The single best part of Star Wars Celebration in Orlando this year wasn’t the first trailer for The Last Jedi, but instead, the moment when Liam Neeson joked about making a secret movie where Jar Jar Binks “went to the Dark side.” On May the Fourth, most fans celebrate the best things about Star Wars but overlook the real hero of the day. On Star Wars Day this year, it’s time to remember that despite the universal animosity he draws, Jar Jar Binks is truly the lynchpin of the Star Wars fandom. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.
Before the contemporary era of Disney blockbuster perfection, Star Wars fans luxuriated in the obviously bad things about the saga: the Ewok movies, the 1997 Greedo-shoots-first-totally-not-special-editions, and Jar Jar in The Phantom Menace. I infamously love telling the story about purchasing a Jar Jar Binks tongue candy in 1999, only to lick it in 2005 for the premiere of Revenge of the Sith. To be clear, the candy wasn’t shaped like Jar Jar’s face, but instead, a plastic container was shaped like his face, and the candy was his tongue, meaning children were encouraged to lick Jar Jar’s tongue specifically.
Why were there no similar Star Wars characters given the tongue-candy treatment for The Force Awakens? Not even Oscar Isaac? The point is, not only was Jar Jar Binks in poor taste in the movie Star Wars: The Phantom Menace itself, but the toys, plush creatures, and tongue-candies made his existence more embarrassing — the black sheep of pop culture’s First Family.
At first, fandom was unified by secondhand embarrassment — Jar Jar firmly pushed nerds away from mainstream crossover. But over time, fandom united around Jar Jar for a different reason. Though Jar Jar was a failure as comic relief in the movies (at least for adults), fans are more recently in on a new kind of joke: pretending that Jar Jar is cool. Neeson’s winky declaration of making a movie about Jar Jar is the current zenith of this phenomenon, but it’s not the beginning.
In 2015, a Reddit user named Lumpawarroo posited perhaps the most famous Star Wars fan theory of all time: Jar Jar Binks wasn’t an idiot but actually a secret Sith Lord. While a certain kind of fan would argue vehemently for or against the “truth” of this theory, that’s not really the point. The fact that Lumpawarroo’s “Darth Jar Jar” theory exists at all proves a vergence in Star War fandom: a place where something uncool becomes something cool. The concept of retroactive continuity — which Star Wars practically invented — always tends to do this: create trash out of greatness, or, in the case of the general opinion of the prequels, turn greatness into trash. So in true fandom fashion, despite the fact that the films never gave Jar Jar an arc of any kind, the fans, and some Star Wars insiders, created one for him. This wouldn’t be the first time goofy Star Wars characters were given more depth retroactively in a medium other than the films. But the zealous attention paid to ironically making Jar Jar “cool” is more unique.
In the documentary The Prequels Strike Back, outspoken director Kevin Smith stuck up for Jar Jar, reminding fans that children all seemed to love the character in 1999, and if that’s true, surely some of those children are much older now. Is it possible those fans are sublimating their pure love of Jar Jar into irony? If so, the humor of the Darth Jar Jar theory appeals to these original Jar Jar true believers. They can have their warm feelings and mock him, too. In 2016, the actor who played Jar Jar, Ahmed Best, even confirmed the idea that some aspects of the Darth Jar Jar theory seemed right to him. “Could Jar Jar have evolved into that?” he said in an interview with Jamie Stangroom. “I think the answer is yes.” In most fandom circles, it was a given that Jar Jar sucks, but no one would blame Ahmed Best. So, when Best acts like a Star Wars fan too, everyone feels great.
In a sense, elevating Jar Jar out of his status an an embarrassing mistake and into something that universally puts a smile on fans faces represents why Star Wars is popular in general. Elevating zeros to heroes not only mirrors Luke’s journey — a character most fans have envisioned themselves as more than once — but also the franchise’s impact on sci-fi’s place in pop culture. Is it any wonder that fandom transformed the worst of the franchise into something worth celebrating?
Whether or not Jar Jar is a Sith Lord isn’t what is important. Proving the “truth” in rabbit hole, Star Wars fan theories is a hopeless endeavor. (Trust me.) It’s also not why these things happen. It’s the chatter that’s fun. Because what’s wonderful about contemporary badass Jar Jar Binks is that the conversation about the character has changed. Before it was only complaining, but now, it’s something a little more complex, layered with more intelligence. By talking about Jar Jar Binks in a new way, Star Wars fans have done the impossible. We’ve grown up.