When the Apostle Paul defended his teachings of the gospel, there were occasions where he needed to flaunt a little bit of street cred- “A Hebrew of Hebrews” he called himself, while toting his education and family heritage. So before I begin writing about Star Wars, allow me to follow the Apostle Paul’s example.
- Do you love Star Wars? Yes. It was my idol and religion before becoming a Christian.
- How much do you love Star Wars? When the movie prequels came out, I made my own Jedi costume and wore it to theaters. I wasn’t yet alive when the originals came out.
- You liked the prequels? No. Not at all. I don’t even own them. I do, however, own the original pre-special edition trilogy on VHS.
- Favorite Character? Boba Fett for a number of years, though Wedge Antilles has grown on me recently.
- Favorite Read from the Extended Universe? Timothy Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn trilogy.
- Most Treasured Star Wars possession? Either my Boba Fett helmet or my collection of Star Wars CCG cards from elementary and middle school. Or my old Star Wars comforter & bed sheet set that I wore ragged as a child. My wife won’t let me use it on our bed.
- Do you Con? Yes, I have been to a Star Wars convention.
By no means am I king of the Star Wars universe, but I’m no Tatooine farm boy either. And I’m here to tell you that J.J. Abrams, the director of the upcoming Star Wars VII movie, has the most unenviable job in the history of Hollywood- recreating the magic behind the original Star Wars Trilogy.
AA has a saying that we’ve explored here on Mbird at some depth: expectation breeds resentment. When human beings place expectation on anything- their lives, other people, or Hollywood blockbusters- that expectation is almost never met, inevitably leading to anger and resentment. Spouses trade barbs over their failed expectations for one another. A whole generation, it seems, has grown up predisposed to the resentfulness that comes when they can’t live up to their own expectations. Fandom- be it Star Wars, Dr. Who, Comic Books, Anime, Harry Potter, College Football, ICP, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Apple- often boils down to this law of expectation. If the next ipad/comic book/album/game meets fan expectations, then fans welcome it with triumphal entry into their community. If the new iphone/marvel movie/radio single/drama doesn’t meet expectations, fans reject it with extreme prejudice, belittling its creator, its story, and its place within the fandom’s “canon.” A fickle lot, we fans are. And the story of the relationship between George Lucas, the Star Wars Universe, and its fan base, is a study in this pattern of expectation, law, and resentment.
For the uninitiated: after the original Star Wars trilogy blew up the box office in 1977-1983, it unlocked a cultural phenomenon unlike any other. Fans- especially those who viewed the trilogy during their childhood- loved the trilogy with a burning passion. They wrote books, created fan films, built costumes, and especially as the internet began to grow, formed communities and conventions around the universe of the movies. And they were doing this a decade after the original trilogy was released. So in 1997, Star Wars creator George Lucas re-relased the Star Wars trilogy into theaters in “Special Edition” format, with revamped special effects and a few extra scenes. Judging by the box office receipts, they were a success, but Star Wars fans in general weren’t pleased with the tweaks to their beloved childhood movies. “Han shot first!” became a catchphrase for disappointed fans who noted that one famous scene had changed ever so slightly, making fan favorite Han Solo less of the outlaw fans knew and loved.
This re-release paved the way for the prequel trilogy, released 1999-2005, to the universal groan of life-long fans everywhere. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly caused the universal loathing of the prequels- poor casting/acting/scripting? An over-reliance on special effects? Too much of a focus on kids and merchandise? There’s general agreement, however, that the magic of the original trilogy was simply absent. It did not meet the fan’s expectations. The resentment and anger of the Star Wars fan community has been scathing- and most of it was pointed at George Lucas himself (see the documentary The People vs. George Lucas for a fair treatment of this somewhat codependent relationship). Perhaps the best example of this resentment was when fans boycotted the release of the 3D prequels in theaters, prompting the cancellation of future 3D Star Wars movies. So it was little surprise (to me, anyway!) that Lucas sold the universe he created to Disney in 2012- it was generally clear that he was unable to meet the fan’s expectations. And as Disney announced that it was going to begin work on a sequel trilogy, fans have been reacting with fear and skepticism.
I am told that fan buzz and expectation has never been so high for this new trio of films. Optimists point to the Marvel Universe, which Disney also owns, and how generally pleased comic book fans have been with the treatment of the Avengers. Pessimists bemoan that J.J. Abrams, special effects guru and director of the Star Trek series, has been tapped for Star Wars VII, when other ‘fan friendly directors’ like Joss Whedon would have been better choices. Regardless, J.J. Abrams and the Disney PR team have been actively working to placate the fanbase in anticipation for the 2015 release of Star Wars VII. They’ve tapped super-fans to build a robotic R2-D2 for the movie instead of using CGI or Hollywood robotics studio. They’ve brought on board screen-writers from the original trilogy. They’ve even got John Williams returning to write the score. So elements of what many critics call “fan service” are certainly there, though none of these things are alone going to “save the sequels.”
I share this history of the Hollywood/Fandom feud to simply make one point. J.J. Abrams and Disney have been tasked with the impossible expectations of fandom: recreate the magic. Unless that “x-factor” of the original trilogy is present here with all its lightsaber fightin’, blaster slingin’, spaceship dogfightin’, smirky sexyness, count the fans out. Unless fans will be reduced to the big-eyed, slack jawed giddiness the original movies inspired, don’t bother. This is the exhaust port on the Death Star of fandom that Disney is aiming for. If they can hit it, it’ll be a financial jackpot- fans will take their whole family to watch the movie four or five times, buy all the toys for Christmas, and upgrade their TVs to see Hi-Def versions of the home releases. But if J.J. Abrams can’t cut it, both he and Disney should prepare to be skewered online by legions of fans whose semi-professional photoshop and video editing skills are only matched by their rapier whit and free time. See this “warning cloaked in a love letter” made by some fans on this subject:
Can they do it? I have a bad feeling about this. To quote C-3PO, the odds of meeting nearly 35 years of fan expectations are probably about the same as successfully navigating an asteroid field- 3720:1. Fanboy or not, everyone will be talking about Star Wars VII for the next 744 days until it’s premiere. And as the expectation continues to reach its boiling over point, it will surprise me if this is the last occasion we have to visit the matter.
PS: If you’re interested, here’s one of the universally loved Star Wars Fanfilms from 1997, a parody of COPS called TROOPS.