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'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' faces a tall order: Satisfying legions of fans

"The Rise of Skywalker," the final installment in the nine-part film series, has to pull off a high-wire act like few Hollywood blockbusters.
Image: The 42-year-old \"Star Wars\" franchise looks to live up to legions of fans with the release of the final installment, \"The Rise of Skywalker.\"
The 42-year-old "Star Wars" franchise looks to live up to sky-high expectations with the release of "The Rise of Skywalker."Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Disney

Let's dispense with the obvious: "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" will conquer the Christmastime box office. But for legions of fans, the release Friday of the final installment in the nine-part film series known as the Skywalker saga is considerably more fraught.

"The Rise of Skywalker," co-written and directed by J.J. Abrams, has to pull off a high-wire act like few Hollywood blockbusters. It must neatly conclude a sequel trilogy and crown a 42-year-old franchise, taking viewers on a thrilling adventure that feels fresh but runs the risk of angering fans if it sharply deviates from codified "Star Wars" mythology.

"The movie faces a pretty tall task," said Dan Betters, a pastor at a Presbyterian church in Delaware who in his spare time dresses up as bounty hunter Boba Fett and Darth Vader. "Can they wrap up nine movies in one storyline where it's all cohesive? I think it's possible, but who knows."

Betters, 43, is one of the millions of "Star Wars" aficionados around the world for whom the intergalactic tale of light versus dark is intensely personal — equal parts secular religion, generation-spanning social club, all-purpose political allegory and raw fuel for childhood nostalgia.

Lucasfilm, the Disney-owned production company behind the "Star Wars" universe, needs to delight exactly these devoted (and sharply opinionated) fans, answering unresolved questions while leaving enough mystery for future iterations — especially after what some have characterized as recent missteps.

"The Last Jedi," the previous entry in the Skywalker saga, drew jeers from some stalwarts who said it broke with the established franchise "rules" and swerved into quirky subplots. "Solo," a standalone film about the early days of the cocky smuggler originally played by Harrison Ford, sputtered at the box office and earned tepid reviews.

Disney also confronted racist and misogynistic attacks from a small but vocal contingent of viewers who objected to the racial inclusivity of "The Last Jedi," as well as a reported Russian troll campaign that sought to stir up American cultural tensions. Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran, who plays intrepid Resistance fighter Rose Tico, deleted her social media accounts after months of harassment.

The early reactions to "The Rise of Skywalker" — mostly made up of reviews and tweets from critics who attended press screenings on Tuesday — suggested the film might leave many viewers disappointed, or at least just as divided.

The movie's score on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes hovered just under 60 percent by midweek, with many high-profile critics knocking "Skywalker" for a lack of imagination, hectic pace and overstuffed plot. In one review, New York Times critic A.O. Scott called Abrams "perhaps the most consistent B student in modern popular culture."

The lukewarm reviews are unlikely to make or break the commercial fortunes of a global entertainment behemoth. Besides, the franchise has momentum on the heels of "The Mandalorian," a new spin-off series that streams on Disney Plus and features the internet-devouring, meme-friendly little alien known as Baby Yoda, according to Becca Wapinsky, a stay-at-home mother from Erlanger, Kentucky.

Wapinsky, 26, who attended the world premiere of "The Rise of Skywalker" in Los Angeles on Monday night dressed up as a biker scout from "Return of the Jedi" (1983), said in an interview ahead of the screening that she was cautiously optimistic but clear-eyed about the limitations of any one movie.

"No matter what happens, not everyone is going to be happy. It's just a fact," said Wapinsky, who like Betters is a member of the 501st Legion, an organization of "Star Wars" costume enthusiasts that has thousands of members worldwide.

But that is not to say Wapinsky and her costumed comrades do not have highly specific hopes for how "The Rise of Skywalker" unfolds. Wapinsky, for example, said she would appreciate clarity on the parentage of Rey, the headstrong scavenger-turned-rebel played by Daisy Ridley.

"The Force Awakens" (2015), the first episode in the sequel trilogy, stoked theories that the Force sensitive Rey was linked by blood to Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). But in a divisive storytelling move, "The Last Jedi" appeared to squash those rumors for good.

"I think it's important to establish that Rey is a Skywalker," said Scott Bleisath, a NASA systems engineer who, dressed up as Han Solo, hung out with Wapinsky at the Los Angeles red carpet premiere. "I mean, this is supposed to be 'the Skywalker saga,' right?"

The possible family ties between Luke and Rey clearly struck a chord for Bleisath, who said he regularly cosplays as Luke Skywalker alongside his 17-year-old daughter as Rey. Ideally, he said, "The Rise of Skywalker" would be a sweeping thematic capstone in the vein of "Avengers: Endgame," the Marvel epic.

Tom Cornelius, a 43-year-old engineer from Cincinnati who attended the premiere decked out in First Order Snowtrooper regalia, gave voice to a common refrain among die-hard fans. Above all else, he said, he wants to see storyline "continuity" with the original trilogy: the thrill of various narrative puzzle pieces snapping into place, bridging the landmark 1977 original to the Disney reboots.

In the eyes of Dr. Laurel Steinberg, a fandom and relationship expert, the need for continuity among "Star Wars" devotees is understandable. If the conclusion to a long-running storyline does not tidily and coherently link back to its predecessors, she said, "fans are left feeling confused, unfulfilled and abandoned."

"They can feel like they've been investing in something that's not worthwhile," Steinberg said.

Abrams, who helmed "The Force Awakens" and returned to the director's chair for "The Rise of Skywalker," acknowledged the artistic stakes in a recent interview with The New York Times, saying: "I don't actually think I'm good at anything, but I know how to begin a story. Ending a story is tough."

Betters, the Delaware pastor, said that many of his peers in the "Star Wars" fan community were passionate but not "venomous." He mused that many of the franchise's admirers experience a spiritual salve in the mystical Force and an emotional boost in the heroism of the Rebels.

"I think these movies are an attempt to fill a hole," Betters said.

He flew from Delaware to Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon ("TSA had fun with the Boba Fett costume in my bag"), and he planned to fly back home not long after the premiere so he did not miss Christmas celebrations with his wife and five children.

"I love 'Star Wars' and everything, but it has its place," Betters said. "Jesus is greater than 'Star Wars' to me. But some people might argue with that."