Looking Back and Letting Go: When Star Wars Just Isn’t Doing it For You Anymore

It’s not easy saying goodbye to something that’s been a significant part of your life for a significant part of your life. But sometimes, it might be the healthiest choice. No, I’m not talking about the upcoming closure of this website – although this is Eleven-ThirtyEight’s penultimate article – but instead, an all-consuming interest in Star Wars itself. Burnout is real, fatigue is real – and sometimes the best way to preserve your joy is to take a step back, at least for a while.

For most things, it’s easy. If I’m feeling let down by Marvel movies, or if a TV show feels more like a chore than something fun – it’s easy enough to drop it. For many people, that’s just what Star Wars is too: a fun thing to engage with sometimes. For people who are invested, dedicated to a “fandom” – that level of engagement might be different. The desire to read everything, watch everything, and talk about everything can be all-consuming. Usually, people do this because they love it – it’s energizing and fun. But sometimes it gets exhausting, and you need a break. Or at least, you need to re-evaluate what’s happening to you.

Breaks can be a good thing. In the years before ETE was founded, I was on a break with Star Wars. The Bantam era, New Jedi Order, and prequel trilogy were the high-water marks of my engagement with Star Wars – and there was a lethargy to the franchise in the years afterward. The books of the Legacy era irritated me more than I enjoyed them, so I made the choice to step back, and only read the books that actually excited me: a handful of amazing reference books like the Essential Atlas or Essential Guide to Warfare, or one-off books like Shadow Games. That break was very healthy for me – and I ended up fresh and energized for the new era of Star Wars storytelling that began in the fall of 2014.

The glow of the sequel era and the halcyon days of the early new canon have ended, overshadowed by incessant online toxicity and generally anemic onscreen storytelling. Publishing has always been the center of my engagement with Star Wars, but even there I feel a growing disconnect. There are still things that spark joy: Visions, Andor, Ronin, parts of The High Republic. There are still moments of magic – as much as I criticize nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, nothing will never surpass the joy I felt seeing Vivien Lyra Blair’s young Leia for the first time. There are still things I look forward to: From a Certain Point of View: Return of the Jedi is not far away, and the idea of bringing new voices and new perspectives to Star Wars has been something I’ve loved from the beginning. But other times? I’m not feeling it – and I want to talk about why.

Have Something Meaningful to Say

Star Wars is escapism, yes – but I’ve never subscribed to the view that escapism can only mean mindless entertainment. Portraying a universe where real issues exist and get solved can be escapist, too. It’s not just about defeating the evil wizard – defeating the thing that plagues us in our own life? That can be escapist too.

I want Star Wars to meaningfully engage and reflect our real world, as I think it was originally meant to do. Over the past decade, I’ve lavished praise on Jason Fry’s Servants of the Empire books (especially Imperial Justice), Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars, and Alexander Freed’s Victory’s Price for handling the very weighty topics of fascism, indoctrination, and the consequences of war crimes extremely well. These are ideas that are in the background of the evil space empire in a children’s franchise, but they’re ideas that have such resonance to the real world we live in. As my friend Saf pointed out in her incredible article about Andor, it’s possible that this escapist story might help people connect with the very real problems in the very real world around us. Or conversely, by failing to have something meaningful to say or even making light of real issues (such as the droids’ rights issues raised in Solo and The Mandalorian, or casualizing war crimes), the franchise helps whitewash these same issues.

I’m filled with a sense of irony that I’m talking about bringing real-world politics into Star Wars in my final ETE piece, when I once argued in my very first article on this site that real-world politics don’t belong in Star Wars. I think I was in a different place when I said that, and I was unduly interested in in-universe storytelling. But I’d refine my argument now: the problem isn’t with referring to real-world politics, it’s failing to have something to say. Naming a character after a politician or referencing a real-world policy isn’t enough – I want the story to say and do something meaningful with it.

My most recent disappointments have been with The High Republic project. I like individual books – in fact, I’ve enjoyed Phase II of the project more than I enjoyed Phase I. But I continue to feel concerned about black-and-white villainy and the unquestioned acceptance of the Republic’s colonial project. There was a time when I felt the story would portray both a gilded age and the untold stories of the people and structures that made a shining era possible – but that doesn’t seem to be the story we’re getting. Plenty of people are quite happy with the stories we’ve gotten – and the project has made huge strides for representation, and that’s something to celebrate! But I also feel that THR has an incredible set of authors who I know are very capable of having meaningful social commentary in their stories – but for some reason I’m not seeing it.

Of course, THR is a huge project and I haven’t read everything – far from it, in fact! So if everyone reading this thinks I’m off-base, and there’s a book or comic that does exactly what I am advocating: I’m happy to be corrected, please let me know!

I don’t think every Star Wars story needs to function as weighty commentary. Far from it. But it often looks like Star Wars is trying to say something – it’s just failing at it. Even The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett – shows that could easily be disparaged as stories about action figures and Baby Yoda – have episodes and scenes where they look like they’re trying to engage in commentary. They just fail to land, and I think it’s because they stop just short of saying anything at all. The Mandalorian tries to do a “new boss, same as the old boss” story with the New Republic, but it never goes any further than showing that the NR might not be as shiny as you’d hope. Boba Fett might talk about exploiting water rights and Tales of the Jedi might show corrupt Republic senators, but the characters come across as stock archetypes. They look like they have something to say – and then they stop short of doing something interesting. Not every show needs to be Andor – but I’d love it if the other shows had slightly more guts, and played it a little bit less safe – they are so close, they just need to finish the thought they started.

New Ideas Need New Voices

It doesn’t escape me that the shows I’m criticizing have a common creative DNA. There was a time where that was how Star Wars worked: it was George Lucas’s creation and his was the vision that permeated everything. But as we’re beyond that era by design, we need new voices in Star Wars storytelling, and we need new ideas. Endless stories about the original trilogy or Clone Wars characters won’t cut it. One of the things The Mandalorian has done well from the start is bring new people to the director’s chair – the framing and visual language of different directors has added so much to that show. This is a good thing and we need more of that – and a willingness to embrace risk. Andor was a bold bet, and Tony Gilroy has more than paid back the faith that Lucasfilm had in him. We need more of that – and more of a willingness to tell atypical Star Wars stories. We’ll inherently get new perspectives this way – and new ideas.

Star Wars Visions is a great example of what truly unleashed creativity can do. And while there are a lot of Jedi and Force stories in those shorts, I cut them a slack for two reasons: first, because we’ve gotten so many different flavors and takes on the Jedi and the Force from Visions and secondly, it is very hard to fault any animation studio that gets its hands on Star Wars for telling a story with lightsabers. But despite drinking from the same well, we’ve gotten so many vibrant stories out of it – I’ve praised Ronin to the skies and I would happily do the same for “The Village Bride”, “The Spy Dancer”, “In The Stars”, and “The Bandits of Golak” for similar reasons. In fact, I regret never writing a full piece on Visions Volume 2 – I think it took what Volume 1 did and somehow ran the ball farther afield in the realm of creativity. Visions is such a bright light in the Star Wars firmament. There’s a way to address familiar settings and topics but do them in a different way.

The central conceit of From a Certain Point of View was just this: celebrating movie anniversaries by showcasing different stories about different characters from different authors. In fact, Star Wars publishing has been excelling in bringing in new voices. I have zero complaints in that area: Star Wars publishing in the last decade has maintained an exquisite balance between returning authors of known talent and popularity and investing in an ever-growing bench of new voices. Whatever my complaints about THR or any other story, I insist on giving publishing a lot of credit for continuing to let new people write Star Wars and for responding to the community.  All I can say is: I wish the rest of Star Wars was as willing to stretch its wings as much as publishing has.

It’s Not Stepping Away

I don’t think I’ll truly be stepping away from Star Wars. I don’t think I could. The franchise is too important to me, and the community of friends I’ve made through it is even more important. If anything, I’ll always be around in that community. But one of the reasons I haven’t written so many articles lately is the struggle between criticism and enjoyment.

I think it’s important to be critical – at least, critical in a constructive way. I always try to bring that to my commentary on the franchise. But it can also be draining – both in seeing or reading things that aren’t hitting the mark for you, and also in offering that criticism in the first place. I think the people who make Star Wars are all well-intentioned, wonderful people. I have a lot of faith in the creatives responsible for Star Wars, and especially in the area of publishing, I deeply admire a lot of the folks responsible for our Star Wars stories. So I’d honestly sooner stay silent than publish a negative piece – and in all my pieces critical of Star Wars books in the past, I think I’ve balanced criticism and praise.

But sometimes you need to take a break, especially if your entertainment isn’t entertaining you. And I think that’s what I’ve done for the past two years. I’ve watched the shows, I’ve kept up with as many books as I can – but I haven’t engaged in long-form criticism or analysis since 2021 because it was too draining. With ETE closing its doors, this might be the last essay I ever write on Star Wars. But never say never – who knows what the future looks like, and who knows when an idea might tickle me again.

I’ve not quitting Star Wars completely, I’ve just changed the way I engage with it over these last few years. I still plan to be part of the community, even if I don’t talk about Star Wars as often and at such length as I used to. But these things are cyclical, and as we close one book, we open another.