A few weeks ago, on an episode of the Star Wars Minute podcast released prior to the debut of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, co-host Alex Robinson suggested the following: “I think we all have to accept the fact that — whether it’s this movie or five movies from now — there will come a time when, everyone listening to this, it will not be your Star Wars.”
In context, it was a startling suggestion. Every episode of Star Wars Minute focuses on a single minute of screen time in the Star Wars movies, proceeding chronologically through one film before taking on the next one, with some special episodes thrown in here and there. (The show is currently about 30 minutes into The Phantom Menace after previously tackling the original trilogy.) Robinson and his co-host, Peter Bonavita (also known as Pete the Retailer), have spent hours upon hours talking about Star Wars on the podcast (and no doubt many more talking about Star Wars off the air). As a creator of graphic novels like Box Office Poison and the recent Our Expanding Universe, Robinson has spent much of his professional career chronicling the lives of pop culture obsessives. For him to suggest, to an audience of the similarly obsessed, that they might someday not care about Star Wars — more specifically, that they might no longer recognize it as their own some day — borders on the shocking.
Yet, historically speaking, Robinson’s not wrong. Pop culture properties tend to recreate themselves for each new generation. The readers who fell for Tarzan reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first novels featuring the character belonged to an earlier age than those who discovered him via the Johnny Weissmuller film which belonged to an earlier age still than those who first saw him via Disney’s animated musical. (I’m leaving out countless permutations between all of those, I know, but there’s only so much space.) Your Sherlock Holmes is Benedict Cumberbatch, but your parents and their parents and their parents each had a different Holmes to call their own. And so on with Superman. And James Bond. And, well, fill in the blank however you please.
That’s not to say that generations can’t appreciate or even prefer past versions of famous pop culture worlds. You may have been born Generation Christian Bale and still think Michael Keaton was a better Batman. But there’s no getting around the fact that each lives in a different Gotham City whose streets don’t overlap — and that those streets are made from materials unique to the age in which they were made. And, even if you like both, chances are some future version of Gotham will be one that doesn’t feel right at all. (Maybe it’s the one featured in Gotham. Maybe it will be the one of Batman v Superman. Maybe it’s one that’s not yet been conceived.)
Yet, is it possible Star Wars will be different? In some ways, we’re in uncharted territory now. ScreenCrush writer Matt Singer recently coined the term “legacyquel” to describe a recent run of film series entries that pass, or attempt to pass, the torch from one generation of characters to the next. “A good legacyquel,” Singer writes “gives old and young fans a movie they can claim as their own, a key element of ensuring that these massive tentpoles reach all four audience quadrants.” We’ve had legacyquels both successful (Leonard Nimoy handing off his Spock role to Zachary Quinto on screen in Star Trek) and otherwise (remember Indy’s son Mutt?). There’s a sense in all of them that the universe of their films doesn’t need to be rebooted, reinvented, or remade so much as extended and customized to the needs of younger characters and, of course, younger viewers.
Recently, it’s worked out well. Creed, for instance, works both as a standalone film that allows newcomers to follow the rise of young boxer Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and as a continuation of the Rocky series enriched by the references to the preceding films, and by the moving sight of Sylvester Stallone letting himself, for once, appear fragile and touched by the effects of time. Hollywood’s dependence on sequels may lead to a lot of duds and dead ends, but every once in a while it leads to a terrific movie that could only have been made in a business that’s turned franchises into the spine of its business model.
Which brings us back to Star Wars in general and The Force Awakens in particular. It’s currently a question not of if, but when The Force Awakens will become the highest-grossing movie of all-time, in large part because it’s the rarer than rare movie that virtually everyone wants to see. It’s also one that rewards old fans and new — and those sharing the series across generations.
In 2011 at another site, back when George Lucas still owned Lucasfilm and The Force Awakens wasn’t even an idea of a movie, I wrote a piece about not caring if my daughter ever watched Star Wars. I felt burned by the prequels and the special editions and frankly felt like Star Wars had hung around too long. I wanted her to have pop culture loves all her own. And I still want that. But somewhere along the line, I realized I wanted Star Wars to be one of them. So, I showed her the original trilogy and I took her to see The Force Awakens just like my dad took me to see A New Hope in 1977. She loved it. And I loved that she loved it. It’s nice to have something we can share. In other moments, she might disappear into her My Little Pony toys and I into the stack of unread books and unwatched movies I’m slowly working my way through. But this is something we have together, and I treasure Star Wars all the more because of that.
One of the many things J.J. Abrams’ film gets right is a sense of continuity. Much more than the shiny, CGI-crazy prequels, The Force Awakens feels like it takes place in the same world as the original Star Wars films. And now it’s a world that’s aging like our own, with older, wearier versions of our childhood heroes making return appearances and younger characters appearing to take their place. As our own Josh Kurp points out, if creating those sorts of ties and skillfully drawing connections between different generations of a story qualifies as fan service, it might be time to remove the stigma attached to that term.
Still, Robinson probably has a point. Not everyone will balance the needs of the new with the reverence for the old as skillfully as Abrams does in The Force Awakens, and the sheer volume of Star Wars movies rolling out of the Disney factory from now until infinity alone suggests that they won’t all be great. Some might even be awful. Or odd. Or different in ways that alienate old fans. And for Star Wars to continue, films will have to risk being some or all of the above. The Force Awakens is, in many respects, a conservative film, never straying too far from what’s worked before. As such, it works brilliantly, but future entries risk boring fans if they play it as safe.
In short, there’s a lot that could go wrong that, one entry into the revived series, hasn’t gone wrong yet, choices that could leave old fans ready to move on — and choices that new fans might latch onto as the very qualities that make them love Star Wars. But for now, we’re all still here together, and that’s an achievement in itself.