Are cinematic universes inherently bad?
Star Wars was sold to Disney in 2012, and the result brought that galaxy far, far away into the 21st century—specifically, it guaranteed that Star Wars would expand beyond Episodes I-IX in the Skywalker Saga and continue on and on into the future. No longer a singular modern myth, we will now be watching Star Wars at the cinemas seemingly until the end of time.
Not everyone is into that idea. But Star Wars is actually better outfitted for this future than most.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman bemoaned the how empty the Star Wars universe was becoming, citing William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition with its coolhunter central character Cayce Pollard, and her physical aversion to disingenuous, diluted branding. The article goes on to cite how the latest Star Wars offering—Solo—was a perfect example of the very thing that makes Cayce physically ill to observe: A film that feels like Star Wars, but isn’t truly. “When the universalization of ‘Star Wars’ is complete,” Rothman says, “it will no longer be a story, but an aesthetic.”
And this is funny to me. Because Star Wars has always been at least 90% aesthetic.
This is part of the reason why Rogue One was such an affecting film, even if its characters were too faintly drawn to make for deep cinema—director Gareth Edwards knew one thing better than most, that Star Wars is primarily a visual vernacular, perhaps even more than it is a story. You can look at Star Wars and know what it is without ever hearing a word spoken by a character. This is part of the reason why George Lucas’s scripts for the prequels were always so painful to hear out loud, and why those films fare better silently overall. Star Wars is a look, is a color palette, is a layer of dirt and grime. And if that’s not the entirety of it, that is certainly the core of it.
Now, to be fair, I also don’t think that Rothman (or the plethora of writers, fans, and enthusiasts who worry about the same issues where Star Wars is concerned) is wrong to be worried. He isn’t. Star Wars is in danger of becoming stale because the franchise is now owned by a big conglomerate corporation, and corporations don’t like risk or change or anything that will effect their ever-expanding profits. The truth of our near-cyberpunk future is that some stories are brands now. And brands shouldn’t be stories, even if there are weird examples where that has worked out in a company’s favor. Star Wars should not endeavor to be He-Man, or G.I. Joe, or My Little Pony, even if the majority of its money also comes from making toys that kids and adults want to play with, because it didn’t start as a toy. It started as an epic myth.
But there is a way to save Star Wars. And that way is down to something that its oft-maligned creator, George Lucas, frankly excelled at: kitbashing reality.
I have called Star Wars a behemoth of super-culture before, and it still applies. George Lucas didn’t create his funky little space myth from a few beloved tales and knick-knacks. Star Wars is a kitchen-sink, multi-media, ever-evolving sticky vortex of global elements. It’s far-reaching and always renewing when it’s done right. Star Wars should never empty out because you should always be topping it up with new ideas and new references and new culture. Star Wars isn’t really a single myth: It’s a scramble of art and existence and story.
That scramble doesn’t always work, and it can be horrifically damaging when done poorly, as is born out in several racist caricatures in the first Star Wars prequel alone: the faux-Caribbean shtick of Jar Jar Binks, the anti-Semitism of Watto, and the thinly-veiled Japanese corporatism of the Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace all serve as proof enough that these converging sensibilities can make for some very ugly storytelling choices without care and attention paid. But when it works? It makes Star Wars very different from all the other sprawling fictional universes that we have to choose from. Unlike Marvel and DC, who are determined to shove very specific character arcs from 75-plus-years worth of comic book history on screen, Star Wars doesn’t have to keep dipping into the same well, or even keep working from the history it has built. It can dig a brand new well. It can forego any references or familiarity because the galaxy is a gigantic place.
While the films may always be in danger of diluting Star Wars with style-over-substance in an effort to capture the largest audience possible, other areas of the universe have had no issue cultivating the ever-growing referential encyclopedia that makes the franchise enjoyable. The cartoons Clone Wars and Rebels, and the novels being produced by an endless array of delightful authors have never stopped doing what Star Wars does best—adding to the scramble. The references and influences continue to stack in these bright corners, a place where nothing seems off-limits. The Nightsisters are like the Bene Gesserit of Dune; queer characters exist and fall in love and get married; there is a Hutt crime lord who sounds like Truman Capote; the Toydarians (Watto’s people) are treated with respect; we find thriving guerrilla art touting the Rebellion’s cause; Alderaanians speak Spanglish—and all of this fits perfectly.
Because it’s Star Wars. Everything belongs in Star Wars.
If the films want to avoid irrelevance, especially when held up to the rest of the ever-expanding Star Wars universe, they need to embrace that philosophy. Rian Johnson did this in The Last Jedi: Luke’s strange hermitage on Ahch-To and the pockets of culture we observe all over Canto Bight are a part of that scramble. The layers make the universe come alive in ways that it can’t if it gets bogged down in old-school sensibilities and old-school rules. Occasionally the other cinematic universes out there understand this and create their own scrambles—Thor: Ragnarok is a beautiful mash of Jack Kirby’s visuals, 80s film aesthetics, and director Taika Waititi’s heritage and sense of humor. Black Panther, of course, is another stunning example of using the previously tried and true formulas, and merging them with different histories, different aesthetics, different artistic frameworks to create something completely new.
And if it sounds like I’m advocating for diversifying the voices that create Star Wars stories by bringing that up, that’s because I absolutely am. What the Star Wars universe has achieved well in recent memory it has done by centering voices that understand the funkiness of the original narrative (in film and TV directors Rian Johnson and Dave Filoni) and new perspectives that bring exciting material we haven’t seen before (in novels from Daniel José Older, Claudia Gray, Chuck Wendig, and Delilah S. Dawson). If Star Wars is to maintain its scramble, it needs to nurture those voices and keep giving them the flexibility to futz with the dials, the tones and colors and sound balance that make up the series.
Solo has moments of this kind of inspiration: the plight of Elthree, the grotesqueness of Lady Proxima, the audacity of Lando’s gorgeous wardrobe. When it clings to those moments, the movie is delightful, but too much of the story veers from what’s unique in order to bring us the beats that will keep everyone comfortable. The Kessel Run is boring (and basically borrows a bad deus ex machina from 2009’s Star Trek in order to work), Tobias Beckett is an everyday rogue as stock as they come, Qi’ra and Han’s relationship has nothing to glue it together aside from a shared history that we don’t really witness. But the Star Wars cinematic universe is perfectly poised to avoid these pitfalls, so long as it trusts in what it already did well.
Mass appeal is a subsection of death, and we all know it. The best pieces of Star Wars have always been the strange bits; the often-imitated cantina scene, blue and green milk, two-headed aliens, spaceships that looks like criss-crosses and doughnuts. One of the greatest pieces of Star Wars fiction is a set of Clone Wars episodes that focus on Hutt politics! Let Star Wars be what it is. The mythological arcs may be comfortable, but we’re outside the core mythos once Episode IX is done. Go nuts.
When you trust the scramble, you don’t have to worry about Star Wars being empty. And then you can enjoy your cinematic universes well into the future. The only real question is whether or not one of the biggest companies in the world is willing to let Star Wars be what it is in the years to come.