A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Fans know these words by heart, as they’re usually the mood setting for a story involving good vs evil, space ships, lovable rogues, and easily familiar archetypes. Star Wars is one one those IPs that has become a cultural mainstay. Despite thematic blunders, it exists as this expansive and ever evolving universe to visit and explore. If there’s one downside to it now, or even 10 years ago, its a universe obsessed with the past.
But perhaps that’s in the design. George Lucas created Star Wars because he couldn’t get the rights to Flash Gordon and instead mashed space serials, samurai, and spaghetti western films together for a new property. Heck, the opening of most of the films starts with “A long time ago…,” instantly and firmly sets the story in the past despite futuristic technology.
Everything revolves around the original trilogy, subconsciously or not. Luke Skywalker leaves his home planet behind to save a princess and follow in his father’s footsteps as a Jedi Knight. Teaming with an outlaw smuggler and his Wookiee compadre, he frees the princess, sets his sights on defeating the Empire, and destroys the Imperial’s most powerful weapon (twice). While the story could arguably end there, the eras before and after the OT have been filled in many times over.
Lucas’s 2nd trilogy provides prequels set 32-19 years Before the Battle of Yavin (BBY)–as depicted in A New Hope. Audiences follow Luke’s father, Anakin, as he leaves Tatooine to become a Jedi and later betrays the order, embracing the Dark Side of the Force and aiding in the Empire’s expansion throughout the galaxy. The story has merit in concept but far less in execution, and still invites further examination at what came before and after.
The Clone Wars, a pivotal event in the Star Wars universe, is only glimpsed in its beginning and end, even though the bulk of Anakin Skywalker’s heroism occurs during this three period. Thanks to the two Clone Wars cartoon series, we see him as a brave and capable warrior, who like Obi-Wan has to train a reckless youth named Ahsoka who would later play an important role in the formative stages of the Rebellion. We also glimpse why the Clone Wars would be spoken of in awe decades later, they literally spanned planets and star systems in a breadth not seen in hundreds of years in SW history.
Then there’s what happened between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, explored in the franchise’s latest film Rogue One. The 19 years between Revenge and New Hope has also been explored heavily to show how the Rebellion formed. One of the many installments set in this period was the wildly popular Star Wars: The Force Unleashed video game. The game gives life to Starkiller, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice. This highlights one of the problems with continuity in Star Wars: it often contradicts itself or doesn’t fully link up. Why did Vader plan to overthrow Emperor Palpatine, since his wife was dead? The movies show him constantly following Palpatine’s orders. How did Starkiller, who regularly destroys dozens of Imperial bases and troops, stay a secret? And would the Force really concentrate into one individual because hundreds of Jedi were killed? I don’t think the Force is this finite source of power in the universe. Least of all, the idea that the Rebellion forms as spite against Darth Vader instead of an natural response to the Empire’s totalitarian rule over galaxies of people, makes the Rebellion kind of a cheap movement.
After acquiring the rights in the tail-end of 2012, Disney sought to solve this issue by declaring only the films and animated Clone Wars series as canon. Relegating everything else (decades of stories told in all mediums) to “Legends” status.
The history of the Old Republic, to me, has been written about the most aside from the several iterations about A New Hope. How the Jedi and Sith first were established and began their long feud, the system of a master and apprentice struggling for dominance created by Darth Bane, how a class of mercenaries called Mandalorians rose to power and were defeated. It’s quite an eventful period, partially because its set almost 2,000 years before the Star Wars films that they have to be. In many ways there’s more creativity present without the easy addition of Han, Luke, or Leia to act as crutches for the plot. Once the “history” of the films starts approaching, the story becomes much more linear and focused on those events than attempting to describe any ancillary stories. This preoccupation with the original trilogy is impeding the franchise from moving forward.
Consider the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine are dead, the Empire is critically wounded with the destruction of its second Death Star, and Luke has furthered his Jedi training, promising to train Leia in the ways of the Force. Even Han is free from his debt to Jabba the Hutt to possibly marry Leia and settle down. The Force Awakens, set some 30 years after that film, pretty much restarts the story to recreate A New Hope: there’s a new fascist order, more stormtroppers, Han Solo is back smuggling, Leia is still leading the resistance (without the training in the Force), and Luke’s attempt to rebuild the Jedi order failed miserably and so he sits in hiding like his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The Expanded Universe would have us see the Skywalker legacy continued with Han and Leia’s children: Jacen, Anakin, and Jania, who all three would learn about the Force and one of whom would turn to the dark side to become a Sith Lord. If Luke Skywalker is so important to this new trilogy, why has he accomplished so little versus his non-canon counterparts? He rebuilt the Jedi Order (without taking younglings away from their families and indoctrinating them), and his decedents would carry on his name and role as a force for good in the universe for years after Luke’s death. Instead, movie Luke follows in Obi-Wan’s footsteps as though he stopped learning after he completed his Jedi training.
A lot of story potential is sacrificed for the sake of rebranding or “reminding fans of what they loved about Star Wars in the first place” (which wasn’t a problem when the prequels were being released, many fans explained why they disliked them). Part of me is wondering if will we ever see what happens after Return of the Jedi? I’ve seen the wonderful dearth of stories and species that existed before A New Hope and even before The Force Awakens. Cultural metaphors aside, I don’t understand why the First Order exists or why they’re young space Nazis. The remains of the Galactic Empire don’t have to be gone necessarily 30 years after its defeat, but their continued place of power seems unlikely. If we need a prequel just to explain THAT, I’ll be severely disappointed in Disney. Also a movie explaining how the Death Planet came into existence (let’s just forget about giant super weapons in Star Wars for awhile).
Do we need a Han Solo movie that explores his character before A New Hope? Or a movie devoted to a character who only appeared in 10 minutes throughout the entire original trilogy (Boba Fett)? If there’s profit to be made, then the point is moot: Disney is all about profit. Once one of the Star Wars films stops bringing in millions of dollars in profit, Disney will likely scale back or even move on to another franchise (ex: John Carter, Lone Ranger, Tron Legacy, Tomorrowland). That said, even George Lucas’ worst films in the SW universe still made money, so it’s unlikely Disney will ever sink lower after spending $4 billion dollars buying the rights.
Disney faces a small but vocal percentage of fans dissatisfied with the new direction. It is a rehash of the old, in more ways than one. Some question Rey’s overwhelming skill presented in her first outing piloting a decrepit ship, and using weapons she’s never been trained with like a lightsaber. Others point out the many plot holes of the new stormtroppers; why they didn’t stick with Jango Fett’s DNA template is glaring after seeing the “volunteers” used in every film after the original trilogy. But there’s also the fact that Star Wars has seemingly failed to move forward with its new owners. Hate the prequels and Jar-Jar Binks if you want, Lucas oversaw many projects and most of them were actually quite good. In Disney’s hands, our legendary heroes became old and seemingly went on to do almost nothing. Beating the Empire is kind of exercise in futility when the First Order replaces them. Introducing new characters doesn’t matter if they’re reliving what their “idols” did 30 years ago with ease and an overly jovial attitude. For a galaxy under threat of space nazis, people seem pretty upbeat most of the time even if they were abandoned as a child or kidnapped to be a space janitor. At some point, the story has to examine a new cast fighting different battles with stakes and character growth.
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” a Sith Lord turned away from his ways and found the light, a class of ruthless warriors become a village of pacifists, and the Jedi returned not to oversee the peace of galaxies to arrogance but instead to help maintain a fragile peace after decades of tumult. Why can’t we see stories like that from Disney?