In one way, a small eternity lies between 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and the forthcoming Episode IX. The generation that grew up watching the former are now taking their children to see the latter, in an entertainment ecosystem where the movies are another tentacle of the same Lovecraftian creature that owns Mickey Mouse and Marvel. Yet, if you listen to some corners of the fandom, you wouldn’t think any time has passed at all: The Phantom Menace is, to some, still a crime against humanity, and to profess any preference for it at all an apostasy.
What I think a lot of fans of Star Wars are reckoning with only recently is why there were so many of us who so fervently hated this thing, and how it seems to have caused an outgrowth of this unhealthy subculture of hating series we profess to love, such that people vilify the new films which are—am I allowed to say this?—really good.
The Phantom Menace was a bad sequel to great movies. But there have been plenty of bad sequels to great movies. Why did this particular bad sequel—even to a movie series as big as Star Wars—send people into such a tailspin?
I can’t speak for everyone in my Old Millennial cohort, but I would argue we’re the ones who hate The Phantom Menace the most. Too much older than me and you see fewer people who care as much about Star Wars at all, and much younger than me you see more people who saw Episode I during their childhoods and so view it less critically. For a particularly toxic fan my age, there is just no getting beyond the negative feelings associated with the prequel trilogy, and no forgiving anybody who dares to say they might like it even a little. Even as there seems to be a broader acceptance toward the prequels now, some people I know get more worked up about this bullshit than they do climate change or the concentration camps our own government is running.
I love this.
Maybe the intensity of Star Wars fandom was part of a broader cultural shift: Just a few years before the first Star Wars movie, a 1974 Star Trek convention which had previously hosted some 6,000 people welcomed 15,000 people and turned away 6,000 more. Maybe it was the movies being set in space right on the heels of the Space Race.
People have written about how it sparks uncanny obsession in kids who’ve not even seen it, about how they worry about when to induct their children into it, about how it can be too heavy for kids who are inevitably exposed to it by aggressive marketing.
I’ve written about how the series remains true to its roots as an explicit take on modern mythology. It could be we just yearned for something like that, and things like Star Wars and superhero comics stepped into the place our affections made ready for them.
It’s hard to imagine how anything would have lived up to that worship.
I own this.
Rightly or not, fans came not just to enjoy the series, but to feel they were stewards of it. The dynamic between Disney/Lucasfilm, Star Wars, and its fans is fraught: The series is a mythological construct that is also a wholly commercial product, subject to the problems this always poses to the creation of art. But all the handwringing over Disney’s ownership was already inherent in the dynamic between George Lucas and fans as he was poised to release the prequels. From 1983 to 1999, there were no new Star Wars films. That gulf was filled by a vast expanded universe (which I didn’t obsess over at all, I swear).
What happened in the interim, as that vast expanded universe was rolling along mostly without George Lucas’ say-so? A certain kind of fan didn’t just really like the movies and the growing world of videogames and novels surrounding them. They turned the series about space wizards and lasers that make sound in a vacuum into a marker of their identity and felt like they needed to defend it and argue for it in a world mostly run by people older than us who thought it was dumb.
I control this.
When Lucas decided to get up and do something again, it was to promptly countermand or undermine all sorts of established wisdom about the original films and the expanded universe that the most rabid fans had steeped themselves in while waiting for new films. The ground on which all that lore was built underwent a seismic shift.
Here’s the thing: If The Phantom Menace had been better, nobody would’ve forgiven Lucas for Obi-Wan being trained by somebody other than Yoda, by C-3PO being created by Darth Vader, or any of the other details that just didn’t work. And they wouldn’t have forgiven him or any other creator for any detail that felt one iota different from the original films, even though they came out in the ’70s.
If you distilled the plots of the prequels down to bullet points, they actually aren’t so ill-conceived. A young farm boy is ripped away from his mother and swept up into a galactic conflict. A shadowy figure orchestrates the beginning of what will be an end to a peaceful Republic. The wise warrior monks sense danger but can’t prevent it. But The Phantom Menace wasn’t what some of the most obsessive fans thought the series should be.
I can’t control this.
Those particular fans got what they felt was an inferior, nakedly commercial product. Both these assertions are extremely debatable, when you think about it: The original Star Wars was great in some ways and dumb camp in others, just as Episode I was amazing in some ways and turgidly paced in others. People accuse George Lucas of putting on the whole thing for more money, but I don’t know why they think that’s any different from the original movies, which have filled the world’s landfills with enough cheap merch to make a plastic Death Star.
Younger people liked Episode I just fine, coming away completely unconcerned about whether the Force powers were gauche or the dialogue was bad. They thought Darth Maul was so cool that they’ve essentially resurrected him by pure power of fandom in the decades since. The transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader resonates with them. Older cranks (like me) weren’t content to just let younger people like something because we thought it ruined what we had grown to love. The idea that anybody would like Jar Jar was unforgivable.
I hate this.
So, if you couldn’t like the movies, what did any of it mean?!
This poisonous, irrational hatred became the basis of how a lot of people interact with Star Wars. This, by the way, is where I left the toxic fandom train, right around when the videogame The Force Unleashed came out and I realized it was better to just remember what I liked about the series and worry about things like my career and girlfriend instead. I didn’t want to hate Star Wars, or George Lucas, or any of it. Shockingly, none of the parts of the broader Star Wars mythos I really loved went anywhere.
I must destroy this.
I can’t believe that Star Wars has conquered the world, that we’re sitting here collectively debating whether its racial and gender representation is genuine, that I sit in a café and hear 40-something mothers bubble about who Rey’s parents might be or how sexy they still find Han Solo or walk through a park in Chicago on a random day and see a young mother dressed up in Rey cosplay with her six-year-old wearing a BB-8 costume on roller skates. That is how most well-adjusted people relate to this silly series. If there are criticisms about things like pacing or how a character was treated, they shouldn’t detract from people’s enjoyment of the fullness of the series when you consider there have been 10-going-on-11 movies and the majority of them have been well-made.
Then there’s the Dark Side. The “fans” who harassed Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best nearly to death. The trolls who author Kevin J. Anderson advised to “take a deep breath” and recall that they love Star Wars. The people who harass actors off social media, recut the new movies to omit any female agency at all, or dedicate hour-long YouTube videos to hating the new movies, all began their descent into toxicity with the prequels. Now that the movies are, you know, good again, this miserable minority has not moved on. They clog up our YouTube algorithm with screeds that insist, wild-eyed, that the best movie in the series in decades is somehow a “cinematic failure,” with a picture of Laura Dern photoshopped to look stupid. The cottage industry of performatively hating Star Wars has officially outlived Star Wars actually being bad and doesn’t know what to do with itself.
We’re stuck with the fallout: Militarized anti-fans who balk when you suggest statements like “don’t let hate rule you” and “the bad guys are fascists” are central to the series and that they are betraying those premises here in our nonfictional world, who shriek like Ringwraiths when women and people of color show up in a movie series that has always had women and people of color.
If it sounds like I’m blaming the prequels for any of this, I’m not. It would have happened no matter what Lucas served up with Episode I. It would have happened if he’d given up and handed the series to somebody with a better grasp of directing. It would have happened if he’d made them in 1985 or Martin Campbell had made them in 1999 or Kathryn Bigelow had made them in 2012.
The prequels were bad and are bad and will always be bad. It excuses nothing.
Kenneth Lowe traveled here to dance on your face. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.