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In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm in a $4 billion dollar deal that had the potential to change the entire entertainment landscape overnight. Five years and three movies later, they are on the cusp of making back that initial investment, in a resurrection story for our times. Star Wars was a spent, moribund franchise, one with no foreseeable future, other than endless re-releases. It has been rebirthed as 21st-century mythos, with a new set of films. Our original beloved trio of characters grew up to become the elders we respect, while our new characters give fans a new set of archetypes that respects our intelligence.
This winter’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” directed by Rian Johnson, may be the most divisive film in the canon so far. Some of those who hate it claim that Johnson’s film “killed their childhood.” And guess what? They’re right.
When the original trilogy came out in the 1970s and 1980s, many current fans were children. Childhood was a time for simple answers. Good and bad were unequivocal, wins were forever, and everyone lived happily ever after. When someone felt a decent impulse and followed it, they automatically became a “good” character (i.e. Han Solo). When a “bad” guy felt a decent impulse and followed it, they were no longer “evil” (i.e. Darth Vader in “Return of the Jedi”).
But that’s not the way life works. Good people do terrible things, and bad people do small acts of kindness. Heroes aren’t perfect — they can be as weak and small as everyone else. There is no such thing as happily ever after.
When the prequels ended in 2005, Star Wars was all but dead. The reviews and fan reaction to the turn of the century films had been scathing. The only ones who had enjoyed them, it seemed, were those aged 7-14. Without meaning to, Lucas had taken his original, childlike trilogy, and made it a series that really was for kids.
This reorientation of Star Wars for children wasn’t a complete disaster for Lucasfilm. Together with Warner Brothers, they followed up with a cartoon film, “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” that begat a TV show of the same name, which then begat the current “Star Wars: Rebels” cartoon. But in the world of 2012, where “Star Trek” had just been rebooted, “Game of Thrones” had solidified its position as HBO’s new flagship show and “The Avengers” had opened to worldwide box office success, a few children’s cartoons weren’t going to cut it.
Enter Disney. Their first move was to establish the new trilogy as successful. It needed to be familiar, but not too much. They turned to J.J. Abrams, who had proven his rebooting talent by remaking Star Trek for a 21st-century audience. Some complained that the result, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” was a little too familiar; an on-the-nose a remake of the original 1977 film. But 2015’s “The Force Awakens” was an out-of-the-box success that brought in $2 billion dollars at the box office. Most importantly, it established a new model to build upon.
Star Wars has always been, at its core, a story of archetypes. There’s a hero, a princess, a scoundrel and a villain. Our new protagonists had these features, and were diverse to boot. The Chosen One was finally female, heralding a wave of women taking the forefront in long-standing fantasy properties.
But these weren’t the clear-cut archetypes of the original films. Rey wasn’t a spoiled kid with dreams of adventure. She was an orphan whose need to survive accidentally leads her to the Resistance. Finn wasn’t the scoundrel with a heart of gold, but an abused kid trying to learn to be brave. The villains — Kylo Ren and his sidekick Hux — were just angry young men playing with fire.
(Not all the motifs were so changed, of course. Leia was the Mon Mothma-like Wise Rebellion Leader, Luke was the Yoda Jedi master, and Han Solo grew up to be, of all things, the next generation’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.)
Abrams’ setup of this complex world allowed the franchise to branch out. The first stand-alone, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” took the next step. Back in 1977, characters didn’t die in films, other than a few extras. The 21st century changed all that with bloody, high-turnover ensemble shows like “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead.”
“Rogue One,” directed by Gareth Edwards, gave Star Wars a chance to prove it could do the same. This was a big risk, and there were many at Disney who feared the audience response. As a result, the movie was a mess: a mash-up of six partial films with far too many cooks. Still, the ending maintained the new model’s main lesson: Changing the world is a slow process, and although most of us won’t live to see the ultimate victory, the forgotten fallen are still critical rungs on the ladder.
“The Last Jedi” takes this far more grown-up message all the way to its logical endpoint.
Our new characters once again rebuff easy categorizations. Just because two of our heroes undertake a daring mission doesn’t automatically mean they’ll succeed. Just because the rebellious character thinks he’s right doesn’t mean he knows what’s going on. The smuggler doesn’t have a heart of gold, but his pockets are lined with it by the end of the film.
This time our older heroes are allowed complexity too. Luke is a man of many sides, a hermit in the middle of nowhere who chose to go to a place where fish caretakers wait upon the Jedi like a luxury hotel. He’s self-righteous, yet has made mistakes with galaxy-level consequences. The simple hero he was all those decades ago was always a myth, one he even bought into — to his everlasting regret. Leia is still a self-rescuing princess, but now she’s showing layers of Jedi ability we’ve never seen, and putting down mutinies from her sickbed.
The arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but we have to jump up and down to move it
In May of 2018 the next Star Wars standalone will arrive, focusing heavily on the backstory of Han Solo. Then in 2019, Disney will follow-up with the now-moved-to-December “Episode IX,” which will complete Lucas’ original Skywalker Saga. Will these movies continue to push this more mature narrative forward? Like “Rogue One,” the “Han Solo: A Star Wars Story” film is trying to change something about the originals, something that made Disney executives nervous all over again, to the point that they replaced directors midstream.
Abrams will return for “Episode IX.” We can only hope the result is slightly less messy than “Rogue One,” and at least as subversive as “The Last Jedi.” Meanwhile, Rian Johnson has been put in charge of creating the next trilogy, the first not to feature Skywalkers at all.
Johnson’s “Last Jedi” killed our childhoods because 2017 wasn’t a good place for children. But it’s likely the next decade won’t be either. We have to grow up and take our place in history. With Johnson at the helm, it seems like Star Wars could finally be coming along with us for the ride. It may not be the reboot everyone wanted. But it’s the one we deserve.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA’s TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.