George Lucas wasn’t trying to be subtle when he decided to call the villainous soldiers of his Star Wars series “stormtroopers.” Borrowing the name of the Nazi Party’s original paramilitary wing was one of the many ways Lucas drew clear parallels between that regime and his fictional Imperial Empire (though the Empire could stand in for any totalitarian power, Lucas has noted that its militaristic uniforms were directly inspired by those in Nazi Germany). To reflect the World War II movies of the 1970s, he stocked the Empire with white British actors who curtly barked orders and committed atrocities with stiff upper lips. That symbolism carried over to last year’s Star Wars sequel The Force Awakens, where the Empire’s successor, The First Order, was introduced conducting a rally that looked straight out of Nuremberg.
Chris Weitz, the writer of the upcoming Star Wars spinoff Rogue One, was drawing on these long-established parallels when he tweeted a few days after the election, “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization.” It’s one that’s opposed in Rogue One “by a multicultural group led by brave women,” chimed in Weitz’s co-writer Gary Whitta. Weitz had strongly criticized President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign on Twitter (and has continued to challenge the transition), but he later deleted that particular comment and apologized for its overt politicization of “innocent” escapism. The move prompted industry speculation that backlash from Trump supporters could hurt the film’s box-office results. But though Weitz’s comments may be stoking controversy in the immediate aftermath of a divisive election season, it’s unlikely that they’ll do lasting damage to Rogue One’s ticket sales. Hollywood creators have long inserted ideological slants into their movies, and even when “politicization” of movies does hurt box office, there are usually other factors at play.
By way of example, The Hollywood Reporter pointed to the lackluster gross of the Ghostbusters summer reboot, which failed to recoup its budget after months of online warfare over its all-female starring cast. Months before its release, Ghostbusters became the target of online outcry that seemed motivated by sexism, both explicit and subtle. Though the film got generally positive reviews and grossed $229 million worldwide, it wasn’t the colossal, franchise-starting hit that its studio, Sony, was hoping for. The easy conclusion, then, is that making anything “political” is bad for business—and that Ghostbusters made the mistake of shutting out a large enough chunk of the ideological spectrum.
Except there was nothing political about Ghostbusters at all. It was a silly, fun sci-fi comedy about a group of paranormal scientists bustin’ ghosts, a broad tale of empowerment that never went remotely out of its way to offend. If you squinted hard enough at its villain, you might see a cartoonish parody of an internet troll, an angry man in his basement ranting about the apocalypse, but it wasn’t much of a condemnation. Sure, Ghostbusters wasn’t helped by the months of online agitation surrounding it—all publicity is not always good publicity, despite the maxim insisting otherwise. But it also suffered from being one of the season’s several franchise reboots, and from a deflated movie-going audience tired of lazy sequels. The Ghostbusters “politicization” was external, and the campaign against it was always hyperbolic; it echoed the charged nastiness of the 2016 presidential campaign rather than trying to comment on it.
It’s possible Rogue One could fall victim to the same online outrage. Weitz, like many artists in Hollywood, is vocal about his political opinions, and his Twitter avatar remains the logo of Star Wars’s Rebel Alliance wearing a safety pin, which has become a symbol of solidarity for persecuted groups. An organized campaign against Rogue One could certainly hurt the film, at least in some marginal way. But the box-office brand of Star Wars is second-to-none, and even with diminished ticket sales, it will likely dwarf all of its competition this Christmas (the film is due for release on December 16).
After all, in 2015, there was talk of a boycott of The Force Awakens from white supremacist groups (because of the film’s black lead actor, John Boyega) and men’s rights activists (because of the film’s female lead, Daisy Ridley). But the film grossed $2 billion worldwide and is the most successful domestic release in history. The release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them also came with a hint of controversy, as its writer J.K. Rowling has spoken about drawing on the present-day “rise of populism” for her story, which is set in the 1920s and features a Hitler-esque figure as its villain. But Fantastic Beasts opened to $218 million worldwide last weekend and seems primed to begin a long-running franchise of films for its studio Warner Bros.
Rogue One, as a spinoff, will be the first Star Wars film with a centered around a woman (Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones). Since the film is set directly before 1977’s A New Hope, her enemy will be the Empire, led by Darth Vader, whose black death’s-head helmet was directly inspired by Nazi soldiers. Having fantasy “bad guys” who serve as a stand-in for America’s World War II enemies is as formulaic as it gets in Hollywood; it’s a trope that’s been revived for every generation, from Star Wars to Indiana Jones to Marvel’s Captain America series. Pointing out the Star Wars Empire’s allegorical ties to white supremacy still shouldn’t be enough to hurt the film’s sales. In the unlikely instance that it does, that outcome should be seen as a reflection on the current political climate, as not proof that artists should keep their more partisan opinions to themselves.
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