The following contains spoilers for A New Hope, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
George Lucas understood the difficulties of adding extra chapters to a fairytale better than most.
When Star Wars became a pop-cultural tidal wave in 1977, he had to pivot from his initial fear that he’d created a ramshackle disaster (a suspicion shared by everyone from crewmembers to heads at 20th Century Fox) to the realization that he’d have to continue the saga he’d managed to establish.
Star Wars, later titled A New Hope, ended on a note of triumph: the Death Star in bits, the Empire on the back foot, and the heroes (apart from Chewie) the proud owners of shiny medals. All seemed right with the universe. But then, of course, Lucas was required to complicate the story in The Empire Strikes Back, before rounding the whole thing off with Return Of The Jedi.
Fans were often divided over the relative merits of that last chapter, but it at least spoke to the optimistic tone Lucas had established in the first Star Wars: the space fascists defeated, our heroes danced happily around a campfire on the forest moon of Endor.
The awkward reality is, though, that continuing stories is tough; the longer a storyteller follows a character’s journey, the more likely they’ll have to confront gloomy realities of life – ageing, illness, death, and all those other things we generally prefer to avoid thinking about too much.
This partly explains the current run of Star Wars movies, beginning with The Force Awakens, have a somewhat bittersweet flavor to them. While it was fun to see new protagonists Rey and Finn take their first steps into a larger world, The Force Awakens also brought with it a distinct note of tragedy. We met an older, more subdued Leia and Han, whose one major scene together was dominated by talk of the sociopathic son they’d inadvertently raised, Kylo Ren.
In the original trilogy, Leia was the gutsy princess with the cool hair and the sharp tongue. Han was the smuggler-gunslinger who shot first and asked questions later. By The Force Awakens, they’ve become the jaded, vaguely haunted parents from We Need To Talk About Kevin.
Later events only added to the gloom: Han’s cruel and abrupt death at the hands of his own son. The realization that Luke Skywalker has quietly morphed from idealistic Jedi master to bearded, an embittered hermit who lives on the edge of a cliff.
The makers behind the sequel trilogy are clearly keen to explore the later years of legacy Star Wars characters, yet the fates they’ve created for them have been less than cheery. Luke Skywalker got to do some heroic stuff at the end of The Last Jedi, but he still essentially died from exhaustion, alone, sitting on a rock. Even Leia, who thankfully lived to see The Last Jedi‘s end credits, was portrayed as a beleaguered, tragic figure: chased across the galaxy, blasted out into space, and forced to watch as her fellow rebels were cut down one by one.
With all this in mind, we’re a bit nervous about what the future might bring for Lando Calrissian. Billy Dee Williams will be reprising his role as the smuggler and card sharp in JJ Abrams’ Episode IX – a part Williams last inhabited on the big screen way back in 1983’s Return Of The Jedi.
Now 81, Williams will inevitably be playing a very different kind of Lando from the one we first met in The Empire Strikes Back, and it’s a wonder what part he’ll actually play in the climactic stages of the current trilogy. His best friend, Han, has long since died. In the real world, the passing of Carrie Fisher almost certainly means that Williams won’t get to reunite with Leia, either – earlier this year, Lucasfilm ruled out the possibility of creating a digital Leia in Episode IX. We’re nervously imagining Lando shuffling into a bar, sharing a drink with Nien Nunb, and dazedly asking himself where all those years went.
Whatever Episode IX has in store for Lando, we can’t help wondering whether Disney-Lucasfilm has reached something of a turning point when it comes to legacy Star Wars characters. Lando is, by our calculations, the last of the major human characters who could be brought back in a Star Wars sequel. Sure, Lucasfilm could potentially bring back characters like Mon Mothma or other periphery characters from the TV shows, but they certainly don’t have the immediate recognizability of faces like Luke, Leia, Lando, or Han.
The tepid release of Solo: A Star Wars Story might also force Lucasfilm to ask difficult questions about its legacy characters and the stories they’re placed in. Do audiences really want bi-annual films about Obi Wan Kenobi’s early years, or stories about what Boba Fett gets up to on his days off? That Disney has reportedly halted production on its Obi Wan and Boba Fett spin-offs might indicate they’re having a rethink.
Whatever Lucasfilm decides to do with the Star Wars franchise next, it can at least be content that its current trilogy has plenty of newer, younger characters whose stories need to be told. And really, the thread that runs through both the original trilogy and George Lucas’ oft-maligned trilogy is that they’re about young people finding their way in a vast and chaotic galaxy.
The original Star Wars films were about Luke Skywalker’s journey from farm boy to Jedi master; the prequels were about a young innocent growing into adulthood and falling to the Dark Side.
In all six films, characters from the older generation – aunts, uncles, fathers, mentors – rarely fared well, and there’s a good reason for this. The Star Wars films were partly about generational conflict, or wise old sages making way for new generations of young padawans.
This remains true in the current trilogy: of the characters Kylo Ren brutally killed in The Force Awakens, it’s no accident that two of them were played by actors over the age of 70. In the Star Wars universe, the old give way to the young, either willingly or by brute force.
With the sequel trilogy, Lucasfilm’s already concluded Luke and Han’s stories, leaving the likes of Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren to take center stage. Kylo’s mantra in The Last Jedi was, of course, all about letting the past die, and maybe it’s time for the franchise as a whole to adopt a similar mindset.
Rather than looking to the past at legacy characters for inspiration, Star Wars should be looking forward instead – to new characters, new conflicts, new horizons. To paraphrase another franchise character, Maz Kanata, maybe the myth-making success Lucasfilm seeks isn’t behind it, but ahead.