The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
Luke Skywalker is disgusted. The world wants him back, and he knows it. He’s intrigued by this young woman who’s just spent an entire movie trying to find him, but he also knows why she’s here. Luke Skywalker is supposed to take up his old mantle as a mythic Jedi knight. He is supposed to bring hope back to the galaxy. But Luke believes that his status has brought death and ruin on the people he loves, and so he wants none of it. He tells Rey that he won’t teach her, and he turns around at the door of an ancient Jedi temple—framed in silhouette, a bit like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers—and says what he has to say: “I came to this island to die. It’s time for the Jedi to end.”
This moment arrives early in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the highest-grossing movie of 2017, and it’s not a surprise. The Force Awakens, the previous main-storyline Star Wars film, had artfully hid its own storyline wrinkles. In true J.J. Abrams fashion, the Force Awakens trailers masterfully conveyed a sense of mood while keeping the actual details of the plot obscured. But now Abrams was gone, and new director Rian Johnson had other things in mind. That line from Luke Skywalker—“It’s time for the Jedi to end”—had been in the final shot of the first teaser trailer for The Last Jedi. It had been marketed as the entire point of the film, which is more or less what it was.
With The Last Jedi, Johnson set himself a near-impossible task. Two years earlier, The Force Awakens had made box-office history by playing directly to the nostalgia of the people who, like Abrams and Johnson, had grown up on Star Wars. The Force Awakens was a nostalgia trip, pure and simple, and it luxuriated in the familiar comforts of its source material. This was what people wanted to see. The Last Jedi was something else. It was an attempt, and maybe a doomed one, at making an anti-nostalgia Star Wars.
In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker is not the only character who wants to see the old mystical symbols of Star Wars legend rot into dust. Kylo Ren feels the same way. In a passionate argument against the old binary of light side and dark side, Kylo tries to get Rey to see things his way: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.” And later: “It’s time to let old things die.” (This is coming from a young man who has killed both his beloved-cinematic-icon father and his rasping, evil authority figure. He’s not talking about figurative death.)
Elsewhere, the ghost of Yoda, a figure who was ancient when he first appeared in The Empire Strikes Back, echoes that same anti-tradition sentiment. This Yoda looks familiar and yet not. He’s a puppet, a piece of green foam rubber, just as he’d been in those old Star Wars films, but the spectral glow around him makes him look a bit like a CGI effect. In that uncanny out-of-time way, Yoda argues persuasively for his own obsolescence: “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” That sentiment could’ve come from George Lucas, who had just made billions by selling off his childlike dream-saga to a massive global corporation and was openly hoping that this corporation would find a way to do something original with it.
The Last Jedi is not an attack on nostalgia, exactly. In the movie’s dramatic ending, Luke Skywalker joins the Resistance’s fight, and he does it by weaponizing his own legend status. Luke knows that Kylo Ren and the First Order hate and fear him—with good reason, he thinks—so he stands there and lets them blast away at him. When the bad guys see that they haven’t killed him, Luke relishes their horror. It’s all a gambit. Luke isn’t really there. He’s an astrally projected hologram, and he’s using up all of his energy to put himself there, in their imaginations. He’s buying time so that the younger heroes can escape, so that they can live. When his final act is done, Luke fades into nothingness, and his empty cloak falls to the ground. The constant crackle of excitement around Luke Skywalker, old hero, has been useful, but it’s also been a means to an end. It hasn’t been the point of the whole movie.
When The Last Jedi came out at the end of 2017, its commercial success was a given. For the third year in a row, a Star Wars movie dominated the box office. This was not a triumph. This was expected. After The Force Awakens and Rogue One, Star Wars films were no longer competing against every other movie coming out. They were merely competing with each other. The Last Jedi finished with about $620 million at the domestic box office—a little more than the side-story Rogue One, a whole lot less than its direct predecessor The Force Awakens. 2017’s second-highest grosser—another Disney property, the clangy and unbearable live-action remake of Beauty And The Beast—had come within a little more than $100 million of unseating The Last Jedi. Someone at Disney clearly considered this to be a calamity.
In the weeks after The Last Jedi, the big story was the backlash. For all the money that The Last Jedi made, a vocal minority of the fanbase was spitting mad. This heterogeneous mass had a lot of problems with the film, like the stabs at comedy or the general sense of wokeness. Nobody got this worse than Kelly Marie Tran, who made her film debut in The Last Jedi as Rose Tico and promptly became the target of an overwhelming wave of online harassment. Two years later, Disney essentially justified all of that when Tran’s role was reduced to an extended cameo.
The disgruntled fans’ big issue, at least as far as I could tell, was that Rian Johnson’s version of Star Wars worked against the ones that they had in their heads. Luke did things that Luke wouldn’t do. Leia did things that Leia couldn’t do. The entire arc bent away from Star Wars’ old good-vs.-evil narrative and even dared to call that narrative into question. Yoda had used Force-ghost powers to destroy an old Jedi temple with lightning. Nothing was sacred. (This still seems to be a gaping wound for some people. Just this past weekend, J.D. Vance, the Senate candidate and Netflix biopic subject, tweeted, “The Last Jedi is a cruel movie not only because it ruined Luke, but because it ruined Yoda too.”)
Disney responded to those fans by throwing the entire Star Wars universe into a damage-control tailspin. Before The Last Jedi had opened, the company had dumped all its plans for the third movie in its Skywalker-saga trilogy down a garbage chute. Colin Trevorrow had been announced as the director of the final installment, and anyone who’d seen The Book Of Henry had understood that this plan wasn’t going to work out. So Disney hastily rehired J.J. Abrams to close things out, and the company did everything in its power to erase the ideas that Rian Johnson had brought to the series with The Last Jedi. The problem wasn’t just that The Rise Of Skywalker, Abrams’ trilogy closer, was shrill, incoherent, boring spectacle, although that didn’t help. The problem was that we were watching a movie franchise at war with itself, its directors like graffiti writers trying to paint over each other’s tags.
One might argue that Johnson had scribbled over The Force Awakens just as Abrams later scribbled over The Last Jedi. Johnson treated Supreme Leader Snoke, Abrams’ inert big bad, as an obstacle to be overcome, chopping him in half rather than building him up. Johnson had also written off Abrams’ mystery-box plot mechanisms entirely. Rey was not the heir to a familial line of Jedi power. She was just a nobody, and the Force was strong with her anyway, lineage be damned. (Abrams would disastrously attempt to backpedal on that decision.) Also, the Resistance bought its weapons from the same war-profiteer lowlifes who supplied the First Order, and plenty of people would’ve been happy to never see either of their ships blinking out of warp speed in the sky. Abrams had treated the old narratives, handed down from previous generations, as sacred text. Johnson took clear delight in burning those texts.
In fighting its own constant internal battle, this new Star Wars continuation still worked as entertainment, at least until it didn’t. Beyond its big ideas, The Last Jedi is a pretty good movie. There are great performances. Mark Hamill, absent from live-action films for a long time, does some of the best acting of his life as the craggy and crazy-eyed disturbed-old-man version of Luke Skywalker. (Hamill was open about his own dubiousness at Johnson’s ideas, which made him an accidental rallying figure for upset fans.) Adam Driver shows a stirred-up intensity for Kylo Ren that’s not always there in the text. Some of the images—the war-film bombing run of the opening, the ecstatic color of the throne-room battle, the silent sacrifice of the Holdo maneuver—are breathtaking in ways that blockbuster cinema rarely even attempts.
As the last film that Carrie Fisher finished making before her sudden death, The Last Jedi also has its own accidental emotional stakes. There are some eerie moments in the film where everyone involved seems to have some inkling that this is a goodbye—Luke sitting down with Leia, for instance, to reassure her that “no one’s ever really gone.” Fisher seems terribly alive whenever she’s on screen. (She reportedly used her script-doctor skills to write much of her own dialogue, and she gets many of the movie’s best lines.) The actor’s death, a year before The Last Jedi opened, was part of the meta-narrative, not the narrative itself. But with latter-day Star Wars pictures, the meta-narrative has a way of overwhelming everything else.
The Last Jedi is a blockbuster movie full of ideas, and as such, it can be more than a little clunky at times. Blockbuster films weren’t built to work as delivery mechanisms for ideas, and the grammar of the 21st-century tentpole—the crowd-pleasing action-hero moments, the obligatory breaks for comedy—doesn’t always allow for Johnson’s statements to come through clearly. Finn, maybe the most purely likable character from The Force Awakens, and Rose Tico, the only major new character from The Last Jedi, spend much of the film on a narratively pointless side-quest that ultimately turns out to be a failure. Plenty of people were pissed off at these stretches of film, and one of those people was John Boyega, who felt that he’d been written off: “They gave all the nuance to Adam Driver, all the nuance to Daisy Ridley. Let’s be honest.”
He’s not wrong. Boyega’s character Finn doesn’t have much of an arc in The Last Jedi. Instead, his storyline exists to serve one of those ideas that Rian Johnson wanted to convey—that war, even at its most noble, still tends to serve the interests of those in power. Did that point come across cleanly? Did it make sense in the context of this movie? I’m not sure. I had fun watching Finn and Rose’s scenes on the casino planet, but I got a little antsy, too—especially once Benicio Del Toro showed up, his accent sometimes going full Bobcat Goldthwaite.
This is the conundrum of The Last Jedi. It’s a massively profitable work of corporate entertainment that kept the Star Wars fires burning and helped Disney sell a whole lot of stuffed Porgs. (My 9-year-old has one. It’s cute.) But The Last Jedi is also messy and ambitious. Disney, not especially known for its trust in directors, handed Johnson the reins to write and direct his own Star Wars, and the company only scrambled to undo what was done after The Last Jedi was already out. Maybe Disney didn’t realize that it had allowed Star Wars to become a vehicle for messy ambition. I don’t think The Last Jedi always works, but I’m glad Johnson got a chance, intentionally or not, to fuck up Disney’s long-term plans.
Things turned out fine for him. Knives Out, his next movie, didn’t make Last Jedi money, but it was a big fat hit regardless. As both a work of sheer moviegoing fun and a statement of class conflict, Knives Out is a whole lot more successful than The Last Jedi. Johnson now seems to be building his own Netflix mini-empire out of that success. Good for him.
Disney’s next two Star Wars movies weren’t flops, exactly—The Rise Of Skywalker was the No. 3 highest-grossing film of 2019—but they didn’t dominate, either. Instead, Star Wars has once again found its footing as a setting for a fantastically entertaining TV western. Disney clearly isn’t ready to let go of Luke Skywalker entirely. But with The Mandalorian, the company has clearly learned at least some of the lessons that Johnson put into Luke’s mouth. It’s not taking these old stories too seriously. It’s having some fun with them. Blockbusters, after all, are supposed to be fun.
The contender: Every last one of the 10 highest-grossing films of 2017 is a part of one franchise or another, and the best of them have a good grasp over what makes their franchises work. The Marvel movies, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, balance out their snappy patter, their world-building fantasy, and their daddy issues nicely. Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle and Wonder Woman both pull off a distinctly Marvel-style balance of action and comedy, often tilting toward the former. (That Jumanji movie is fun.) But my favorite of these hits is the one that realizes the potential that its franchise had never really figured out beforehand.
With Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi hits all the obligatory Marvel-movie marks, and he does it while placing his own style of absurdist deadpan comedy into what looks like the psychedelic drawing on the side of an early-’80s pinball machine. Ragnarok stands as evidence that a particular director’s vision can truly work in the context of Marvel-style spectacle. A few months later, Ryan Coogler offered conclusive proof.
Next time: Black Panther was the biggest domestic earner of 2018, but I wrote about that one at length pretty recently. Instead, we’ll be talking about the year’s runner-up: the astral doom opera Avengers: Infinity War.