Is Negativity Fashionable in Fandom?


Fans love to hate Jar Jar Binks, but when "The Phantom Menace" came out in theaters, a lot of kids loved him. Tish Wells/MCT/MCT via Getty Images
Fans love to hate Jar Jar Binks, but when "The Phantom Menace" came out in theaters, a lot of kids loved him. Tish Wells/MCT/MCT via Getty Images

"I hate the prequels," remarks Simon Pegg, when asked to rank the "Star Wars" movies. And he's not the only one. "Star Wars" fan Laura Peterson, who despite driving six hours just to watch Episode III, “Revenge of the Sith,” in a special theater with state-of-the-art "hydro-subwoofers," prefers her "Star Wars" without "all the CG and 'enhanced' scenes."

Negativity in fandom is legit, and while it may lend some geek cred to those who are quick to put down what is also their passion, it's more complicated than geek-cool points. It's a confusing mix of betrayal, felt when a favorite story line or character, for instance, strays from the path the fan imagines, and a continued love of the hobby and passion — and the camaraderie that comes along with both.

"Probably because of my own loneliness and the way teenagers can get such deep feelings about things, I made very strong attachments to the characters and their struggles," explains Peterson in an email. "Even today, when I hear cues for the most climactic moments in 'A New Hope' and 'Empire Strikes Back' — especially the evacuation of Cloud City through to the rescue of Luke — it stirs up deep emotions in me." For many fans, just as for Peterson, our hobbies are our passions, and our passion is a significant part of our identity.

When “Star Wars” fans, to keep with our example, place blame for ruining the franchise, it's over two things. First, "The Phantom Menace," released in May 1999. The film brought in $924 million (equivalent to $1.3 billion in 2015) at the box office, but is considered among some fans to be a failure. Second, in 1997, Lucas re-envisioned and revised pieces of the beloved original trilogy. The “special editions” ended the acknowledgement of the films' previous versions. If Greedo shoots first, despite Han Solo actually being the only one to get a shot off in the first release of “A New Hope,” what does that do to our perception of Solo as scoundrel ... or as hero? It's a subtle change to the franchise canon that a casual “Star Wars” enthusiast may not even notice, but to a fan reveling in the nuances of this alternate universe, it changes everything.

Fans can be incredibly influential, but not always for good. Negativity among fans is so prevalent it has a name: fan-tagonism. That's not to be confused with 'snark' fandom or the anti-fan (fans who find guilty pleasure in ironically obsessing over their dislike of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy, “Twilight” or Jar-Jar Binks). When Bioware co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk announced their retirement from video game development in September 2012, it was rumored to be driven, at least in part, by negative fan reactions to "Star Wars: The Old Republic" (SWTOR).

Fans, too, have a love-hate relationship with “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, blamed for ruining childhood heroes, and for mucking about in childhood memories. "'Star Wars' was an appealing, exotic, mysterious universe that captivated me early on,” says Peterson, “but which was also a source of stability and a constant to which I could return when everything else in my life was fluctuating and out of my control."

Fans took ownership of the "Star Wars" universe during the 16-year gap between Episode VI, "Return of the Jedi," and the release of Episode I, "The Phantom Menace," creating hundreds of homemade fan films, fan fiction, music and role-playing games. As expressed in the documentary, “The People vs. George Lucas,” fans were disappointed and disillusioned that Lucas felt he had the right to alter the “Star Wars” universe they had known and loved since 1977's “A New Hope.”

And that's the heart of the argument: Who (really) owns the story? Fans bombarded Lucas with their disappointment, creating online forums such as, “George Lucas raped my childhood,” to which the filmmaker reacted by announcing his departure from high-profile movies, telling The New York Times, “Why would I make any more, when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?" in an interview in January 2012.

Undeterred by disappointment, though, fans spent a total $1.1 billion at the box office watching the prequel films in the U.S. alone. And in spite of early negativity from part of the fan community, the "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" trailer was viewed more than 128 million times during the first 24 hours after its release. Even with the premiere being two months away, ticket sales for IMAX showings alone grossed more than $6.5 million in advance ticket sales, the first time a movie ever exceeded $1 million in IMAX ticket sales.

“I feel like a have a borderline personal relationship with the artist, individual or group,” says filmmaker Sean Sisson in an email interview, “which comes with its ups and downs. “J.J. Abrams treated the 'Star Trek' series with amazing respect and created a new adventure for the next generation, and if he treats 'Star Wars' with the same reverence, I wouldn't want to miss it.”