Nineteen years ago, in a multiplex far, far away—or the theater right next to the TCBY—an epic interstellar film franchise enjoyed the first of what would be many regenerations. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace blasted its way into late ’90s movie theaters with a ferocity that would usher in a new millennium of maniacal film fandom.
But all was not well in the galaxy: A dark force would emerge that disrupted the wave of sci-fi ecstasy that Star Wars fans were riding in the summer of ‘99. The culprit—the accused—is a character so reviled that his impact still reverberates across the universe today, like an exploding supernova of angry online comments.
The character, conceived and written by George Lucas, is Jar Jar Binks—a goofy Gungan who fumbled his way onto movie screens and was quickly enshrined as one of the worst film and TV characters of all time.
To drag Jar Jar Binks into the harsh light of internet justice undoubtedly dredges up more questions than answers: What makes a character earn the ire of fans? Is it the actors’ fault? Or are the filmmakers the ultimate culprit? And what other characters stand alongside Jar Jar in this dubious honor?
The Brady Bunch’s “Cousin Oliver” was among the first TV characters known to be widely panned. In modern times, characters like Game Of Thrones’ King Joffery and Breaking Bad’s Skyler White have drummed up intense fan acrimony.
i didn't think it was possible to hate anyone more than king joffrey… jeez
— jake the human (@killthenoise) May 2, 2016
Sensitive Padawans may want to turn away, for the fierce judgments of fandom are not for the faint of heart. In a trial of the most reviled characters to ever sully our screens little will be spared. Entertainment connoisseurs take note as well: Uneasy truths may be unearthed. In fact, you may come away with a renewed appreciation or even a surprising admiration of Jar Jar Binks*.
(*Spoiler alert: You will not come away with a surprising admiration of Jar Jar Binks)
Behind the Binks: Is Jar Jar that bad?
Star Wars fans greeted The Phantom Menace with incredible enthusiasm upon its debut. Midnight screening and opening weekend fans sang the film’s praises; many were whipped up into a frenzy after waiting 16 years for a new Lucasfilm logo’d film to grace the screen.
But even with all those good feelings, the specter of Jar Jar Binks couldn’t help but sully some reviews. While a kid from the above news footage goes on record as saying he liked the “long-eared alien dude,” most critics immediately took shots at Jar Jar. Entertainment Weekly’s original review said: “The Phantom Menace throws in a rabbit-eared mascot named Jar Jar Binks, whose goofy tongue-twisting patois renders him a nuisance within 30 seconds.”
For some expert analysis, Urbo connected with Josh Greenberg, a comic who has written for a number of TV comedies, including Fox’s Raising Hope and CBS’s The McCarthys. Greenberg is also a diligent film and sci-fi fan. “It can be difficult to dissect the magical alchemy that goes into creating an epic cinematic disaster like Jar Jar,” begins Greenberg, pointing out that bad characters are never expected to be bad: “Such magnificent catastrophes can only be created in earnest.”
WHY has Jar Jar Binks been trending for two days? He's like the pretzels in the Chex Mix… kind of the worst part.
— Lights (@lights) January 10, 2011
Greenberg writes to Urbo that Jar Jar Binks falls so short because all fans compare him to other beloved figures in the Star Wars universe: “The holy trilogy had a virtual smorgasbord of memorable side characters.” He points out that Chewie, C-3PO, and Yoda all enjoyed a balance of contradictory positive and negative qualities—“Chewie was menacing but sweet”—that endeared these ancillary players to fans. “Then you look at Jar Jar,” Greenberg notes, “who was annoying and…incompetent?”
Jar jar binks
-did i mention annoying and hated? pic.twitter.com/8kWgVdj8aW
— layla (@idontIikesand) May 8, 2016
The juxtaposition to other beloved characters is often unkind to Jar Jar Binks. Urbo spoke with Rob O’Brien, a film and sci-fi fan who grapples with celestial mysteries as a producer for the History Channel show Ancient Aliens and other docuseries. O’Brien admits George Lucas was trying to replicate some of the spark he had with protocol droid C-3PO but missed the mark: “C-3PO was always frightened, but he wasn’t stupid. Jar Jar is stupid.” In short, fans struggled to see any silver lining when it came to the obnoxious and ineffective Jar Jar Binks. Concludes Greenberg: “There’s no real redeeming or valiant quality underneath his bumbling persona.”
If you’d like to remember just how bumbling Binks was, you can watch The Phantom Menace on Amazon here.
From Bad to Worse
In addition to being unlikable as a character, Jar Jar Binks also raised questions as to whether his whole personality was a riff of off past racial stereotypes. The New York Times review of Phantom Menace cautioned that: “The filmmakers could have been smarter about throwaway references when it came to the ethnic hallmarks of their creatures.” Greenberg sees this as an issue as well: “Let’s address the Bantha in the room: Jar Jar’s persona feels like nothing short of a space minstrel,” referring to minstrel shows from America’s past that utilized stereotyped black characters to entertain exclusively white audiences.
This sort of thing continues to pop up in modern movies and creates more hated characters, such as the notorious Skids and Mudflap from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The two robot-car beings who debuted in Michael Bay’s widely-panned blow-’em-up spectacular immediately became a lightning rod for criticism. The Time review described Skids and Mudflap as “a pair of new characters who speak in an appallingly offensive ghetto patois.”
Greenberg sees echoes of the issues from The Phantom Menace: “Actually, the intent with those characters probably wasn’t far off from Lucas’ vision for Jar Jar—innocuous, slapstick comic relief—but clearly they ended up feeling like icky cinematic stereotypes.” Leaning on unfunny cultural caricatures, knowingly or not, is almost guaranteed to push a character up a couple spots on the “Most Hated” power rankings.
If you want to see them in their only appearance (before they were cut out of all future Transformers movies, never to be spoken of again), you can rent Revenge of the Fallen on Amazon here.
Good “Bad” Characters
While characters like Skids and Mudflap or Jar Jar Binks become infamous because of they feel like they were stitched together from bits of old banned Warner Brothers cartoons and rejected cereal mascots, other characters are so well crafted as antagonists that they elicit intense animosity from fans. Game of Thrones’ King Joffrey earns such a distinction for being absolutely despised by viewers for his ruthless sadism.
The reason for that animosity is clear from his introduction in the first episode of the series, watchable on Amazon here.
Skyler White, Walt’s wife on Breaking Bad, is another character who has found a special place in the “most hated” pantheon. “She’s not a poorly written character, just a highly unlikeable one,” explains O’Brien. He reveals that fans view her as a character whose equivocation in the face of Walt’s descent into crime make her tough to watch: “Despite her endless threats to call the police and complaining about his drug dealing, she never turns him in or walks away.” For those who were captivated by Walt’s transformation over the course of the series, Skyler seemed to be a pervasive roadblock.
Separating Fans from Fiction
As film and television fandom has ballooned to epic proportions, as evidenced in the popularity of midnight screenings or massive fan gatherings like Comic-Con, so too have fans’ interactions with creators and stars. And while that is generally a great thing, some will funnel their negative feelings about a character directly to a performer.
Take, for example, Anna Gunn, who played Skyler White, and wrote an op-ed about the assault of online and occasional in-person vitriol she would be faced with. In the New York Times piece Gunn reveals that: “At some point on the message boards, the character of Skyler seemed to drop out of the conversation, and people transferred their negative feelings directly to me.” Gunn was shook by the way fans had taken their opinions about the show to how they felt about her as a person.
Greenberg shares that there may be more behind the fanatic assault faced by Gunn: “I assume some fans detested her for the same reason some people hated on Carmela Soprano or Betty Draper: They dared to be women who sometimes stood up to the audience’s beloved antihero.”
The rationale behind the anger can be difficult to pin down, but the effects of fan wrath run amok are all too real. Kelly Marie Tran, who played the new character Rose in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, faced online harassment from trolling commenters and eventually shut down her Instagram because of it. Many more fans and Last Jedi director Rian Johnson eventually rushed to Tran’s defense. In interviews, Johnson has always been quick to point out that the vast majority, 90 percent he says, of Star Wars fans are respectful and encouraging.
“While it’s perfectly fair for fans to hold strong opinions on a franchise’s characters,” Greenberg argues, “in this era of social media it truly sucks that disgruntled fans would ever blame the actors or reach out to them on social media to attack them directly.”
Greenberg mentions that actor Robbie Rist, who played Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch—an infamous character seen as a late series “cute kid” band-aid to fix slumping ratings, faced plenty of flak when the show was canceled six episodes after Oliver’s introduction. Greenberg, who knows Rist, says, “It makes me grateful Twitter wasn’t around when he played that role as a kid.”
When it comes to unexpected backlash to a character, not much could have prepared Ahmed Best, the actor who played Jar Jar Binks, for the flood of criticism he would face. In interviews, Best revealed the ups and downs of being a part of the biggest movie event of the decade while also facing some of the harshest criticism in recent cinematic memory. He even recently shared the chilling fact that he contemplated taking his own life at one point.
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I’ve been thinking of doing a twenty year #ThePhantomMenace solo show next year. I don’t talk a lot about my experience as #jarjarbinks because a lot of it is very painful. I faced a media backlash that still affects my career today. This was the place I almost ended my life. It’s still hard to talk about. I survived and now this little guy is my gift for survival. I’m ready to tell this story but I’m curious to know if a show like this is something people want to see. Lemme know. #depressionisreal #survivor #soninmyeyes #fathersonvacay
No one should face the personal pain Best experienced, no matter how much a performance is derided. Besides, many agree that Best was just an innocent bystander in the Binks debacle. For starters, it is easy to forget that he was an actor inhabiting an entirely new kind of role—in 1999, the motion-capture form that Andy Serkis has become famous for was a newfangled medium—and thus his performance might have been a little more over-the-top as a result.
Plus even the “look” of Jar Jar Binks rubbed many the wrong way, and that was something that Best had zero control over. “While I hate to be superficial, Jar Jar was physically kind of repulsive,” contends Greenberg, “One of the obvious charms of Chewie was that for all his looming, foreboding power, he was essentially a big huggable shaggy dog. Whereas Jar Jar was a fish. With abs. Underneath an Aladdin vest. There’s nothing huggable about that.”
And of course, it is ultimately the filmmakers, or, in this case, filmmaker, who makes the final decision on how a character acts, looks, and is woven into the story. O’Brien places guilt squarely on the shoulders of the man from Modesto: “Lucas is to blame. And the parade of ‘yes-men’ who don’t challenge him. That script wouldn’t have made it past intern coverage if it didn’t have George Lucas’ name on it.” For what it’s worth, an unrepentant Lucas has continued to stand firm against the criticism of Jar Jar Binks.
There’s little doubt that playing a disliked character can impact an actor’s career or personal well-being in dramatic ways. Fortunately, time and perspective can provide the absolution that irate fans never could. Ahmed Best has made peace with his position in universes both fictitious and real, telling Wired in a wide-ranging interview: “I did my job. I was believable enough for you to believe that this character existed. George said do a thing, I did a thing.” And Best has found a whole new galaxy to explore with his latest endeavor, The Afrofuturist Podcast.
Similarly, Rist was able to build a career that went well beyond the story of a man named Brady. In the time since his young acting days, Rist has been a prolific voice actor, and may be best known for voicing the pizza-obsessed Michelangelo in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. He’s also found artistic fulfillment in other arenas, including his podcast, The Spoon, and in a dynamic music career. “I don’t really consider myself an actor or a musician,” said Rist in a past Los Angeles Times interview, “I am just an entertainment guy,”
Good Natured Hate
There’s little disputing the verdict that Jar Jar Binks and other fictional characters are guilty of spurning fans to endlessly litigate what their existence meant for their favorite shows or films. And though the actors themselves are cleared of any and all crimes against good taste, and the multi-millionaire creators are culpable but still at large, it might seem that the fans themselves could be hauled away for possession of excessive amounts of outrage. But is that justice?
Most hated characters, ranked:
7. Jar Jar Binks (Star Wars)
6. Skylar White (Breaking Bad)
5. Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter)
4. Joffrey Barathian (GOT)
3. Hunter who shot Bambi’s Mom
2. Cersei Lannister (GOT)
1. Bryan the boom guy (@TheOfficePosts)
— Zac Fletcher (@fletchy_wap) August 4, 2018
Certainly, fans who cross the line into personally targeting actors or making threats are too divorced from reality to be called fans at all. But there’s nothing wrong with occasionally eviscerating the truly terrible when it comes into our midst. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert relished in gutting certain movies that he believed were an insult to the art form. Ebert’s review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is pure poetry: “If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together.”
Greenberg gives insight into the great benefit of such passions: “One of the joys of being a fan is that sense of inclusion, the feeling that you have a bond and kinship with strangers. A huge part of that is being able to dissect a film—even one you love—and talk about each of the elements you loved or hated.” Such fandom can be celebrated and even mocked with a wink of self-awareness.
When it comes to those involved in the creative process, writers, producers, and actors certainly have a level of awareness as well. O’Brien says that all who set out to make something should be willing to face whatever criticisms may come their way: “It’s the Coliseum—sometimes you get a thumbs up, sometimes you get a thumbs down. If you don’t like it, stay out of the ring.”
Indeed, it is in passing judgment that fans get to wring more enjoyment out of their viewing experience. It’s not just binging a show or seeing a movie—it’s talking about it work on Monday or grabbing a bite after the credits roll and dissecting the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Ultimately, to borrow the sentiment from Best, the very fact that Jar Jar Binks has been worthy of being put on trial—of all these words written, experts cited, and metaphorical ink spilled—is a testament to the power of the performance. That alone should give fans a renewed appreciation for Jar Jar Binks. Perhaps the Gungan is even worthy of a level of admiration?
On that point, to quote Mr. Binks: “Ye gods, whatta meesa sayin’?”