclamation acts less as an instruction to the younger generation, and more as a forewarning to long-time fans—“That’s Not How the Force Works!” The Force, and the mythos of the Star Wars franchise, works differently now. Its custodians—its heroes, mentors, heralds, guardians, and its fans—are displaced and repurposed. Since the global release of The Last Jedi, there has been a disturbance in the Force: it is as if “millions” of voices have cried out in…well, not terror, but definitely confusion. The Force, and the Star Wars franchise, works in mysterious ways again…. it has been rebooted.
Here I will consider how the The Last Jedi’s subversive reformulation of the Star Wars mythos demonstrates an enriched development of the franchise reboot strategy. Much has been said about the bold new directions that writer and director Rian Johnson has taken the Star Wars franchise with The Last Jedi, but the term “rebooting” has so far only been used in a cursory way. I think there is something very complex at work in the way “rebooting” applies to The Last Jedi and the way this implementation not only effects the past and future of the Star Wars franchise, but the way it expands the possibilities and complexities of rebooting as a creative strategy in franchise development.
Put simply, rebooting pushes the restart button of a franchise property. Reboots break continuity from previous iterations to present a new beginning or retell an origin story. In this way, movie rebooting is often considered to be nothing more than a tool for commercial exploitation, in which studios often implement the reboot strategy as a tool to replenish and revive exhausted franchises and make them financially viable again. Even so, reboots are not void of formal and creative complexity.
Rebooting is a serialization device most conventional in comic book storytelling and has been introduced to Hollywood moviemaking via superhero adaptations. It can now be recognized as a strategy of franchise cinema, exemplified by such movies as Batman Begins (2005), Casino Royale (2006), Star Trek (2009), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Man of Steel (2012), and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012). All these examples break continuity to some degree to re-write a property’s origins, and in doing so recast different actors as known characters. Such installments also demonstrate the variety of ways that the reboot strategy can be implemented: Batman Begins and Man of Steel re-tell character origins and offer a new cinematic tone and style; Casino Royale presents a prequel-esque account of Bond’s origins; Star Trek establishes a new spatiotemporal continuum parallel to the previous installments; The Amazing Spider-Man presents new character origins and superhero abilities, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes develops a whole new set of characters, goals, narrative events, and a new diegetic history.
Unlike these conventional and easily identifiable examples of rebooting, The Last Jedi maintains continuity at the same time that it subverts its past. As William Proctor defines, “a reboot attempts to forge a series of films, to begin a franchise anew from the ashes of an old or failed property” (“Regeneration” 4). It is often expected, moreover, that within these ashes remain some semblance of a franchise’s mythos, by “returning to a recognizable and iconic product range rather than original, untested material” (Proctor, “Regeneration” 1). Therefore, the new directions at work in The Last Jedi are disruptive and transformative: this is a revision of the franchise’s legacy—a reboot of its mythos.
This is exemplified in what might be called the ‘refusal of legacy’ exchange between Rey and Luke, which perhaps mirrors the ‘refusal of the call’ in the hero’s journey. This sequence has been well-discussed in online commentary. The Force Awakens ends on the island of Ahch-To, with Rey’s outstretched arm returning Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber to his son Luke—the hero of the Star Wars franchise; however, while The Last Jedi seamlessly continues this moment as Luke takes the lightsaber, it then explicitly disrupts the deliberate flow of continuity as Luke throws the lightsaber—and thus history—over his shoulder. In one sense, this scene follows sequential continuity and memory: Luke reaches out with the mechno-arm he obtains after the duel with Darth Vader on Cloud City in Star Wars: Episode V—Empire Strikes Back (1980). In another sense, this sequence symbolizes the reboot’s strategy to “nullify history” (Proctor, “Regeneration” 1). The Last Jedi, therefore, discards the very icons that define it while the fabric of the galaxy around it continues to live on and develop in complex but familiar ways.
What makes this particular application of rebooting in The Last Jedi so disruptive is that audiences didn’t know it was coming. Yes, in the trailer Luke forewarned that “this is not going to go the way you think” and “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” However, long-time Star Wars fans most likely expected these revisions to interestingly draw from the rich and complex mythology that the franchise has already established, rather than experience a confronting disruption of familiarization. Moreover, the weaponized nostalgia of The Force Awakens acted as a delusive precursor to The Last Jedi: its continuation of The Force Awakens positions The Last Jedi as a reboot that guises itself as continuity, and a new direction that presents itself as a celebration of legacy.
The unexpectedness of this shift is fundamental to realizing the complexity of rebooting in The Last Jedi and this means that audience responses are also essential to understanding how these creative mechanisms manifest. In the book The Science Fiction Reboot: Canon, Innovation and Fandom in Refashioned Franchises (2013), Heather Urbanski examines the intersection of rebooting and fandom and argues that reboot texts exist “at the convergence of canonical history, new visions, and incredibly high expectations” (10). This is on-point in relation to The Last Jedi and the apparent tension between the Star Wars mythos, Johnson’s vision, and fandom expectations (and disappointments).
Understanding The Last Jedi as a reboot in this way facilitates an interrelationship between fans and the franchise itself and also bridges a gap in considering the interplay between creative development and audience expectation. Urbanski articulates this perfectly:
What most distinguishes reboots, therefore, is their extra narrative burden: not just telling a compelling story but also handling the expectations from canon. Those expectations are a source of potential danger if the reboot is either too faithful (a mere “retread”) or too unconventional (not adhering to the spirit of the original). Producers of a reboot must make careful decisions regarding what to keep, what to add, and what to cut. (7–8)
Therefore, in presenting a case for realizing The Last Jedi as a reboot, I will focus on two of the most common explanations for why some audiences have expressed displeasure and disappointment in this latest Star Wars installment: a disruption of expectations and a breaking away from the Star Wars mythos. I highlight these two points because they have both been too-superficially called on as evidence of fan obnoxiousness and entitlement, and I think this undermines just how influential the creative shifts and new directions have been to audience expectations.
The Last Jedi has been met with a flurry of divisive responses and this outcry of audience reactions has even been central to reviews of the movie itself. Audiences are polarized, with many hating the movie with intense passion (and expressing this sentiment by quickly ranking it lower or on-par with the notoriously hated ‘prequel trilogy’) and just as many viewers loving it as their favorite Star Wars movie to-date; of course there are those who have not gravitated to these extremes, but they have received far less online attention, criticism, and scrutiny.
Online commentary has been very concerned with how this installment has upset so-called unruly and entitled ‘fan boys.’ Presumably, this is because The Last Jedi grants causal agency to female characters while literally demoting its male heroes, fails to realize any of the many ‘fan theories’ about plot development and character origins that have circulated the internet over the last two years since The Force Awakens, and how this installment it’s not for long-time fans but critically about them.
These assessments are indeed valid to a degree, but they are hardly exhaustive. Such commentaries have rarely accounted for the fact that long-time Star Wars fans have never been only male, that long-time female fans have also experienced a disconnect from The Last Jedi for various and legitimate reasons, and that the sense of personal discord that many fans have experienced in response to this installment is more complex and nuanced than a Kylo Ren — “I didn’t get my way” — tantrum metaphor. There has been a disruption of expectations with The Last Jedi, and this cannot be explained merely by accusations of fan entitlement and toxicity; rather, we need to look deeper at the creative mechanisms at work to understand this response with more nuance.
Urbanski explains that the reboot strategy signals “a process of defamiliarization” (8) for audiences, in how it reformulates the significance of, and interconnection between, previous installments. In this way, it reverses the emphasis from repetition to difference in how sequential form is negotiated and organized in a franchise; in doing so, it also destabilizes audience familiarization. For these reasons, I suggest that the audience schism in response to The Last Jedi is a logical and reasonable response to the complex shifts occurring in the ongoing development of the franchise. To be clear, in deeming this audience schism to be reasonable, I am not suggesting that the creative decisions and developments in The Last Jedi are misguided; rather, I want to make sense of this audience discord through a consideration of franchise mechanisms and creative strategies.
The development of media franchises must account for multiple interweaving formulas, related to licensing and legal-industrial relations, established creative strategies in transmedia franchise development, and of course subject matter and content related to the franchise mythology and brand essence of a specific property. In the development process, these formulas and strategies work in tandem through collaboration, negotiation, or even tension. Even the most successful franchises must deal with contradictions. For example, I have previously written about how Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) exemplifies the paradoxical nature of franchise development in how it must negotiate being both stand-alone and connected to the bigger Star Wars galaxy. The constrictions and creative freedoms provided by the intersection of various strategies and formulas can be both to the detriment or success of creative process and authorial vision.
Transmedia producer Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, has talked extensively—in industry presentations, online articles and videos—about the various strategies that are fundamental to transmedia franchise development. Of these strategies, Gomez emphasizes the importance of staying true to a franchise property’s core essence, or driving mythology. Indeed, first-up in his “Ten Commandments of 21st Century Franchise Production” is “Know the Essence of Your Brands and Never Stray From It.” Gomez states that producers and creators “must gain an intimate understanding of why [a property] is successful and how it resonates with a mass audience.” Similarly, another key point in Gomez’s ‘ten commandments’ is the validation and celebration of audiences: “Fans demand acknowledgment and will go elsewhere if it’s not given to them. They must be respected and embraced across all media platforms, regardless of their level of engagement”. What is immediately apparent, therefore, is the intricate interplay between franchise mythology and fan engagement.
For better or worse, the relationship between franchise mythology and long-time fans of Star Wars is complexly intertwined. This is why I think The Last Jedi is particularly audacious in its new directions: in rebooting its mythos it also obviously gambles with its long-held and passionate audience. In his Forbes review, Scott Mendelson suggests that The Last Jedi is “about telling the original batch of Star Wars fans that the franchise isn’t necessarily for them anymore”. Similarly, Dan Hassler-Forest considers that the installment subverts the politics of the franchise “while lifting a casual middle finger to the many fans for whom Star Wars has become a set of sacred texts”.
Therefore, critics, scholars, and fans have noticed a discernible shift in how The Last Jedi positions itself in relation to long-time fans. As Mendelson writes, “If The Force Awakens was about giving Star Wars back to the fans, then The Last Jedi was a pass-the-torch installment that argued that old-school IP is only worthy of continuation if it does something different and goes somewhere new”. This expresses the notion that The Last Jedi reflexively comments on the outdatedness of its own mythos; similarly, it demonstrates how much of the commentary surrounding ‘new directions’ in Star Wars indirectly describes reboot strategies.
For a franchise that has such a passionate audience following as Star Wars, there is undoubtedly an enormous pressure on creators and producers to accurately identify and maintain a brand’s essence, and implement it in a way that validates and celebrates long-time fans and other audience segments. As The Last Jedi director Johnson has said in an interview, “every fan has a list of stuff they want a “Star Wars” movie to be and they don’t want a “Star Wars” movie to be. You’re going to find very few fans out there whose lists line up.” Here Johnson suggests that his approach to implementing the franchise mythology of Star Wars was less about organized development strategies and more about flourishing in the subjective multiplicity of mass audiences, less about validating established and loyal fandom and more about preempting an evolving contemporary fandom.
From Monomyth to the Collective Journey?
While Johnson says that the essence of the Star Wars mythos is difficult to identify in any mass-relatable way, the history of Star Wars commentary and scholarship has repeatedly foregrounded its application of the mono-mythic hero’s journey. Since its ideation and realization by George Lucas in the 1970s, Star Wars has been the quintessential example of what mythologist Joseph Campbell described as the ‘Hero’s Journey’ in the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which draws on psychologist Carl Jung’s notions of archetypes and the collective unconscious. The Hero’s Journey is fundamental to the mythos of the Star Wars franchise, perhaps until The Last Jedi.
The storytelling patterns and character archetypes that Campbell describes and formalizes have been common in popular culture and folk traditions because they have powerfully resonated with various cultures for centuries. However, Gomez states that “while the Hero’s Journey functions as an engine driving the survival of the fittest (both physically and ideologically), in the modern, crowded and hyper-accelerated world of pervasive communication this process is becoming antiquated, and in some cases divisive, polarizing, and enormously dangerous.” These effects potentially have more to do with the misappropriation and over-simplification of Campbellian storytelling that has pervaded contemporary storytelling, rather than the hero’s journey itself, but Gomez’s point here clearly demonstrates that there is a shift in the conversations and strategies being explored in the development of franchise storytelling.
To replace the hero’s journey for our contemporary era, Gomez and his team Starlight Runner have formulated the collective journey. He recommends that “What is required is a new kind of storytelling, a narrative engine that lends itself to our nonlinear, networked, omni-perspective digital age. The kind of storytelling where any audience member can suddenly and at any point start contributing to the narrative”. This compellingly corresponds with the revised workings of the Force, in which it has transformed from an energy that gifted individuals learn to master through rigorous training, to a democratized force for anyone who has love in them.
While the collective journey has not been directly mentioned by Johnson or any creative at Lucasfilm, many critics have identified how The Last Jedi expresses a message of collectivity over individuality, in which David Sims at The Atlantic suggests that Johnson “uses The Last Jedi to underscore the power of the collective.” Similarly, Hassler-Forest contends, The Last Jedi’s “intervention opens up new spaces that make this creaky old space saga feel vital and relevant to our cultural and political conversation, in ways the original films never did”. This is perhaps the most ideologically grounded shift in The Last Jedi, which might further explain the fervor of fan responses.
The Last Jedi presents a scathing critique of individual heroism. Poe Dameron, its Resistance hero, is reckless and dangerous, and conflict arises out of systemic conditions and intricate cause and effect dynamics, as represented by events on the city of Canto Bight, rather than symbolic villains: for example, while Rey holds the heroic belief that stopping the villain, Kylo Ren, will end the First Order’s tyrannical control, the plot and story inform audiences that the First Order is so much bigger than Kylo—this is reinforced when Kylo decides not to fire on (his mother) General Leia Organa’s cruiser, but his fellow First Order pilots take the shot instead.
Perhaps it is in the relationship between Rey and Kylo that we get the most Cambellian representation of archetypal heroism and its shadow, but even then this is a dynamic established through causal and consequential interrelationship rather than archetypal symbolism. This is a very significant shift in the Star Wars mythos, which has previously been characterized by predestined heroism, individual determinism, and the push and pull conflict between good and evil. Therefore, The Last Jedi reboots the Star Wars mythos by targeting its historical essence: the hero’s journey.
Although The Last Jedi presents a subversion of history and fandom’s long-held connection with the franchise’s past, the complexity of its reboot strategy is that it does so by way of legacy as an underpinning thematic principle. The Force Awakens, which is the first installment in the still-developing ‘sequel trilogy,’ conveys a nostalgic sentimentality towards the franchise’s mythology, most notably represented by the sequence that follows Han’s return onto the Millennium Falcon: he reveals to Rey, Finn, and BB8 that “it’s true: the Force, the Jedi. All of it.” Similarly, the notion of legacy has emerged as an underpinning premise of several recent franchise movies, such as Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008), Star Trek, X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), and Creed: The Rocky Legacy (2015). These movies have been labelled the legacyquel or the legacy movie.
The legacy movie is an increasingly common strategy used to revitalize old franchises by “passing the baton,” so to speak, from one generation (of characters and fans) to another. Matt Singer suggests that the legacyquel is a new and distinct expression of sequelization, stating that “Though there are still occasional reboots or prequels, this [is a] very specific kind of sequel—in which beloved aging stars reprise classic roles and pass the torch to younger successors.” Similarly, Dan Golding says that the legacy movie “set[s] about reviving dormant franchises by transferring the legacy of the past to a new generation”. In these ways, the legacy movie is driven by a similar goal to the reboot strategy, since it is about revitalizing a long-running franchise for maximum longevity.
I consider that the legacy movie is not a distinct creative strategy, as has been suggested, but functions as an extension or development of franchise rebooting. This is productive because it opens up more avenues for thinking about shifts across a franchise’s history and the revision of its mythology. While the reboot can be defined in rigid terms that puts it in contrast to the legacy movie, particularly a break in continuity and a nullification of history, there is also capacity to understand reboots along a spectrum of variability.
In this way, Urbanski conceptualizes reboots as a “continuum of increasing separation from their inspiration franchises” (10). On one extreme, the most obvious and explicit use of the reboot strategy, she identifies reboots that completely reforge new and separate narratives and characters, providing examples such as the Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) and Caprica (2010) television series. On the other extreme, Urbanski locates reboots that exist within the same timeline as previous installments, but which still refigure components of the story world, such as Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999). This extreme might be considered as the ‘mildest’ and perhaps most inconspicuous form of rebooting, but also reveals how rebooting has been identified in previous Star Wars installments. While it may not be possible or indeed necessary to plot the legacy movie along this continuum, it demonstrates that the reboot strategy can be flexible and variable enough to account for the legacy movie as an extension and complication of its revitalizing functions.
Some critical accounts of rebooting suggest that the aim of rebooting is to destroy or reverse a franchise’s failed history—this is true of an example like Batman Begins, which obviously attempts to nullify the notoriously hated Batman and Robin (1997) (although it has recently been reappraised). In this way, rebooting seemingly complicates and subverts the importance of previous installments—particularly the first, or ‘original,’ and this has led many audiences and critics to consider reboots entirely as a tabula rasa strategy. For this reason, Golding argues that The Last Jedi redefines the legacy movie because “it feels like The Last Jedi is positioning itself almost as the anti-legacy film. Far from tapping into the power of the franchise mythology, The Last Jedi is actively rejecting it.” While Golding was spot on to predict this revision of the franchise mythology prior to the movie’s release, I don’t think that this necessarily positions The Last Jedi as anti-legacy, but as a complication of rebooting that still allows for a legacy exchange.
The notion that reboots must establish a clean slate explains why Singer and Golding might consider the legacy film as being a distinct strategy of its own. However, Proctor emphasizes that reboots of our favorite (or hated) franchises cannot change history or nullify it completely: he explains, “As with a computer’s internal memory, rebooting the system does not signify total loss of data. Rebooting a franchise does not imply that its core memory is destroyed. In other words, pressing the reboot button does not eradicate the iconographic memory of the cultural product” (“Beginning Again” n.p). This is important to realize in thinking about The Last Jedi because, despite its rebooting of the Star Wars mythos, it cannot destroy legacy.
As I have argued, the disruption of expectations that occurs in The Last Jedi reveals something fundamentally experimental and profoundly audacious in the formal development of the Star Wars franchise; in this way, this installment continues to reflect the overall complexity of creative development across the Star Wars franchise, to the point that it also transforms the conventions and mechanisms of franchise moviemaking more broadly.
In The Last Jedi, rebooting is significant as a transformative strategy because it doesn’t reboot in the ways we usually expect: it doesn’t recast actors in familiar character roles, or repeat origin stories with slight amendments; it doesn’t redesign the world and its ornamentations, and it still maintains continuity and memory—inarguably, this looks like Star Wars. The Last Jedi pushes the boundaries of rebooting, franchising, and audience expectations by re-negotiating the mythos, or brand essence, of the franchise itself. This is is not a reboot of surrounding ornamentation, but of franchise mythology.
Rebooting the franchise mythology in this way is certainly risky, but rules are also made to be broken, and Lucasfilm has every authority to reboot the Star Wars mythos. Indeed, more recently Gomez updated his list of franchise strategies with a memo to studio executives. In this memo, franchise mythology comes in second with the point “Know Your Brand Essence (and Know How to Adjust it),” but in this advice it is clear that franchise mythology is not necessarily fixed in stone, but open to revision to meet the changing demands of a long-running franchise like Star Wars. As I have considered, the subversion of the hero’s journey demonstrates one such example of how The Last Jedi might be adjusting the franchise’s mythology.
While I have approached this topic through the premise of being more nuanced about audience polarization, this is not the first time Star Wars fans have been confronted by a revision of the franchise mythology. I have recently found new enjoyment in the parody song, “The Star Wars That I Used To Know,” which specifically took aim at George Lucas and the prequel trilogy but continues to resonate with The Last Jedi in ironic ways. I have suggested that the audience reactions to The Last Jedi are a reasonable response to this unexpected process of reboot defamiliarization, but it might also be reasonable to expect that proclaimed long-time Star Wars fans need to become more resilient in the face of inevitable variations across the future of the franchise.
In my own experience as a Star Wars fan since childhood, I had taken it for granted that I would always uncritically love anything related to the Force; however, The Last Jedi has been a confronting experience because it has refreshingly revealed that this is not entirely the case. With The Last Jedi I have experienced a process of negation as a result of this rebooting of the Star Wars mythology that has indeed strengthened my connection with the Force (however it works anymore) but has also encouraged me to think more about the importance of audience expectations to the formal developments of franchise storytelling. Understanding The Last Jedi as a legacy reboot, however, has also reminded me that the Star Wars I know and love hasn’t necessarily been destroyed: it is still a distorted hologram hiding inside of R2-D2, as he waits for the cheeky opportune moment to remind a despondent Jedi that he will always be the hero of Star Wars mythology, reluctantly or not.
Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The Hero with A Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon Books.
Proctor, William. 2012. “Regeneration & Rebirth: Anatomy of the Franchise Reboot.” Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, issue 22: 1–19.
Procter, William. 2012. “Beginning Again: The Reboot Phenomenon in Comic Books and Film.” Scan: Journal of Media Arts Culture 9.1 <http://scan.net.au/scan/journal/index.php> Accessed 10 January, 2018.
Urbanski, Heather. 2013. The Science Fiction Reboot: Cannon, Innovation and Fandom in Refashioned Franchises. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Inc.
Online articles in hyperlinks.