The Fans Who Saved The Day (For the Bad Guys)

If you’ve never seen Star Wars, stop reading and go fix that. Definitely spend the time to watch the original trilogy, especially if you can find the pre-1997 special edition version. (Han, we all know, shot first.) Rogue One is great, too, and begrudgingly, I admit that Revenge of the Sith is a decent-at-worst movie. You’ll learn all about the Empire, the Rebellion, Darth Vader, Luke, Boba Fett, and of specific importance to today’s Now I Know, Stormtroopers.

(And, to be clear, if you haven’t watched any of these movies, you’ll only kind of understand today’s newsletter. So read on if you want, but you’ll miss a lot, much like the Stormtroopers themselves.)

The Star Wars universe got its start in 1977 when the first Star Wars movie delighted fans near and far. Its glory continued a few years later with The Empire Strikes Back and crescendoed when Return of the Jedi hit the silver screen in 1983. Almost immediately, fans began yearning for more stories from the galaxy far, far away, but for the most part, that love was unrequited for more than a decade. But that didn’t stop fans from being die-hards. For example, in 1997, two fans from South Carolina — Albin Johnson and Tom Crews — created a website to post pictures of themselves dressed up in homemade Stormtrooper costumes. While that may sound weird to many, it appealed to some — and before long, Johnson and Crews found themselves on the receiving end of emails from other fans who had undertaken similar hobbies. So they decided to form a club. They called themselves “The 501st Legion” — the number doesn’t have any special meaning, sorry — and invited other cosplayers to join them as they dressed up like the feared but often feckless army of the bad guys in Star Wars.

In the years since, the 501st Legion has grown beyond Johnson’s and Crews’ wildest dream. Today, the Legion claims more than 14,000 members in its ranks, and they’re often doing good, despite their costumes. They appear at conventions and appear in photos with other fans, of course (of course!), but they often do so as a fundraiser for local charities, by running a “Blast-a-Trooper” game where other fans get to shoot Legionnaires with Nerf darts in exchange for a donation. (Here’s a video, but beware, the audio is loud and aggressive.) They also visit hospitals to visit sick children who want a Star Wars experience during their treatment and recovery, and the Legion also raises money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation and makes appearances for the organization. Just because they dress like the bad guys doesn’t mean they’re not the good guys.

And that came in handy for Disney, the company that now owns Lucasfilm and Star Wars. In 2019, they released “The Mandalorian,” the first-ever live-action Star Wars television show. In the timeline of the Star Wars universe, the show takes place five years after Return of the Jedi, but straggling units of the now-fallen Empire still remained — and therefore, there were still a lot of Stormtroopers around. In fact, there were more than Lucasfilm originally intended.

Stormtroopers play a major role in the final two episodes of the first season of The Mandalorian, and when filming those episodes, the producers ran into a problem. As Comic Book Resources reports, the “episodes required more Stormtrooper costumes than the crew had on hand,” which is a big problem when you’re producing a show with a multi-million dollar budget. Rather than pause production, the producers asked their fans for help. Per CBR, “series creator Jon Favreau and Lucasfilm’s Dave Filoni reached out to a local chapter of the 501st Legion.” And the Legion responded.

As seen in the picture above (via Twitter), roughly two dozen members of the 501 showed up. The producers didn’t ask them to just share their costumes — the Star Wars fans were invited to play the role of the Stormtroopers in the episode. And of course, they obliged. 

Bonus fact: The Stormtrooper costumes that The 501st Legion (and for that matter, the actors in Star Wars films and TV shows probably too) wear isn’t really armor — it’s plastic, and won’t protect you from much. But as one member of the 501 learned, it may still save your life. In 2015, Scott Loxley, a former (real-life) soldier dressed up like a Stormtrooper in a one-person walkathon to raise money for a local hospital in Australia. During his walk, he “was attacked by a deadly King Brown serpent,” according to the New York Daily News. But the highly-venomous snake wasn’t able to do any damage — it was thwarted by the plastic armor Loxley had covering his shins.

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