Last week, a post on the r/SaltierThanCrait subreddit — a forum that started as a place for Star Wars fans to pick apart 2017’s The Last Jedi — caused an eruption. Written by a user named egoshoppe, the message claimed director J.J. Abrams’ original cut of The Rise of Skywalker was 40 minutes longer than the film’s two hour, 22-minute theatrical runtime and contained a large chunk of material that would have made some fans happier, including a scene featuring actors Hayden Christensen and Samuel L Jackson, reprising their roles to help fellow Jedi Rey defeat the resurrected Emperor Palpatine.
Why would Disney, the media conglomerate that bought the science fiction franchise from its creator George Lucas in 2012, cut huge chunks out of Abrams’ final edit? According to egoshoppe, the reasons were twofold: to make the film more palatable to the Chinese government and to damage the professional reputation of Abrams, whom Warner Brothers was courting to work on films set in the DC Comics Cinematic Universe, which includes characters like Batman and Superman.
“Marvel’s biggest threat is a well-operational DC. They want to keep DC in the limbo that they’re in right now,” the post reads. “Abrams jumpstarting that franchise with something like a successful, audience-pleasing Superman movie makes them nervous. Their goal is to make JJ look bad to potential investors/shareholders.”
The post inflamed long-running Star Wars fandom paranoia that Disney has been using social media to manipulate fans. In it egoshoppe warns that all previous leaks about the The Rise of Skywalker were shared by users “tied to Disney directly.” (Fans have accused Disney of molding social media for years.)
It was impossible for Redditors to ascertain whether egoshoppe was telling the truth, trolling for fun, or lying to help Abrams, whose film has faced a critical and fan backlash. Regardless, #ReleaseTheJJCut trended on Twitter as fans pieced together links and quotes from the cast, screenwriters, and directors that seemed to prove a different cut of The Rise of Skywalker existed.
The Star Wars fandom is now a nesting doll of speculation, paranoia, and anxiety about corporate overreach — growing more insular and reactionary in the eight years since Disney took over Star Wars.
The misinformation and anger inside the Star Wars fandom is what happens after decades of corporatization and anonymous decentralized networking. It is a glimpse of a future in which anxieties over the motives of the megacorporations that drive our culture — down to our very mythologies — set off conflicts between warring information tribes who inhabit their own artificial narratives. What began with small but vocal insurgent online communities like 4chan or the alt-right has now come for the mainstream.
Except there is no “mainstream” culture — just as there is no central Star Wars fandom anymore. Today, popular culture is just Gamergates of varying size.
Fandom isn’t new. Most of the tropes we associate with modern fan communities, like fanfiction, letter-writing campaigns, zines, conventions, and infighting entered the American consciousness in the ’60s, thanks to the female audience of a different star-based sci-fi franchise: Star Trek. The girls and women who loved the show were excluded from male-dominated fan spaces and so created the networks that built the foundation for how communities now find each other online. Women all over the US started creating zines and sci-fi clubs as a way to share Star Trek fanfiction. Star Wars, released in 1977, was a late entrant.
But Star Wars fans have used the internet to socialize (and bicker) since the beginning of the franchise and the internet. The earliest archived Usenet posts about the movies date back to at least 1983, the year that Return of the Jedi came out. “Are you sure other scenes showed an abnormal (or no) star field while in hyperspace,” one user writes in a thread — which wouldn’t look out of place on Reddit in 2019 — titled “Continuity error in STAR WARS – the ANSWER.” Through every stage of internet development, Star Wars fans have been at the forefront — two of the first viral memes were “Star Wars Kid” and “It’s a trap!”
And for as long as there have been Star Wars fans, there have been discontented Star Wars fans. According to a 1999 Empire interview with George Lucas, some have been angry with him since A New Hope. “Fans absolutely hated R2 and C3PO in the first film; in the second film they hated Yoda,” Lucas said.
In 1997, Lucas, still the owner of the franchise, released a remastered version of the original trilogy. The most infamous change in the special edition concerned a shootout between the smuggler Han Solo and the Rodian bounty hunter Greedo. In the original version, Han shot first. In 1997, Greedo shot Han first, missed, and then Han shot back. Fans were outraged. The “Han Shot First” meme spread on early blogs, via novelty T-shirts sold at conventions, and in forwarded emails. The issue is still debated. (In the version of the film just released on Disney+, a new change was added. Greedo now shouts the word “maclunkey.”)
A Han Shot First moment occurs when a previously unified fandom is suddenly given two realities to choose between. Once an HSF moment occurs, it’s impossible to bring the fans back together. And Star Wars has experienced many such HSF moments since.
The Phantom Menace and the subsequent prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge Of the Sith were never going to appease every fan, but the frenzy around the lead-up to the movies, led by early internet communities, imploded when they arrived in theaters.
There was no longer a central agreement about what Star Wars actually was. There were older fans who thought Empire Strikes Back was the only good movie, younger fans who thought the podracing in Phantom Menace was wizard, fans who thought Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith should have been edited differently, and critics who retroactively decided the whole series was just embarrassing. The actor Topher Grace cut the prequels down into one 85-minute movie. There’s also the Machete Order, a way to reorder all the films. There’s even an infamous 20,000-word “Ring Theory” blog post, in which a fan spent two years writing about how the prequels and the original trilogy “rhymed” with each other when viewed within a concatenated structure. There was also Red Letter Media’s viral-before-viral 70-minute demolition of The Phantom Menace, uploaded to YouTube in seven parts, most of which have been viewed over 9 million times each.
Things move a lot faster now. Something like Baby Yoda from the Disney+ show The Mandalorian can balloon into a worldwide phenomenon in days. And fandom toxicity can now manifest instantaneously. In 2016, fans of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe harassed one of the show’s artists off Twitter because they were upset that an episode didn’t confirm a same-sex romance between two characters.
Disney, the current owner of both Star Wars and Marvel, has, more than any other company, figured out how to harness this chaotic energy into a massive financial engine. Marvel’s 23-movie, $22.5 billion cinematic universe is a direct descendant of Star Wars. The studio made $13 billion in worldwide box office in just 2019. And once The Rise of Skywalker crosses the $1 billion mark, Disney will have released seven movies last year that grossed that amount. Armed with a nearly unlimited portfolio of intellectual property, an integrated network of theme parks, and the new Disney+ streaming service, Disney is inching closer and closer to a completely seamless transmedia reality its audiences can live inside. Once fans would have had to travel to Disneyland for that immersion — now it travels to them online.
It isn’t just Disney. As corporate monoliths amass more money and power, consumers become more feverish, fanatical, and paranoid. Supreme hypebeasts, Fortnite players, PewDiePie commenters, VSCO girls, K-pop fans, Tesla evangelists — there seems to be a divided fan community for nearly every form of media or product or service.
And as quickly and strangely as modern fandoms form, so are they mutated by Han Shot First moments. These schisms are rarely deliberate — rather, they are sparked by a director’s cut of a popular film, an offhand remark made in an interview. They are willed into existence by conspiracy theories, by fanfiction, by leaks of material never intended to be seen.
Since Disney took the reins of the Star Wars franchise in 2012, fans had a racist meltdown over the casting of a white woman and a black man as the leads of the sequel trilogy. Some of them brigaded against 2017’s The Last Jedi because they thought it was too woke. (This campaign was amplified but not created by Russian trolls.)
These campaigns have had real consequences. Vietnamese American actor Kelly Marie Tran, who played mechanic Rose Tico in the film, suffered so much racist abuse she deleted her Instagram. Tran ended up with significantly less screentime in The Rise of Skywalker. Disney has been accused of caving to a racist and misogynistic vocal minority of fans. The film’s cowriter, Chris Terrio, said that Tran’s character Rose appeared in fewer scenes because of the difficulties that arose in repurposing footage of the late Carrie Fisher.
On websites like Tumblr, vicious fights have broken out about which characters should be shipped, or romantically paired together. Those who believed the villain Kylo Ren and the Jedi hero Rey should end up together — Reylos — have waged extensive flamewars, and in the wake of the Kylo Ren’s death at the end of The Rise of Skywalker, are sending Abrams death threats.
And it’s not just the fans: Star Wars actors have gotten in on the HSF moments too. Oscar Isaac, who played pilot Poe Dameron, has told every news outlet who will listen that he thought he and John Boyega’s character, former stormtrooper Finn, should have had a romance. Meanwhile, Boyega spent New Year’s Eve trolling Reylos on Twitter, arguing that his character should have ended up with Rey.
Any one of these things could be true. Or they could all be false. It doesn’t matter.
Whether it’s fans of the K-pop group BTS believing there’s a missing eighth member of the group, fanatical Facebook groups for enthusiasts of smart home devices like the Ring surveillance cameras, the near-constantly forming pockets of misinformation on TikTok, or the DC fans who purchased an ad at the FA Cup demanding Warner Brothers “#ReleaseTheSnyderCut” — a reference to that group’s struggle to see a different cut of the Justice League movie — we’re awash in our own home-brewed misinformation.
Seventy-one days before the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a Reddit user named JediPaxis published a post titled “The Rise of Skywalker: Reshoots and Edits (Story Summary v3.0)” on the r/StarWarsLeaks subreddit. The post was JediPraxis’s fifth post documenting information gleaned from what they claimed was a “trusted source.”
JediPraxis’s story summaries nailed down details with shocking accuracy. They knew the name of the planet Emperor Palpatine was hiding out on. They guessed the movie’s twist — that Rey was his granddaughter. They even knew about Babu Frik.
As with egoshoppe’s #ReleaseTheJJCut conspiracy theory, JediPraxis’s predictions meant one of three things. They’re telling the truth and had a source involved with the film’s massive production who was comfortable leaking. Or JediPraxis was actually working for the production. Or JediPraxis’s leak was sanctioned by Disney, as part of a meta-campaign by the film’s producers to fuel a grassroots hype cycle.
“I’m pretty sure [LucasFilm] is feeding a ton of [bullshit] to leakers,” one commenter wrote under the post, two months before Rise of Skywalker had hit theaters.
“It’s now MORE likely this than anything else,” another commenter replied. “What’s more likely, that a Reddit user has a direct line to the top .01% of people involved in one of the most anticipated films of the last several years, and this person is still employed despite leaking the ENTIRE plot, AND that they managed to reshoot this much of the movie AND cut it in — or that someone is taking the piss?”
Any one of these things could be true. Or they could all be false. It doesn’t matter. There will be fans who believe whatever gets posted and fans who don’t. Every leak or fan theory creates a new reality. Han shot first. Or he didn’t. ●