What is the Appeal of Star Wars?
For the future of Star Wars we need to understand it's past
On Thursday December 20th the final film in the Star Wars saga will hit theaters. Star Wars Rise of the Skywalker will be the last film in the final trilogy completing the 9 film series. But unlike the other brands in the Disney bank like Pixar or Marvel. Star Wars seems to be at a bit of a crossroads. Disney has managed to try and ramp up the Lucas Films production pipeline to match the other juggernaut brands under its watch. Pixar before it was acquired used to release their movies more sporadically. But now we typically get at least one new release a year and sometimes even two a year. Marvel managed to produce a new movie each year but after 2010 they’ve only been ramping up their slate going from just one a year to two and now we’re living in an era where we see 3 marvel movies released every year and audiences still hasn’t grown tired of it.
But after 4 years of back to back Star Wars releases the public just seems to be kind of done with Star Wars. Even the cast and crew have begun to publicly denounce the previous film, throwing the Last Jedi under the bus. But amidst the cultural battle ground of politics that Star Wars has become I think we’ve sort of lost sight of why anyone liked it in the first place. So as we sit here at the dawn of the end of an era on the burgeoning cusp of a new one right around the corner I think now is as good time as any to look back and reflect upon what is the appeal of Star Wars? Why do people love it so much in the first place? And if we can answer this riddle perhaps we might have a chance of unlocking the way forward for the franchise so it can...to use a quote from another famous sci-fi series...live long and prosper.
So to understand Star Wars we need to understand why Disney needed Star Wars in the first place. So let’s go back to the early 2010’s and take a look at why Disney spent $4 billion on it in the first place. Disney has always been a juggernaut, but one thing they’d always been lacking in their portfolio was stuff designed to appeal towards boys. Of course all of their animated films were designed to appeal to children of all ages and genders, but the emphasis on Disney Princesses led to a bit of a weakness on the boys action front. It was just never their specialty. Disney was wholesome and family friendly. While in the 90’s other networks would have superhero shows and imported anime like DBZ, Yu-Gi-Oh, Batman the Animated series, and X-Men. Disney’s material generally leaned a bit softer with the new adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Duck Tales, Goof Troop, Recess, and the Superhero parody dark wing duck. Stuff that kind of felt like it was designed for kids whose tastes skewed a bit younger.
Especially when compared to darker and slightly more mature fare like X-men which would routinely feature post apocalyptic alternate time lines and metaphorical groups designed to represent real life hate groups like Nazi’s or the KKK. Plus all the lasers and bloodless punching you could ask for. Sure there was occasionally the outlier like Gargoyles, but generally the Disney brand would always be about magic and niceness and while they would occasionally dabble in the rough and tumble world of boys entertainment they never went all the way.
But in the early 2000’s with the rise of fantasy and sci-fi and more acceptance of superheroes in cinema as genre stuff began to become more commonplace, this represented a huge weakness in their portfolio. Simply put Disney could no longer afford to not be in the punching and kicking business especially when many of these superhero properties were being turned into huge tent pole movies like Spider-Man and the Dark Knight.
So Disney attempted to try and create new franchises that would appeal to the boy centric nerdosophere. Remember Tron Legacy? Back in 2010 Disney invested considerable money on trying to revive the dead and dormant Tron brand by creating a sequel to the beloved cult film. They went all in on Tron. That was going to be their ticket to the boy’s table. Sure they had recently bought Marvel in 2009, but they didn’t know what it’d grow into. At that point it was still a huge risk with the Avengers being two years away and Thor and Captain America were unproven C-list character. And you know what screw those Marvel Superheroes, Tron was something they’d had for years and goddammit they were gonna use that nerd street cred and nostalgia and turn it into the next big thing.
Disney went all in They had a big alternate reality game that would coincide with several real life events leading up towards San Diego Comic Con. They had a spin-off animated tv-series that would bridge the gap between the new and old movie called Tron Uprising. They had a pretty great sound track from Daft Punk that’s actually still pretty good. This was gonna be the next big thing until it wasn’t. Tron Legacy disappointed at the box office. It didn’t catch on, it under performed and got middling reviews at best. The Truth was nobody really cared about tron outside of it’s very niche audience and the new film was too convoluted and not interesting enough to get a new generation to care much either.
At that point Disney kind of gave up on trying to create boy centric action franchises in-house. Why do the hard work when you can just buy out someone else who’d already done the heavy lifting for several decades. And so after the financial implosion of their huge Tron push, Disney was like screw it, George says he’s retiring let’s just buy Star Wars. And so they did for 4 billion dollars in an effort to forge it into a super brand that could stand alongside their Marvel Juggernaut. But the people who now owned Star Wars and controlled it didn’t really seem to understand why it even worked in the first place.
Star Wars was created as the ultimate boys adventure story. In making Star Wars George Lucas wanted to recreate his love of 1940’s serials he’d watched when he was a boy while also synthesizing all of the genre films he’d grown up loving like westerns, war movies, and the works of famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. In Kirby Ferguson’s excellent video documentary series Everything is a Remix he dives into all of the different components George Lucas used to create Star Wars to make ultimate boys adventure series.
But that’s the genius of Star Wars, George Lucas synthesized everything he loved to create something new that felt unique and timeless. That’s the biggest flaw in the new approach that’s been taken with all the newer Disney films. Rather than synthesizing new genre elements to evolve and expand and create new stories and expand the universe most of the Disney Star Wars is just an unholy ouroboros where the only thing that Star Wars references is itself in never ending self consuming cycle. And when your not building new iconography then you’re just stagnating. And then there’s the pink elephant in the room.
And that pink elephant's name is Kathleen Kennedy. Kathleen was a super producer who worked alongside George Lucas and Steven Spielberg on some of the most successful films of all time and in the purchase of Lucas Film by Disney she was promoted to become president of Lucas films and thus began her quest to remold Star Wars into something it was never designed to be. She sought to make the universe more inclusive with better representation and also appeal towards a demographic that largely seemed to ignore Star Wars...girls.
Not to say there aren’t girls who like Star Wars. Or really hardcore female Star Wars fans, but predominantly Star Wars tends to appeal towards guys because as I’ve stated before it’s designed to be the ultimate boys adventure story. Doesn’t mean anyone can’t enjoy it for what it is, but boys shit is just hardwired into it’s DNA with the blasters, and the space ships, and the laser swords. There’s a famous photo of Kathleen Kennedy wearing her force is female shirts and one of the big things in her stewardship of the larger brand was to create something more inclusive towards women who’d find star wars more appealing. Of course this largely didn’t seem to apply towards most of the behind the scenes talent since all of the recent movies have all featured white men serving as writers and directors, but at least the superficial direction was to show that the force is female and characters like Rey, Rose Tico, Admiral Holdo, and Jyn Erso could stand alongside with the rest of the Disney princesses.
So now we get into an interesting crossroad. Can I critique Disney Star Wars without being dismissed as an Alt Right Nazi or an SJW Cuck? Is there anyway to bring balance to the criticism. One thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve been very successful and pissing off both ends of the political spectrum so maybe that’s the only way to bring balance to the force. SO here we go.
So of course just because Star Wars is built as the ultimate boys adventure story doesn’t mean you can’t have strong female characters. Princess Leia is of course an icon and I’d say the character arc that Dave Filoni has managed to achieve with Asoka Tano over the course of his Star Wars cartoons is something that the fan base has largely embraced, as she’s grown from an insufferable youngling into a badass grey Jedi able to fight toe to toe against her former mentor, Darth Vader and become a linchpin in the rebel alliance. You can have good and even great female characters, but they have to be in service of the larger story, not something that stops the story mid track to give a proselytizing lesson in white guilt gender politics.
I think the best example of this is of course Rian Johnson’s Poe storyline during the Last Jedi where he attempts to cut down Poe Dameron down to size by showing him the error of his Toxic masculinity and pointless heroics that only manage to get people killed. If only he’d learned to be less impulsive and respect women better and not do war things in a series called star wars could the resistance have been saved. This is a bad look, to have a 40 minute plot thread that’s basically designed to tell you the whole reason you came to see the movie in the first place with the action and adventure is stupid and toxic.
And it’s funny how by the books all of the other Disney Star Wars movies have been, but in the main series they let a journeyman director go rogue one and do whatever he wanted because I guess it went along with the ethos of the force is female t-shirts? Eventually we’ll get a big tell all book detailing all the behind the scenes of this fiasco, but until that point I’m just gonna assume that’s the case. Not that you can’t have your woke politics in your entertainment.
Rian Johnson’s Knives out is filled with patriarchy smashing woke politics, featuring a great take down of all those awful selfish rich white people and their privilege, but Knives Out works a lot better because it’s built from the ground up to support that world view and themes and has it baked in it’s narrative. The main series Star Wars films do not.
When you go against what something wants to be all your going to do is alienate your main audience. When people are coming to Star Wars for the latest installment of their $200 million dollar boy serial adventure, it’s not a great look to spend an hour and a half telling them that boys adventure stories and war is bad. Every successful movie or tv series has a core identity that’s written into it’s creative DNA. You can push it, you can pull it, but if you ever break it then you break the thing at large. A great example is an interesting little controversy from earlier this year with Mortal Kombat 11. The controversy came from NetherRealm studios redesigning their female characters to be more realistically proportioned. Now this might seem like a non-issue and it mostly is a non issue. But the ridiculous female character designs were kind of a part of the grind house exploitation B-movie vibe of Mortal Kombat as a whole. And I was amazed to see two radically different youtube personalities come to the same conclusion.
The ultra liberal woke Moviebob and my blood is as red as my MAGA Hat and Republican Party party card Razor Fist. These two have nothing in common and would probably never agree on anything in the realm of politics or pop cultures. But I was amazed to see these two who could not be more polar opposites both agree about the boobs in Mortal Kombat .
Despite their VAST political and ideological differences these two talking heads both kind of agreed that Mortal Kombat’s operating aesthetic is stupid schlock and the big boobs kind of fit into that modus operantdi of stupid sleezy schlock. And while they both have very different reasons for opposing censure ship of obnoxious boobs they both came to the innate conclusion of why stupid busty kung fu girl designs were part of the Mortal Kombat identity and iconography. And that’s the issue when lose focus of what the core identity of what it is that your making you also lose focus on how you should be making it .
It’d be like if in the middle of Frozen 2 Elsa was stopped from having a big musical number and a new side character came to tell her that musical numbers are dumb and do little to help solve the world's economic inequality or stop world hunger. But the funny thing is some times when you respect a properties core identity you can still manage to appeal towards an audience that’s not in your demographic. And the best example I can think of is of course My Little Pony Friendships is Magic.
Now the interesting thing about the Friendship is Magic reboot of MLP is how it managed to expand upon the core my little pony audience beyond just girls. When Lauren Faust was given the reigns to remake the property from scratch she doubled down on it’s girly qualifies while also using a good old touch of super moe anime design to just really pump up the cuteness of those horses. While also injecting a dose of fantasy and adventure .
Not only did she appeal towards a new generation of girls she also unintentionally brought in a huge contingent of anime loving teenage boys and man-children who became die hard pony aficionados. Amazing how far the power of Moe animu eyes can go. But the lesson to be learned here is that My Little Pony didn’t attract a male audience by giving the pony’s laser blasters or retractable claws or forcing them to fight in a desolate post apocalyptic future. It managed to expand on it’s audience by doubling down on the unique things that were true to it’s core raison d'etre. Not by telling people that cute ponies are stupid.
But despite this push how successful has making the force female been in actually attracting a new female audience for star wars? Has there been a new generation of Star Wars fans created from people who’d previously couldn’t care less about it?
Not to say there aren’t girls who love star wars, and I’m sure baby yoda is going to bring some more fans into the fold, but predominantly it’s still seen as that boys thing. And that’s the issue, you kind of betrayed what Stars Wars is at its core and you have nothing to show for it. With Marvel it’s easier to expand the audience because there are so many different characters and each can bring a different flavor to their respective franchise Star Wars is a bit more limited, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to channel other things through Star Wars.
I think the best example is of course the success and praise that’s been heaped onto the Mandelorian. The exceptionally fickle Star Wars fan base seems to love it and while I wouldn’t say it’s perfect as I predicted before the fact that it’s an episodic serialized series that’s being released over the course of several weeks has helped keep it relevant. People seem to be digging that every Friday there’s a new adventure to go on with Mando and baby Yoda. What new characters is he going to encounter? What kind of scrappy situation is he going to have to get out of using his flame thrower. Some episodes are more successful than others at channeling the Star Wars pulp vibe with other episodes feeling a little too much like 90’s Sci-Fi channel tv shows, but I think the Mandalorian cuts to the original heart and spirit of Star Wars better than anything else in the Disney cannon so far.
It’s those old flash gordon serial’s that George Lucas grew up watching only writ on a larger scale for a new generation. The Mandelorian also largely tries to take inspiration through other media instead of just referencing Star Wars. Each episode is a little riff on some kind of genre movie, whether it’s star wars themed retelling of Seven Samurai, or a classic western, a heist movie, hell I’d say the genius of the series is that it’s basically the classic manga lone wolf and cub told through a Star Wars prism. And that’s where the Mandelorian succeeds. It’s focused on telling an adventure story as opposed to stopping midway to give a didactic political message about the war economy or giving a very special message about the dangers of toxic masculinity.
And the new era that comes after the rise of the skywalker will have to learn that lesson. Maybe Dave Filoni will finally get the promotion he deserves after toiling away in the CGI animation mines and get to handle star wars on a larger scale after his success on the Mandelorian. Supposedly Kevin Feige is going to give a helping hand to Lucas Films. No idea how there are enough hours in the day for him to do that in addition to overseeing all of Marvel Film, TV, Comics, and Video games, but apparently that might happen. Though that’s the key to saving star wars, embracing what it is without trying to turn it into something it isn’t. After the dust settles and the box office is tallied, what will people think?