It must be a very scary time to be J.J. Abrams. For the last two years, the Star Trek director has reclusively worked on not falling short of impossible expectations for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Details of the film have trickled into fandom through a closely orchestrated marketing plan, one that culminated in this week’s “Star Wars Celebration.” After revealing the main characters, an adorable and mysterious rolling robot, and the teaser to end all teasers, J.J. Abrams has brought the Star Wars fanbase to dangerous levels of hype.
As the trailer, in particular, stormed across social media, it quickly became obvious fans and nerds of all ages were putting immense hope into Abrams’ vision for the coming trilogy.
Twitter and Reddit were quickly overloaded with tearful cries and celebrations, particularly in response to the return of characters Han Solo and Chewbacca for the first time in 32 years. It quickly became one of the top posts ever on /r/starwars, the subreddit devoted to the sci-fi space opera, and reactions there ranged from “That is a very handsome looking movie” to “I put off the results of my wife’s ultrasound to watch this.”
While fandoms surely have a habit of overkill when it comes to expectations, Abrams is now faced with two realities: Either he delivers the most amazing cinematic experience of our lives, or the first line in his obituary is about how he ruined Star Wars.
This isn’t Abrams’ fault: Every detail revealed about Episode VII indicates he’s sticking true to the original trilogy, but it must be a very frightening proposition to see people literally weeping with excitement at the mere image of your work. This dichotomy is created not by Abrams for cutting a good trailer—or Disney for understanding how to market—but by the digital masses that will not be satisfied by anything but the best.
Either J.J. Abrams delivers the most amazing cinematic experience of our lives, or the first line in his obituary is about how he ruined Star Wars.
This is certainly not a new situation for online fandoms. Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull likewise took a Generation X icon and raised him high, only to strike Indy down with aliens and an indestructible fridge.
The flip side of Abrams’ predicament is likely being felt by Colin Trevorrow, director of the upcoming Chris Pratt feature Jurassic World. The trailers released for the film show us everything we’d want in a new Jurassic Park film—giant dinosaurs—but reviews from fans had many complaints about the dime-a-dozen CGI, believability of the plot, and Pratt’s hokey line delivery. In particular, Avengers director and geek guru Joss Whedon criticized a recent clip from the film for its “‘70s-era” sexism.
The trajectory Abrams would be lucky to follow is that of James Gunn. The director of last summer’s smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy (also starring Pratt) was, unlike Abrams, was entrusted with a little-known property from deep within the Marvel archives. The now famous trailer did everything it needed to: It built upon the relationship between existing fans and the source material, as well as introducing a universe with which most others were completely unfamiliar.
Expectations were paid off when Guardians proved to be the most refreshing comic book movie in years. The film earned itself a sequel before it even saw a single theater and currently holds a 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s true that most of the advice Abrams should take from Gunn is “make a good movie,” but that’s not entirely what fans are asking. Star Wars is the most iconic movie franchise of all time, one whose fanbase has spent the better part of two decades being disappointed by re-releases, so-so video games, and a prequel trilogy we’d all rather not talk about. It’s formed the childhood of three generations and the next three movies (as well as standalone films and possible live-action TV series) hope to continue on that legacy.
By seeming to fulfill the promise of reviving the joy millions upon millions people felt from the original films, the trailer and information released this week are making all that is old new again. In order to keep up with these hopes, J.J. Abrams doesn’t need to make Episode VII into a good movie—he needs to make something that fills the gap between the optimistic possibility of youth and the cynical certainty of our own death.
This is a little unfair to ask of the director of Cloverfield. J.J. Abrams isn’t the world’s best director, the Orson Welles of modern Hollywood; he’s just a good director. His movies are often compelling and adventurous, like Super 8 or the first Star Trek film. But they can also be predictable and silly, like Star Trek: Into Darkness.
He needs to make something that fills the gap between the optimistic possibility of youth and the cynical certainty of our own death.
And that’s OK. Episode VII might just end up being a good movie instead of the tearful reprisal of everybody’s childhood the fanbase is building it up to be. Then again, this is a lecture on the dangers of unfulfilled expectations directed to one of the creators of Lost.
In fact, within the legacy of that storied television show is an allegory for both Abrams and the Star Wars fanbase. Currently, the churning rotors of the Episode VII media machine is mirroring the first five seasons of Lost: A strange and mystifying duvet stretched over an encouraging promise of payoff. But the endless strains of that show’s plot were too disparate to form any meaningful connection that could end the show in a satisfying manner, leading to a confusing and disappointing finale. Along with co-creators Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof, Abrams created a measure of excitement and intrigue his finale couldn’t cash.
And now, separate from Abrams and the marketing for Episode VII, fans seem ready to return the favor by raising their expectations far above what Abrams—or anyone—could ever hope to achieve.
Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.
Screengrab via Lucasfilm/YouTube