It can be hard to be a Star Wars fan in the age of the internet. The fandom is massive, the love strong, but so too is the vitriol. This new era of Star Wars has been especially trying. With every new piece of content comes a slew of criticisms, ranging from the healthy nitpicks to the aggressive trolling. For many fans, the never-ending back-and-forths have dimmed the lights on their favorite fandom.
That's part of why Star Wars Celebration feels so important this year. This weekend, the fan convention has set up shop in Chicago, and opened Friday with a panel dedicated to the upcoming ninth and final film in the Skywalker saga, Episode IX, the title of which was revealed in the panel's closing moments: The Rise of Skywalker. Director J.J. Abrams, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and cast members Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, and newcomer Naomi Ackie were all there, and host Stephen Colbert kept the excitement going until first teaser trailer for the film debuted at its close. But the most exciting moments came not from the big reveals, but from the pure love reverberating through the auditorium. It was the Star Wars fandom at it's absolute best and most contagious.
The positivity came before the panel even got underway. During the pre-show, the staff brought several young girls to the stage to talk about their love of Star Wars, then introduced them to Samantha Alleyne, the first woman to play a Stormtrooper in the films. That set the stage nicely for Episode IX, which kept the refreshing moments of positivity coming at breakneck speed.
The reactions to returning cast members Anthony Daniels and Billy Dee Williams were energizing, but the most validating stuff started with the strong reaction to the first photo of Naomi Ackie's new character, Jannah. (She may or may not be a Calrissian, by the way.) Ackie shared the story of her casting, and we got an exciting look at her in all of her scrappy, Resistance glory. Fans were also excited to see new images of the sequel trilogy characters, like Rey, Finn, Poe, and Rose – all characters who've faced their fair-share of controversy. The crowd lost it every time a new photo flashed on the screen, a thrilling, infectious experience to behold. If it wasn't clear before, the morning was proof that Abrams and Rian Johnson have created iconic, diverse characters that mean so much to so many people. The panel put a particular emphasis on the new class, instead of relying only on original trilogy nostalgia, and the crowd loved every second of it.
"This movie is about this new generation and what they've inherited, the light and the dark," Abrams told the crowd, reminding us who and what this new saga is about.
Abrams and Kennedy also spent a significant amount of time honoring the late Carrie Fisher. Her presence was sorely missed on the stage, but she's as central to Star Wars as she's ever been. Kennedy once said the third film was meant to be Leia's, the way the previous two were Han's and Luke's. In a way, she still gets to have her moment. Abrams admitted they wrote the entire film around unused footage he filmed with Fisher for The Force Awakens. Some of this footage even made it into the trailer. He also mentioned Carrie will have onscreen moments with her daughter, Billie Lourd, who plays Lieutenant Connix. Proof that the staggering impression Leia left on little girls everywhere will live on in her moments, and in Rey, too.
The prepared images and talks of IX were lovely, but the two most delightful moments of the panel were completely spontaneous and crowd reactionary. The first came when Daisy Ridley came onstage and the audience sang her "Happy Birthday." Ridley turned 27 on April 10, a few days before the panel took place, and she was clearly moved by the kind deed. But it wasn't just that very human moment that made the morning so touching; almost every reaction to Ridley and Rey was thunderous, and the panel made it very clear how much of a loved part of the fandom she is.
And then there was the biggest, most heart-warming, and most thrilling moment of the whole event: Kelly Marie Tran got a standing ovation when Colbert brought up Rose Tico. Kelly has had perhaps the hardest road of any new Star Wars actor; her Instagram was flooded with cruel comments following the release of the divisive The Last Jedi, and she spent the months after its release away from the spotlight. That's why the uproarious reaction to hearing her name brought the young actress to tears, and most of the audience as well.
"I was grateful to Rian Johnson for so many things that he did in VIII, [though the] greatest for me was casting Kelly Marie," Abrams said to cheers.
Hearing messages like that, and walking the floor with hundreds of Reys and Rose Ticos in detailed cosplay, has been a reaffirming joy at Star Wars Celebration. The fandom may be disjointed, it may be messy, but it's a far cry from being broken. Star Wars fans proved at the Episode IX panel that there's no other fandom quite as special as this one, and that hope and love always win in the end.
Images: Disney, Lucasfilm