The myths and realities of the toxic ‘Star Wars’ fanbase from a Comic-Con perspective

Members of the 501st Legion cosplaying as Imperial officers on the third day of the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con International at the San Diego Convention Center on Saturday, July 21, 2018.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

There was no official “Star Wars” film panel at Comic-Con this year, but on Saturday afternoon the fandom came together in the name of Rose Tico.

While the “Rally for Rose” event was celebratory in nature — dozens of Comic-Con attendees cosplayed as Kelly Marie Tran’s famed “Last Jedi” character — it was in response to a recent disturbance in the force. The event was organized as a way for fans to combat (mostly) online backlash against the actress.

Tran, who is the first Asian American actress to appear in a prominent role in any “Star Wars” film, removed her photos from her social media accounts presumably because of harrassment. There has been criticism of General Leia Organa's use of the Force in "The Last Jedi," and there have been calls for Kathleen Kennedy, shepherd of the "Star Wars" movie legacy, to step down.

These are all fan-initiated events that have lately defined the group as a whole, labeling them as a toxic fanbase.

But is it fair?

"The loudest voice in the room is the one that's heard the most. The fans that have the most negative opinions are being the loudest right now," said Chris Polansky, a "Star Wars" fan The Times spoke with on the Comic-Con exhibition floor. "It's had some unfortunate consequences, but for the most part, the fandom is great."

Michelle Waxman, a member of the Rebel Legion, cosplays as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo.
(Jevon Phillips / Los Angeles Times)

In the San Diego Convention Center, located between the retail floor and the autograph area in Sails Pavilion, is a small corner of the Con that houses societies and organizations looking to increase their reach. Among them each year are many of the “Star Wars” cosplay and charity organizations, chief among them being the 501st Legion, or Vader's Fist and the Rebel Legion (pictured above), organizations that visit hospitals and perform at charity events regularly. The groups boasts a strong and growing membership numbering in the tens of thousands worldwide.

Another sister “Star Wars” organization, the Mandalorian Mercs, is also camped out on the corner of this mid-level of the convention center that is also the home of many popular card gaming rooms for things like “Pokemon” and “Magic the Gathering.”

It's here that the question of a toxic fanbase is posed. Obviously these individuals are uber fans, but no one among them thinks that the rhetoric and actions of a few represent the whole.

Jamie "Diamond Dog" Tobitt, a member of the Imperial Sands Garrison of the 501st Legion, doesn't defend the dissenting voices but does understand them.

"Some people feel entitled about it ’cause they're so wrapped up in it, but that doesn't mean they stop liking it. Maybe they're just trying to nudge it in another direction. I disagree with people saying that they want Kathleen Kennedy fired and stuff like that. It's just a story. It's a complicated story, though, and it's a story that's gone on for decades.”

The most vocal of the contingent seem to be males, and some fans, like Michelle Waxman, a member of the Sunrider Base of The Rebel Legion, see that as part of the problem.

"I think a little bit of [the toxic fanbase] is there because change is difficult and because it's been male leads in the past. Male story arcs. With a female protagonist that's ascending in a big way, that's a little different. I think for some it's a tough pill to swallow. I think it's an evolution in the right direction ‘cause there's so many female fans," said Waxman.

"I think that there's a small contingent of guys that are the naysayers. I think they're getting a lot of weight out there editorially. They just seem to be getting a lot of print…. The male fanbase is kind of saturated."

Sue Contant, mom of Michelle Waxman above, cosplays as Rose Tico from the “Star Wars” franchise.
(Jevon Phillips / Los Angeles Times)

Whether it's gender-based or not, the prevailing feeling is that it's an issue that should not taint the entire fanbase.

"The real ugly stuff that has been online is a very, very small minority," said Leslie Camerino, a member of the 501st clad in a stormtrooper uniform. "There's critics out there in the true fanbase, but not that much hate."

True fans of the franchise may not like every decision that's being made, but they watch and try to enjoy every nuance in the "Star Wars" universe -- whether it's originals, prequels or the new iterations.

"I've enjoyed them. I also realize that I'm not the target audience. I'm in my ‘40s. I grew up with the original trilogy that was presented in theaters. Not the special editions that were remastered by George, or the prequels. This is not my particular ‘Star Wars,’ but it's still 'Star Wars.' It's marketed for a new generation, and that's what we want. We want to bring in more fans," says Polansky.

"I personally didn't think 'Solo' was necessary, but it was fun. We had a good time watching that movie."

In the end, it is about sharing fandom, not owning it, even as the franchise evolves with the times.

"It's more inclusive on a number of levels. Even with ethnic characters. My mom, who's half Chinese, wanted to be Rose Tico. She's 72," said Waxman.

"There's nothing better than to see the impact that this brand has on people of any age and any walk of life."