Admiral Ackbar was a hero.
A royal guard on his home planet of Mon Cala who served nobly through his planet’s civil war, Gial Ackbar became a slave when the Empire took over the Galaxy. After being liberated by the Rebels, he joined the cause and rose quickly in the ranks, attaining the rank of Admiral. He helped lead the Rebellion through a great number of missions, most notably through the Battle of Endor, during which the second Death Star was destroyed. He was honest, honorable and a brilliant tactician who served the side of good in the galaxy for over 60 years.
So when Rian Johnson blew his ass up offscreen in The Last Jedi, Ackbar fans were pissed.
Now, granted, almost none of what Ackbar accomplished in his life took place in the Star Wars films themselves. Yeah, he’s in Return of the Jedi briefing the troops, but his total cinematic screen time amounts to less than four minutes over three films, and 95 percent of Star Wars fans simply know him as the “It’s a trap!” guy. But for those who ploughed through the endless — and now largely expunged from official canon — Expanded Universe, Ackbar was a character with a surprisingly ardent fanbase, a group that felt more than a little slighted by his unceremonious demise.
“I didn’t even realize it happened at first,” says Adrian Avery, a man who still argues about it a lot on Twitter. “I was so baffled by that Leia Mary Poppins bullshit that I was trying to figure out who they just killed and I realized, ‘They just killed Admiral Ackbar!’” “First time around I didn’t even realize he’d died,” agrees Adam Hogwood, who has an Ackbar tattoo. LeAnn Lane, who has been cosplaying as Ackbar since 2011, tells me, “I actually walked out of the movie theater, I was so angry about it.”
“I wasn’t happy about it as an actor and even more so as a fan,” says Tom Kane, who voiced Ackbar in The Last Jedi and in several Star Wars rides. “I actually liked The Last Jedi, I just felt Ackbar’s death was a missed opportunity.” This seems to be a recurring sentiment, with many people — Kane included — feeling that Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo got the iconic death that the already-established Ackbar deserved.
Kane insists, “No one’s invested in Holdo. She has no backstory, and then she does this amazing, heroic thing, whereas I think it could have served Ackbar and the fans better by giving it to him.” As Twitter user @redleger laments, “He was the perfect candidate to take down the destroyer and I’m still kind of hung up on that.”
For those familiar only with the core movies, though, and not the EU — i.e., the vast majority of those watching the film — this point doesn’t really stand. Yes, Ackbar having an epic death would have no doubt been celebrated by die-hard fans of the original trilogy, but it’s highly worth noting that, despite Holdo only being introduced in The Last Jedi, by the point in the film where she sacrifices herself, she’d already had more screen time on film than Ackbar had gotten over the past 34 years. With five minutes and 30 seconds under her belt, she actually comes in a full two minutes (or about 50 percent) ahead of Ackbar’s total run, and far more than Ackbar’s 15 seconds in The Last Jedi. Even Kane admits that he’s rather biased in the argument, joking, “As an actor, I want to gobble up as much screen time as I can.” Additionally, he explains that he was a fan of Ackbar long before he played him, as he inherited the role from Erik Bauersfeld, who passed in 2016.
Of course, Ackbar’s death was just one of several points that fans griped about with the release of The Last Jedi, and while some complaints about the movie were reasonable critiques of story and character choices, far louder were the darker corners of the debate, which turned downright hateful. Along with the laughable idea that the film should be remade to please an angry minority, director Rian Johnson faced a siege of online scorn, including death threats. Newcomer to the franchise Kelly Marie Tran ended up in therapy after she was subject to a tidal wave of racism and misogyny online. Some trolls even took it upon themselves to create a “de-feminized” fan edit of the film, which removed all of the female characters.
It quickly became the most shameful period in the history of the series’ fandom, with online trolls — always screaming that they were the “true fans,” as if any one fan’s opinion matters more than another’s — using any and all “legitimate” issues (i.e., regular, non-crazy fan gripes, such as wishing your favorite fish-man admiral had gotten a little more screen time) as bad faith arguments in support of their own hatred and misogyny. It was, in short, a bad time to be a Star Wars fan.
As the arguments over The Last Jedi descended further and further into the gutter, some of those who had less problematic issues with the film began to back away. “Unfortunately, it revealed some of the ugliness of the fandom, and so when it went down that road, I removed myself from the conversation,” explains Dave Shorter, a Star Wars toy collector who focuses primarily on Ackbar merchandise (he’s got more than 550 Ackbar items alone and had a pair of Mon Calamaris atop his wedding cake).
Even Mark Hamill, who had voiced some issues with the film’s take on Luke Skywalker before seeing the completed movie, publicly backed off, feeling he wasn’t helping the situation (and indeed, actually praised the finished film for pushing people out of their comfort zones).
Kane, too, laments how something he’d said had been twisted. “When I made a comment about Ackbar at the Star Wars Celebration, people thought I was ragging on Rian Johnson or the powers-that-be, which I wasn’t. I’m one of those guys who feels that any Star Wars is good for me,” he explains. But because of the shockingly toxic nature of some parts of the fandom — and because many were adamant simply that Ackbar should replace a female character’s part — the debate over Ackbar just become more grist to the incel-y mill.
But is there a legitimate gripe to be had here? If you can separate it from all the other bullshit surrounding the film (which, sadly, you can’t) — yeah, kinda. “I just felt that they missed an opportunity to give a great send-off to a fan-favorite character, that’s all,” explains Kane. Editor Bob Ducsay, too, admitted to Huffington Post that the death was “too incidental,” while Tim Rose — who portrays Ackbar in the suit — confessed that he literally broke down in tears after his last shot because he felt that the character was so shortchanged.
“A lot of people undervalued what he meant to true fans,” says Avery. “Sure, there’s, ‘It’s a trap!’ but there’s a lot more to Ackbar — he stuck with us. If you notice, when the rebels crash the Star Destroyer in Return of the Jedi, when everyone is celebrating, Ackbar is sad. He’s reflective because he understands the cost of what just happened and what it took to reach this moment. He’s a deep character and he means a lot to us.” (Which is a lot to read into a moment that’s almost certainly supposed to read as “relief to still be alive,” but sure, let’s roll with it, true fan!)
“In Return of the Jedi, he was the most significant non-humanoid creature to fight the Empire,” explains Victor Ward, who cosplays as Ackbar. And it’s true that, while George Lucas’ lens may not have been turned to Admiral Ackbar for more than a few moments, as an admiral, he was clearly important to the Rebellion and their cause.
Because of these — and of course, many other, far more dubious reasons — Ackbar loyalists all over the internet continue to try and avenge the death of their fallen commander in many different ways. On Twitter — the frontlines of the battle — these “true fans” are still engaging in bitter Ackbar arguments on an almost daily basis.
Others have decided to opt out of the current continuity entirely and live in their own alternate universe, where entire fanfictions have been written that have Holdo replaced by Ackbar. In this particular reality, fans need not complain about Ackbar’s death, because it simply never happened. If this sounds an awful lot like a prose version of that “de-feminized” edit mentioned earlier, that’s because it is: the version linked above also cuts down on Kelly Marie Tran’s character Rose, simply because they didn’t like her.
While substituting Ackbar for Holdo is a depressingly popular alternative to Ackbar’s death in the film, some fans imagine other possibilities. “A lot of people say he should have replaced Holdo, but I don’t get too upset about that,” says Shorter. “I actually liked Holdo as a character, and Laura Dern is in another one of my favorite films, Jurassic Park. Instead, I think if we simply got another little soundbite from Ackbar before his death, that would have been satisfying. We already have ‘it’s a trap’ and it’s so well-known, so something like that would have been more fitting for the character.”
This idea also seems to have been on the minds of those trying to officially rewrite his death: In the official comic book adaptation of The Last Jedi, Ackbar is still blown up, but writer Gary Whitta gave him a fitting last line: “It’s been an honor serving with you all.”
For Ackbar collector Mark Schnack, a member of the Ohio Star Wars Collectors Club, he was so touched by this particular page that he reached out to artist Michael Walsh, bought the original artwork and framed it. “He had things a little bit nicer in the comics, as Ackbar gets to have some last words,” says Schnack. “I don’t know if this would have been enough for the movie, but it would have been a lot better.”
Other Ackbar fans have accepted his demise and are carrying on his legacy in their own way. In addition to the cosplayers who still dress as him, others have gotten Ackbar’s fishy face tattooed onto their flesh. “He’s on my back, pointing to my trap — or trapezius — while he’s inside a trapezoid and shouting ‘it’s a trap,’ so I call it ‘Trap cubed,’” says Benjamin Coyle. While he adds that the joke was the primary motivator for his tattoo, he does admit that Ackbar’s death did help him to pull the trigger on getting it done.
Interestingly, although Ackbar’s ardent fan base will tell you again and again how lousy his offscreen death was, they have, paradoxically, benefitted from it. As Instagram user Legoadmiralackbar points out, “The death of the character revealed how popular he was.” For Shorter, while he’s been assembling Ackbar figures since long before the demise of his beloved officer, he admits that he gets far more people talking about Ackbar now than before he died. “Ironically, it’s like he’s been made more prominent because he was in the movie less,” Shorter says.
For Kane, he says that he can’t count the number of Ackbar fans who come up to him at conventions and ask why the character was killed in such lackluster fashion. “They ask, ‘Why’d they do that to Ackbar?’ but I have no say in that kind of thing. Some people overestimate the impact of an actor.”
“Still,” Kane continues, “Ackbar lives on. I’ve done three Ackbar projects since then that take place before his death. And just as I inherited Yoda, C-3PO and Ackbar, someone will take these characters from me when I start sounding old and crusty. Ackbar, though — he’ll live on forever.”