A little while ago I read a piece Kiri wrote on Star Wars Anonymous entitled, “The Mandalorian: Chapter One.” As the name implies (and as those of you who are big on inferring from context clues may’ve guessed), it was a reflection on the first episode of the new Disney+ show The Mandalorian. While I’ve yet to watch the show for myself (or get Disney+), I found her piece interesting. I appreciated her take on the first episode and I was also struck by something Kiri wrote in the beginning of her piece. She outlined what she, as a Star Wars fan, looks for in any Star Wars story she watches/reads. And that left me puzzling over exactly what I look for in the Star Wars stories I watch/read. I finally figured it out! Now you can know my criteria too and, I’m sure, sleep easier at night because if it.
I encourage you to bounce over to Kiri’s site and read her whole piece for yourself but, for context, she wrote,
“I have learned with the Disney takeover to take a step back, to keep hopes in check, and to give things time. I no longer make a judgment call the first time I view something. TFA is one of my favorite Star Wars movies, but it took me about three viewings before I warmed up to it…I also have a new way of watching Star Wars lately with the bombardment of new shows, books, and movies. I really had to dig deep over the past few years after my disappointment with The Last Jedi and figure out what makes me love Star Wars? What entertains and delights me? Does it spark my imagination? Does it make me want to jump in and also be part of that storyline? That is now my only criteria for anything involving Star Wars. It’s simple, but also so, so hard. It is what drew me to Star Wars in the first place.”
That stayed with me. I found myself thinking about it all day. I found myself thinking about it in the days that followed too. Because she’s absolutely right! Given how much content Disney is producing (with no real end (or slow down) in sight), Star Wars fans do need to sit down and consider what makes us love Star Wars. So I began to ponder (and ponder (and ponder (and ponder and ponder and ponder))) what I look for in a Star Wars story. How do I judge them? What do I need in a Star Wars story to enjoy it? What makes me love Star Wars??
I’ve been thinking over this question for weeks (and only obsessing over it for little spurts here and there (which I consider a healthy balance (go me!))) and here’s my answer. So what do I need/want in a Star Wars story? How do I judge them? In order of importance to me…
1) It has to honor the narrative, themes, tone, and message of Lucas’ work. If it contradicts or retcons anything Lucas did then it’s never making its way into my head canon and it’s only going to make me resentful when I watch or read it. And yes, I know Lucas changed things all the time. But he’s “the Maker,” as it were, with Star Wars so he gets a pass. I don’t love all his changes but they were his to make. Any new story that contradicts Lucas – no matter how official the Disney Canon may be now – is nothing more than bad fan fiction to me.
2) It has to have a purpose, there needs to be a reason they’ve told this story…other than just having another story to tell (and thus, sell). I want it to feel necessary when I watch or read it.
3) Lastly, I’d echo Kiri’s point – it has to entertain and delight me. I love those moments where I’m either a) ready to (and may actually) jump up in my seat, pump my fist, and cheer and/or b) cry because I’m so moved and/or saddened by what happens. Essentially, I want to be invested, emotionally, in the characters and the world of the story. I want it to be exciting and I want to be pulled in.
So that’s it. That’s what I need for a Star Wars story to “work” for me. Annnnnnnnd this explains the continually and increasingly frustrated relationship I have with much of the Disney Canon. A fair amount of their stories have or have had the potential to hit my third criteria. Less have hit the second. But very few have hit the first.
Before I go any further, I want to be clear on two points. First, I think Kiri’s approach to this is the far healthier one. Mine, and I fully own this, has transformed me into the grouchy old fan yelling at kids to “Get off my lawn!” and “Back in my day they knew what Star Wars was! Back then it had heart!” No one likes that guy. But I am who I am! As Hannah has told our students in our Star Wars class for years, we are “Star Wars snobs” and we’re okay with that. Second, while the majority of the Disney Canon stories haven’t been to my liking (nor do I have the hope many future ones will be), I don’t begrudge Disney their right to make them. They paid billions of dollars to buy Lucasfilm so they absolutely have the right to use their purchase as they see fit! While the stories may not all be my cup o’ tea, Disney doesn’t owe me anything nor do I think they should make Star Wars stories for me personally. That’s a very egocentric approach to fandom. Plus, there are plenty of people who do like most of what Disney is doing now. That’s okay too. Everyone has the right to be excited by whatever Star Wars story trips their trigger!
Anyway, back to me :). As I articulated my personal answer to the question implied in Kiri’s post, as the criteria clarified in my mind, I realized it was the first one Disney so often flouts and that’s why so many of their stories bother me. I loved Gareth Edward’s Rogue One and James Luceno’s accompanying novel Catalyst. I thought Claudia Grey’s novel Bloodline was excellent. I loved Alexander Freed’s brilliant novel Alphabet Squadron. And I’ve gotten to the point where I can enjoy The Force Awakens when I watch it. (The Last Jedi helped a lot there because while I was so-so on The Force Awakens at first, in the wake of The Last Jedi I enjoy and appreciate it so much more). Those stories feel like they have tried, really tried, to honor what Lucas did and fit with what he made. And I love Star Wars because of George Lucas! I love his story, his characters, and all the deeper messages and themes I began to learn where held within his stories in high school. I love the mythology. I love the theology. I love the presentation of hope and faith and the Cosmic Combat Myth and all those things are as central to Star Wars for me as Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando, Artoo, and Threepio. But the rest of the Disney Canon so far? Eh………
This is why I shudder every time I see Dave Filoni’s name attached to anything. I liked his work on Clone Wars but Lucas was still there to oversee things. From the first episode of Rebels onward, everything he touched got worse (as far as my first criteria is concerned). I’m sorry Dave, I don’t care how long you worked with Lucas, YOU CAN’T PUT TIME TRAVEL IN STAR WARS NO MATTER HOW BADLY YOU DON’T WANT AHSOKA TO DIE. You also can’t turn Thrawn into a Scooby Doo villain who’s easily thwarted each week nor have Kanan, Ezra, and Ahsoka all doin’ their Jedi thing with the Rebel Alliance when it is so obvious in A New Hope that no one understands Luke’s power/what he may be doing when he’s attacking the Death Star and turns off his targeting computer. And you certainly can’t neuter Darth Vader and let Kanan and Ezra escape when he easily would have killed Kanan and then tried to turn Ezra/killed him as soon as he refused. I mean watch the clip again. At the 0:54 mark Vader has Kanan and Ezra frozen with the Force and could have easily cut them down. At the 1:00 mark, Vader has Kanan’s hands in his and would have easily cut him down again. The Dark Lord of the Sith who “helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights” would have easily killed a padawan with rusty skills twice within the first minute. This fight is when Rebels jumped the shark for me.
Compare that with what we get at the end of Rogue One. It’s clear which tries to match the fear and power we see surrounding Vader in the Original Trilogy just as it’s clear which disregards it to serve the needs of their own story.
Nothing in the Rebels scene remotely fits with the worlds/characters/stories Lucas gave us so it doesn’t work for me. Rogue One does so I appreciate it for that.
This is also why I can’t get behind The Last Jedi. I tried to. I mean I REALLY tried to. Going back to reread what I wrote about The Last Jedi now it is so clear to me how much I was trying to find a way to like the film. But, at the end of the day, I just don’t. I don’t hate it. I just don’t care about it. I never think about it. I never bought it. I didn’t watch it when it was on Netflix. I’ve never rented it from the local video store. I haven’t felt the slightest compulsion to revisit the film since the last time I saw it in theatres. I don’t even care to rewatch it before I go see The Rise Of Skywalker. I just don’t care and a big part of that was how Rian Johnson used Luke Skywalker. He undercut EVERYTHING that happened in the Original Trilogy and he lost me there.
While I trust J.J. soooooooooooooo much more than I do Filoni or Johnson, I’m still worried about The Rise Of Skywalker. Back in September 2016 I wrote, “I got the feeling – a feeling I’ve had before – that Disney is trying to pull their story over Lucas’ films. Jeff and I have spent a lot of time talking about this. Essentially, they’re crafting the new material in a way to make it look like they are now telling the big story while the original films were just the lead up battle.” It’s hard not to see this as their endgame with the Emperor returning. And I am NOT OKAY with this. Anakin Skywalker is the Chosen One. His son, Luke Skywalker, redeems him in faith and love. Anakin kills the Emperor and brings balance to the Force. Period. That’s it. You can develop new conflict after that but you can’t change that and not be bad fanfic to me.
Now, again, I’m not saying I begrudge Disney making Rebels or The Last Jedi or any of the stories I haven’t cared for (I may resent them at times, but I don’t begrudge them anything). But I can give and have given myself permission to honor these criteria in my own life. I now intentionally pick and choose what Disney Canon stories I participate in. I know The Rise Of Skywalker will be the last Star Wars movie I’ll have to see on opening night (because I owe it to Carrie Fisher/Princess Leia). The rest will have to earn my ticket through grabbing my interest. And I’m okay with this.
What’s funny is years ago, when Hannah and I first taught our Star Wars class, we tried so hard to keep our biases from our students. We wanted them to see what they saw in the Disney Canon, not read our own disgruntled feelings into those movies. Hahaha, buuuuuuuuut this wasn’t a position we could hold for long. Subsequent versions of the course saw us share our true feelings far more openly.
On that note, a few weeks ago the seniors in my Religions of the World course were taking an exam. After an hour and a half of straight essay writing, I felt they deserved a break. So for a bonus I wrote on the board, “It’s now less than forty days until the premiere of The Rise Of Skywalker. Draw Ms. Tatar and myself either right before or right after we’ve seen it.” What follows is some of my favorite examples of our feelings after seeing it XD.
As I began texting the pictures to Hannah she replied, “😂” then “There is a small chance we have poisoned our students against Disney.” I agreed…and we were both okay with it. Again, what can I say? We are who we are! Still, I’m going into The Rise Of Skywalker cautiously optimistic. What will I find when I see the movie? I don’t know. No one knows. I mean, some people obviously know but I’m sure Disney had them sign like a zillion ironclad nondisclosure agreements. What will I feel when I see the movie? I don’t know. And no one can know that but me.
I do know I’m a product of my age, my experience, and my heart. This means, now and forever, I’m a Lucas devotee and apologist. I will follow Kiri’s model and take a step back, try to keep my hopes in check, and give things time. But it’s holding to and honoring George Lucas’ vision of the Force, the Skywalkers, and the Star Wars Saga that will forever be most important to me in judging each new Star Wars story I encounter.