This article is part of Movie Memes Week.
With the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983 came the end of the original Star Wars trilogy and the beginning of a beloved Star Wars icon: Admiral Ackbar, who is celebrated primarily for the line “It’s a trap!” The Rebel fleet commander and his signature cry have circulated throughout pop culture, referenced and remixed time and time again to exist as a point of reference for homages, fanbase obsessions, and, of course, memes.
The scene in Return of the Jedi involving Ackbar and the trap is during the Rebel Alliance’s attempted destruction of the second Death Star. After discovering the plans for the weapon, the fleet aims to secretly infiltrate and strike from within. But those plans were leaked by the Emperor to lure the Rebel Alliance into a counterattack. “It’s a trap!” yells Ackbar as the fleet is ambushed by TIE fighters.
Just like with the origins of most memes, fans found a way to latch onto the short-lived moment and sprawl its longevity through repurposing and remixing. “It’s a Trap!” was one of the first major internet memes to catch on — the white text on image as we know it today has origins in the early 2000s.
The onset of memes focused on common situations of deception, many with masculine undertones of conversational “traps” set by women, but also including other humorous day-to-day dupes — for example, having to use the bathroom in a dream.
In general, the early memes tended to fixate on trap-like situations, using Ackbar purely as a springboard for their jests. After a bit of circulation on its own, the meme became regularly used at the news forum site Fark.com, partly as a categorization label for linked stories. Elsewhere, on 4chan, users repurposed the meme for transphobic jokes, because the internet itself is a trap where no nice things stay pure for long.
But it really took off after several YTMND remixes, which allowed the original soundbite to be paired with the famed image tiled across the screen, paired with animation and other graphics. This was almost an entirely new form of the meme — instead of using Ackbar to reference moments of trickery, the popular YTMND graphics just replayed the sound over the image over and over again. This spoke to Ackbar’s status — outside of normal memes, he and his phrase were now an icon in meme culture.
Other Ackbar memes began to use this status to parody the meme itself. One meme reads, “Don’t spell part backwards — It’s a Trap!” Then, for a bit of time, the word “tarp” replaced “trap.” According to Knowyourmeme.com, “It’s a Tarp!” became popular in 2008 originally as a misspelling of the meme and later opened up as a subsection of memes dedicated to the Obama administration’s Troubled Assistance Relief Program, or TARP.
After picking up plenty of steam in the meme world, the image was manipulated to recreate other popular memes of the time — Ackbar’s head was photoshopped onto various meme legends, with a remixed version of “It’s a trap!” to fit the original content of the meme. As an example of this, the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens still of alien expert Giorgio A. Tsoukalos gained popularity in around 2010 — one of the most popular memes read, “I’m not saying it was aliens… but it was aliens.” Fans of both memes created a crossover, a double-reference reaction image.
Ackbar’s iconography and phrase, through this lens, have disassociated the moment in Return of the Jedi from Ackbar’s place in the Star Wars fanbase. In fact, for a while, the “It’s a Trap!” meme seemed to be stripped of its association with anything Star Wars related altogether, rewriting Ackbar’s legacy to be a shorthand reaction to any sort of deception.
Eventually, television shows similarly borrowed the phrase, playing on its memorable assertiveness and status also without any connection to Star Wars. Political talk shows The Colbert Report and The Daily Show frequented the line — Jon Stewart’s connection to Republicans’ reactions to Obamacare is perhaps most notable.
But Ackbar’s newfound status as an internet icon brought him prominently enough into pop culture that he was suddenly a favorite character within Star Wars fandom. In a 2009 episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon mentions he enjoys mimicry and uses “It’s a trap!” in his Ackbar impersonation, stating that it would be better with a giant fish head. This example begins to lean into Ackbar’s Star Wars legacy as something more than just the quote and meme.
In 2010, Family Guy dedicated its ninth season finale to Return of the Jedi with a special double-episode entitled “It’s a Trap!” in homage to Ackbar. The episode only features one actual “It’s a trap!” moment, and Ackbar is played by the family’s pet fish, Klaus Heissler, but it’s a melding of the animated series’ continued homage to Star Wars and recognition of that character and his famous quote’s rising popularity.
Stop-motion animation series Robot Chicken, famous for parodying aspects of pop culture, has also used Ackbar in many of their sketches. They have a more holistic view of the admiral — not only do they reference the quote but also Ackbar’s character and his species, Mon Calamari.
In 2010, students at the University of Mississippi attempted to hail Admiral Ackbar as their school mascot. Previously just known as “the Rebels,” they argued Ackbar’s status in the Rebel Alliance would fit perfectly as a school symbol. He was defeated in the vote by a black bear, but the situation demonstrates a continual cult-like following for the character.
Instances like these seem to stray from the original widespread text-on-image Ackbar. Every use is still Ackbar and/or his quote but slightly altered to meet a format that fits the main content. While the online meme helped as a starting point for Ackbar’s consistent renowned status, the homages and spoofs seen on television are an entirely different subcategory of “It’s a Trap.” Ackbar, as a whole, is an icon in many ways — the internet meme is just one large facet of his status.
And yet somehow, even after all of this, Ackbar’s demise in Star Wars: The Last Jedi was nowhere near the end he deserved given his evolved popularity — his final moments involve him being taken down in lackluster fashion by an explosion along with several other members of the Resistance (including General Leia, who survives in her Force-using Mary Poppins fashion). The lack of closure is tragic, but if anything, it perpetuates the fleeting nature of Ackbar, the “It’s a trap!” quote, and of memed content in general.