Recently a YouTube video answered the question of: How to make Star Wars cool? The answer was: Give it a bitching new soundtrack! Or, more accurately, re-edit SW into a trailer that riffs on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy trailer! And does it work! It actually throws all the great things about SW right in your face – namely, all the fun stuff!
Fun gets a bad rap these days and has for years. Fun is not deemed to be suitably grown-up, fun is not serious, fun lacks gravitas and dignity. Fun in a post-9/11 world seemed out of place, something that did not belong. Certainly there’s a real schism in Marvel and DC’s superhero output before and after. Before, Kang destroys Washington and then gets defeated, city gets rebuilt. After? That story would likely be unthinkable – why are the heroes not held at fault for failing to stop the bad guy? A SW riff on this would be that the Rebels are at fault for not stopping the Death Star before it blew up Alderaan, bunch of lazy bastards that they are!
It took years but finally Robert Kirkman took aim at this worldview in Invincible, with one character laying into the lead with all the bad things that have happened and gets told – yeah, that happens! Huh? Shit happens and that’s it? Well, what else is there to say? We live in a fucked-up world at the best of times, that shouldn’t be news to anyone. Yet superheroes are sent barreling down this skewed path in search of a perfect morality that’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And, for SW, so too, are the Jedi.
The problem for SW is, when it tries to do serious it… well, to invoke The Losers’ one-liner: It dies very badly. The idea of trying to bring Darth Vader back to the light side of the Force for instance, when considered seriously? Very problematic and it only becomes more so when you factor in the prequels. For Luke, it’s simpler he wants to save his dad. OK, fine but the audience know this guy destroyed the Jedi for some really crappy reasons, he blew up his daughter’s homeworld after torturing her, sliced off his son’s hand and that’s not even a comprehensive list! Why does this guy, killer of billions, get redemption? Considered seriously you can only conclude the Force went on a bender, got blasted and in a flippant post-bender, utterly hung over moment said: “Oh, redemption? For that moron Vader?. Sure, you can have it, now bugger off so I can take something for this bastard headache!”
In a good many ways SW was doing exactly what Marvel has been doing with superhero films for the last eight years but decades earlier! The recipe sounds easy enough: Take a ridiculous plot but spin it out at warp speed and make it as entertaining as possible. Yet numerous films have tried to do that and come a cropper, often due to suddenly deciding they have to make some grand statement. At the same time as SW went off the rails with the prequels so did the Matrix sequels send that series plummeting off into the deep end. Both had decided what they had before was insufficient, oh they were entertaining films but they weren’t really serious. SW is a pretty pathetic war film despite the number of pilots it immolates, similarly a guy gets superpowers in a virtual world – that can’t be it, can it?
Why not? Why can’t it be? The SW prequels are all over the place in terms of what they want to be – it’s a kid’s film with humour to match, oh but wait, lots of politics so that’s the adult bit? Oh, those politics have a 14-year-old in charge? Ri-ight. What the Prequels try to do is ignore and dispense with the series’ most effective get-out clause. You think it’s ridiculous that a load of small single-piloted fighters can take on a moon-sized planet killer? It is. You think it is the height of insanity to fly into a giant reactor, blow it up and then think you can out-run the explosion while flying through a maze of confined tunnels? It is. It’s also very Star Wars. It’s what made the series stand out from its competitors – it’s sheer nerve and speed, it just sweeps you along and doesn’t stop. In contrast, there are a lot of stops in the prequels.
(And trying to make up for it with Jar Jar comedy moments or Anakin accidentally crashing a ship in a hanger which then happens to be in a perfect position to fire, by accident, a pair of bombs down a perfectly placed port that leads to right to a reactor that blows the entire ship up doesn’t cut it either – that’s just ludicrous! It’s a fine balance between unbelievably fun and unbelievably bad.)
This is SW trying to compete with other stories but not on terms of its own making and so the deck is stacked against it from the start. Two SF series that really understood what Babylon 5 did was Deep Space Nine and Farscape. Most importantly, they both understood the way to respond to it was not to mimic it, but chart a path that builds on what it did and stands apart from it. Deep Space Nine did it by rendering the Federation as far more morally flawed, albeit with some quite compelling reasons while Farscape tapped into the notion of weapons of mass destruction years before Iraq got invaded. Neither sought to compete with B5 on its own terms or surrender its identity – which SW has had a crisis of for years.
Is it to be the OT version? Or the PT version? Some bastard hybrid combination? No one seems to have an answer, not even Lucasfilm! I suspect if you asked Lucas, he wouldn’t have one either. Yet that clarity of what the story is, is desperately needed and it just isn’t there, so confusion reigns. Into this identity maelstrom walks JJ Abrams and the sequel trilogy.
If they’re smart about it Abrams and LFL can have their cake and eat it. They will never win over the truly dedicated scorned fans who will forever hold against them the torching of the EU that was. They can win over the highly enthusiastic, the skeptical and everything in-between. How? By setting the sequel trilogy and the EU that arises from it as having separate and specific roles that mesh together. The job of the films? To supply the broad brush general audience entertainment that is good for taking you away from the world for a couple of hours. SW’s original viewers in the late seventies knew all about the state of the world, with a defeat in Vietnam and a corrupt President being object lessons. Then Lucas knew his audience was smart, did not need anything like a lesson story or to be talked down to, what was wanted was a damn good time.
Ah, but you want SW to be daring and different? To innovate and experiment? Then you need the EU! The films are never going to be that, you don’t gamble with a budget of a couple of hundred million! But comics and books? Oh plenty of scope there. You want to do an actual war story and see if the franchise can work with it? Off you go. You want to do a political thriller taking advantage of the medium of novels to convey a multitude of agendas in ways a film would not have time, space or ability to do so? Off you go. You want to humanize the Empire and render them as more than planet-killing barbarians? Off you go. The EU is where there is the scope for a much wider take and more diverse interpretations.
In the end, what this is, if anything, is a plea to embrace the multiplicity of outlooks that tend to make us what we are. Few people can be reduced down to a single trait or outlook and it shouldn’t be desirable to do so. So should it be with SW, with each strand assigned a role so it truly does have something for everyone, without having to give up anything….Well, within limits, if you want Game of Thrones, go watch that instead of demanding SW riffs on it!