The Last Jedi of Dragon Con!

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When I opened my 2018 Dragon Con app a few weeks ago to see which Star Wars panels I might like to attend and report on this year, the first thing that popped up was “The Last Last Jedi Debate” hosted by Film Threat.

Check.

Now here me out… this is not a post about whether or not The Last Jedi is great or not—I have no dog in that fight and this post will not debate the merits of the film. I decided to write this article because what did fascinate me was the con’s choice to host an in-person debate about TLJ in a room packed with Star Wars fans (standing room only, in fact). Really Dragon Con? You wanted to touch this live wire? Nearly a year on from its release, the film is still generating some of the internet’s worst teeth-gnashing. Was there a single news/blog/lifestyle outlet that failed to report on all that fandom infighting? You could probably search the Good Housekeeping archives and find an opinion piece on The Last Jedi’s place in the Star Wars pantheon.

On the morning of, I approached the panel meeting room both curious and nervous about what might transpire. Would toxic fandom materialize in the flesh? Angry shouting from the audience? Light sabers hurled into assembled panelists?

At best, I expected violent cannibalism. At worst, the detonation of a tactical nuke.

Shockingly, I got neither.

Dragon Con made the right choice. I have never ceased to be impressed with good vibes at this convention over the years, and this was no exception. The audience demonstrated patience and humor and acceptance. I should have guessed—this was actually the second “Last Last Jedi Debate” that Film Threat has moderated. Host Chris Gore looked optimistic and lacked any recent disfiguring injuries, so it stood to reason that the first debate was light on the cannibalism.

It helped that Gore came armed for trouble. He opened the panel with a short film that used the legendary Star Wars opening crawl to demand civility and tolerance from the audience (you can watch the full video above). It got solid laughs, as did Gore when he followed with a personal request for good vibes and respect. “This isn’t the internet—you actually have to talk to people.”

Gore constructed his panel into a “pro” team (extra TLJ, please) and a “con” team (hold the TLJ, thanks). Each had three members with varying levels of Star Wars fandom cred. Each team even had a captain. The discussion was structured like a classical debate. Gore asked a question, let a representative from one team make a statement, and then asked for rebuttal from the opposing team.

Among the questions Gore posed to the panel:

What makes this film so divisive?
Were Luke’s actions out of character?
What humor worked and what didn’t?
Are the film’s characters strong enough to become iconic like those from the originals? (not technically specific to TLJ, but ok)
Was it a good idea to kill Snoke?
Was the film wise to jettison the “chosen one” mythology?
Was Luke’s death handled well?
Should JJ Abrams take fan backlash into account when making the third film?

I’m going to disappoint you here and omit what arguments were made by each team—as I said, this post isn’t a pro/con debate (and for an hour-long panel, reporting on that would make this 10,000 words). No one was declared a winner (not the point), but I can say that the pro team, anchored by a particularly energized Bryan Young of the Full of Sith website, consistently seemed to carry more momentum.

Gore did a bang-up job moderating, injecting humor when it was needed and moving the discussion forward when things got heated—and I mean “heated” in the mildest sense (think the “warm” setting on a toaster). He smartly corralled the opposing sides into compromise with his final question: If you disliked the film overall, what is something you liked about it, and if you liked the film overall, what is something you disliked about it? By the end of it, some of the pro and con debaters were actually agreeing with each other.

I’m happy to report that not once did any “con” member suggest that their dislike of the film had anything to do with the welcome new diversity of the cast. During the opening film’s admonishment of misogyny and racism, the crowd cheered, further validating my love for the Dragon Con community. To point, perhaps the most interesting answer given by a panelist came in response to “What makes this film so divisive?” A “pro” panelist argued that it isn’t nearly as divisive as the echo chamber of the internet makes it seem—walk around this con, it was said, and you might hear ambivalence about this film, but not hatred. Hatred isn’t a part of true fandom.

So what was my ultimate takeaway? One, Dragon Con management is quite brave—but they made a wise gamble on the civility and goodwill of their con attendees. Two, people love Star Wars (myself included) even when they may not swoon over its every story iteration. Third, the debate about TLJ has been finally settled once and for all, and I doubt I will ever hear about the subject again. (I’d also like to mention that I won’t be keeping up with the comment section.) May the Force be with you!

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