Putting your faith in franchises is foolish. But you’ll have to believe me when I say that, nine years ago, there was a fair amount of enthusiasm (along with a lot of trepidation) on October 30, 2012, when Disney announced that it had purchased Lucasfilm from Star Wars mastermind George Lucas and was planning a new trilogy of films. Sure, the prequels were terrible, but the prospect of seeing Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie and the rest of the old crew back on the big screen… well, for people who grew up caring about those movies, it was a reason to be hopeful.
There are a lot of ways you could measure whether or not that trilogy was successful. The three films grossed an astounding $4.5 billion worldwide. (The Disney deal for Lucasfilm was reportedly “only” $4.05 billion.) And that’s to say nothing of the spinoff films — yes, Solo tanked, but Rogue One pulled in $1.1 billion — and also The Mandalorian, the theme-park rides and everything else that stemmed from the relaunched Skywalker Saga. Financially, it did what it needed to do.
But how many people actually have any fondness for the trilogy? I’m not talking about loving The Last Jedi, the middle chapter that was generally considered the best of that series (and perhaps the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back). I’m talking about the idea that The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker as a collective were actually a satisfying experience that was worth the wait. I don’t think so — and I think that’s largely because the people who were most central to the trilogy’s appeal, the actors, seem to have gone through hell while making them.
These thoughts came to mind after reading Kelly Marie Tran’s recent Hollywood Reporter cover story, in which she promotes her role as the main voice actor in this weekend’s Raya and the Last Dragon but also talks about her Star Wars ordeal. You may remember she played Rose in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, becoming the first Asian-American actor to be part of the franchise. Her casting was part of the creative team’s attempt to give us a more diverse Star Wars than we’d previously seen — a move that included casting John Boyega as Finn and the foregrounding of Daisy Ridley’s Rey as the new trilogy’s protagonist. But instead of being welcoming, a vocal, vile segment of Star Wars fandom assaulted her with racist abuse online, forcing her to delete her Instagram and eventually inspiring an op-ed in The New York Times in which she wrote, “Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories.”
In the Hollywood Reporter profile, Tran reflected on that difficult period in her life, noting that it felt like she “fell in love very publicly and then very publicly had an embarrassingly horrible breakup.” As a result, Tran started turning down roles, wanting to disconnect from all the media attention. “I [had] to close up shop and go away for a while and really interact in the real world — read books and journal and go on hikes and look at a tree and remind myself that there was a fire that burned inside of me before Star Wars, before any of this. And I needed to find that again.”
Lots of great movies had tortuous paths to the big screen, but they tend to be more of the “director and star didn’t get along” variety. The treatment that Tran endured was something uglier and more modern — and she wasn’t alone in the Star Wars universe. Likewise, Boyega had to deal with racist fans on social media, although he was outspoken about his frustrations with how Disney sidelined his character along the way: “They gave all the nuance to Adam Driver, all the nuance to Daisy Ridley,” he said last summer. “Let’s be honest. Daisy knows this. Adam knows this. Everybody knows. I’m not exposing anything.” Both he and Tran have reason to complain: By The Rise of Skywalker, they felt like supporting characters that the filmmakers didn’t know what to do with. So much for diversity.
That lack of representation doesn’t simply harm the actors: As my colleague Zaron Burnett III pointed out in January, for Black Star Wars fans, watching Finn’s role diminish over time was a personal betrayal. “We started with a Black stormtrooper who becomes a conscientious objector, follows his moral compass and joins the rebels to risk his life in order to save the galaxy,” Burnett wrote. “Somewhere along the way, though, the filmmakers made that character boring. … Finn deserved better. Hell, we all deserved better. The ‘we’ in this instance is Black sci-fi fans. We’ve had to live on some thin soup from Hollywood for far too long. … For Blerds like me, we held out a small hope that it might be different this time. … Finn looked to be a fully realized Star Wars hero who was Black. But ultimately, all we really got was someone yelling ‘Rey!’ every 20 minutes.”
Those are the most egregious ills that came out of the new trilogy, but it’s hard not to think of the accumulated miseries that the cast and crew experienced on these films. Driver often talks about his discomfort with the level of fame that Star Wars brought him: “My job is to be a spy — to be in public and live life and have experience. But, when you feel like you’re the focus, it’s really hard to do that.” Like Tran, Ridley quit social media, although that didn’t shield her from how much people hated The Rise of Skywalker. “It’s changed film by film honestly, like 98 percent it’s so amazing,” she said in April of the fan response to the trilogy. “This last film, it was really tricky. January was not that nice. It was weird, I felt like all of this love that we’d sort of been shown the first time around, I was like, ‘Where’s the love gone?’”
Along these lines, by The Rise of Skywalker, Oscar Isaac sounded ready to separate himself permanently from the franchise. Shooting down the idea of being part of spinoffs or sequels, he said the only possibility in which he’d do one is “if I need another house or something.” Isaac insisted he enjoyed making the Star Wars films, but added, “It’s not really what I set out to do. What I set out to do was to make handmade movies, and to work with people that inspire me.”
And, of course, Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed The Last Jedi (and cast Tran, consistently supporting his star since), had to withstand the anger from a lot of diehard fans (not to mention actors like Mark Hamill) who were thrown by his film’s challenging of some of the series’ orthodoxy. Consequently, Johnson fielded thousands of randos who for months tweeted furiously at him for how he “ruined” the franchise. (To be fair, he got back at the trolls by including a character in his follow-up film, Knives Out, who is a comically pathetic alt-right online dweller: “I’m sure I got a few tweetstorms from that kid,” Johnson joked at the time.) As for Lucas, he famously has sometimes been less than glowing in his assessment of the recent films, saying at one point that he ultimately felt that handing over his franchise to Disney was akin to selling his kids to “white slavers.”
If the new trilogy had been spectacular, some of this drama wouldn’t be so loud. After all, Lucas was convinced the original Star Wars was going to be a fiasco, and that turned out okay. But because The Rise of Skywalker was especially awful, there was no buffer of artistic quality that could help mitigate the lingering disappointment. Instead, the finale, which went out of its way to reverse Johnson’s daring in The Last Jedi — almost as if wishing that film out of existence — seemed to negate the optimism that had once surrounded the new trilogy. (Even Carrie Fisher’s sad passing in 2016 couldn’t help but feel like one more melancholy reminder of the passage of time and the fact that Star Wars could never quite be what it once was.) The utterly anticlimactic Rise of Skywalker practically confirmed that all this trouble hadn’t been worth it — especially when two of your actors encountered extreme online bullying as their roles shrunk from film to film.
Of course, Star Wars doesn’t have a monopoly on toxic fandom. (As Johnson himself observed, it’s a phenomenon that’s “a bigger cultural thing that’s happening everywhere with everything. … It’s not about Star Wars, it’s about online culture in general, and it seemed like something everyone on some level can unfortunately relate to.”) But ask yourself: Other than bolstering Disney’s profits, what exactly was the point of mounting this new trilogy? Fans ended up unhappy — and I’m not talking about racists and diehards, I mean normal folks like me who just want good movies — and the stars ended up unhappy.
Whatever stray fond memories you have of the trilogy — and, trust me, I have plenty — now feel tarnished by the creative compromises and extracurricular online ugliness that ultimately undermined the project. Granted, The Mandalorian has been a hit, ushering in a new slate of Star Wars-related shows, but I’d argue the franchise as a whole seems less special and less important than it did before the new trilogy was announced. I can’t think of $4.5 billion that felt more underwhelming.
It’s been gratifying to see so many people connected with these films move on to do better things. Driver was in Marriage Story, Isaac is part of the prestige remake of Scenes From a Marriage, Boyega was terrific in Red, White and Blue, and Johnson got his first Oscar nomination for Knives Out. And now Tran, who arguably got the worst of it, is ready to shine in Raya and the Last Dragon. You could insist that Star Wars ultimately helped Tran, lifting her profile so that she could ultimately be the lead in a Disney animated film. Maybe. But, frankly, it feels like she got it despite being burdened by Star Wars. Like the rest of us, she’s happy to be free of that baggage.