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Star Wars doesn't just have a fandom. It has the fandom. For the past forty years, fans have clamored for everything from toys to books to video games to satisfy their desire for more Star Wars stuff. The franchise has brought in an estimated $28 billion dollars in revenue, and love for the films has become so widespread that it has its own Star Wars day ("May the 4th Be With You"—get it?). (Source )
But we hear some of you saying, "What about Harry Potter or Game of Thrones?" Surely Star Wars has had its fandom crown usurped by now.
It's true that both of those franchises have mega-huge fandoms. In fact, fandom in general has grown widespread in the last few decades. But Star Wars is one of the few intergenerational fandoms, along with Star Trek and Dr. Who. When your children's children are still prophesying that "Winter is coming" or hitting each other with the Expelliarmus spell, then come talk with us.
So anybody who has been to a convention for anything can tell you that Star Wars fandom is alive and well. What we're more interested in discussing is what The Phantom Menace did for that fandom. Because after this film was released, you could feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if a million fanboys suddenly cried out in terror.
To understand this story, you'll need to take a TARDIS back to 1998. It had been over fifteen years since the last Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, had been released, and fans were ready for new adventures in their favorite galaxy.
When the first trailer for The Phantom Menace dropped, the fanbase went supernova with excitement. Theaters across the country reported people purchasing tickets for movies like The Water Boy and Meet Joe Black just to see the trailer. (Source)
The lead-up to the actual film was incredible. The merchandise included toys, video games, and books. Pepsi and Taco Bell signed tie-in deals. Rolling Stone even ran a cover featuring Jar Jar Binks, proclaiming that a digital superstar had been born. (Source)
And then the movie came out.
Top of the disgruntled list was the digital superstar himself, Jar Jar Binks. Fans railed against such a childish, cartoony character invading Star Wars, claiming his presence was simply to sell products to children. And you have to admit they have a point. (Fart jokes, really?) Many have argued that Jar Jar is a racist caricature, and to this day, fans have been finding new and inventive ways to kill, murder, maim, and otherwise exorcise Jar Jar from their memories. Response to the character was so negative that Jar Jar's part in the following two films was cut down to cameo levels.
Fans also argued that concepts like midi-chlorians contaminated the mythical and supernatural Force with unnecessary pseudo-science nonsense. Other complaints included a jumbled script, flat characters, and a convoluted plot. The film was so disliked among the fandom that many now watch the films in what is called "The Machete Order," which removes The Phantom Menace from the saga as unnecessary. (Source)
But fans haven't just resorted to passive bellyaching about the film. They've gotten downright creative in their ways of rebuking it. Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media created a seventy-minute critique of The Phantom Menace. (Source)
YouTuber Andrew Kwan re-edited the entire prequel trilogy down to two hours in his "A Phantom Edit" project in an attempt to fix what he saw as being broken. (Source)
If you want a really distilled version of the fan hate toward The Phantom Menace, then check out Simon Pegg's rant in this clip from the TV show Spaced. (Source).
Star Wars fandom continues, but given the reaction, why? Well, that's partly because older fans aren't going to give up on something they've loved so dearly and for so long (*cough, sunk cost fallacy, *cough). You can also argue that the response to The Phantom Menace was and is overblown, a result of expectations too high to ever satisfy.
But The Phantom Menace has also has a whole new generation of fans that—gasp—like it. As noted in the documentary The People vs. George Lucas, child fans that did not grow up with the original trilogy don't see the divide between the old and the new. Children interviewed for the documentary said, "I think people your age hate Jar Jar Binks because he's one of the new characters" and "I think [Jar Jar] is really funny." To them, Star Wars is Star Wars.
And other fans must have come to feel this way too. After all, Jar Jar didn't kill Star Wars fandom. It's alive and well—even if Phantom Menace hate is alive and well with it.
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