Star Wars is whatever you want it to be. Maybe you’re one of the many millions for whom it is an escapist fantasy, bright and zippy and safe. Or perhaps it is a universe to become transfixed by and lost inside, an existence stretched out to encyclopedic detail and engineered with canonical meticulousness. Or you revisit it the way a grandparent pulls out a photo album, an exercise in supreme nostalgia. Star Wars is cinematic comfort food. Star Wars is a culture. Star Wars is a philosophy. Star Wars is a religion.
For Robert Iger, though, Star Wars is an “asset.”
The Disney chief executive, who was instrumental in the company’s 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm for US$4.1-billion, did not greet the deal with the enthusiasm of a fan – or even a passing familiarity with everything that George Lucas created. “We can do great things with these amazing assets,” Iger said at the time, the statement continuing to speak in the corporate-ese language of “transactions” and “portfolios” and “platforms.”
Star Wars has never been the most pure-intentioned of artistic works – I’ve lost count at how many times Lucas has egged on devotees to pony up for new tweaks of his original trilogy – but with Disney’s acquisition and Iger’s declaration, the hard value of modern entertainment was underlined in the crassest of fashions. The future of Star Wars was the future of moviemaking: assets. Gobble up as much intellectual property as you can, and then expand, expand, expand.
Star Wars, Iger continued back in 2012, would combine with “Disney’s unique and unparalleled creativity across multiple platforms, businesses and markets to generate sustained growth and drive significant long-term value.” How … exciting? Perhaps not realizing what they were signing up for, Star Wars fans whizzed past all the shareholder talking points to zero in on the fact that Disney would get busy to work making a new film, Episode VII, to be released in 2015. Kathleen Kennedy, the co-chair of Lucasfilm and a long-time collaborator of Steven Spielberg, would become president of the new Disney arm. And, Iger added, there were further plans “to release a new Star Wars feature film every two to three years.”
The temptation was obvious: Who could deny themselves the opportunity to re-experience the fresh, sometimes delirious energy that that first viewing of the original Star Wars series once delivered? Meeting Lucas’s heroes and villains and myriad alien extras was an inimitable kind of fun, once upon a time.
So, seven years later – after three sequels, two prequels, one streaming series, two theme parks and an untold number of action figures, pajamas, bedsheets, toothbrushes and sippy cups – what is the state of that much-coveted asset?
Is Star Wars, as an artistic endeavour and work of storytelling, stronger now that it has been portfolio’d to the extreme?
Or would Star Wars culture – that is, anyone who has ever found joy and entertainment and even enlightenment in the world of the Skywalkers – be better served if Disney never decided to go back to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?
DO OR DO NOT, THERE IS NO TRY
Whatever the level of your engagement with Star Wars, it is hard to argue against the impact the series has made on the language of modern entertainment. Franchises come and go, but Star Wars introduced and then perfected the art of world-building – of ensuring that every seemingly tertiary character came with a deep backstory, and the potential for further exploits down the road. Everything and everyone introduced on the screen mattered deeply. Its many narrative rabbit holes, and its fans’ devoutness in studying that canon, echo in everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the Fast and Furious-verse. And naturally, this audience faithfulness could be easily translated into massive ancillary profits.
If we’re being honest, it was inevitable that someone would go back to Star Wars. Maybe even Lucas himself, despite the deep sighs that greeted his previous attempts at expansion, with Episodes I through III. But, with the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker imminent, there is ample evidence to doubt that Disney was the best machine to repackage this particular product.
And I was part of the problem, too.
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released in December, 2015 – half a year later than previously announced; the first sign of trouble within this new Lucasfilm regime – I was among the many millions around the world who breathed a sigh of relief. Director J.J. Abrams had accomplished the impossible: He revived the magic of a series that was all but extinguished by Lucas’s terrible prequels. (And as much as certain critics want to play revisionist historian, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are, simply put, very bad – an example of a filmmaker becoming obsessed with the potential of his technology rather than the potential of his narrative.) Four years removed, and a few rewatches later, I can see what The Force Awakens actually is: a very good-looking and well-cast exercise in repetition.
My colleague Kate Taylor put it best when, in her review of Abrams’s work, wrote that the film was “far too enamoured with the power of its own history” – that in Abrams’s (re: Disney’s) fear of spoiling a $4-billion investment, it simply repeated what had worked before. We have another hero’s journey, starting on another sandy planet, featuring another rogue cowboy, another evil empire, all tethered to another twist of Skywalker family history. As Taylor wrote – in a review that was an outlier at the time, and thus generated a disgustingly unfair amount of online vitriol – “'Do no harm to the franchise’ seems a pretty low artistic barrier for a director to set.” And yet.
The Force Awakens went on to gross US$2.06-billion worldwide, and score a 93 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Some critics declared it the best film of the year. Which it may have been – in 1977, when the first Star Wars was released. Because they are essentially the same movie. The same asset.
The state of the new Star Wars improved with the release of 2016′s Rogue One and 2017′s The Last Jedi, two very different films that each took new approaches to the Lucas template. Both films attempt, and even sometimes succeed, at reinventing rather than repeating the mythos that so much of the world fell in love with. But the Disney powers that be still felt that Rogue One’s excellent downer of an ending – everyone dies! – needed to come equipped with a patronizingly reassuring pat on the head that, wait a minute, this was just the beginning of a more triumphant tale that you already know by heart. And The Last Jedi’s nicely progressive touches – writer-director Rian Johnson dared to add even more diversity to Abrams’s rebooted cast – re-exposed the ugly side of Star Wars fandom, a faction that’s been present since Lucas’s first trilogy, but felt especially nauseating to gaze upon when combined with the knowledge of why Disney was in the Star Wars business in the first place.
Three years into this intellectual-property excavation, and the mission already smelled sour.
Not helping the perception that this series was best left in the past was the distinct sense that, aside from box-office receipts, Disney didn’t know what it wanted from Star Wars, either.
Director Josh Trank was assigned a spin-off film of still-unknown origin, only to split with Lucasfilm and Disney in 2015. Rogue One went through an extensive rework, with Tony Gilroy hired to fix director Gareth Edwards’s original cut. (“They were in such a swamp,” Gilroy later said. “They were in so much terrible, terrible trouble that all you could do was improve their position.”) A year later, co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired midway through filming Solo: A Star Wars Story. Three months after that, Colin Trevorrow, who was signed on to co-write and direct Episode IX, was removed from the project, eventually replaced by Abrams. And this past October, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the Game of Thrones showrunners, exited their deal to develop a new trilogy of new Star Wars films.
Projects fall apart all the time. But the rate and high-pitched volume that the Star Wars productions have broken down underscores a sense that Disney is not as interested in creating new and interesting stories as it is in asset-management. Again, this return-on-investment approach isn’t new to the film industry – it’s the foundation of it. But anyone with an affinity for Star Wars – or anyone with a base appreciation of the transformative power of cinematic escapism – has to feel disheartened all the same.
We can watch the Ron Howard-fied version of Solo out of obligation, just as we will dutifully stream Disney+'s The Mandalorian and pass around Baby Yoda memes until we die. But there is no thrill to this new Star Wars industry. The goosebumps of discovery that accompanied the opening crawl of A New Hope, or the pure anxiety that was delivered by the cliffhanger of The Empire Strikes Back, or the cathartic joy of witnessing Darth Vader’s last stand in Return of the Jedi – these are heights that Disney either can’t, or has no need to, match, let alone exceed.
I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING
Starting with The Force Awakens, a curious ritual has taken place during Star Wars screenings with Canadian media. Before the film starts, a representative of Disney Canada’s marketing team stands in front of the theatre and urges critics and reporters to avoid sharing spoilers, in order to “continue to be our partners on this journey.” But there is only one journey here – the march toward profit – and if the audience is the partner, then we might have grounds for separation.
At least, ahead of the Dec. 20 release of The Rise of Skywalker, which Canadian media have not yet seen, there is the sense that this journey is nearing its end. Or a temporary re-evaluation of its route. Last month, Iger said that “we made and released too many Star Wars films over a short period of time. I have not said that they were disappointing in any way. I’ve not said that I’m disappointed in their performance. I just think that there’s something so special about a Star Wars film, and less is more.”
This is all before anyone at Disney sees how well The Rise of Skywalker performs. Or how many subscribers The Mandalorian is pulling into Disney+. Or just what Johnson has been cooking up in his own corner of the galaxy, where he’s been tasked by Iger and Kennedy to build his own “all-new” Star Wars trilogy unrelated to the adventures of the Skywalker clan. And don’t forget the Star Wars film being produced by Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige, who started "pursuing a new era in Star Wars storytelling” this past fall.
This empire, as it were, can always strike back.