Although there are still a few die-hards still arguing that the prequel movies were actually good, (using logic about as sound as the opposition to gay marriage), it’s fair to say that the Star Wars prequels—and their focus on the depressing saga of a young, petulant Darth Vader—didn’t inspire people the way the original films had only two decades before. If only Anakin Skywalker had been born a brooding vampire, it might have all turned out very differently.
But despite the growing consensue George Lucas has continued to insist that the Emo mess created was the story he always wanted to tell, it wasn’t really the one most fans wanted to hear, and despite doing decent business at the box office, it was pretty clear that the Force was no longer with us.
In the intervening decade and a half things have been a bit unfocused and desperate for the aging brand. There have some decent video games (including two MMOs), some amusing cartoon series, and more toys than you can shake a gaffi stick at, the actual brand has been stuck in an endless never-never land between the prequel and the original series, telling us more than we ever wanted to know about the “clone war” that we already know is going to end up with James Earl Jones shouting “Nooooooooo!”.
But out of the big media spotlight, something interesting was happening in the Outer Rim of fandom. But narrative issues aside, Lucasfilm had learned one of the fundamental lessons of the internet. Instead of leading with lawsuits, they supported the fans, allowing them to essentially remix and remaster the elements of the Star Wars universe in a bewildering variety of ways—even going so far as to create the Fan Film Awards. It was a revolution of sorts, allowing an established brand to become part of the broader cultural experience. These were not only the droids we were looking for, but in a very significant way they now belonged to us. But even as we were suffering through a long darkness, there was also a new hope.
Over the last decade Star Wars has become more about the idea of a story: good vs. evil played out against a backdrop of military technology and endless ancillary merchandise. That’s fairly ironic for a series of films that originally had a deeply anti-technology philosophy. (Or did you think the rust covered rebel ships vs. the gleaming machines of the Empire weren’t a metaphor? Okay, how about the trash compactor?)
Having fallen into the hands of the fans, Star Wars related folk-media has become a veritable cultural phenomenon. It constantly delights and surprises us by the breadth and depth of ways that people have remixed and re-envisioned the original story. A quick google search of Steampunk Star Wars reveals just how deeply the trench can run.
The dedication of the fans, combined with stunning advances in rich media on the web and homebrew media technology, has allowed Star Wars to become a showcase for both the breakneck pace of how we create and consume content.
After almost fifteen years of discovery, innovation, and play, it may be that the era of the “People’s Star Wars” is finally coming to an end.
It’s impossible to know whether Disney will continue to allow fans to remix Star Wars the way they have. But even if they do, the glory days of Star Wars makers may be coming to an end. With a massive infusion of new (and compelling) official Star Wars content coming at us, it’s likely that we’ll no longer be compelled to create our own content to get a fix of a better, deeper Star Wars universe, where the phrase “it’s for kids” will need to be used as a way to forgive the sins of Lucas.
Of course for that to happen the new Star Wars will need to be very good—good enough that we’ll forget about our home brew versions and become fixated on the new material. And looking at the Disney track-record, it seems likely that they will.
Over the last half-decade we’ve seen the Marvel movie series turn to hero after hero to create an almost unending chain of comic book movie blockbusters. And while Disney may not have started that alchemical process, they’ve certainly perfected the formula.
Given that experience, they clearly have the skills needed to re-energize and re-vision our favorite galaxy far, far away. Beyond the actual “Star Wars” event movies, there’s already talk of spin-off films, TV shows, new cartoons and other elements that will take us deeper than we’ve gone before. It’s clear that in the right hands, there’s an endless number of aspects to the Star Wars universe to explore, and Disney seems intent on getting us there.
And that’s not really a bad thing: there’s good reason to be excited by the prospect of films that may once again satisfy us the way they did when we discovered that Vader was Luke’s true father in the Empire Strikes Back. At the same time it may be worth shedding a tear for the fact that the Star Wars of last 15 years might have actually turn out to have been a more elegant franchise from a more civilized age.
Big media will always fulfill our cravings for action in a way that we can never quite do by ourselves, and with the return of Hollywood glitz and glamour, the craft of Star Wars may well be a lost art—a cultural artifact lost in time like keyboard playing cats, planking, and rick-rolls. But, like children glued to their television instead of frolicking in the yard on a hot summer evening, the fact that Star Wars is finally about to be good again is a mixed blessing. We’ll be more entertained, but we won’t be playing the way we used to.
As sad as it is that we’ve been stuck with the prancing ghost of Jar Jar Binks for almost the entire new millennium, the terrible Star Wars prequels also gave rise to what is one of the most unique iterations of the always tenacious relationship between copyright and the unending love of passionate fans. There has never been anything like Star Wars in the bad times, and it may never come again.
Maybe that isn’t such a great loss in some ways, and I’m sure that most people will be thrilled that there’s fresh, great canonical Star Wars adventures just around the corner. But perhaps we should feel a twinge of sadness when we think of a home-brew Sam Holo that will never be.