Book Review: Did Disney Save Star Wars? The Question is Academic.

Book Review: Did Disney Save Star Wars? The Question is Academic.

In the Minneapolis apartment I share with my girlfriend, most nights on the bookshelf below the TV you’ll find a small candle lit — less an eternal flame than a frequent tea light. It’s a votive that was a Christmas present from my mom, an Etsy find with a single laminated movie frame stuck to the outside of the glass. Look closely when the candle’s lit, and you’ll see Darth Vader on the Death Star, looking upward as he senses a presence he’s not felt since…

Well, as the caption on the frame indicates, he’s been feeling it since 1977. I’m not sure exactly when that exact print was distributed, given the movie’s several re-releases, but it’s certainly an artifact of the pre-digital era, complete with the analog soundtrack strips running along the frame’s edge. Lighting the candle feels, if not precisely religious, like a sort of homage to a film, a franchise, and by extension an entire era.

That era is long gone, but as a cultural phenomenon Star Wars has never been more with us. Since 2012 it’s been the provenance of the Walt Disney Corporation, which bought Lucasfilm from a George Lucas who didn’t realize just how abrupt his departure from his eponymous company would be. In short order, Disney dispensed with Lucas’s own detailed story treatments for Episodes VII-IX and set to work awakening their own version of the Force across what scholars call a “transmedia” ecosystem.

Yes, scholars have a word for that. They have a lot of words to devote to a wide range of aspects of contemporary fandom and media culture, and many of them have been poured into two new books that examine the latter-day Star Wars universe from the perspective of cultural studies broadly writ. Dan Golding’s Star Wars After Lucas (University of Minnesota Press) is subtitled A Critical Guide to the Future of the Galaxy; in Disney’s Star Wars (University of Iowa Press), editors William Proctor and Richard McCulloch compile a range of essays on Forces of Production, Promotion, and Reception.

The saga of Star Wars, of course — now a trilogy of trilogies — is as epic as the story it tells. It begins with a maverick auteur who disdains the studio system earning the freedom to operate outside of it by unexpectedly creating the definitive summer blockbuster fantasy franchise. He then steps away from his beloved universe, only to come back and personally helm a trio of new films that are widely reviled (and yet sell enough tickets to demonstrate the property’s continuing commercial potential). Finally, he shockingly sells the whole kit and caboodle to a family entertainment Goliath that retreads the original film so closely the creator is disgusted…while fans swoon.

For those who study the processes by which fandoms form and relate to the objects of their adoration, Star Wars also presents a unique opportunity. The franchise survived three and a half decades at the heights of commercial culture while remaining under the control of a single author.

The thinkpieces accompanying the recent 20th anniversary of initial prequel The Phantom Menace disagreed on how well the movie’s held up, but agreed that it was extraordinary in the sense of being a massive franchise tentpole written, directed, and executive produced by, in essence, a single person.

By contrast, Lucasfilm now employs a Story Group that plots things out, working with a range of directors who all must submit to a higher collective corporate authority. The fact that fans have embraced this arrangement is, for people who study this stuff, fascinating: practical effects seem to have become more central to the movies’ authenticity than the participation of the man who invented the Star Wars universe and ran it for half a lifetime.

Golding, whose book is the more readable and concise of the two, mounts an elaborate defense of The Force Awakens against charges that it was overly derivative. This is also a theme that several Disney’s Star Wars contributors pick up: while there’s no disputing that Episode VII bears strong similarities to the 1977 film retroactively dubbed Episode IV, it also departs from that film in ways that resonate that wouldn’t if the stories didn’t map so closely.

There are some thematic departures and some crucial plot differences, but the most immediately apparent and, likely, most profoundly consequential choice made by Disney and their chosen director J.J. Abrams was to diversify their base of heroes. As Lorna Jowett notes in Disney’s Star Wars, the relative paucity of merchandise depicting Rey — the female character who’s unambiguously the movie’s protagonist — suggests that even Disney didn’t understand just how ready the world was for a Star Wars trilogy led by a woman.

The world may yet not fully appreciate that, as Proctor explains in two separate chapters of Disney’s Star Wars. Seeing that hashtags like #BlackStormtrooper, #BoycottStarWarsVII, and #DumpStarWars have trended around the releases of the diverse Disney-era franchise films, commenters have widely assumed they represented a predictable wave of racist, sexist backlash against the movies’ casting.

In fact, the hashtags’ success seems to have been the result of a relatively few hateful trolls provoking a tidal wave of condemnatory responses (along with, in the case of #BlackStormtrooper, fans who were trying to figure out what happened to the clones). The result, counterproductively, was to elevate the trolls by describing their views as far more representative than they actually are.

While Kelly Marie Tran was forced to flee social media by hateful invective directed at the Asian-American actor cast in The Last Jedi, it’s also true that actor Ahmed Best has recently opened up about contemplating suicide in the wake of viewers’ condemnation of his prequel character Jar Jar Binks. Best defended the character, saying viewers “sense African-American descent, and all they can think of is Stepin Fetchit. They can’t compare it to Jerry Lewis or Buster Keaton or even Jackie Chan.”

Complementarily, Golding is insightful on the politics of Star Wars. “Despite its political malleability,” he writes, “Star Wars has, for better or worse, gained a general whiff of cultural conservatism.” That stems, he suggests, from the fact that the retro escapism of the original trilogy seemed of a piece with the political winds that gave two White House terms to a former actor who struck a genial, paternal mien while enacting brutally regressive policies. Further, Lucas and his peer Steven Spielberg were blamed for ending the independent-minded era of ’70s cinema in favor of endless, often mindless blockbuster franchise sequels.

There’s a pronounced irony, then, to the fact that only by relinquishing control to a corporation so vast that it’s arguably monopolistic did Lucas allow Star Wars to begin to cleanse itself of its associations with racial stereotyping and exclusionary gender roles. While it’s no Black Panther, The Force Awakens was certainly one of the decade’s most important movies, its success demonstrating that a mass audience was ready and waiting for a saga where white men were relegated to the roles of old heroes and present villains.

Also, they wanted their X-wings and TIE fighters back. Having capitalized on nostalgia, Disney’s next challenge will be to navigate the franchise into new realms. “For all their flaws,” acknowledges Golding, “the prequels do tell a genuinely different story than the original films.” In Disney’s Star Wars, Mark J.P. Wolf gives Lucas credit for using the prequels to explore a wide range of new locales (a volcano world, a pastoral luxury planet, a subterranean industrial facility run by giant insects), whereas The Force Awakens largely revisited familiar environments (the desert planet, the rainforest world, the Imperial death sphere).

Disney’s now pumped the brakes on new Star Wars movies, planning a hiatus after this year’s Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Fans will have plenty to watch — multiple TV shows, including the franchise’s first live-action series, are in the works — but Golding may be right that Lucasfilm essentially painted itself into a corner with the lavishly designed Rogue One. That movie introduced a host of compelling characters, only to sacrifice them on the pyre of the original Star Wars opening crawl. He writes:

Unlike the sequel trilogy, Rogue One’s time setting within the Star Wars universe prompts a kind of ambient nostalgic presence within even the production design alone: original Stormtroopers patrol planets, Red Squadron X-wings fly sorties in space, and the cast and extras exude a kind of carefully updated ’70s chic (moustaches abound).

In a sense, then, Rogue One — and Disney’s Star Wars generally — has re-lit the flickering flame behind that 1977 film frame. George Lucas himself was ready to blow it out. Does Disney dare?

Jay Gabler