To say at this point in time that Disney’s Star Wars franchise has had a divisive effect on the community would be an insane understatement. Either one of their last two major films (or both), Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker, have left both sides of the aisle deeply unsatisfied. While shows like Disney +’s The Mandalorian and the latest season of Star Wars: Clone Wars are showing signs of possible fan reinvigoration, they haven’t necessarily addressed the systemic problem here. The fact of the matter is, Disney bought a multi-billion dollar space epic IP and have no clear direction on what to do with it. We can clearly see that in their approach to storytelling, lore expansion and nostalgic callbacks, which we’ll get to later.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of the Star Wars franchise. I even have a small soft spot for George Lucas’ hilariously bad prequel trilogy but what Disney has done with the franchise has serious ramifications. Which if not properly fixed will lead to the franchise’s eventual extinction from cultural relevance.
Brand Recognition Over Bold Reinvention
After 2005’s Revenge of the Sith brought the story of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness and return to the light full circle, Lucas began lending out his property to a multitude of studios, artists and creatives. At the very least, the man had the foresight to see that repetition was bad for business. The time for Luke, Han, Leia and Vader was over. It was time to allow the franchise to flourish outside the established timeline between Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi. Lucasarts had worked alongside gaming studios like Bioware to create groundbreaking additions to the Star Wars mythos. Old school PC gamers may remember Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG. Games that were set thousands of years before the Battle of Yavin, or 0 BBY.
They had stories that truly pushed the letter when it came to the boundaries of Star Wars in new and exciting ways. They explored how Sith like Darth Traya attempted to destroy the Force by creating a “wound” in it. A concept in which a massive loss of life would lead to a weakness or a great disturbance in the Force. They even had a walking Force devourer in the Sith Lord Darth Nihilus, who could literally drain a planet of all life. Then, there was the Star Wars: Legacy comics by John Ostrander that had major events take place over a hundred years after the Empire’s fall.
Stories that expanded on bold ideas like a benevolent Light side Empire, a new Sith Empire that abolished the Rule of Two and a junkie, smuggler descendant of Luke Skywalker. Sure, there were some stinkers along the way but the wealth of expanded canon was what made being a Star Wars fan so exciting! I even know some people who got into the films through various comics and novels. With George Lucas’ blessings, all these inspired works of fiction made by creators and fans alike could exist within continuity without having to disrupt the timeline of the previous films.
When Disney took over, however, the company reserved the rights to pick and choose what part of expanded canon they wanted. They didn’t want to have to work with the arrangements that Lucasarts had set up in the past with other creators and companies. They wanted to consolidate what existed within their new timeline and what didn’t, so they took all the novels, games and comic books in the Expanded Universe (EU) and placed within the label of Star Wars: Legends. A fancier title for retcon purgatory.
Hey, I get it. I’m still a little sore about it but I get it. Disney doesn’t want to spend all day going over the finer details of the Star Wars mythos. They want to establish their own status quo and tell their own brand, new stories. That’s fair enough…except they didn’t really do anything to expand the universe.
One thing you may notice if you’ve watched shows like Star Wars: Rebels or Star Wars: Resistance is a distinct lack of innovation. Rebels mostly follows a relatively inconsequential group of Resistance soldiers as they travel the galaxy fighting the Empire. The show did introduce new elements like the Imperial Inquisitors, former Jedis turned servants of the Empire, or borrow characters from EU like Grand Admiral Thrawn but never really did anything with them. It would have been nice if they dove deep into the minutiae of what made these Jedis turn their back on their Order or why Thrawn is such a competent tactician.
Instead, the show merely treats them as season filler villains with touch-and-go backstories that barely get any attention. Star Wars: Resistance is even worse with its pathetic attempts at reusing characters from the new trilogy like Poe Dameron, General Hux and Captain Phasma in the hopes of luring kids in. Nothing to be learnt and nothing to be gained. That being said, Disney has had some success giving us a unique perspective through the eyes of the Rebel soldiers in Rogue One. A film that both fit nicely within Disney’s timeline and gave us a compelling story. Truly a rare gem in an otherwise lacklustre streak of films that range from nostalgic fun to plain awful.
The Force Awakens, a film that was meant to be Disney’s big daring debut, turned out to be a fairly entertaining remix of A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely had some fun with it but I am disappointed that they didn’t even try to take a risk here. At the end of the day, Disney’s conservative stance reveals that the company values accessible brand recognition over bold progression. It’s almost as if they’re afraid to do anything new with the IP because they do not understand the property’s essence. At this point some I can hear some of you saying “Well what about films like Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker? Those were different.” Yes, they’re part of a whole other issue.
A Lack of Vision
I find it ironic that Disney decided to not to be conservative in plot coherency and canon consistency where it matters most. That being the main meat of the franchise: Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker. You would be excused for thinking these two films completely unrelated to one another because both of them are utter messes! What can I can say about Last Jedi that hasn’t already been said by millions of fans all over the world? I do not like the film. While I respect my fellow film critic Dash’s love for Last Jedi, I did find the film to be highly problematic.
The beginning of the film sees Rey visiting an aged and cynical Luke Skywalker on the planet of Ahch-To after the events of Force Awakens. Reluctantly, Luke decides to train Rey in an effort to show her how flawed the Jedi’s view of the Force was. His main message is that the Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi and it is time to let the order die, that his rigid dogmatic view on it was what clouded his judgment and drove Ben away.
Then in a moment of complete contradiction to the entirety of Luke’s arc within the film, we see him cry out in shock when a ghost Yoda destroys the Sacred Text of the Jedi. Wait, what? I thought he didn’t give a shit. Anyways, Yoda gives him a pep talk about how Rey was meant to outgrow the old ways of Luke and the Jedi to be something else. With that final act of destruction, the Jedi Order fades away…except for the fact that the film contradicts itself again!
As Kylo Ren and a projection of Luke do battle on the salty surface of Crait near the film’s end, Luke declares triumphantly to Kylo Ren that “I will not be the last Jedi”. Upon hearing that, I was confused beyond belief. Do you want her to be a Jedi or not?! Fine, she’s a Jedi. End of story. As irritated as I am with Last Jedi, there were some elements that I found quite interesting and provocative. The desperate flight of the Rebellion kept me at the edge of my seat and Kylo Ren’s evolution from conflicted apprentice to the hate-fuelled leader of the First Order was deeply engrossing. Weirdly enough, I was looking forward to what Disney would do after Last Jedi.
Now that Disney has properly unshackled themselves, as Dash puts it, from the constraints of the status quo, Disney can show us something truly fresh and new, right? Wrong! In a desperate bid to win back public favour after the divisive Last Jedi, Disney commissions director J.J. Abrams to place the “chains” back on the franchise by randomly bringing back Palpatine in Rise of Skywalker. It’s transparent to all this decision was motivated by market forces and not by creative vision.
All the character development of having Kylo Ren forge his own path in Star Wars: The Last Jedi was completely eradicated. Instead, he chooses to be Palpatine’s lackey. How does Palpatine return from the dead? Never explained in the film. I won’t spend too much time harping on Rise of Skywalker seeing that I already did in a previous piece. So to sum it all up, the film was a garbage dump full of toothless nostalgic callbacks and rushed plot points.
All this could have been avoided if Disney simply decided to commit to a singular vision as they did with Kevin Feige and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). They should have either given Abrams the reins with all three films or go forward with Johnson leading the charge. Oh well, it’s over. The important thing for Disney to do now is to move on and learn from the mistakes of its past.
Recently it was announced that Disney would be focusing on telling stories hundreds of years before any Skywalker walked the planes of Tatooine. A golden age that saw the Jedi Order ascend to become the galaxy’s greatest defenders. It would also be a time of great conflict in which they must face off against a savage horde of “space Vikings” known as the Nihil. This is the age of the Old Repu- I mean High Republic. Hopefully, this new series of television shows, novels and comic books will inspire Disney to look beyond the safe bet and to make meaningful contributions to the Star Wars mythos. Could this be a positive sign of Disney’s commitment to take risks and not rely on cheap recognition? Have they perhaps learned from their mistakes? Only time will tell, friends. Only time will tell.