The year was 1999. Once again, Star Wars was the most hotly anticipated release of the year. It went on to become the most successful release that year. And then to become known as one of the most maligned movies ever.
How is that even possible? Not every huge success remains popular. It's strange, it really is. You look back historically and it's virtually unthinkable. Going back just twenty years, and there's not a single such success, the top draw of the year, that went on to become unpopular. The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Top Gun (1986), Three Men and a Baby (1987), Rain Man (1988), Batman (1989), Home Alone (1990), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Aladdin (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), Toy Story (1995), Independence Day (1996), Titanic (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998)...These were all cultural touchstones of varying degrees, and to varying degrees still relevant and beloved today. (Quibble about, say, Three Men and a Baby, but it doesn't really matter.)
After The Phantom Menace? In fact, immediately after, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), suffered the same fate. It happened again to Spider-Man 3 (2007). It's time to stop blaming Jar Jar Binks and do some actual analysis.
It's worth starting with Star Wars itself. Return of the Jedi was widely panned by fans, too, and for the same reasons (Ewoks being indisputably the original trilogy's Jar Jar Binks). Over time, fans forgot how little they actually liked the last one, and got caught up in the anticipation for the next one. Why's that, exactly? Because it took that long for anyone to come up with another blockbuster idea.
From the moment of A New Hope's release in 1977, Hollywood started scrounging for the next big thing. That's how we got Superman and Star Trek on the big screen. For the entirety of the '80s, however, big hits looked nothing like Star Wars. Go ahead and look at the films that topped the box office during that period again. To find anything remotely resembling the modern era, you have to look at Batman (1989) at the end of the decade. And then you'll see that there was still no real follow-up for the next decade.
In fact, if you look at the '80s and the '90s, you'll find that Hollywood embraced one aspect of the Star Wars phenomenon: its family-friendly atmosphere. With variations (commonly, action), the formula was eventually adapted so that it was thoroughly safe for kids, kind of like how Disney had such a long string of hit animated films, including the latterday surge in this period as typified by Aladdin (1992) and Toy Story (1995).
It should have been very little surprise that Jar Jar happened at all. Or was attempted at all. Or the filmmakers believed he would happen, up until they started hearing the public's vitriolic feedback.
But what Star Wars really accomplished, in 1999, was to finally force everyone else to take event movies seriously, the way everyone assumed Hollywood had starting in 1977. What were the most popular movies thereafter? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), Spider-Man (2002), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Shrek 2 (2004), Star Wars Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Avatar (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011), Marvel's The Avengers (2012), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)...In fact, until American Sniper (2014), which snatched victory from another Hunger Games installment at the last minute, every top release since Phantom Menace has been part of a major franchise, with minimal overlap.
In addition to everyone complaining that there are no original ideas anymore (which is always ridiculous), what this means is that Star Wars finally created it own competition, by finally bringing back the concept of mass anticipation. It took years. It took about two decades, really.
And it produced the phenomenon of mass disappointment. Films flop all the time, but it took The Phantom Menace for a hugely successful movie to flop, metaphorically speaking. Suddenly even a movie people couldn't stop seeing could be nitpicked to death. And that's what the discussion surrounding Phantom Menace has really amounted to all these years. Nitpicking is what fans do. When you produce a culture where fans are no longer a limited phenomenon, you end up with something as absurd as what happened to Phantom Menace. Now, people just assume it was a bad film, no matter how closely it resembles the same exact tendencies as every Star Wars before it.
I could go on about the film itself, which I've long admired, if not counted among my most favorite movies. Hollywood keeps trying to retain the goofy element in these blockbusters, no matter the fan reaction. That's why Jack Sparrow propelled the Pirates of the Caribbean films to great success, and why Iron Man and his fellow Avengers usually take things tongue-in-cheek. Anytime a blockbuster tries to play things straight, even the fans are disgruntled. Which makes it all the more ironic that they continue to insist that Jar Jar was a horrible, horrible mistake. Hey, you wouldn't have him without C-3PO in...all the other ones.
So here we stand at the precipice of another hotly anticipated Star Wars release. The question we have before us is: will the fans allow themselves to enjoy it? The answer could very well define the next twenty years of filmmaking...