Calm down about The Rise of Skywalker: Why can’t I just like a movie anymore?

I have a confession, one that will 100% get me drawn and quartered on the Internet: I liked The Last Jedi. I also liked Solo. Rogue One was fine. The Force Awakens was fun.

If you didn’t like these films, mazel tov. You also engaged with the culture and have an opinion about it (and I’m sorry for the loss of your $15). You are very welcome to disagree with me. What you’re not welcome to do is dox me, stalk me, or threaten me because I liked a Star War that you didn’t like.

I bring this up now because we are at a cultural milestone: The “last” Star Wars movie has been released (alright, we all know it won’t be the last, but bear with me). This is the culmination of a raging two-year Internet battle over whether the previous movie, Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi, was good or terrible. It was a battle that somehow turned into a proxy war for U.S. politics, and to express any kind of opinion on the film was to be thrown in those respective political camps.

Because, it’s not just over whether The Last Jedi was good or bad. One’s stance on this movie, as dictated by the internet, had to be either “The Last Jedi was the greatest masterpiece to ever grace cinema, and anyone who hates it is a cretinous monstrosity,” or “The Last Jedi was the biggest trash heap of a movie ever, it should be killed with fire and so should anyone who liked it.”

“Coming off of The Last Jedi, it feels like a line has been drawn in the sand,” said Michael Tucker, who runs the popular film-focused YouTube channel Lessons From the Screenplay. “You’re either on team ‘Star Wars is over and it’s all ruined,’ or ‘Optimism! We’re going to enjoy these movies for what they are.’”

The same polarized and toxic factions are likely to grace our social media feeds again, as we’re starting to see the first divisive reactions to The Rise of Skywalker, even before its release. As of Thursday afternoon, the movie had a 59% “Rotten” rating on RottenTomatoes, the lowest since the first prequel film, The Phantom Menace.

Blame Gamergate

As anyone who has been paying the smallest amount of attention to the Internet knows, live and let live is now an unacceptable stance to have on culture consumption. We’ve gotten to a point where no one is allowed to express an opinion about a thing that in any way deviates from The Internet’s Consensus, lest they suffer major detrimental effects on their life and health.

Fandom is now a zero-sum game. When, and why, did this happen?

The answer is August 2014, when Gamergate took off.

Let me step back for a moment and say that, yes, there are some movies that are definitely bad. If someone has made a modern equivalent of The Song of the South, by all means, hurl it into the sun. Star Wars has its issues, but it’s not actively evil. Why does its fandom act as if the world is ending whenever a movie isn’t perfect?

Well, because, Internet. Kyle Kallgren, a YouTuber who runs the channel “Brows Held High,” where he examines films and film tropes, chatted with me about his view on how fandom has become what it is. “Gamergate definitely mobilized a lot of awful people, but those toxic elements were always there in fandom,” he said. “Gatekeeping, the ‘fan as victim’ narrative, the entitlement; the Gamergate hashtag was just the first time those elements were banded together and weaponized.” And thus, the dominating toxic fandom was born.

The very nature of the Internet encourages being loud and angry online. And the media has noticed. “Big studios are encouraged to pander to their fan bases to create brand loyalty,” Kallgren said.

A vicious cycle

It’s a system that rewards those with the loudest voices and hottest “takes,” completing a vicious cycle that makes it impossible to simply “like” or “dislike” a piece of art. Now, it’s all about tying your identity to a franchise, and being the snarkiest while you’re at it.

“I think that with The Last Jedi — which took some interesting risks, and played with Star Wars in an interesting way — you kind of had this perfect storm,” Tucker continued. “You probably walked out of the theater thinking a lot and feeling a lot, and then it seemed like the only options were jump on board this train or that train” — that is, absolutely love it, or absolutely hate it. And then go to war over it.

“I imagine there will be some of that,” Tucker said of the reaction to Rise of Skywalker. “I’m hoping that people have calmed down and matured a bit. I’m hoping there’s some room for nuance with the movie. It’s possible to like a bad movie or dislike a good movie.”

Comedian John Hodgman put it best when discussing The Mandalorian on the Lovett or Leave It Podcast: “People like what they like. Some people think culture is a cudgel that they should use to swat down other people’s tastes, likes, and loves in order to make themselves feel smarter and better. But culture is a comfort, culture is a needed distraction.”

If that distraction comes in the form of a mildly mediocre 25-hour CGI-bonanza that features light-up swords and pew-pew lasers happening in the soundless void of space, so be it.

I haven’t even seen Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker yet, but it feels like I’m already not allowed to like the movie. This doesn’t even have to do with the reviews: The Internet, by dint of being the Internet, has already passed judgment that the movie is bad and anyone who thinks it is good must also be bad. Honestly, I’m now terrified of saying anything either way.

If Rise of Skywalker ends up disappointing me, I will be sad for a minute, and I will consider what could have been better. Eventually, people with more film expertise than I possess will delve into exactly what worked and what didn’t in the film, and then I will move on with my life. I invite you to do the same.

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