The Problem with Supersizing Star Wars

With Disney's latest announcements, Star Wars becomes like Starbucks: one's opening on every corner.

It was a fairy tale come true for many a Star Wars fan and many more a Disney shareholder these past two years. Swiftly following the purchase of Lucasfilm in October 2012, Disney has followed through on its threat from 2013: there will be one Star Wars movie every year, starting in December with Star Wars: The Force Awakens and continuing on through the newly selected hiring of Colin Trevorrow for Epsiode IX (months before the seventh installment even lands). In a shift toward aggressive expansion that would make even a Sith Lord blush, Disney turned what was once a simple trilogy into the Starbucks of blockbuster entertainment: one’s opening on every corner.

The Force Awakens is intended to open the floodgates for all mainstream filmmakers in Hollywood to take a crack at that galaxy far, far away. I think it is safe to assume there’ll be an announcement in the next few months about more of these spin-offs.

A Han Solo trilogy following a younger incarnation of the scruffy rogue as he breaks the Kessel Run in 12 Parsecs? At least one is guaranteed.

Could there really be a solo spin-off of Boba Fett bounty hunting all the Bantha Scum in the outer-systems? Is a protocol droid fluent in over six million forms of communication?

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Lawrence Kasdan (scripter on The Empire Strikes Back and a slew of other classics like Body HeatThe Big Chill, and Raiders of the Lost Ark) is penning the Han Solo movie now that he’s done with Episode VII. And with filmmakers like Captain America: The First Avenger‘s Joe Johnston, who designed the original Boba Fett’s armor, and Robert Rodriguez publicly pining for the other project (which is perhaps also the one Josh Trank dropped out of), the House of Mouse will not be hard up finding talent.

Hell, that rumor about Zack Snyder being interested in adapting Kurosawa’s Japanese epic Seven Samurai (1954) into a Jedi film probably still could come to pass.

But should we be happy about this? I know, I know. For the diehard faithful, this is the realization of an entire universe that they have always dreamed about. For each child who grew up yearning to explore all the crevasses in George Lucas’s mythical universe, this means Hollywood will be fulfilling that fantasy between now and roughly the end of time (give or take a trilogy or two). Disney has found a virtually untouched market of a built-in fanbase and is going to give them exactly what they want: Everything. And in return Disney will get the billions that go with it.

I cannot blame the Land of Mickey for this. Universe-building is in vogue right now. The Hobbit trilogy these days is less an adaptation of Tolkien’s succinct children’s story and more a mammoth undertaking to visualize as much of Middle-earth as humanly possible. The current discussions for a sequel to Evil Dead are not so much about a follow-up as they are a perceived chance to build competing franchises that will intertwine somewhere around Bruce Campbell’s chin. And then, of course, there is the one that started it all…Disney’s own recently acquired Marvel.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a money-breeding gargantuan to behold. No film released under the Marvel banner at Disney is simply a standalone superhero story about its titular character. No, each is a working cog in a marketing machine known as “phases” (we are currently approaching Phase Three, FYI). Seeing just one Marvel film will never give you a complete story or a full-fledged picture of the forces at play. Rather, you will witness a fragment of a plot or theme that is being cross-pollinated in four or five other films (one of which will likely come out later that year).

On their own, they can appear at times as disparate and incomplete. But together, they assemble to make the mightiest force the world has ever seen: a self-consuming marketing campaign whose products serve merely as advertisements for future product launches to come. It truly is a wondrous marvel to behold that is changing the way franchises are being ordered in Hollywood. Now, we can get them supersized.

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Which brings us back to Star Wars, the franchise that birthed the concept of movie franchises when it became the second real summer blockbuster ever released in 1977. Shockingly, the franchise has remained stunningly self-contained and closed off in the many decades since then. Sure, there are those prequels that nobody really wants to talk about, but Star Wars, in cinematic terms, still really means only three films: Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).

Of course, there have also been cartoon shows, video games, Pez Dispensers, action figures and the suddenly obsolete fan fiction legally known as the “Expanded Universe.” Yet, at its core, Star Wars has remained a simple trilogy about an orphaned boy who wants to change his lot in life. He does so by meeting up with a fathering wizard, a roguish space pirate and a beautiful princess. Together, they save the world(s) and redeem the sins of his failed father. Indeed, the story could be even further boiled down to the primordial conflict between the father and the son. A narrative as old as time.

That is one of Star Wars’ greatest universal appeals. It pulls from elemental mythmaking to create a timeless adventure that plays just as well in 2015 as it did 38 years ago. Critics of Lucas will be quick to point out that Star Wars is itself a knock-off of Kurosawa’s 1958 classic The Hidden Fortress. Some will even hold up Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novel as proof of Lucas’ unoriginality. And he likely did pull from these sources, but he also took from L. Frank Baum, Greek mythology, and Roman history. In the prequels he even (sigh) lifted from the story of Jesus.

These films dealt with themes as old as the practice of storytelling and that is why they work so well. Even the inarguably awful Star Wars prequels, which Lucas disgorged by his own hand, still understood the basic simplicity of this tale and kept the focus on if not the son then the father.

In short, for all its sci-fi scale and razzle-dazzle, Star Wars has a beginning, middle and end. That end was in Return of the Jedi when Luke Skywalker laid his father to rest in a funeral pyre and his friends defeated the Empire. At least, it was the ending until ol’ Georgy sold their names to Mickey.

Unlike Marvel, Star Wars is not an open-ended universe with thousands of characters and millions of stories that have been collected by various writers for over half a century. At its root, Marvel is a comic book universe, which is beholden to that medium where the status quo is unending sameness. The MCU is an adaptation of a creation meant to multiply, diversify and reproduce ad infinitum. In order to continue existing, comics MUST find new ways to tell similar stories.

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While I can make the case that more cinematic weight and individuality would make for stronger films than most of what the MCU has produced, there is no denying that those movies are genuinely true to their source material. Stars Wars, by contrast, is not a brand being twisted and contorted for cinema; it is cinema. As one of the most important achievements ever committed to celluloid, Lucas’ creation carries more importance to the moving picture than its namesake being slapped on a plastic lunchbox.

Beyond a narrative fidelity, it represents one of the most important shifts in moviemaking history. Upon its release in 1977, the only summer blockbuster yet released was Jaws (1975). Studios were just beginning to realize the potential of wide releases that appealed to kids on up in the out-of-school months. In so many ways, Lucas unintentionally created the first modern blockbuster.

Despite its age-old storytelling techniques, the type of vision Star Wars evoked was stunning and counterintuitive in the ‘70s. It was a big budget studio reimagining of the B-serials that the entire last two generations grew up on. A boy hero goes on a space quest to save a princess? May as well call him Buck Rogers.

If Lucas truly took anything from Kurosawa, it was the understanding that the yarns told to their cultures’ children, be it about samurai or wizards, had just as much depth and complexity as the real world naturalism Lucas found in the post-studio system of the 1970s. Lucas, like the Japanese auteur, took genres considered beneath serious filmmakers and writ them large for all audiences with the kind of wide-eyed sincerity and reverence usually reserved for the dying Biblical Epics and Westerns of that period. He would help do this again a few years later when he created the character of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

This trilogy awakened the idea of true big budget filmmaking in Hollywood. The kind meant to appeal to all demographics with the buttery popcorn goodness of Saturday morning matinees. It is a formula that, for better or worse, brought the studios roaring back in the 1980s and still feeds the system to this day with billion dollar grossers like the MCU’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The other major impact Star Wars immediately had was on the look and language of these highly expensive mass entertainments. What became known as Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) reinvented the idea of special effects and their importance with the original trilogy. Before 1977, science fiction had become increasingly ponderous and allegorical in its cinematic form on the big screen. Planet of the Apes (1968), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Soylent Green (1973) were not exactly light films that were produced largely in front of blue screens.

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Yet, the visual awe of witnessing one spaceship pursued by an unending mechanical leviathan in Star Wars’ opening shot changed the cinematic short-hand for sci-fi overnight. Audiences lined up around the block to see it a second time after just coming out of the last screening. That need to see Luke blow up the Death Star again and again was not lost on other filmmakers.

Famously, Ridley Scott had just finished a vastly underrated period drama in 1977 called The Duellists. For his follow-up, the young Englishman was eying an adaptation of the ancient love story, “Tristan and Isolde.” However, after coming out of Lucas’ space opera, he immediately ripped those plans up and started calling his agent about working on something big and technologically innovative. Two years later, Scott gave the world a little movie called Alien.

The amount of influence and impact that Star Wars had on other filmmakers is still felt to this day. Every second installment in a series is that filmmaker’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” and every summer blockbuster has convinced its fanbase that this film is “our Star Wars.” But they never are. The contribution and legacy that Star Wars trilogy had on cinema, both for its artists and its viewers, cannot be recaptured because it was so unique and specific to its time. It was lightning in a bottle, and the chances of replicating it is on full display in the prequels.

It is unfortunate, in many ways, that Star Wars had another legacy as well: merchandising. Making a few toys or T-shirts based on movies that play well for the kiddies was not an entirely novel idea in 1977, but George Lucas made himself a billionaire by getting 20th Century Fox to relinquish merchandising rights for Luke, Leia, Han, and even Chewie.

Making films that can sell shampoo, cereal, toothpaste, and fast food child dinners also changed the game in Hollywood. Prior to Star Wars, Disney was one of the few brands who found business success beyond the theater chains for its films’ titles. After Lucas discovered that children did indeed want to eat candy from a gaping hole in Princess Leia’s neck, all of Hollywood wanted in.

It changed the way movies were made and phrases like “toyetic” entered the lexicon. It is even likely that Return of the Jedi’s teddy bear army might have been Wookies if Lucas did not predict there would be a merchandise goldmine in those fuzzy little Ewoks. Don’t believe me? Consider then that the word “Ewok” is never uttered once in Return of the Jedi. But you sure know who they are, don’t you?

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That is perhaps the real reason why Disney’s recent marriage to Lucasfilm makes so much sense. Long before the rest of Hollywood caught on to the game, Disney’s business model of creating pop culture icons to feed every conceivable niche outlet has been an unsurpassed success. It even makes the branding licenses of Star Wars look like Jawa League in comparison.

First, Disney releases the movie that children and parents love alike. Then, the film is doled out only sparingly from the Disney vault to home release, thus creating high demand for every time the product is put on the market. In the meanwhile, the company releases an endless line of varying products with the movie’s brand of lovable characters slapped on. Coffee mugs; sweatshirts; backpacks; you get the idea. This total saturation of brand recognition means children really adore these characters. And guess what? They can go see them in parades at one of Disney’s various theme parks!

Franchises have been the lifeblood of Disney before Luke was a twinkle in Anakin’s eye. Unfortunately, Disney has had difficulty as of late in creating new brands that all ages treasure. Their most successful brand, which is also the most popular entertainment license in history, is the “Disney Princess” line. However, this line’s most popular faces are based almost entirely on films released between 1937 and 1992. With the recent exceptions of a certain uncombed blond and an ice queen of exceptional, universal warmth, Disney has had a rough time creating many new brands. It is likely why Disney CEO and Chairman Bob Iger was so aggressive in purchasing Pixar and Marvel for the Magic Kingdom. Between Buzz Lightyear and Peter Parker, Disney has enough new brands now to compete with the princess line.

Now, Star Wars is finally realizing its destiny as another brand to be thoroughly harvested by one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates on the planet. And it is a crying shame.

I too loved Star Wars growing up. I had over a dozen Force-related action figures, a Jedi-themed birthday party for my tenth and wore out Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron on my Nintendo 64. Lucas even got me to see all of the prequels in theaters. Multiple times.

Yet, I have long come to realize that what makes Star Wars special is the brevity of the original trilogy and the cinematic impact those three films had. As the first true movie franchise, Lucas did not realize he made something that could be perpetuated for decades to a ravenous fanbase that never gets full. He treated it as a cinematic story first and a brand second. And he ended that story before it could be driven into the ground by recasts, retcons, and just mediocre cash grabs. The reason that trilogy has endured is the same reason there has never been another “Star Wars for this generation.” Not The Matrix, not Lord of the Rings, not Pirates of the Caribbean and nor the current franchise du jour, The Avengers, has come close to the cultural impact of those films.

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As a cinematic touchstone that has been left largely unexploited (at least on celluloid), those three movies told a story that gracefully ended and left its massive universe to audiences’ imaginations. Of course, fans want to see more of that world. They always do when it comes to the classics. But does that mean we should get a spin-off every year to Gone with the Wind? Would it be better to know for sure if Scarlett wins or fails at getting Rhett Butler back?

Everyone loves Claude Rains as Capt. Louis Renault. Should we have a prequel trilogy where he is recast with a popular young actor in a story that informs us how he got to Casablanca by 1941? The Godfather films are widely considered some of the greatest works of American cinema, even if the last one was a disappointment (sounds familiar). Does the story need to continue beyond Michael Corleone? Do we have to see how Vincent runs the Family decades later? I am sure there is a story there…but that doesn’t mean it needs to be told.

The Star Wars Trilogy is just as much a piece of cinematic history as those films. But because it is a genre film with a fanbase who Hollywood producers are beholden to, many think it can be turned into a product line with new releases every year. It can be, but that does not mean it should happen.

Fans burned by the prequel trilogy salivate at the prospect of new Star Wars films that might actually be good. I bet more than a few will be, including The Force Awakens. But with new Star Wars movies every year, the quality control can last only so long. At this moment, Star Wars is still the story of Luke Skywalker and it is still a movie title full of hope and awe for multiple generations. That is why Disney bought the brand.

When it is supersized in a few years, it will be just as ubiquitous as the Marvel Phases and the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. I can also remember when people actually raved about the first Pirates and Iron Man movies before the sequels dropped. Those films also were once revered as stories first. Now, they are branded products with the same level of awe and anticipation as a Big Mac or Whopper.

Disney hopes to do for Star Wars and its army of fans what it has done for its princess line and young girls who grew up on it. Look at the bargain bin pile of any Wal-Mart in America to see where all those wondrous sequels ended up. A Star Wars film may eventually be joining them there too.

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