Star Wars is dead, long live Star Wars

Note: This post contains no explicit or specific spoilers for the new Star Wars movie; however, it’s probably not interesting to you if you haven’t seen it already. Also: You can follow me on Twitter, Twitch, and YouTube, if you like; I talk a lot about video games and nerd stuff.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an elegant reboot, for a more civilized age.

I don’t know what it was like to watch the original Star Wars trilogy in theaters, free of any expectations other than a pleasant way to spend eight bucks and an evening. By the time I was inducted into the Star Wars fandom, the novels, comics, games, and collectible esoterica was already an established phenomenon. I spent days of my life reading and re-reading the Extended Universe novels, mastering X-Wing and TIE Interceptor handling in their respective games, and wishing I could buy that replica Rebel Alliance pilot helmet in that dumb SkyMall catalogue.

Troopin’ Storms, by Irene Koh.

Then The Phantom Menace came, and thirteen-year-old Patrick’s geek heart was broken for the first time. That was when I learned the painful lesson that every adult geek eventually learns: that things I love can still suck.

So I wasn’t there to see Star Wars slowly grow into a cultural phenomenon; I showed up just in time to see it get bad. I moved on, content to occasionally surprise other visible Star Wars nerds with a reference here and there. And then other day I saw Star Wars with Irene.

The spoileriest thing I’m going to write is right here:

The Force Awakens is basically A New Hope, jumbled around a bit. George Lucas has spoken before of how the prequel trilogy “echoes” the original trilogy; I think The Force Awakens feels more like a band covering a long-ago top 40s hit with contemporary flair and authentic respect and sincerity for the source material.

It’s a satisfying movie, but more satisfying as a Star Wars movie, because it feels like the people who made it isolated the essence of what we love about the original trilogy — a cast of relatable characters that navigate through a collective hero’s journey in an outlandish world — and gives us more of that.

Which is important, I think, because if Disney is to make a big bet on Star Wars as another flagship IP a la Marvel Cinematic Universe, they must have realized that the first thing they need to do is remind people what a Star Wars movie is and why we love them. If you try to get someone excited for The Force Awakens who hasn’t seen the original trilogy, your go-to is probably to show them A New Hope, but it doesn’t really work like it used to 15 years ago. A New Hope is sleepy and quaint if you’re showing it to people who, by now, are inured to superheroes and gallant adventures after years of Marvel movies and Lord of the Rings.

In the big-picture view of Star Wars, I do not think The Force Awakens will stick in our minds the way, say, The Empire Strikes Back does, and the nature of its “echoes” means that scenes we saw first in the original trilogy simply don’t leave the same searing impression. And that’s fine. The Force Awakens is a movie I stopped thinking about an hour after watching it, but I had fun during, and that’s kind of the point.

Make no mistake: I enjoyed watching The Force Awakens. I laughed, I cried, I yelled advice to the characters. But what I enjoyed watching more than the movie itself was the deft touch taken to constructing a movie that will serve as the new base for a whole new Star Wars mega-franchise. Entertainment industry professionals are undoubtedly dissecting the shit out of this movie to see how we could potentially use it to sustain decades of Harry Potter or Batman or what have you.

We live in a world where “fantasy action movie” has gone from being a weird niche for suspected perverts and deviants to the de facto Friday night entertainment standard. The first Star Wars was excellent; it was also among the first of its kind as an enduring international entertainment franchise. Nearly 40 years later, though, that first-mover advantage has almost completely eroded, and Disney execs must have known that Star Wars had one chance at a movie left in its brand value before no one felt obligated to care about it.

How do you take the remains of a once-noble IP and revive them into the next Super Mega Commercial Tentpole? I’m sure that some execs saw the opportunity for a reboot; append some unexpected adjective like “gritty” or “adult” and tap a director to take the movies in a drastically different direction. But that buys you temporal relevance at a rather large cost: you may get people to see the next three movies, but you risk bad buzz and alienating lots of old fans, and you change the nature of the Star Wars brand value itself. Which is a problem, because Star Wars is built on epic, fantastic, family-friendly journeys — all of which are great for selling to families across the world. And once you finish the reboot, you don’t necessarily have an IP that you can build stuff on indefinitely — something which I’m guessing Sony learned with its umpteenth Spider-Man.

Nor do you have the brand value or goodwill to simply start telling new stories in the Star Wars universe. The Harry Potter franchise can get away with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, because the core Potter story is done and all that’s left are millions of superfans aching for more. Star Wars basically tried to do that with the prequel trilogy (“Hey kid, you like Star Wars? Wanna get some more of it?”) and it didn’t work because a) they sucked, b) there was too much time between trilogies, and c) we didn’t have the creative IP strategy knowledge we do now.

Neither of these approaches would pay off the four billion dollar bet Disney made in the Lucasfilm acquisition. What they had to do was far more elegant (and creatively awe-inspiring) — they had to do it in the text itself. Rather than borrow the Star Wars brand to sell new stories or angles, they had to make a movie that passes the torch from old Star Wars to new. Fundamentally, the problem with the original trilogy is that Disney couldn’t directly build off of it; we love Luke Skywalker, not Mark Hamill; we love Han Solo and Harrison Ford, but Harrison Ford is too old to carry Star Wars. But the original trilogy is a story of young heroes taking the world from the old; making a new Star Wars movie that does exactly that, and does it well — that makes us old fans cheer “Star Wars is back!” and new fans begin to understand exactly what it was we fell in love with a long, long time ago — is a gutsy move.

I say it’s gutsy because, essentially, you’re tying the last hope of success of your franchise to your ability to actually execute, to actually make a movie that people like, with characters that people want to see more of — not just a movie that can pay for the next one with just a template and enough marketing. And when untold billions of future dollars are at stake, tying its success to your ability to make an actually good Star Wars movie is a pretty darn big bet — and I think it came through. (No wonder they brought JJ Abrams in.)

Reboots and remixes are so 2000s; with the right creative direction, Star Wars might just live forever.

patrick miller

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