Putting the “War” Back in Star Wars

rogueone-notoBy now, you have likely heard about the announcement of Disney’s first standalone Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Going against the persistent rumors of a spinoff featuring Han Solo or Boba Fett, all that we have to go by from the unveiled title is that “Rogue” is also the name of the elite starfighter squadron founded by Luke Skywalker after A New Hope. While we currently do not know for certain whether Rogue One will actually be about the Rogue Squadron that stars in numerous Star Wars novels, comics, and video games, current indicators suggest that a military unit of some sort are the planned protagonists of this upcoming film.

The news and speculation about Rogue One is cause for great excitement among many fans. For me personally, the space and ground battles depicted in Star Wars are the parts of the saga that have always captivated my imagination the most. Goodness knows how much time I spent as a kid playing with my humongous collection of Star Wars Micro Machines, or how many hours I logged into TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance. There are undoubtedly numerous other Star Wars fans similar to myself who have daydreamed about starfighters going “pew-pew”. So then, to what extent does Star Wars owe its massive fan following to the saga’s identity as a timeless war story? And what happens to Star Wars when it chooses to brush aside that identity?

For as long as language has existed, stories of epic wars and great deeds in combat have constituted an integral part of a society’s collective identity. Through tales passed down from generation to generation (including history lessons taught in school), we learn about those wars that happen to merit glorification, whether because they form part of a culture’s foundational story (ie. the American Revolution) or if they serve a widespread need to validate a culture’s cherished values (ie. World War II).

Suffice it to say, the fictional conflict between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire falls into the latter category. Although the original trilogy showcases some of the most thrilling battles to ever grace the silver screen, the key factor allowing these scenes to resonate with many fans is how the films’ central narrative is suitably constructed to fulfill our culture’s hunger for stories where freedom fighters triumph over a ruthless dictatorship.

The Rebellion’s struggle against the Galactic Empire casts its long shadow on nearly everything that happens during the movies. Luke Skywalker’s quest to become a Jedi is inseparably entwined with his role as the Rebellion’s most prominent war hero, his great accomplishment of destroying the Death Star in A New Hope occurring while flying with a Rebel starfighter squadron. The shocking revelation of The Empire Strikes Back could not have happened was it not for a chain of events initiated by the Empire’s military victory at the Battle of Hoth. And even though Return of the Jedi throws much of its narrative weight behind the redemption of Luke’s father, the film’s choice to end by showing the Rebels’ jubilant celebrations on Endor headlines the Galactic Civil War as the storyline most deserving of taking the saga’s final bow.

hoth-battlefrontBecause the original trilogy’s story strongly focuses on its galactic conflict, audiences have ample opportunities to witness the Rebels’ valor and the Empire’s evil. This lets those people who are drawn to the basic concept of a plucky resistance movement toppling an oppressive regime have a science fantasy story that they can call their own. Chances are, if a Star Wars fan is not drawn to the saga by flashy laser swords, he or she is a fan because of the compelling war between freedom and tyranny the movies present.

In stark contrast to the original films, the prequel trilogy is not interested at all in telling a story about war. Instead, its central narrative involves the Sith conspiracy to annihilate the Jedi Order. The main protagonists of the prequels therefore are largely divorced from the destructive Clone Wars raging around them. Rather than actively leading the Republic clones against the Separatist droid army, Anakin and Obi-Wan react to the battles in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith by ignoring them in order to chase down a servant of Darth Sidious.

As technically each side of the Clone Wars is controlled by Sith Lords, it makes thematic sense to make its battles feel as inconsequential as possible. But that narrative choice comes at a cost, as Star Wars fans who want their galactic wars to mean something now lack a side to root for and emotionally invest in. Judging by persistent online accusations that the prequels’ battles are nothing more than empty spectacle, it appears that alienation over the cinematic depiction of the Clone Wars will continue overshadowing the prequel trilogy’s thematic merits for the foreseeable future.

Lying somewhere in between the original trilogy’s “good war” and the “phony war” of the prequels is The Clone Wars television series. True to its name, the show frequently pushes the conflict between the Galactic Republic and the Separatist Alliance to the forefront. The main Jedi protagonists are now in the thick of the fighting alongside the clones they command, who are themselves fleshed-out characters in their own right. As appropriate for a lead-in to the grim Revenge of the Sith, the storyline around the clones grows more ominous by the latter half of The Clone Wars. However, none of those things change the fact that TCW’s narrative does not give the Clone Wars the same weight that the original trilogy does for its war.

deathwatch_tcwFor all the faith The Clone Wars puts into the clones as credible heroes, it never expresses the wholehearted belief that Count Dooku’s Separatists are equally credible adversaries worthy of attention. Right off the bat, the show indicates its thoughts on the Republic’s opposition by frequently using Separatist battle droids as a source of comic relief. Starting with season one’s finale up through the end of the series, TCW introduces a long progression of new antagonists: Cad Bane, the Death Watch, Savage Opress, Darth Maul, and others. What these antagonists all have in common is that they are usually only tangentially connected to the actual Clone Wars, if at all.

When also factoring in the episodes dwelling on the mysteries surrounding the Force and the Sith conspiracy, the show’s core narrative suggests that the great war of the prequel era is not something compelling enough in its own right to sustain a TV series. How then can audiences be expected to emotionally invest in the Clone Wars’ progression when its titular show seems unwilling to do the same thing? If audiences do not care about the Clone Wars now, how likely is it that we will see new clonetrooper versus battle droid battles ten years down the line?

Thankfully, the Star Wars franchise finally appears to have gotten the message that crafting a riveting war is just as essential an ingredient in the saga’s cultural dominance as the Force itself. The new TV series, Star Wars Rebels, is already doing a splendid job of reminding fans what drew them to the Rebellion’s struggle in the first place. The Force Awakens also promises to indulge our appetite for stormtroopers and starfighters. And now we have the standalone Rogue One, which will likely be centered on military exploits. If that is indeed the case, it will be wonderful news to war-junkie fans like myself, who love the thought of a movie completely structured around the battles that keep us enthralled with the Star Wars universe.

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