Hope in the Stars
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love New Star Wars Films
If you traveled back in time to 2012, I bet a Hollywood producer would have found the notion of an unprofitable Han Solo movie harder to believe than the Donald Trump presidency.
Star Wars has been, if not a Trojan gift, perhaps the quintessential good problem–it’s given Disney a great return on its investment but also quite a few headaches.
Case in point: a teaser trailer released by LucasFilm for the upcoming “Star Wars IX: Rise of Skywalker” produced the expected excited cheers and gasps from the faithful. And yet Disney CEO Bob Iger also recently hinted that the franchise will take a bit of a “hiatus,” following the conclusion of this latest trilogy, which fans weren’t quite sure whether to take as a warning or a desperately needed promise. This is a franchise which is blatantly violating the golden rule of show biz, to always leave ’em wanting more–forget wanting more, it’s refusing to leave at all.
I hated the idea of new Star Wars movies when Disney bought the franchise for $4 billion in 2012, and I still hated it in 2015. And as of last year, I saw no reason to think I was wrong. Seven years ago I said it would be impossible to reinvent something that was about reinvention and damn if I don’t feel like I was right.
With the initial burst of goodwill from the franchise’s return now dissipated, and if one can excise the turbulent culture wars it seems to attract, what you’re left with is movies that are just good enough. They’re well-made, thoughtful, often exhilarating, sometimes surprising, but never transcendent. Despite all the noise, they’re not really worth getting worked up about either way, and that’s a bit of a problem when your movie-goers are already bringing their own passion by the bushload to the theater.
These movies just feel off, and I don’t think it’s really the movies’ fault. Fans debate what went wrong, which filmmakers screwed up, when it fell off the path, or why they’re unfairly criticized. They miss the point–it’s not due to anything about craft, but that these movies can’t seem to find a reason to exist, except that they desperately need to.
The logical flow of the war between the light and the dark was thrown off by the need to give the series a jump start in 2015. Even as Admiral Holdo gives a clear-eyed speech on the meaning of the Rebellion that ought to be inspiring, I can’t help but feel that this conflict is contrived. It’s been willed into existence by the screenwriters, instead of popping onto the screen from the cosmos like it did in 1977. Because, of course, it had to be contrived–Disney had 4 billion reasons why “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” had to summon the exact same emotional experience as the originals, even when the natural logic of the franchise demanded that it move on.
So I’ve got every reason to shake my fist at the desecration of my beloved franchise–but I won’t. Because I actually find something interesting and–dare I say it?–hopeful about this juncture point. Maybe Star Wars will find the magic again, despite itself.
Now that we’re nearing Episode IX–which I’m sure will be just fine–Star Wars will obey some mystical law of threes and avoid belaboring us with Episodes X, XI and XII. The story of the Empire’s repeated rise and fall spin cycle is finally done, and the studio is also souring on films that supply backstories to the beloved original characters and plotlines. Those turned out to be superfluous and awkward–no more so than when Rogue One introduced an interesting new cast of characters before executing each and everyone, or when the staggeringly unnecessary Han Solo backstory failed to make Disney a blessed penny. And the mind boggles at why we’d possibly need a Boba Fett movie.
Disney’s now trying to convince us that what was once known as the Star Wars saga–Episodes 1 through 9–is simply the Skywalker Saga. Not the tale of a galaxy, as I always thought, but a story of one dynasty within it, distinct from a new amorphous notion of Star Wars. A Star Wars that will continuously expand and evolve with an endless supply of new media, until people are finally tired of it or the sun goes dark, whichever is first.
There’s an unnamed and sparsely described trilogy from “The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson and another one from the co-creators of Game of Thrones. And then there’s Disney’s streaming show “The Mandalorian,” whatever that is. Johnson’s trilogy will introduce “new characters from a corner of the galaxy that Star Wars lore has never before explored,” according to the announcement, the first time the franchise has ever officially announced such a stark change in direction.
It’s an entirely commerce-driven direction. It’s not good enough for movies to simply be movies anymore, or trilogies or even a series of never-ending sequels like Star Trek or Friday the 13th. Now movies are the mere building blocks of multimedia universes–hosts of sequels, crossovers and spinoffs creating a network guaranteeing not only an infinite ubiquity of products but a tactile, immersive reality for its fans, a place for them to live and interact as it grasps for as much of their identity and imagination as it can. Just ask our president: the prime currency of our age isn’t money or information, but attention.
Of course, this new Star Wars can’t just be about fighting and refighting the same war over and over again. It has to expand, and in doing so it will change the basic idea of what Star Wars is. It was originally a sort of epic poem that just existed for the telling of it, riffing off ancient mythology and our B-grade pop culture. But it’s growing into something else now, and neither its creators or producers–or fans–seem to know exactly what.
That epic poem nature is the biggest reason why Star Wars, to me at least, seemed to chafe at cinematic universification. It’s a story about storytelling.
But Star Wars, after all, helped invent this concept of commercialized universes in the first place. George Lucas, attending Star Trek conventions while he slowly developed his sci-fi opus, saw the potential for captivating his fans with continuously expanding parallel works and a promoting a kind of lifestyle. He started working on Star Wars novels even before the original Star Wars was done. Books like “Heir to the Empire,” which topped the New York Times bestseller list, kept the pulse of Star Wars beating during its lean years and are a big part of why it felt like a juggernaut when the movies returned in 1999, and again in 2015.
I always hated the idea that one needs to be well-read in those works to really get or appreciate Star Wars. Those movies belong just as much to the casual fan as they do to the devotee who knows what a Lugubraa is, and they’re a complete and deep work on their own.
But the expanded universe is undeniably part of Star Wars, even after the books were unceremoniously uncanonized to make way for The Force Awakens. And the concept is about to become a bigger part.
As a new band of space adventurers blast off to the vast expanses of the galaxy in the desperate search for a reason to exist, I have every reason to be exhausted with this.
But what I feel in my gut when I think of it isn’t annoyance but intrigue. Just what will they find? What will Rian Johnson come up with?
This is what the seventh Star Wars movie ought to have been–a more wide-open story imagining what post-year wars in the Republic would have really been like, as the iron foundation of the Empire is replaced with–what? But no matter how much the plot demanded it, for Disney it’s a non-starter–to have started the new chapter this way would have felt anticlimactic to fans and would have likely been suicidal for a studio looking to restart its billion-dollar franchise.
But now that these movies are free from the oppressive burdens of being the Star Wars movies, and can just be Star Wars movies, they can flow more naturally towards compelling storylines. Without a raison d’etre declared by studio fiat, they just might find a more compelling purpose. As does any creator beginning a new work.
One can hope.
I’d still prefer they just turned the damned Star Wars spigot off, but so long as that’s impossible I don’t mind it that the market has dictated it spill onto a wide-open canvas.
It’s been seven years since “The Avengers” hoisted the universe concept into the center of Hollywood, and movie producers have found navigating cinematic universes about as treacherous as a spaceman would find traversing the real ones.
We’ve seen panicked reshoots and debacles (and both), as the studio suits learned that what Disney’s Kevin Feige made look so easy with the Marvel Cinematic Universe is actually astonishingly difficult.
In fact, these days it seems like the whole universe concept is at a juncture point. The MCU is approaching some kind of climax with its ominously titled “Endgame,” and no one’s quite sure what will be coming next. DC Comic’s attempt to force out something similar crashed and burned with the Snyderverse, but they’ve managed to be surprisingly successful with single-hero epics and now are grasping for whatever hooks they can to keep it alive.
Maybe my favorite cinematic universe now is Fox’s X-Men franchise, recently bequeathed to Disney and likely on its last legs. With the centerpiece saga of Charles Xavier’s mutant students all but finished, it lives on by embracing not just a diverse set of characters but of genres as well, with an existential Western, postmodern satire, and–if “New Mutants” ever gets released—horror.
The common theme with all of these is that Feige’s model–films closely connected through tone and plot–is giving way, as the universes themselves expand and diversify to survive. Even Marvel’s universe is beginning to diversify. Its most interesting recent hit, “Black Panther,” had a distinct look and feel–after all, you don’t hire Ryan Coogler for monotony. And the damn thing is, without the MCU it likely never would have been made.
DC’s cinematic universe is today more properly described as a multiverse, as we await “Joker,” which appears to have less in common with any Batman or Superman movie as it does with a Martin Scorsese flick. Slate’s Jordan Weissmann noted that with this fifth cinematic Joker (seven if you count animated), he’d become a recurring mad character like Lear for actors to stretch their muscles.
Universes are beginning to feel as broad as Shakespeare, or maybe even broader–approaching the Platonic ideal of a fictional universe encompassing all possible characters, locations and plotlines, identical to our own but united through a single package of copyrights.
Young filmmakers used to want to make the Great American Film, then they wanted to make the Great American Blockbuster, and now they want to land the Great American Franchise. That requires a whole new creative process–figuring out how to fit the range of dramatic possibilities into a commonly accepted framework. You can like that or not, but at least we can appreciate its benefits. “Wrath of Khan” director Nicholas Meyer–who has never considered himself a Trekkie–once mused that he likely did better work within the franchise limitations than he would have done if someone gave him free rein to make whatever he wanted. The friction between his sensibilities and Trek’s old guard is what created Khan’s magic sparks.
Expanded fictional universes weren’t new even when J.R.R. Tolkien and William Faulkner used them. But there’s something special about unplanned, uncoordinated universes, carved out not by one artist’s imagination but by Darwinian audience demands. Batman, Gotham and the DC Universe could never have been conceived by one person or even a team–it could only be produced by a relentless stream of monthly publications. Neither could Star Trek’s 23rd century. Characters, locations, and plotlines sank or swam on the near-instant feedback from readers, and the accumulation created a kind of inverted relief map of American culture, telling us quite a bit about our collective psyche.
Today, it’s the closest equivalent to mythology.
There’s a lot to ponder about how we let the intellectual property laws define so much of what we think, see and feel. But so long as it is what it is, we might as well celebrate watching some of the best filmmakers of our age try to navigate it.
There used to be something subversive about liking Star Wars–its rebellious spirit of plunder and celebration of B cinema, and the way a generation used it to signal their defiance of growing up. If that sense is still there, it’s lost on me.
But maybe in that vast expanse of planets, Rian Johnson will find some subversion again.
In-universe, of course.