Until this weekend, Star Wars: Episode IX was in serious danger of having its thunder well and truly stolen by the twin pop-culture giants on the immediate horizon – Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones’ final season.
As if sensing a disturbance in the Force, Disney—who bear in mind own Marvel so control two of the biggest cultural entertainment events of 2019—released to much fanfare, including an entire live-streamed celebration event, the long-awaited trailer to a film we now know will be subtitled The Rise of Skywalker. The trailer naturally didn’t give all that much away – Rey doing a neat Jedi flip over a tie fighter, a desert barge fight channeling major Return of the Jedi vibes, what looks like a crashed Death Star on a watery world, and a very gleeful old Lando Calrissian back behind the wheel of the Millennium Falcon. Enough to stoke some fan theories for the next few months and keep the wheels of speculation moving.
There was, however, one final part of the trailer which seems to have confirmed a suspicion on many fans minds. Namely that returning director JJ Abrams is steering the Skywalker saga back into safe, familiar territory for the climactic beat.
Nostalgia seems to be a double edged sword right now in Hollywood. What on the surface appears to be a comforting guaranteed winner in terms of audience satisfaction and cinematic box office is becoming something of a poisoned creative chalice. The lacklustre critical (if not box-office) responses to pictures such as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or Ocean’s Eight, sequels to long-standing, well-regarded franchises; or Lucasfilm’s decision to put a hold on more A Star Wars Story anthology movies after the tepid box office (by Star Wars terms) of Solo, seemingly putting immediately paid to rumoured Boba Fett & Obi-Wan Kenobi-centric films. There is a nostalgia blowback in progress, the ripple effect of which we are only beginning to understand.
Is this a ripple effect that, like the Nexus in Generations, threatens to engulf the future of the Star Trek franchise?
Only a week old and Star Wars: The Last Jedi already feels like it’s been dripped dry of critique and analysis. The much-anticipated follow up to The Force Awakens, 2015’s bombastic revival of the Star Wars saga, has been polarising to say the least. For every fan who loved it, you’ll find another two who feel it has destroyed, in one picture, the entire legacy of the tale long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
As well as my initial analysis of the film, I wrote about the toxicity of this level of fandom who seek to target The Last Jedi for daring to experiment with the established tropes and concepts that have existed for forty years, and have made Star Wars what it is. Whether you liked or disliked The Last Jedi no longer seems to be the point – it’s the consequences of Rian Johnson’s film that have stoked the most controversy. Star Wars, surely, will never be quite the same after this movie? That’s the ultimate question cascading across Star Wars fandom as The Last Jedi settles in their mind. Too much has changed. Yet few seem to be talking about what this change directly is, or ultimately what it means.
“This is not going to go the way you think!”
That line, spouted in pained fashion by Luke Skywalker, stood out in the intriguing trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It felt like more than a suggestion from Disney aka LucasFilm aka director Rian Johnson that the second film in the newest Star Wars trilogy would not follow a familiar template, as many have accused its predecessor The Force Awakens of doing. Luke’s words would turn out to bear fruit in a film which feels both like the box office shattering ultimate expression of Hollywood blockbuster it no doubt will be, and at the same time something wilfully subversive. Johnson started with small beginnings, with a precise and almost poetic low-budget modern noir, and you can still feel the pull of a director who wants to do things his way.
Doing things your way as a creative force on a series like Star Wars is no mean feat. Despite how Marvel have dominated the cinematic landscape in the last decade, Star Wars has no equal in terms of scope, scale and fan anticipation. When Disney bought the franchise from George Lucas in 2012 with the intention of relaunching the saga, it was the biggest news in filmmaking for many years. Considering it was originally just three space fantasy movies, and subsequently three maligned and ill-judged prequels from Lucas, the fact Star Wars as an entity has never left the public imagination or consciousness speaks to its power. Not everyone loves it, but those who do understand Star Wars has a special alchemy no other franchise can boast.
The Last Jedi is Rian Johnson asserting himself in striking fashion, with a script and story which determine to rip up the Star Wars rule book and potentially set the franchise in a bold new direction, while still honouring what came before. The fact producer Kathleen Kennedy and those at LucasFilm loved Johnson’s take so much that he has now been gifted his own unique Star Wars trilogy to devise—not just film, trilogy—shows they too are keen for Star Wars to spread its wings and embrace the future. The Last Jedi doesn’t entirely detach from the mythological themes and fantasy tropes Lucas’ movies, and indeed The Force Awakens, played with – but it feels like the start of a brave new world.
With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.
In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.
Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.