Fan Service and “The Last Jedi”


In the choppy wakes of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “Game of Thrones: Season Seven,” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” I have begun to think about what it means for creative persons to engage in what is known as fan service.

Fan service is a term that was originally coined to explain why Japanese animators and artists might want to add gratuitous nudity and near nudity to anime and manga.

They do it to “service the fans” (largely male, in that case, and apparently afflicted with an unnatural sexual interest in cartoon characters).

The phrase has since been expanded to address whenever a creator does something with a TV series or movie that may benefit fans more than it benefits the plot or the dictates of coherent storytelling.

“Game of Thrones: Season Seven” was widely acknowledged to be chock full of fan service: It largely jettisoned the deliberate pacing, crackling dialogue and careful world building of past seasons in favor of big, splashy (and often illogical) revelations and action sequences.

This strategy rewarded some fans and alienated others.

Fans of deliberate pacing, crackling dialogue and careful world building did not feel well serviced.

Different fans have different expectations, which is why providing “fan service” is a trickier undertaking that it might seem to be on its surface.

Case in point: David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return.”

“Twin Peaks: The Return” consists of roughly 1000 utterly surprising minutes. Whatever a fan’s expectations were going in, they were not met (except in a philosophical sense, which I will go into later).

Superficially, Lynch provided fans with little that qualified as fan service.

Lynch doesn’t seem to care much about our nostalgia. He wasn’t interested in cooking up the meal we know and love. He wanted to challenge our pop cultural palates. He wanted to whip up something worth whipping up.

The sequel series disappointed some fans of the original “Twin Peaks,” fans who apparently wanted nothing more than to see FBI agent Dale Cooper sit around for 17 hours eating cherry pie and talking about “damned fine cups of coffee.”

But for fans of Lynch – fans of the way Lynch has dependably frustrated and offended and amused and astonished and bewildered us – “Twin Peaks: The Return” was an improbably satisfying and stimulating reboot.

Which brings me to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (Spoilers to follow).

First of all, it would be difficult to make a “Star Wars” movie that pleased everybody because filmmakers are competing with adults’ idealized and rose-colored memories of having loved “Star Wars” as kids.

The older a fan is, the longer those memories have had to grow fat and a little crazy.

One of the biggest complaints leveled against “The Last Jedi” by the people who claim to hate it has to do with the character of Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill).

Unlike Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda before him, Luke did not age into a placid spouter of Jedi axioms.

In “The Last Jedi,” he is a tortured, bitter guy with skeletons in his closet.

Let us consider for a moment how bona fide Jedi were generally portrayed in Lucas’ films.

The last time we really got a good look at Luke was in “Return of the Jedi.” Gone were the sense of humor and range of emotions he’d demonstrated in Episodes Four and Five.

Lucas hamstrung Hamill in “Return of the Jedi” because he required the actor to shift into bland guru mode.

All the Jedi in Lucas’ prequels are insufferable, humorless bores. Lucas apparently has this idea about holy men: That true enlightenment leaches them of charisma, charm, nuance and any interest in taking or making jokes.

Imagine what a long slog “The Last Jedi” would have been if Luke had spent its duration uttering cookie fortunes in a bland, expressionless monotone.

Instead, “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson gave Hamill some meat (and scenery) to chew.

And Yoda!

Johnson resurrected Yoda from the creative graveyard of the prequels where Lucas used CGI to set the wizened wizard free only to bring him crashing back to earth with thudding dialogue and a prissy personality makeover.

Say what you want about Disney: The studio brought something back to the franchise that it hadn’t been seen in decades.

Namely, recognizably human (and humanoid) characters.

But here is something I understand because I am a nerd: Nerds are a little defensive about their proclivities.

They’re used to being mocked for the things they love, so when they see humor, irreverence or brazen narrative doglegs in “The Last Jedi,” they mistake it for disrespect.

They almost prefer it when their beloved characters are rendered as one-dimensional. That’s the only way their integrity can be ensured.

This is why there is so much nostalgia for the prequels in certain nerdy circles: Because they’re reverent at the expensive of everything else: surprise, suspense, emotional investment, etc.

Well, nerds need to lighten up.

I am as big a “Star Wars” fan as a person who hasn’t purchased any new action figures in a while can be.

And I loved that “The Last Jedi” was as surprising and unpredictable as it was.

It took what we thought we knew and made it fresh without spoiling its substance.

This is the key to the longevity of movie franchises: Bringing in self-assured creative people who aren’t afraid to take a few chances.

That’s the epitome of “fan service,” it seems to me.