Today is Star Wars Day. I was reminded of that yesterday, when I saw several people posting grumpy requests not to tell them “May the Fourth be with you.” The fact that I’ve seen only negative buzz this year about the ad hoc holiday leaves me wondering: is this a day people still feel like celebrating?
I’m not suggesting disappointment with The Force Awakens — quite the opposite. The movie was so widely beloved that I wonder: are the Star Wars over, from the standpoint of pop-culture debates? Is the Rebellion still a cause people feel the need to fight for on their timelines?
In Chris Taylor’s invaluable recent book on the history of the Star Wars franchise, he points out that what many trufans consider one of the darkest days in Star Wars history was also a turning point in the brand’s progression from a popular film series to a cultural behemoth: January 31, 1997, the date the Special Edition of Star Wars: A New Hope was released.
I was born in 1975, a member of the first generation to grow up never knowing a world without Star Wars. The first film was released in 1977; I have a fuzzy memory of being taken to see The Empire Strikes Back when it came out in 1980, and a crystal-clear memory of going to see the much-anticipated Return of the Jedi for my eighth birthday party.
I had a bunch of the toys, and by the time I was a teenager, I was ready to take my fandom to the next level. There wasn’t much happening Star-Wars-wise in the late ’80s and early ’90s, though — a poorly-designed role-playing game, and the Timothy Zahn novels that I ran out to buy at the Hungry Mind bookstore.
So, I remember what a rush it was to have the films return to theaters — with prequels already in progress. I didn’t love the additions, which are what I refer to when I say that 1997 was a painful year for many longtime fans: the sadly-reduced CGI Jabba, Greedo shooting first, “Jedi Rocks.” Still, I saw each of the re-released movies multiple times in the theater, glorying in the opportunity to see — for the first time as an adult — the movies on the big screen, with clearly appreciative audiences.
Then came the prequels. Rightly, Taylor treats the prequels as a towering, inconvenient truth that Star Wars fans have had to grapple with since they were released starting in 1999. They were widely reviled, leading many fans to grapple with the kind of questions that fans of, say, Bob Dylan have long asked themselves: how can the guy who made this also have made…this?
Some of us made peace with the new releases, while others simply ignored them. Then, there was the fact that George Lucas was steadfastly refusing to undo the Special-izing of the original trilogy, keeping the untouched versions out of circulation and insisting that the new cuts were the definitive versions.
As Taylor notes, though, the prequel years were also the years when a more expansive version of Star Wars fandom started to take off — with costumed performers multiplying like ewoks in heat, and a vast array of licensed products expanding to fill a warehouse. Star Wars Day first became an organized celebration in 2011, and today you’re apt to see everyone from insurance companies to sandwich shops jumping on the occasion with customized content.
The stage was perfectly set for the drama that unfolded starting in 2012. Lucas sold the company bearing his name to Disney, stepping away from Star Wars and being pushed even further away once the transaction was complete; having apparently believed that further sequels would follow his own outline for post-Jedi events, he was conspicuously hurt to have been given no role whatsoever in the development of The Force Awakens — the series’s seventh installment, released late last year to quickly become the biggest movie of all time.
Now, all of that pent-up demand for a Star Wars movie better than the prequels has been sated. To Lucas’s chagrin, Force Awakens essentially recapitulated the plot of New Hope, resurrecting the Millennium Falcon and all three of the core actors from the original trilogy, who bestowed their grizzled blessing on a young new cast who are much sprightlier (and more diverse) than the wooden prequel performers. While Episode VIII is in production, we’re getting a movie about the Rebel raid that yielded the Death Star plans, and it’s probably not going to suck.
The bubble that fueled the rise of Star Wars fandom in the two decades leading up to the release of Force Awakens, then, has been popped. The strange tension where millions of fans essentially fought against the very creator who continued to shower them with merch to gobble up — including an entire Expanded Universe that’s now been swept off the table — is gone.
There’s no question that Star Wars fans are as numerous as ever. In fact, Force Awakens even generated an influx of fans who couldn’t relate to the previously-existing Star Wars universe. In this post-Awakens world, though, what does Star Wars Day mean? Is the annoyance I’m sensing just a few random people sounding off, or is there a broader sense that Star Wars doesn’t, well, need us any more? The original versions of Episodes IV-VI still aren’t back, but everyone knows damn well who really shot first.
The Star Wars are over, and George Lucas has lost. May the Fourth be with you — and, I hope, with him.