In Star Wars, bad guys are unmasked all the time – Vader in the original trilogy, Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. These unmaskings happen off screen, too, albeit figuratively. Long ago in 1977, George Lucas was a film-making hero, but when we the fans discovered his money-grubbing ways, we began to hate him, while still loving what he created. Now that Lucas has been thoroughly dethroned, has the face of evil become mysterious again? Has the dark side clouded our visions so much that we can’t see the truth; that New Star Wars is, by definition, a series of corporately funded fan films?
The new corporate Disney/Marvel masters have seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and they’re not thrilled. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Disney executives want to make sure Rogue One matches the “tone” of the original Star Wars (A New Hope) since Rogue One, chronologically, leads straight into A New Hope. Allegedly, this tonal problem is what has lead to re-shoots; which presumably means the hardcore, gritty elements initially present in Rogue One will have to be dialed down to preserve some kind of crowd-pleasing middle ground. A chicken or egg-type problem could be presented here: did the fan expectations create Disney’s desire to worry about tonal consistency, or will the implementation of tonal consistency create new fan expectations? Basic tea-leaf reading makes it seem as though Disney is desperate to define its version of the Star Wars brand; but where will that lead?
Brand loyalty and Star Wars fandom are so intertwined that it’s conceivable a thousand years from now, future cyborg anthropologist lecturers will point to Star Wars fandom as the golden standard of brand loyalty, right behind Coca-Cola and Apple Computers. While credit must be given to George Lucas for shrewdly trading a $500,000 director’s fee for complete licensing and merchandising control back in 1976, the true diehard is also aware of the early Star Wars PR efforts on behalf of guys like Charles Lippincott and Craig Miller. In short, while most can agree that the abstract “quality” of Star Wars and its characters are what make it special, its omnipresence as a product was in its design, nearly from day one.
Star Wars fans started to notice the dark side of this materialism back in the ‘90s and early 2000s, a time when George Lucas reissued the Star Wars trilogy in a variety of ways: the THX editions, the Special Editions, the home Video Special Editions, the Blu Ray Versions Where the Ewoks Blink A lot. Accordingly, the merchandising mania of the prequels were more important than the films themselves. Historically, this is what people will remember about the prequels. Not the shitty dialogue, or even the critical reaction, but instead, simply the fact that everyone continued to aggressively be interested in Star Wars stuff.
No one was telling George Lucas he had to make movies for the fans, and there’s no question (at least with The Phantom Menace) that he remotely tried to please anyone. In an interview about The Force Awakens, Lucas seemed to be dismissive of the fact that the new movie was clearly “made for the fans.” This isn’t to say the prequels are great because they’re high art devoid of fan service, it’s just that they are really, really weird and mostly disliked as pieces of cinema. None of this seemed to really hurt Star Wars brand loyalty.
The wide dislike of prequels proved that Star Wars didn’t have to put out well-liked movies to remain popular. I remember 1999. I was there. I was a senior in high school and I wasn’t that mad about The Phantom Menace. I didn’t love it, but I liked it. Mostly, I felt like it was off, maybe I even thought it was tonally inconsistent. But it wasn’t the end of the world. I wasn’t swearing off Star Wars like Simon Pegg’s character did in Spaced. I didn’t burn my Star Wars stuff and no one I knew returned their shitty Darth Maul lightsabers to Toys R Us. Just the opposite: we all doubled-down three years later on Attack of the Clones. Both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith made double the money of the first Captain America movie and in terms of cash, any of the prequels can eat an X-Men movie for breakfast. The prequels are not in the territory of Avengers money ($1.52 billion) nor are they money makers like The Force Awakens ($2.6 billion.) But they did all right.
So what? Who cares? Now Star Wars movies are “good” (The Force Awakens) and they’re not going to be “weird” anymore because George Lucas is out of the picture and cool directors like J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, and Gareth Edwards are making them. Now, our brand loyalty to Star Wars doesn’t have to feel creepy. Instead of just giving our money to our deadbeat dad, George Lucas, we can give it to people could be our awesome friends. People who are fans (like Abrams). People who make arty awesome directorial decisions (like Johnson). People who did the new Godzilla, which hey, wasn’t that bad, you know? (Edwards). These people are like us.
But it might be an illusion. The fans may have symbolically won, as evidenced by these cool directors making new Star Wars movies, but it seems like the Star Wars brand is now going to have to stay on message. The lukewarmly anticipated Rogue One — directed by Gareth Edwards — was set to give us a gritty war movie giving us a hardcore angle on soldiers in the Star Wars universe. Some fans are divided on this approach, others are excited. And yet, it sounds like the corporate-controlling authority of new Star Wars is going to meddle with this fan-film experiment a bit.
Ironically or not, at one point, George Lucas claimed he wanted all of his film director friends to be able to make Star Wars movies. Obviously it never happened, and he instead, he handed his empire over to another empire, which proved its ability to create a consistent and beloved brand: Disney’s managing of Marvel. In his introduction to the 2015 revised edition of the book Star Wars on Trial, noted Star Wars novelist Matthew Woodring Stover claims Star Wars “infiltrated Disney,” not the other way around. This affirms that before and after The Force Awakens most fans believe in and trust Marvel/Disney. They aren’t suspicious of the Disney takeover at all. They like it.
If Rogue One ends up being muddled, half-baked, or contains a forced young Han Solo cameo or features an aging Jar Jar Binks who pulls pins out of space grenades with his hilarious mouth, everyone can blame the studio instead of a person. Blaming George Lucas for things we didn’t like about Star Wars may have been excessive, but at least it was honest. Here, if fans don’t like Rogue One it may be a case of hating the image of what Disney thinks we want reflected right back at us.
The fans are like the Rebels and George Lucas is like Darth Vader, but what in the hell is Disney? Sadly, it might be the worst, most uninteresting villain of all — a corporation, like the Trade Federation, that only cares about expanding its corporate power through maintaining a milquetoast status quo. If the studio-mandated Rogue One re-shoots are a kind of canary in the mine-shaft for the future of Star Wars films, then these changes — combined with fierce brand loyalty from the fans — all might spell doom for the small band of rebels trying to make Star Wars movies in cool, new interesting ways.