Star Wars: is Disney really throwing The Last Jedi under the bus?

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The promotional trail for Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker seems to be landing a few digs at The Last Jedi – John takes a look at what’s been going on.

Spoilers lie ahead for Star Wars: The Last Jedi

There’s an old story about a disagreement between Bruce Willis and a producer over Die Hard 4.0, which ends with Bruce shutting down the discussion by enquiring who else they have in mind to play John McClane. It’s a high-level passive-aggressive baller move on the part of the star, and I love it.

While Mark Hamill didn’t let his ego drive through his opinions prior to The Last Jedi shooting, it seems pretty clear that even the combined forces of Disney and Lucasfilm were insufficient to enforce a three-line whip on him voicing his subsequent off-message takes. Pretty much his first words on the documentary covering the making of The Last Jedi are used to reiterate that he fundamentally disagreed with Rian Johnson’s handling of his character.

You can see interviews from as far back as Star Wars Celebration 2017, months before the release of Episode VIII, with Hamill telling interviewers of his surprise at the handling of Luke Skywalker and exhibiting guarded responses to soft-thrown questions regarding whether he liked the script. In his early reactions we can see the forming of a line he held pretty much throughout the whole promo run for the gig; that of respectfully disagreeing with Johnson’s vision, while simultaneously praising his work as writer and director.

There is bounteous footage online showing the actor’s gentle trolling of Johnson, where he firmly places any and all complaints about The Last Jedi at the door of its creator – often while the subject of his ribbing awkwardly sits next to him. The tone is always respectful, and often playful, carrying the whiff of well-aired grievances that have been voiced ad infinitum. But the exchanges do give an impression that the actor is distancing himself from the movie. “If I’ve succeeded in any way, it’s because of Rian” he is prone to saying, before adding “and if I’ve failed, it’s also all because of Rian.”

In the tightly controlled media bubble of Episode VIII’s press tour, Hamill – in the style of his dear departed partner-in-crime, Carrie Fisher (who set the standard for director trolling) – floated above it all, insulated by his legendary status and seemingly free to speak his mind. All while his younger, next-gig-courting colleagues appeared to laugh nervously and try to keep things on message.

Interestingly, though, the tone set by Hamill in those exchanges appears to have set a precedent for a lot of the comments regarding the reaction to The Last Jedi that have come from within the Star Wars bubble. Comments that have emerged in the run-up to the release of The Rise of Skywalker.

In the past few weeks, JJ Abrams and John Boyega have both made – albeit measured – statements on The Last Jedi that have made it clear they hold reservations about the left-turn Johnson took with the franchise. The Rise of Skywalker’s director told Empire that “even some of the things that happened in Episode VIII that at the time I thought, ‘oh, that’s an interesting choice I would not have made,” before qualifying that he believes that “weirdly”, they “ended up being beneficial.”

In a similar tone to Hamill’s oft-voiced view that he didn’t own Luke Skywalker, and that it was his job to do the best he could to realise Johnson’s vision, Abrams describes his job on Episode IX as “doing the best we can to sort of excavate what is inevitable.”

Boyega actually invoked Hamill in his comments to Hypebeast, saying he had talked to the Star Wars vet about his concerns for his character’s arc in The Last Jedi – which he describes as leaving him “feeling a bit iffy”. “I didn’t necessarily agree with a lot of the choices in that,” Boyega added, citing the plot’s separation of the three new characters established in The Force Awakens as his major concern. He was also keen not to directly critique Johnson and feared his words will be twisted.

More interesting, perhaps, than the comments themselves is possibly Disney/Lucasfilm’s seeming willingness to let them be aired, and to let them become a talking point in the run up to the climax of the Skywalker saga. The flip-side of that, of course, is whether it has any choice.

Firstly, given the – shall we say – ‘fervent’ online discourse around The Last Jedi, and its $700m box office drop-off compared to The Force Awakens, could Disney afford to be seen under any other banner than ‘hey, we’re listening’? I doubt very much that company bigwigs are unhappy to see Abrams’ comments critiquing some of The Last Jedi’s decision framed as him ‘getting’ the concerns of some fans in various articles. Nor is it unhappy with reports of Daisy Ridley’s tears when she was told of the director’s return following Colin Trevorrow’s departure from directing the new film, or Boyega telling people that as a fan he wants to see a continuation of the The Force Awakens’ story.

Can it be forgiven for edging away from its less-than-prodigal son?

For supporters of The Last Jedi, however, all this feels like something of a betrayal of a film that meant a lot (and still does) and hit many of the beats they felt the franchise needed to hit. Johnson has been widely praised for doing some hard yards in analysing the philosophy of the Star Wars universe and pointing out a way forward for the franchise – at least conceptually, if not in terms of a direct narrative thread.

Accusations of it being thrown under the bus, however, may be overstating things a little bit. It can’t be a shock that the massive global conglomerate navigates towards a more palatable option following being singed by a braver choice. Nor can it be easy to control all of the messages coming from your key players when there’s more than a little end-of-term laissez-faire mood to a project that is winding down.

“In the old days there was an overall outline.” Hamill has said. “This one’s more like a relay race where the first guy runs the race and then hands the torch off.”

So, if you want to look at the point where The Last Jedi was thrown under the bus, look right there. Where they handed off a beloved franchise to a brilliant, relatively inexperienced (with films of such scale) writer/director and gave him free rein. If half of the conversations Hamill implies between himself and Rian Johnson happened, there’s little doubt that the director understood just how divisive his decisions would be, the impact they would have, and how they could derail the train set in motion by JJ Abrams. His reaction to the backlash implies he was ready, and has broad enough shoulders to deal with that.

The truth is, quite a bit of the criticism of The Last Jedi is equally as fair as the praise it has received – though some of the lines of attack have been heavily out of order. I’ve questioned Disney’s handling of Star Wars before, and I think that is where any critique of The Last Jedi should be aimed; Johnson made the movie he was allowed to make, and Disney signed it off. There’s only so much it can do, however, to stifle fair critique and comment – and it will no doubt be hoping that the conclusion to the trilogy will allow the movie to sit more comfortably with its predecessors than it does now.

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