[Ed. note: This entry was begun over a week ago, before I had seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Some of my thinking here is no longer strictly relevant — and of course all of it is self-absorbed navelgazing — but I’ve decided to finish and publish it anyhow.]
In the wake of my last entry, a friend of mine asked why people make such a big deal out of Star Wars movies instead of taking them for what they are, either enjoying them or not, and just moving on when you don’t. Well, those weren’t his exact words, but that was the gist of what he was asking. And by “people,” I’m pretty sure he meant “me.”
I didn’t have a good answer for him, and I told him so. I really don’t know why these movies affect me the way they do, both good and bad… why they’re so important to me that my unhappiness with a sequel made 40 years after the fact sent me into an emotional tailspin. I could say what I used to say back in my college days, back when my buddies were all leaving to serve their two-year Mormon missions and it seemed critical to have my own glib answer to questions of spirituality: that the original trilogy was the closest thing to religion I’ve ever known. (This was long before those folks in the UK turned “Jedi” into an official religious designation; I dropped the idea after that happened, because it no longer seemed very funny, or very true.) I could also tell you that I’d constructed so much of my identity around being a Star Wars fan — something I stubbornly clung to even during the years when half the planet was renouncing their affection for the franchise because the prequels disappointed them so badly — that when I was finally confronted with a Star Wars film I didn’t like (but which, perversely, so many others did like), the cognitive dissonance was so severe it felt like part of me was being torn away in a cataclysmic event, like an iceberg calving off a glacier. I could tell you these things. But unless you have similar feelings, there’s no way I can really make you understand them. If movies are just movies to you, if Star Wars isn’t that big a deal to you, then I can’t explain why they’re more than that for me, or why I am so damn dramatic about it all.
So I didn’t have an answer to my friend’s question. Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about the core of what he was asking: Why can’t I just shrug off The Force Awakens, or any other Star Wars movie that doesn’t work for me? (As an aside, why can’t the prequel haters get over their disillusionment, too?) And the thing I keep coming back to is… all the Star Wars novels and comic books I’ve read.
Consider: in the nearly 40 years since the original Star Wars film (I still have trouble thinking of it as “A New Hope”), there have been quite literally hundreds of published stories set in that galaxy far, far away… everything from the Marvel Comics series of the late 1970s and ’80s to Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (the very first spin-off novel), up through the explosion of comics and novels produced in the ’90s and early 2000s that came to be called the Expanded Universe. And that’s not counting the various video games, animated television shows, newspaper strips, and Force only knows what else. I’ve read quite a few of those stories (though not all, and probably not even a majority of them… hey, I do have other interests, and only so much time!) Some of them, the best of them, capture the feeling of the movies and the sound of the characters’ voices so perfectly that they feel like part of the movies themselves. Others are utterly terrible, both as novels and as Star Wars stories. Some of them feel as if they were written for another franchise entirely and just had the Star Wars character names plugged into them; you wonder if the authors of those have ever even seen a Star Wars movie. And honestly, the vast majority of these stories, like everything else in life, are simply mediocre. But the interesting thing is… I’ve never had any big emotional or psychological struggle with any of them. I enjoy the ones I enjoy, the better ones become “official” in my mind, or what the kids on Tumblr refer to as “headcanon,” and the others are quickly forgotten. No big deal. So what’s the difference when it comes to the movies?
Well, simply put, the movies are harder to dismiss because they feel more “real” to me. Partly that’s because it’s the way George Lucas wanted it. When the EU started getting too big in the ’90s and contradictions and retcons were becoming a problem, Uncle George (or at least his minions in the licensing division of Lucasfilm) let the word out that the movies were to be considered the primary canon, and everything else may or may not be “official” depending on what happened in future film projects. In other words, George wasn’t bound to follow or use any idea established in the EU materials. Disney has reinforced this notion by decanonizing everything published prior to its acquisition of Lucasfilm and rebranding it under the “Star Wars Legends” label. (Interestingly, a lot of ideas from the disavowed EU appeared in one form or another in The Force Awakens, and will probably creep into Rogue One too, so perhaps Disney’s motive was less about clearing the slate than justifying their exploitation of existing material.) All the new tie-in materials moving forward are to be considered canon and are part of the timeline, an idea that I have some problems with… more on that another time.
Anyhow, my point here, at long last, is that I’m increasingly thinking I need to do with Star Wars movies what I manage to do quite easily with the books and comics, and compartmentalize all of them in my mind. I’ve been doing it with the Star Trek franchise for years. I love the first four Trek films that featured the original TOS cast; those are the “real” ones for me. Moving on, I like parts of Star Treks V and VI, although overall I have issues with those films; they are not part of my personal canon, but I don’t refuse to watch them. I didn’t care much for any of the four films starring the Next Generation cast, and in fact I’ve only seen a couple of them once. I’ve mostly forgotten them at this point, and that’s just fine. Meanwhile, I think my feelings about the post-reboot JJ-Trek films are pretty widely known — they don’t exist in my world. And I’ve got to start doing the same with Star Wars movies, too. I must learn to do what my friend suggested in the conversation that started all this: like what I like and ignore the rest.
That might seem so obvious as to not even bear mentioning, let alone writing a thousand-word blog entry about. But to date, I haven’t done that with Star Wars. I haven’t been able to. Even though I concede the prequels had a lot of problems, I basically accepted them… because they were Star Wars movies, and that lent them a certain authenticity and gravity by default. But I never had any obligation to view them that way… and indeed, many people did not and chose to pretend they never happened. It’s obvious to me now that I’ve got to do what everybody else has been doing since The Phantom Menace. For my own sanity, I’ve got to start imagining every new Star Wars movie from this point forward as a sort of new Expanded Universe… just supplements to George Lucas’ original saga that I can pick and choose from at will.