Star Wars Fandom and the Rise of Baby Yoda
Within a month, the internet has seen the rise of a new messiah in a commercial universe of would-be messiahs. That savior is a small, green puppet on the hit Disney Plus series, The Mandalorian, anointed by the fandom as ‘Baby Yoda’. While it’s not solving the drug wars in Latin America or removing politicians from office, the impact Baby Yoda has had is no less profound on internet culture and more so the Star Wars fandom.
To understand why a puppet can be given such an accolade, one must understand what the franchise was like before. Star Wars has never been in short supply of adorable characters. From the small and scavenging Jawas, to droids providing comedy relief, the franchise has always held a certain appeal towards innocence during dark times. This was a major factor in it establishing itself as one of the biggest franchises of all time back in the late-1970s and early 1980s. Timing was everything.
America was going through hard economic times and cultural exhaustion when A New Hope came out in 1977, and then during the following decade experiencing a rebirth in creative ideas, energy, and yes, hope. The original trilogy represented these aspects, as well as a desire to see things through simpler eyes again rather than the convoluted mess that was the previous decade and the total, social chaos of the 1960s. A boy, a girl, a wizard, a smuggler, and their faithful and adorable companions on a great adventure: can’t get much simpler than that.
The cuteness factor kicked in with the Ewoks and was somewhat divisive among fans at the time. In an age before there was any internet or Twitter, there were rumors that the third and final film of the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi, was supposed to feature the Wookies. Then it was changed to Endor and the Ewoks. While they were definitely cute, the scenario of putting two foot tall, furry creatures against the Empire’s best legion and winning, was laughable. However, the rest of the movie was still good and for most fans, it was a hit they were willing to take to get the epic finale.
The prequels tried to catch lightning in a bottle again with the character of Jar Jar Binks. While not a droid with an attitude that spoke no English, or little, furry critter that looked like a teddy bear, he was created to be the funny man of the new trilogy. Much like R2-D2 and C-3PO were, but on purpose instead of circumstance. However, that seemed to not take as Jar Jar became the most hated aspect of the new trilogy from the older fan base, and for the first time, reaching a toxic level. Fortunately, the prequels have been getting a lot more love from millennial fans who were kids at the time and liked both Jar Jar and the movies.
The sequel trilogy under Disney has also tried to replicate the phenomenon. First with the rolling-ball droid, BB-8, which did meet some moderate success with the fans. Then with the porgs, which were little penguins with fur and big, seal-baby eyes. Seriously, the latter one was so blatant in its merchandise that I almost couldn’t believe how much they got away with that shit. Twitter and the internet were now part of the everyday, social fabric. So seeing BB-8 and porg memes around Twitter and on nerd news sites were common. Yet neither them or even the old vanguard from the previous trilogies seem to be able to stop the digitally, violent rift opening up in the fandom.
"“We will take a pause, some time, and reset, because the Skywalker saga comes to an end with this ninth movie. There will be other Star Wars movies, but there will be a bit of a hiatus.”— Bob Iger, Walt Disney Chairman and CEO
I won't go into details here, but the long-short of it is that after The Last Jedi, half the fandom felt Disney and the new movies were shitting on what came before, with bad story writing, inconsistent character arcs, and not-so subtle SJW agendas they felt was being forced down their throats.
The other half, meanwhile, supported the The Last Jedi and the direction Disney was taking the decades-long franchise in, such as bringing in more diverse characters, making character arcs more relevant and realistic to the modern day, and not treating the original characters like gods and opening up the possibilities of the Force. This had earned Disney points with this part of the fan base.
A war has since raged between the two sides that in the eyes of many, have turned the entire franchise and fandom into a toxic morass. Between the name calling and accusations of agendas, one could not simply watch Star Wars and enjoy it for what it was. It got so severe that Solo: A Star Wars Story failed at the box office, the first Star Wars movie ever to do so. This hit the mega company where it hurt: their wallets. Afterwards, several movie projects that had been down the pipeline were suddenly cancelled. And most recently, one of the future trilogies was derailed when its runners, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, dropped out in October.
Enter The Mandalorian.
The show delivered on a long-expected promise of a live-action Star Wars TV show that fans have wanted for decades. The first salvo of Disney’s entry into the streaming wars with Netflix, Amazon, and ABC, the first episode became the most pirated show ever, beating out long time holder, Game of Thrones. That expectations were high was an understatement. Yet, clearly there were still enough fans from both camps, as well as casual viewers, to check it out. It was the first original story from the franchise under the Mouse and it did not disappoint.
For the first time in what feels like forever, Star Wars fans seemed to universally praise the show, having elements that everyone could lose themselves in. Then came the ending of the first episode and the fandom war seemed to suddenly stop in its tracks.
The introduction of Baby Yoda was subtle as it was genius. All information regarding its existence was withheld from the media until the episode debuted. More impressive was that there was no indication about it, as its first mentioned at the episode’s beginning as the “fifty year-old bounty”. So by the episode’s end, no one was expecting the bounty to be a cute baby, much less a cute baby that was one of Yoda’s species.
The fandom was both blindsided and fell in love at first sight. Where Yoda came from has been one Star Wars most well guarded secrets, with rumors saying that George Lucas deliberately withheld and forbade any information to be done it or explored. So that Mandalorian seemed to be lifting that ban on such a treasure was by itself irresistible. The fact that it was in the cute form of a baby only made it inevitable. The impact of such a diminutive puppet eclipsed all other place holders before it, both successful and failed. But the question I had was why?
"In what could easily be considered the greatest twist in Star Wars history since Darth Vader telling Luke he was his father (or Kylo killing Snoke -- what) "Baby Yoda" has become the driving force of this show."— Lauren Gallaway, https://www.ign.com/articles/2019/11/18/the-mandalorian-baby-yoda-fan-art
The first factor hearkens back to the success of the original trilogy: timing. Just as A New Hope hit the populace at a low point following internal turmoil and upheaval, so too did The Mandalorian. There are obvious differences such as the franchise now being an empire unto itself and eleven movies, three TV series and a slew of video games to mark its territory.
Rightly or wrongly though, the fandom was in a state of chaos. I’m not going to try and justify either factions’ position, but empirical fact was that most casual viewers were just sick of both of their shit and that fact was now costing Disney millions of dollars and bad press. No amount of spin and finger pointing was going to change those results. The Mandalorian set them up though with a completely new story, new characters, and a new era, and then hit a grand slam with the baby. Baby Yoda may even seal the deal and put the fandom war on hold.
Secondly was that the puppet itself seems to embody a relief from what Star Wars has become. Not only regarding the fandom war, but also the familiar stories and settings. It was arguably the most toxic fan base in all media. The puppet was a rebirth, with a new direction that was also within and still respected the traditional elements of the franchise that fans loved. And the fact that Baby Yoda looks as innocent as it does, hits that desire to let go of your hate pretty hard.
Lastly, Baby Yoda was not advertised or even hinted at before its official appearance. There was no smell of buy-our-merch bullshit that everybody associates with Disney to be had to alert our cynicism. By the time it did, it wasn't because Disney told us to, but because Baby Yoda was so damn cute that we demanded it! The desire came from us and not a salesman telling us what we wanted. You can't get better promotion than that.
The previous attempts by Jar Jar and the porgs felt deliberate and commercially- forced. Though porgs and BB-8 went over much better than Jar Jar did, people were still smart enough to know that they were being catered to and I think this limited the desire for the product and its influence on the fan base overall.
The Unknown Country
The question going into the next decade for Star Wars is going to be where it goes from here. The recent success of The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda has given it some much needed breathing room. Some are arguing that it is still the next movie’s thunder. Fans are finally enjoying Star Wars again rather than going to war over it, though not all wounds have healed. Time will tell how far that healing goes and with The Rise of Skywalker coming out next month, it may either further push Disney in the direction that can profit everybody, or shatter what healing has happened and damage it’s product even further. With no new movies coming for a while afterwards, and Disney’s focus switching to streaming shows on Disney Plus, it could allow enough time to pass for excitement for the franchise to build up again to pre-The Force Awakens levels.
We’ll see, but for now, it seems that a divided fandom is starting to come together over a small child on the run with a rogue warrior.