Like so many ‘Star Wars’ fans who grew up on an ever-expanding universe, I initially regarded Disney’s sequels with skepticism. The more the characters diverged from their pre-sequel history, the more I felt caught between the canon in my head and the canon on the screen. Then a funny thing happened: as ‘The Force Awakens’ director J.J. Abrams – and, to a much, much lesser extent, ‘The Last Jedi’ director Rian Johnson – built out their story, it became evident that they had learned the wrong lesson from the Expanded Universe. Expanding your canon only works when you’re starting with a complete story.
With all due respect to the two ‘Ewoks’ movies, ‘Star Wars,’ as a franchise, mostly laid dormant between the release of ‘Return of the Jedi’ and Timothy Zahn’s ‘Heir to the Empire’ trilogy. Eventually, the ‘Star Wars’ Expanded Universe pushed the established canon in both directions, crafting stories set thousands of years before the events of the original ‘Star Wars’ and venturing far into the bloodline of Han Solo and Leia Organa. This helped crystalize the events of the original trilogy; no matter where the books, video games, and comics took the franchise, they were building on a complete narrative. ‘Star Wars’ had a beginning, middle, and end, and everything included in the books was meant to expand upon – not explain – what we’d seen in the films.
Even the prequels followed more-or-less this same path. We are in the midst of a period of critical reconsideration for George Lucas’ second ‘Star Wars’ trilogy. For one, many who saw the movies as kids have grown to appreciate the political metaphor of a benevolent society that turns to fascism out of fear. Still, a big chunk of their appeal has been the success of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Under the watchful eye of ‘Star Wars’ whisperer Dave Filoni, ‘The Clone Wars’ served to fill in both narrative and emotional gaps present in the series, allowing audiences an opportunity to engage with a more fleshed out universe. For better or worse, ‘The Clone Wars’ is layered on top of an existing foundation. ‘Revenge of the Sith’ was released in 2005; ‘The Clone Wars’ had its own theatrical premiere three years later in 2008. People could turn to ‘The Clones Wars’ to receive an augmented – even improved – prequel experience. For the average moviegoer, though, the films obviously stood up under their own power.
And then came the sequels. In 2015, Disney announced “Journey to ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’” an “ambitious publishing program” that would help bridge the gap between the events of ‘Return of the Jedi’ and ‘The Force Awakens.’ While not all fans would read Chuck Wendig’s ‘Aftermath’ trilogy, J.J. Abrams was not going to circle back and play catch-up with audience members lost in the time jump. Like ‘Star Wars,’ ‘The Force Awakens’ dropped us into a universe at war and encouraged us to take much of what we saw on faith. Unlike ‘Star Wars,’ however, ‘The Force Awakens’ also needed to connect to an existing narrative. The film’s inability – or unwillingness – to bridge the gap between Lucas’s original movies and the movie’s new direction created a tension that persists to this day.
On paper, this decision isn’t as far off from the original trilogy as people would have you believe. In ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ we find the Rebellion cornered on an ice planet seemingly days after the triumphant destruction of the first Death Star. In ‘Return of the Jedi,’ the whole, uh, space wars thing takes a back seat as we visit a hitherto unexplored part of Tatooine and meet the oft-mentioned Jabba the Hutt. George Lucas was never afraid to take narrative detours, and the opening crawl has always served as a crutch (of sorts) for the franchise, tossing out the back story under the assumption that audiences will sort of follow the ‘Star Wars’ movies wherever they go. Even after two much-reviled prequels, Lucas’s faith in his audience proved to be correct.
But whereas ‘Empire’ and ‘Jedi’ – and even the prequels – were the result of a singular vision, the new sequels are corporate synergy at their finest. With the release of Disney+, Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige has already started hinting that the television shows will be instrumental to our understanding of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s the same approach that Lucasfilm has taken with ‘Star Wars.’ Provide enough of a product for audiences to anticipate – and enough impressive shots to fill out a two-minute Celebration trailer – and the nuts and bolts of the narrative itself become secondary.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in ‘The Rise of Skywalker,’ a film that proves the ultimate fungibility of the ‘Star Wars’ sequels. Love or hate Rian Johnson’s ‘The Last Jedi’ – and I’ve done both, starting with hate and moving recently towards love – there’s a sense that he was building off existing elements in the films. When Johnson chooses not to expand on characters or ideas, it’s a thoughtful creative decision, not a piece of continuity that got left on the cutting room floor. Abrams’ end to the trilogy – with its numerous retcons and outright character contradictions – often feels like a cardboard cutout, offering the illusion of depth without hidden dimensions. This is a story being written more-or-less in real-time, and building a cross-channel universe around a work in progress raises questions about the sustainability of the entire project. In the case of ‘Star Wars,’ the center quite literally cannot hold.
How do we come to terms with world-building that includes not one, not two, but three “ambitious publishing programs” for each of the cinematic releases? How can ‘Rise of Skywalker’ accurately convey the stakes of Ben Solo facing off against the Knights of Ren when these characters primarily exist in Marvel’s “The Rise of Kylo Ren” comic book miniseries? Is the return of Emperor Palpatine diminished by his crossover canonical event with the Fortnite video game series? Why bother teasing Lando’s daughter if you’re not going to do anything with it outside of the books? Without the extended universe, it’s reasonable to think that Abrams and company would be forced to approach these moments and characters differently, but why edit – or even excise – when your castoffs become the basis for another book or comic? Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ movies are often interrupted by empty spaces where storytelling used to be. This may tickle the fancy of superfans everywhere, but it makes it really tough for casual audiences to place catch-up.