By James Powers
Disney has been trying to usher in a new era for Star Wars with The Mandalorian on Disney+, and it looks to end one this weekend with The Rise of Skywalker. The studio is anxious to make a good impression on audiences after a rather troubled past couple of years. But I’m unsure that either the franchise or its fanbase will be substantially different in this new era; that the Skywalker saga can be left behind in peace.
Star Wars is one of a kind among film franchises, as by far one of the biggest and, depending on what you’re comparing it to, the oldest. Although Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is often credited as the first real blockbuster, two years later Star Wars came along and introduced another, even more powerful breed of cinema – the franchise tentpole (and yes, I think franchise films can still count as cinema; don’t @ me Scorsese fans). Because it’s been over forty years since A New Hope, the franchise urgently needs to adapt to a new generation if it is to have real staying power. But because its cultural legacy and economic power are so vast, I’m skeptical of its ability to pull that off. The Rise of Skywalker needs to take a decisive step in that direction. But considering Star Wars’ spotty record, I have to wonder – will it actually?
Big and old things – such as dinosaurs, the government, or my oddly cumbersome Honda Civic – are not very nimble, and Star Wars is no different. When Disney acquired the franchise, they ostensibly sought to inject new blood into it with 2015’s The Force Awakens. But they only partially succeeded. Although TFA introduced a new cast of characters that quickly won audience’s hearts, its story was carbon-copied from A New Hope, and it became clear that one of Disney’s primary goals with this “new” generation of films was to stroke audiences’ nostalgia. Although I enjoyed the film a lot when I first saw it, the intervening years and drama have tempered my enthusiasm. What at first feels like an affectionate homage to the franchise’s origins now feels tinged with a bit of necromancy – a Force ghost, so to speak. Bogged down as it is in the weight of the past, it lacks real life of its own.
Disney’s bet on nostalgia paid off, however, and TFA was a blowout success. But the franchise’s reestablished dependence on legacy contained the seeds of, well… not destruction, exactly, but disaster for sure. Filmmaker Rian Johnson was perhaps doomed to fail when he was given the task of directing the next film in the trilogy. Although his career hadn’t been terribly long prior to receiving the reins for The Last Jedi, he had already established himself as a director who loves to mess with audience’s expectations. Perhaps the best example of this is his 2005 thriller Brick, which takes film noir conventions and situates them in a high school. Picture something like, I dunno, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets Chinatown. It’s a very weird, very effective, very memorable film. Likewise, his new film Knives Out is a quirky riff on the whodunit that upends that genre’s narrative structure and thematic concerns – to great success, in my opinion.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that he would have taken a similarly irreverent approach to Star Wars, and equally inevitable that the venerable franchise wouldn’t take well to being poked. The Last Jedi and its fallout now live in infamy: from the almost mean-spirited revelation about Rey’s parentage, to the social media flogging of cast member Kelly Marie Tran, to the skewering of Admiral Holdo’s purple hair (idk, I thought it was kinda cool). But perhaps most disturbing and/or amusing is the political overtones of the controversy. Russian trolls may have even gotten involved to an extent, as if the film were another hot-button topic like abortion or immigration that could be used to foment civil unrest.
Turns out it actually kinda was – the controversy around TLJ often fell along deep fault lines of conservative vs. liberal, for reasons as numerous as they are likely stupid. Something about the film woke up the Star Wars fanbase to the fact that they were mixed company, and they did not like it, no sir. Civil war ensued among fans, and thus #notmystarwars was born – liberal snowflakes and/or MAGA deplorables, get out. Seeing as Star Wars is one of the most universally beloved American mythologies, the trolls were probably onto something when they attempted to use it as a lever to sow discord.
As if all that isn’t enough, TLJ was bookended by Rogue One and Solo, Disney’s awkward initial attempts to expand the galaxy’s theatrical potential with spinoff “Star Wars Stories.” Rogue One certainly wasn’t a bad film, but it was suffused with a kind of dour self-importance that evoked a “meh” response from audiences. Solo, for its part – already hamstrung by bad press due to an eleventh-hour director swap – was received with what can only be described as an even more fervent “meh,” and bombed at the box office. Compounding things still further, Solo came out mere months after The Last Jedi, giving audiences a kind of whiplash rather than stoking continued interest.
That all being said, the Disney/Star Wars empire has enjoyed a bit of a recovery recently with the enormous success of The Mandalorian, the franchise’s first live-action series. But a good 95% of that success probably owes to the cuteness of so-called “Baby Yoda,” with the show’s story and characterization serving mostly as a setting for that already-iconic character. After all, the titular protagonist has his face perpetually hidden beneath a steel helmet – not a great hook for audiences’ emotional investment. And even though an adorable supporting character allows the show to dodge the bullet of its so-so writing, I don’t think Star Wars as a whole is getting off the hook so easily.
The thing is, the trauma that The Last Jedi inflicted on the franchise was inevitable and even necessary, but few people seem to see it that way. As Luke bitterly advised Rey, “let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” A cranky sentiment in context, but one that Disney should heed even if fans kick and scream for a bit. When you’re trying to milk another generation’s worth of profitable content out of forty-year-old IP, you need to be brave enough to take some risks and try something different.
The Last Jedi, however, is one piece of the past that Disney is likely all too anxious to leave behind. I recently revisited TLJ, around the same time I saw Knives Out, and while there are definitely large elements of it that still annoy me (*cough* Canto Bight *cough*), I feel much more appreciation for what was clearly Johnson’s attempt to imaginatively tinker with a franchise of near-sacred pedigree. The film indeed stretches Star Wars beyond its formula – albeit in a way that is awkward, doesn’t work most of the time, and will likely be at least partially retconned with The Rise of Skywalker. But I will always take a movie that swings for the fence and misses over one that plays it safe.
Speaking of swinging for the fence and missing, a word about the much-maligned prequel trilogy. Like The Last Jedi, it is decidedly its own thing. Whether out of bravery or stupidity or a bit of both, George Lucas took his own legacy and drop-kicked it into different territory with 1999’s The Phantom Menace, introducing breathtaking new worlds, baffling political overtones, and a sense of melodrama that often tipped over from grandiose and into plain clunky. Oh, and tons of visual effects that, while cutting edge for the time, now clearly show their age. And all these characteristics only increased as the trilogy went on, probably because Lucas was one of the few filmmakers too powerful for Hollywood’s market analysts to boss around.
Johnson, by some fluke, was able to wield similar power over his Star Wars outing, though the studio bigwigs probably didn’t plan on that, and by the time they realized what was afoot, it was too late. Likely spooked at the possibility of something similar happening in the future, they swapped out the up-and-comers originally slated to direct the next installments in favor of veteran crowd-pleasers. J.J. Abrams, who took over The Rise of Skywalker from comparative rookie Colin Trevorrow, is undoubtedly a solid choice for franchise damage control. But contrary to what might seem like common sense, damage control is not really what Star Wars needs right now
All of which is to say, this weekend’s monumental premiere represents a major crossroads for Star Wars. What’s at stake isn’t so much its survival – I think it goes without saying that the franchise is going nowhere anytime soon, regardless of how this latest installment is received. But the real question is whether it can continue to produce anything of real consequence. Can it leave the past behind and embrace the new era in which it finds itself? Or will it instead settle for an ongoing zombified half-life as nostalgia bait?
If the latter, well, then I’m afraid I’m not interested. If the former, then I’m willing to endure a few more freaky missteps like Ahch-To’s horrible green-milk critters on the way to get there. We’ll see which approach The Rise of Skywalker favors.
About the Author
James Powers is a writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.