The Dark Side of the Force
How the object of my affections became the core of my disillusionment.
In May 1999 I saw a movie that would profoundly change my life. That movie was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It came out at the perfect time in my life like the film's protagonist Anakin Skywalker, I was 9 years old.
I became a big Star Wars Fan. I finagled all the merchandise I could find, collecting figurines, comics, posters, and related games, even collecting all the Pepsi cans with the characters on them that were on the shelves at the time. To this day, it's difficult not to blame my sugar addiction as much on Lucasfilm as Pepsico.
I waited three long years for Episode II Attack of the Clones, during which time I absolutely devoured the original "Trilogy," the three films that started the whole saga a long time ago (13 years before I was born actually) and in a universe that was not all that far away. I had actually seen the original Star Wars in a theater during a revival showing two years earlier, a revival meant to whet the public's appetite for the prequels with which creator George Lucas was finally ready to relaunch the series after a long winter's rest (16 years in fact). And oh yeah--also, to make a boatload of dollars from a new audience.
I can't say that I was blown away by my viewing of the first Star Wars, which was its sole name to its first audience but which by 1997 had long since become known not as A New Audience but as A New Hope. To this day, I don't think it was the best movie in the series, but it could be that I was just a touch too young to be blown away by it at that point. Or maybe it was because my parents, who took me to the film, weren't all that excited really, even though they would have been prime age when the movie first came out. My mother was a casual fan at best, and to this day, that was the only movie in the series that my father has ever seen--seen in its entirety at least; the way my brother and I wore out videotapes of the trilogy over the three-year Clones wait, he had to absorb at least some of the other three available movies.
In addition, I started reading the books of what was being called the "Expanded Universe" accepting them as part of the Star Wars "story" that in my mind was as important as anything in US History--and at the time I devoured everything I could find on the Revolution and the Civil War, spurred by being around the Philadelphia area's colonial history and by family vacations to Gettysburg, Plymouth Rock, and Williamsburg.
By the time Attack of the Clones came out I was ready to return to that Galaxy Far Far Away and boy was I satisfied. The three-year wait for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith did not seem as long to me, possibly due to the wealth of "Expanded Universe" Star Wars material, which Lucasfilm called EU. With Lucasfilm sanctioning cartoons and reading material that saw the Star Wars fans (why didn't we ever get a clever name like the Trekkies did; I still can't think of one), my fandom stayed strong all during that time. In a world of cable TV and other outlets, there was no shortage of fresh Star Wars material and evidently the Lucasfilm people had no fear of overexposure. When I finally saw Revenge of the Sith, which I also loved, I accepted that the saga was over, but was happy that the plentiful EU would continue to fill out the rest of the Star Wars story, taking us from a long time ago in a galaxy far away to a world of imagination that kept me captivated.
I continued to devour EU material with my interest reaching a crescendo with the arrival of the animated film and TV Series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars in 2008. But by this time, my age and the growing prevalence of the internet began to chip away at my pure love for all things Star Wars. Or more specifically at first, my love for all Star Wars fans.
I had been aware that not every fan had fallen strictly in line behind the prequels. I heard the criticisms that the scripts could be long-winded and political, with stilted dialog that caused the acting to feel somewhat wooden; reasonably on could infer that creating a new series to intersect with an original trilogy would be problematic, with the constraints of creating a drama where everyone knew the ending and many have argued these movies didn't always beat those constraints.
And I also knew that the prequels had added pressure in that ILM, George Lucas's special effects company that was largely financed by his unusually high stakes in Star Wars merchandising, had greatly raised the bar in the special effects market. It was harder to amaze people by this time, and some in fact complained that the new effects made the films seem less charming.
But my unquestioning fandom at the time didn't allow for any of those concerns to bother me much. Sure, I laughed when my older cousin suggested that Episode 2 should begin with the death of Jar Jar Binks, a character that had come to emblemize dissatisfaction with the first prequel. I could see that he was not a very successful character by Lucas's standards but figured he'd hit so many home runs with characters in the original trilogy that he was entitled to one mistake--I never totally agreed, but I knew this was a character who felt a bit out of place, and he certainly was no Darth Vader or even Chewbacca. But I thought it was all fun, and I didn't think he negated more effective new characters, like Darth Maul or Padme.
But eventually, I ran into one person too many who had nothing at all nice to say about the prequels. Now because of my age when they began, I admit to finding it difficult to be objective. And my father, although not a fan himself, used to tell me that most of the critics, professional and otherwise, were probably in the midst of their teen or near-teen years when they saw the original films, and probably had such high expectations that they were going to be disappointed no matter what.
I found that people got very nasty, my brother included, when I gave all the movies equal love--I certainly never said the "prequels" were better than the original trilogy. But if pressed, I would rate the first half dozen this way: Empire Strikes Back, Revenge of the Sith, Attack of the Clones, Return of the Jedi, A New Hope and The Phantom Menace (though I never would have ranked that last when it was the most recent release). That's definitely being kinder to the prequels than most people tended to be.
But being 18, having a younger brother who very definitely and very vocally did not share my kind feelings for the newer films, and like most people my age more and more attuned to the internet and that most feared creature, the internet troll, the prequel criticism was about to become more toxic, not just annoying to me but feeling downright dangerous.
Let me explain: it's one thing to be annoyed like I was by constant criticism seeping into my obsessive universe. It's a fair point that I could have avoided the caustic comments on the internet and television and radio, or that I should have developed a thicker skin about what is basically an entertainment. And after all it was only bothering the people who made the prequels so much; they had pocketed a nice profit from the new round of films.
But to think that the negativity and whole trolling thing is a victimless crime is becoming old news. Some of us will never come to terms with our favorite things being under constant attack, and more seriously this particular area of trolling had two specific victims who actually suffered under the vitriol of the angry masses.
Two actors from the film suffered tremendously from the verbal slings and arrows of the "critics" who felt things "like their whole childhood had been ruined" by the prequels. As one who thought his childhood enhanced by a series of films he could call his own, this angered me. But what was said to the two actors was beyond the pale.
First, Ahmed Best, the actor who voiced and physically portrayed Jar Jar Binks (with special effects enhancement) received not only fan heat but death threats as well. This being his first major acting role, which obviously was a thrilling development for him, he says he felt so dispirited by the death threats and people accusing him of ruining their childhood that he considered suicide at one point. For this to happen over a single role is terrifying.
As I mentioned before, one had to be aware of the Jar Jar jokes and one could question Lucas's continued support of this character choice. But for the overreaction of the community to run this deep was not evidence of the maturity and sense of some of those who grow up with Star Wars. Fortunately, Best has come out of the dark side and has recently even attended Star Wars fan celebrations. But this was a jarring story to me.
Even worse was the case of Jake Lloyd, who got his biggest acting break (following his role in Jingle All the Way) in the Phantom Menace. What makes his case worse than Best's is that when the film was made, Jake was all of 10 years old. He was charged with playing the young Anakin Skywalker (the future Darth Vader) in the first prequel, leading to a life of first, endless interviews and appearances to promote the film, then abuse from jealous school peers over his fortune and subsequently the bad word of mouth from the film, and finally prolonged criticism and attacks in an unrelenting world of media and social media community.
It's true that Lloyd was at times combative with the fans and his past, and was later very public about what he termed a "nightmare." And he engaged in quite a few antisocial and even criminal actions over the two decades since The Phantom Menace. Such I guess is the fate of many a child star. But the degree of anger of the hard core prequel bashing army showed no compassion for the young actor portraying. And with Lloyd having been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, the trolls should take some responsibility for their letting out anger on a pre-teen.
So it was that my world view was drastically changed by my unfettered Star Wars devotion. It was through this seemingly escapist hobby that I came to understand the true darkness in the force and in human nature. From there, my obsession became something of a secret obsession; don't get too close to another fan because he or she could be a secret Prequel hater, or Trilogy snob if you prefer. Because as I've said, I'm not very objective about the things I loved when I could count my age with just my two hands.
Maybe it was partly a good thing for me to have experienced this fact via something like Star Wars because as any member of my generation knows--or at least needs to know--the internet can be a far darker place than the worst underbelly of Coruscant. Good reviews don't stand a chance in the world of social media; they are met by a chorus of dissension and vitriol. On occasion some critical soul might come up with something amusing, but usually they drone on and on with the most unclever attacks. One wonders why some will spend so much time on something they regard as so worthless.
Still, I soldiered on in my Star Wars addiction, picking up the occasional magazine or coming, watching the movies and the seasons of the Clone Wars that filled in the gap between the second and third prequels. I figured everyone can have their opinion but I love it all. And so I learned to put the negativity away and keep this expansive universe as a special place.
But then came a collision of worlds from which I may never recover. When Star Wars met Disney.
Now the two hadn't been complete strangers. Disney is not in the habit of letting a worldwide phenomenon completely escape its grasp. I had known for years, and happily at the time, that the Disney had transacted a good bit of business with Star Wars main creator George Lucas, bringing to its park such attractions as Star Tours and Indiana Jones Adventure through the association.
But after 6 Star Wars films and a largely negative reaction to the prequels, Lucas seemed to be content to oversee its legacy and the expanded universe materials, but did not seem to have any real inclination to do it again. He had left quite a legacy with the franchise and with his ILM's advancement of the film industry in general, at least in terms of special effects--spectacular, seamless, and completely believable effects that leave any films preceding the 1977 Star Wars--and maybe that film itself--looking like an amusing relic. While at one point Lucas had intimated that he had a nine-episode series in mind, he seemed content after the prequels to leave it at that, save for some tinkering with the original trilogy that seemed to offend all fans at one point, a controversy that dimmed over the years but didn't quite go away. (Putting Jar Jar Binks into Return of the Jedi was one sore spot, even though the appearance barely qualified as a cameo.)
But while Lucas seemed content to put Star Wars largely in the rear view mirror, Disney did what it does: find a titanic object in pop culture (say the Avengers or the Muppets) and find a way to obtain it. Thus it was not a shock to find that Disney and George Lucas were having discussions about Star Wars becoming an official Disney property.
Being that Disney had long also been a passion of mine, especially the Disney Theme Parks, I should have been excited about the possibilities of this alliance. Since first visiting Walt Disney World in 1999, starting our trip with a viewing of Toy Story 2, I was a full-blown fan, convinced that this was indeed the happiest place on earth and truly a home away from home only better. I've gone there 3 more times and visited the original Disneyland two other times.
But over the years, I was becoming more and more disillusioned with how Disney was running their parks: dumbing down scripts, abandoning or changing classic rides, building giant hats in the middle of parks, and becoming more and more obsessed with cross promotion. They stuffed Disney characters into a Small World, changed Pirates of the Caribbean to accommodate Johnny Depp, made uncomfortable (read: dumbed down) changes in the Spaceship Earth ride and script, and overall tried to accommodate modern-day customers in ways that seemed to erode all the things that were special about the parks. In short, the stresses of being a publicly owned company and competing with parks like Universal had created a series of decisions and changes that to my mind signaled a decay in the traditions and unique place Disney had in hearts and minds; I thought, still think, that this downward direction will eventually be a major problem.
Worse, in terms of the overall Disney tradition, actual Disney movies had stopped being the driving force behind the parks. When I was a child Disney was going through a second golden age of its animated films; the Lion King, the Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and so on. But that string had slowly played out, and while the acquisition of the excellent Pixar films had provided excellence in a different type of animation, the new attractions all seemed to be aimed at cross-promoting the new movies, and some attempts seemed desperate (Stitch's Great Escape, anyone?)
So in the fall of 2012, as the power returned after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, it wasn't all that shocking to find the deal done and Star Wars was officially part of the family of the Mouse. And by then, I didn't see this as welcome news. The way things had been going, I feared that they had the potential to actually ruin my love for Star Wars.
I was especially afraid when they announced that there would be an Episode VII, VIII, and IX, and Lucas's involvement in that enterprise would be a bit nebulous. At one point, I would have been quite excited at the prospect of three new films, but at this point I could only muster some small hope that they wouldn't be too bad; however, I found it hard to rely on the judgment of a company that had once had hits like Snow White, Pinocchio and Cinderella, but now thought that people couldn't handle the real titles of Rapunzel (Tangled?) or The Snow Queen (Frozen?).
While the animation franchise The Clone Wars was prematurely cancelled in the first year under Disney ownership, angering many fans (including me), Not much happened with the franchise during its first year under Mouse ownership--at least not publicly. But in 2014, things really started to go down.
On May 31, 2014, Disney/Lucasfilm announced that the entire Expanded Universe outside of the 6 films and the Clone Wars Film and TV Show were now "non-canon" and re-branded as Star Wars "Legends." I was extremely angry about this, with all the time and money my young self had laid out for books, video games, and comics that had supposedly been green lighted by Lucas and his company; the re-designation of these as "Legends" did not restore any of this time or expense . In the wake of this "proclamation" I shared frustrations with many people like me who grew up with the Expanded Universe; for many, this was like being a child and hearing that there is no Santa Claus.
In short, I think it took a lot of nerve to make this type of statement and it's still a mystery why Disney would do it publicly. Hey, the ones to whom they were aiming their announcement would certainly have figured it out in the end. But by making the announcement so public right at the end of the childhood of someone who absolutely worshiped Star Wars, including the expanded universe, I felt badly misused in terms of my time and money. Not to get too much into alignment with the prequel haters, but I felt they had ruined my childhood.
To make matters worse, it turned out that Disney not only took it on itself to detonate the EU, they had decided to write the Sequel Trilogy from scratch, neglecting George Lucas's outlines for Episodes VII-IX, which had been acquired in the deal with Lucas. According to Lucas himself, the move left him feeling badly betrayed.
With hindsight, it's easy to assign some blame for this debacle to Lucas. How could someone who so smartly and profitably secured the merchandising rights to the original trilogy enter into a deal without proper legal protection of the property that almost certainly will be his most lasting legacy? Especially when dealing with the Mouse, whose reputation in recent years was not that their word was gold. One couldn't help but think that his devotion to Star Wars was no longer as strong as some of its more ardent fans.
But I tried to stay positive about the possibilities of the new trilogy, not wanting to be an automatic naysayer to the generation that would come into Star Wars through the sequel trilogy, much like had through the prequel trilogy. Despite my fears, I wanted the new trilogy to succeed and vowed to myself I would accept it on its own terms. I heard the film would be co-written and directed by JJ Abrams, a hot young filmmaker who had taken on Star Wars fairly recently. I was not a Trekkie but understood that many of that group were unhappy with the sledgehammer Abrams took to things they had considered "canon" (that word again). Still, I tried to maintain a neutral stance until the movies came out; after all, the co-writer was to be movie veteran Lawrence Kasdan, who had co-written the two best films in the original trilogy: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
Then came the promotional campaign for Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
In the lead-up promotion for the film, everyone from Abrams to Kathleen Kennedy, supposedly Lucas's hand-picked successor at Lucasfilm, threw a lot of passive-aggressive shade at the prequels, using phrases like "practical effects" and "authentically Star Wars" to subtly diss the prequels. Worse, Abrams brought onto the cast his compadre from Star Trek, Simon Pegg, Pegg, who was nerd hero of the decade after writing/starring in the cult hit Sean of the Dead, was anything but subtle in his attacks on the prequels.
So there was some dread on the night I finally viewed the film. It's hard to say I hated it because unlike Star Trek fans who thought Abrams went too far afield, Abrams played it safe--maybe too safe. I though it was very much a redo of A New Hope, with elements of Empire and Return thrown in for good measure. While the approach had its comforts, I felt there was nothing new at all here, hewing way to close to the original Trilogy to upset anything much (the death of Han may have been upsetting, but not as shocking as one might have thought). It was a comfortable watch but not an exciting one.
A year after Awakens, Disney threw fans a curve by starting a line of films that would exist outside the principal saga. The initial film was Rogue One, which I enjoyed greatly, maybe because it existed parallel to the trilogies but was not at all beholden to them. It was an exciting film that could be used as a set-up to Episode IV, though again it had a fully different focus than the saga films.
Finally came Episode 8, The Last Jedi, written and directed this time by Rian Johnson, which was widely despised by pretty much every level of fan. For reasons I'm not sure of I was not excited by the prospect of this film; I had temporarily checked out of any Star Wars emotion so its failure as a saga film was not a big deal to me at the time. To me it remains just a point in the saga, one that I'll probably not revisit very often--at least as often as the other saga films.
The second non-saga film was called Solo: a Star Wars story, a tale of the very young Han. The film had problems, with Hollywood regular Ron Howard finally taking on a Star Wars project. I enjoyed this one, though not thinking it was in any way saga-worthy or even as strong as Rogue One. By Star Wars standards this one was considered a commercial bomb, which it appears might have killed non-saga films for some time.
It was at this point that you heard some people saying that the franchise had become overexposed. It's odd for someone who has read and purchased so many books, discs and products as I have to fully agree with this. But there may finally have been some truth to it.
Episode IX , The Rise of Skywalker, dropped with a surprising lack of fanfare last year. It was probably the best of the new trilogy, though maybe a step below Rogue One. Written by Abrams with Chris Terrio, and directed again by Abrams, it was a serviceable closing and it's possible that it will grow in my estimation in the future. It wasn't the talk of the town by the end, at least not in the way the movies used to be.
The fact that response to the movie was underwhelming was a little surprising because Disney opened Star Wars Galaxy's Edge in summertime 2019, in Disneyland park in Anaheim, and the main ride (Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ) of the land opened in Hollywood Studios in Orlando the same month as the release of Episode 9. Disney seemed to expect a mutual boost from the two events, with its eye on recreating the great success Universal had with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
But even though lines for the attraction were substantial, in at least in pre-virus days, word-of-mouth was far more mixed than it was on Potter, meaning the jury is still out on Galaxy's Edge. It will always have an audience, but I think I'm not alone in thinking some of the bloom has gone off the rose that was the Star Wars franchise. Lesson learned.
(You can check out my more in-depth looks at these issues in my Disney -based articles.)