Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Star Wars Universe Strip-Mining

As I write this there are two kinds of movies virtually guaranteed to make a billion trillion zillion dollars at the box office: Marvel Comics movies released by Disney, and Star Wars. But a funny thing is happening to Star Wars: the last movie (Solo) only made a billion trillion dollars as opposed to the expected billion trillion zillion. YouTube is full of people eager to look into a webcam and lecture at length about exactly why this is. Depending on who you listen to, the reasons are:
  1. Dumb stupid Disney and dumb stupid Kathleen Kennedy aren't doing what "The Fans" want. ("The Fans" being defined as the person in the YouTube video and the ten people who subscribe to their channel.)
  2. "Franchise fatigue" due to Disney releasing new Star Wars movies at a rapid clip, sometimes less than six months apart.
While I respect the right of the first group to like or dislike whatever they want, I wish they'd get over themselves and stop throwing Internet tantrums because a giant media conglomerate won't bow to their will. I somewhat agree with the second group, but "franchise fatigue" is not the whole story. As of this writing there are twice as many Marvel Studios films as there are Star Wars movies, and there's no signs that anyone is getting tired of them. So why does Star Wars seem to be losing steam? Here's my take:

It was never designed to be a continuing franchise.

You have to remember that when George Lucas started to develop Star Wars in the 1970s, he didn't set out to create a "cinematic universe" because movies didn't yet work that way. He was trying to make one movie. In the beginning he didn't have a firm idea for a story, so to jumpstart his creative process he made lists of characters and planets and their backstories to flesh out the setting for his swashbuckling space epic. He didn't do this with an eye toward setting up sequels; it was all part of the effort to make this one movie.

The seemingly-limitless backdrop of the Star Wars films is like a background painting:

The Yellow Brick Road looks like it leads to a whole world of story possibilities, but it's just a device to make a Hollywood soundstage look like the land of Oz. The depth is imaginary, and if you really went skipping down that path you'd bonk into a wall.

One of the reasons the Marvel films work so well is that they're based on comic books, and comics are by their very nature a continuing narrative. But with Star Wars, the seeming depth of the universe is an illusion created to make George Lucas's original movie and its two sequels look like they were happening in a real place. So a person (or international media conglomerate) looking to tell new Star Wars stories can basically take one of two approaches:
  1. Make sequels to the original films, and expand the narrative by introducing new characters and situations.
  2. Make prequels set in the years between the first two trilogies, or between the original trilogy and the second trilogy--basically, any point in the Star Wars timeline where you can have X-Wings and TIE fighters and stormtroopers and AT-ATs and all the fun toys that Star Wars fans love.
We've been down both of these roads with the Expanded Universe. First, we got sequels to the original trilogy. In the beginning, it was fun to get new adventures with Luke, Leia, and Han, but as the narrative moved farther into the future and the cast of supporting characters ballooned the stories started to lose that Star Wars flavor.

The tales set during the Original Trilogy were bad for a different reason--they strip-mined even the tiniest elements from the films in a desperate attempt to come up with new stories. Remember Darth Vader's glove? You don't? Well, it turns out it's called a "Mandalorian crushgaunt" and it has it's own backstory that you can read all about on Wookieepedia. Or what about IG-88, the robot bounty hunter who appeared on screen for like 20 seconds of The Empire Strikes Back? The Expanded Universe gave him a insane story wherein he developed a huge crush on Darth Vader and uploaded his mind into the second Death Star. Basically any object, person, or creature, that you see in the Original Trilogy was given its own ridiculously detailed backstory that connected it to everything else in the Star Wars universe. The franchise was on the verge of collapsing into a black hole of self-referentialism.

I'd hoped that Disney's decision to wipe the Expanded Universe slate clean would signal a different direction, but it's pretty obvious now that there is no different direction to go in. You either take the franchise into the future and let it morph into something that isn't quite Star Wars anymore, or you endlessly cannibalize the past.

1 comment:

  1. I like your analysis. But I do feel like it is a "cinematic universe" in that there are infinite stories to tell in this galaxy. I think the reason Solo didn't do that well was timing. It came out when a LOT of other big movies were coming out. I know that we didn't rush to see it, because we'd seen so many other movies. Mostly MCU movies. When we did see it, my son ranks it as one of his top three movies in the Star Wars grouping. I loved Rogue One. Thought it was one of the best also. Enjoyed Solo a bunch. It was terrible planning on Disney's part to release it when they did. They were competing with themselves.

    Long time no see, by the way. I've been writing and blogging at my own website (scottdyson.com). Take care, Scott (Disney Fan Ramblings)


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