Requiem From a Fan
I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan, with the years of Halloween costumes to prove it. So naturally I hastened to see The Mandalorian and Rise of Skywalker as soon as they came out. But I have a painful statement to make:
They’re just okay. And frankly, we’re not likely to get much better.
Because as an imaginative, mind-expanding enterprise, Star Wars is dead. Murdered, at the hands of its fans.
Specifically, the angry, entitled fans who’ve taken control of the conversation and determined never to let the franchise grow. The “Worst. Episode. Ever.” crowd with unlimited access to social media and, apparently, spare time.
And on the more benign side of fandom, the relentless clamor for fan-servicing: Being dished up increasingly skimpier portions of exactly the characters, tropes, and arenas we love from the original trilogy.
Consider The Mandalorian. It’s fun, very well-made, and has amazing action and visual effects. It also has great talents involved (Favreau, Waititi, Herzog), and some gangbusters set pieces, like the prison planet episode and finale.
And yet some cool new gadget solves almost every episode’s story crisis, while most of the emotional heart comes from literally just seconds of Baby Yoda doing something adorable/telekinetic. If you’re keeping score, that’s a Boba-Fett-cool-weapon-of-the-week for boys and a Baby Yoda for girls. Seven-year-old me is thrilled, and that’s the point. And the problem.
But it premiered a month before the new Star Wars movie–when fans were jonesing the hardest. The Mandalorian gave us five little weekly fixes, and the world lost its shit. Perhaps they should have called it “The Methadonian.”
The Fall of Skywalker
Which brings us to Rise of Skywalker Also great fun, and they technically tied things up. I enjoyed it. But let’s be honest: Its biggest “surprise” was an evil overlord telling a winsome hero[ine] “I am your [grand]father.” Déjà vu? And JJ Abrams larded the movie with plenty of fan-tidbits–Nien Numb, Wedge, the backs of Ewok heads–but none of these got any depth, growth, or surprise. Instead, they were just flashed up on screen for one second as pure, uncut applause bait.
Again, rehashing everything we already liked from the original trilogy seemed to be mostly the point.
If you’re still with me, and not angrily taking up saber in hand, I would argue that this has been a trend consistently developing over the past 20 years. Consider:
Great movies, no. World-building, imagination, and just plain Lucas weirdness (even the reviled Jar-Jar is an occupational risk of imagining a galaxy full of unique beings), yes. The critics and fans pummel Lucas, and he sells off the property.
The Force Awakens
JJ Abrams wipes the weirdness away, and delivers an action-packed, funnier, taste of that original excitement –which upon closer inspection turns out to have been “New Hope with more estrogen and melanin.”
The Last Jedi
The one thing everyone agrees is that it was weird and took huge risks. And got crushed like a dianoga stuck in the compactor.
A great film, but completely unnecessary and literally giving us no one to carry the torch forward. Not even the most delightfully original character, Alan Tudyk’s sarcasto-droid K2S0, made it out.
Did we have to literally see the Sabacc game Han won the Falcon in, and then the Kessel Run in the same day? Yes, because the fans demand to see their familiar goodies. Starting to see the theme?
[NOTE: I am not including the animated series because, they got the freedom from the tentpole-movie studio system to just go off and build their own mythology. And it paid off.]
The Knights Of Ruined Childhood Strike Back
Basically, Lucas shocked the world with his weirdo prequels, then an increasingly vocal contingent of self-appointed fan protectors arose to police the franchise’s creative boundaries. Not a recipe for great imaginative leaps forward.
Of course, the angry Warsers are only half of the equation. When Disney bought Lucasfilm, the initial feeling was relief that someone was taking over from the madness of King George.
Since then, however, it’s starting to look like the whole enterprise is fated to become different iterations of “Galaxy’s Edge,” the Star Wars portion of Disneyland. We’re going to keep revisiting the same tropes, the same plot points and “surprises,” and/or trying to squeeze extra content out from between Lucas’ original cracks. Fan-servicing has gone to the dark side and become fan-vetoing.
And, unless box office returns dramatically change, Disney is onboard with this direction. They didn’t kill off the wildly out-there sprawl of the Expanded Universe books (Luke’s chopped-off hand being used to DNA-clone a new Luke, anyone?) or the produced-but-never-seen, murderers’-row-of-talent-driven “Star Wars: Detours” animated comedy series for nothing. They wanted full control and direction of this unruly Bantha, only they didn’t count on the angry Star Wars twitterati fighting them for the same thing.
Consider the Marvel
Disney’s other fan-worshipped hydra head, Marvel, provides an instructive contrast. Faced with an even larger body of work, mythologies, and characters from decades of comic books, Marvel began with a tangled web of infinite possibilities. But under the unified supervision of Kevin Feige, a shorter and smoother release window (11 years of continuous films rather than 40 years of sudden spurts and long silences), and as Ben Schwartz has illustrated in this publication, a consistent house style, they somehow struck an ideal fan-creator balance.
It’s interesting that at Marvel, Jon Favreau and Taika Waititi found wildly different ways to take the franchise (the Iron Man trilogy and Thor: Ragnarok, respectively) that all still fit a unified vision while also allowing it to zag in unexpected ways and still maintaining the fans’ adoration. At Disney, it seems the best that those two can manage is to kind of goof around the edges of a hardened monument increasingly frozen in time.
Avengers: Endgame was the crowning example of this difference. It somehow devoted 3 1/2 hours to fan-nostalgia (literally returning to the first three Avengers movies). Yet at the same time it reworked those beloved moments into a new, unmistakably forward-moving narrative, still full of surprises, like Dr. Strange’s giving up the Time Stone.
On the studio level, this is perhaps an unfair comparison, since Marvel had one guy in charge, and a plan they got to stick with, whereas Star Wars was an incredibly lucrative hot potato that kept getting tossed around. And of course there’s a risk in too much auteurism, too. When visionaries like James Cameron and the Wachowskis have gotten to make their own franchises, the followup installations were often big disappointments and varied dramatically in quality.
All of which brings us back to the question of fans. Consider the “oohs” and “ahhs” when Captain America broke the rules and wielded Thor’s Hammer compared to the shrieks of outrage when Leia found a new way to use the Force.
Why did people trust Marvel but not Star Wars to break form? Perhaps because Marvel trained us, over the past decade, to expect the unexpected, giving us a nutso Black Panther for every buttoned-down Winter Soldier. Heck, they broke one of the biggest rules of all when Tony Stark first pulled off the mask and announced “I am Iron Man.”
Or perhaps because Star Wars originated as big-screen, epic stories (rather than percolating up from almost a century of comic-book undergrowth), the stakes and expectations have always been artificially high.
Or perhaps, dear Brutus, the faults lie not in our Star Wars, but in ourselves.