Social Media: ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi,’ Breakout or Backlash?

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opened to a mammoth $220 million over its first weekend, a record for 2017 and second of all time to its older sibling, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The silver medals didn’t end there, however, as it also secured the second biggest Thursday preview tally of all time with $45 million and captured the second biggest single day on record, as well as the second biggest Friday.

It was a tour de force for Disney; the record grosses came just hours after the announcement of their acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Another powerhouse in the industry, Fox holds film rights to the Marvel X-Men characters (among many others), a major selling point no doubt for Disney, which is enjoying record success at the box office thanks in large part to its own Marvel catalogue of heroes.

The Force Awakens smashed records and stirred a level of excitement and fanboy adulation that was once confined to comic book conventions. The expectations coming into Last Jedi’s release were sky high, not only from a box office perspective but also due to the many loose ends fans were left contemplating. Speculation over the unresolved plot points was rampant: Who were Rey’s parents? What has Luke been up to? Who are the Porgs and are they good or evil? YouTube channels left and right were dedicated to this mania, with no fewer than 10 video theories of major plot points seeing over 1 million views.

One of the biggest stories to come out of The Last Jedi’s opening weekend was whether the movie had connected with audiences. According to data pulled over the opening weekend of the film’s release, critics were largely favorable (93% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 303 reviews), while diehard fans were lukewarm (56% liked it on Rotten Tomatoes from 104,930 votes with a 3.3/5 average). Some of the biggest online and print sites ran stories over this divide. With this split in mind, we found it prudent to step back and look at sentiment from many sources—including Twitter, IMDb, and PostTrack, among others—to get a better idea of this supposed backlash. If it does indeed exist, what (if any) lessons should Disney take away from this experience heading into Episode IX?

Virtually every article on the “backlash” of fans against Star Wars: The Last Jedi focuses, almost entirely, on the 56 percent figure from Rotten Tomatoes, the popular review aggregator. Numbers shouldn’t exist in a vacuum, so let’s take a look at other notable comparisons from fan ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, namely The Force Awakens (88% liked it from 224,235 votes, 4.3/5), Avengers: Age of Ultron (83% liked it from 284,600 votes, 4.1/5 average), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (87% liked it from 96,856 votes, 4.2 average). The 56 percent number is indeed notably lower compared to the films above, but what is interesting is that its average rating was 3.3 out of 5, or 66 percent, which was not nearly as far off from Force Awakens (86 percent average) or Rogue One (82 percent) as you might imagine. Still, the discrepancy between critics and moviegoers is somewhat of an anomaly here—and unusual for a blockbuster of this magnitude.

Taking a closer look at the individual reactions that led to The Last Jedi’s fan reaction, we find that more detractors gave the film a 0.5 out of 5 (the lowest option) than either of its predecessors. This dragged down the overall number significantly. In eyeballing the 50 pages of comments on the site, common themes come out of the 0.5 of 5 reviews. Firstly, most of them berate the studio for trying to mold Star Wars into a prototype of Disney-style comic book adaptations. Secondly, the most alienated fans disapproved of where Last Jedi director Rian Johnson takes the film’s story line, supposedly “ruining” what J.J Abrams had begun with The Force Awakens. Lastly, those fans claim that the film tried to appeal to casual fans more than to die-hard supporters of the franchise—resulting in a film that didn’t pay enough respect to popular characters from the original trilogy.

Twitter sentiment for The Last Jedi averaged 7 positive for every negative tweet; compare that to The Force Awakens at 12 to 1 or Rogue One’s 13 to 1. This paints a picture similar to the Rotten Tomatoes fan results.

IMDb user reviews were far kinder, providing a 7.9/10 average from 125,456 votes. The Force Awakens had a 8.1/10 from 706,388 votes, while Rogue One had a 7.8/10 from 384,669 votes. IMDb offers a comprehensive breakdown of those votes, and, on further analysis, The Last Jedi has a much higher percent of 1/10 reviews (5.4%) than either The Force Awakens or Rogue One (2.4% and 1.1% respectively).

The scores dramatically improve when we get to the more scientific polling, such as those from comScore and CinemaScore, which poll actual moviegoers in real time as they exit the theater. As opposed to Rotten Tomatoes, Twitter, or IMDb, these polls gather responses from verified ticket buyers, and each reported strongly favorable reactions: an A rating from CinemaScore and 89 percent favorability from comScore’s PostTrak. These numbers are on par or identical to both The Force Awakens and Rogue One, completely contradicting the previously mentioned outlets. Detractors of the social media reviews and negative sentiment point to the fact that anyone can create a Rotten Tomatoes account, post on IMDb, or leave a Tweet.

The truth and takeaway, as is almost always the case, lie in the middle of these two extremes. It’s a proven fact that people who have bad experiences with something are more likely to share it online than those who had a good experience. And when looking closer at the numbers, a relatively small number of people (likely in the range of 5,000–7,500) are the ones who are dragging down the overall numbers across all social media platforms—a drop in the bucket for a franchise the size of Star Wars.

In dealing with such a fervent fan base, Disney has the difficult task of weighing the balance between appeasing the core of die-hard fans and growing the property’s appeal. That being said, social media and fan reactions are becoming an increasingly important tool for every studio. Ardent followers have a voice in this conversation, and the simple fact is that more of them appear to have disliked The Last Jedi more than Disney’s previous two contributions to the franchise.

How will these early reactions factor into the making of Star Wars Episode IX? J.J Abrams will be back at the helm, and he has a history of taking direction and listening to fans when approaching his TV and film projects, a large part of the reason he is so revered by fans.