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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Star Wars Galaxy Is Burdened With Backstory

In the lead-up to the launch of Disney+’s new Obi-Wan Kenobi series last week, actor Hayden Christensen mentioned in an interview that, yes, of course, he’d love to star in a spin-off of the series centering on Darth Vader, the character he has played in one form or another in three Star Wars films and now in Kenobi. That interview surfaced hours after Lucasfilm debuted the trailer for August’s Andor, a new show featuring Diego Luna in a spin-off of the 2016 film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Rogue One are, of course, already spin-offs of existing Star Wars movies; in fact, they both act as prologues to the very first Star Wars movie from 1977, filling in plot holes that were never addressed in the original film: How did no one ever find Luke Skywalker on Tatooine? Who, exactly, stole the Death Star plans in the first place? Now fans have—or are getting—answers to those questions. But they’ve also known the real answer for years: In the grand scheme of things, none of this matters.

Thinking about the current state of the Star Wars franchise, it’s hard not to be reminded of this quote from comic book writer Grant Morrision: “Adults foolishly demand to know how Superman can possibly fly, or how Batman can possibly run a multibillion-dollar business empire during the day and fight crime at night, when the answer is obvious even to the smallest child: because it's not real. Kids understand that real crabs don't sing like the ones in The Little Mermaid. But you give an adult fiction, and the adult starts asking really fucking dumb questions like ‘How does Superman fly? How do those eyebeams work? Who pumps the Batmobile's tires?' It's a fucking made-up story, you idiot! Nobody pumps the tires!"

The power of George Lucas’ original Star Wars movies is that they are, gloriously, children’s stories. The big villains wear black and look scary, while the heroes smile and hug each other and save the day using magic and the power of being good; there are cute robots and cuter bears, and the cosmology of the whole thing makes no sense if you give it a moment’s thought, but that’s fine; it sounds good, and everything moves pretty quickly, so you don’t care.

The problem is, the kids who loved those movies grew up and kept hold of Star Wars in the process. As a result, Star Wars became increasingly insular. It went from the origin story of Darth Vader in the turn-of-the-century prequel trilogy to the current era, which has fixated on minutiae from what came before to such a degree that 2019’s Solo: A Star Wars Story doesn’t just show how Han Solo met Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, it also shows how he won the Millennium Falcon and how he made the Kessel Run in such a short time—in other words, basically all of the character’s backstory from the original movie—while also, inexplicably, giving an entirely unexpected and unnecessary origin for Han Solo’s name. Who, really, asked for that?

Even those Star Wars projects that initially seemed new and independent of the franchise’s past have become weighed down by the expectation of exploring legacy. The second season of The Mandalorian was overshadowed by guest appearances by Cobb Vanth, Ahsoka Tano, Boba Fett, and a CGI Luke Skywalker, which led into a Boba Fett spin-off show that did little more than offer fan service about how Boba survived being eaten by the Sarlacc in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. (Spoiler: It didn’t chew, or something.)

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By this point, what truly worked about the original Star Wars movies—the awe of invention and discovery, and the momentum of the propulsive storytelling that left details and common sense behind in the rush to get to the next emotional beat—has been lost almost entirely, replaced by a compulsive need to fulfill nostalgia and comfortably mine existing intellectual property. Whereas those first three movies were the Big Bang that started everything and built a galaxy far, far away, what we’re witnessing now is an implosion of fractal storytelling, with each spin-off focusing on a smaller part of the story leading to a new spin-off focusing on an ever smaller part of that smaller part.

What Star Wars needs to truly thrive again is the seat-of-the-pants attitude of George Lucas in the 1970s, taking the stories he loved from his youth and going somewhere different with them. Instead, we have a six-episode miniseries that lets long-term fans know where Princess Leia got her gloves. Somewhere along the way, Star Wars’ galaxy got a lot smaller and a lot more obsessed with a long time ago, and it’s suffering greatly as a result. Maybe it’s time for a new rebellion.

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