On October 19, the official trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens debuted during halftime of ESPN’s Monday Night Football. The spike in Monday’s ratings seems to prove that even sci-fi enthusiasts will watch the Philadelphia Eagles blow out the New York Giants 27-7, if given enough motivation. Since then, the video on the official Star Wars YouTube page has amassed over 53 million views in less than one week.
The new film is set to take place 30 years after the events of The Return of the Jedi. It is also set to take place after the franchise changed hands between its creator, George Lucas, and the Walt Disney Company. In 2012, Lucasfilms was acquired by Disney for $4.05 billion dollars. A pretty penny for sure, but with it, Disney bought for themselves the single most successful film merchandising franchise of all time and access to an entire fictional universe that has been slowly expanding for decades. At the most recent estimate, also in 2012, the franchise was valued at a cool $30.7 billion. Basically, Disney stands to make money. A lot of money. One can almost hear the imagineers hard at work, tinkering into the dead of night, figuring out what the galaxy far, far away will look like once it’s turned into their newest theme park and moved from outer space to Orlando.
But what does it mean to further expand this world, both in fiction and in reality? And who, if anyone, retains ownership over it in all its many representations?
The trailer does right in what little it reveals. It has been watched and rewatched by fans the world over, hungrily searching for clues about what the new movie has in store. And the wild fan theories run on; Though Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher will be making appearances for old times sake, the trailer promises a brand new cast and brand new story.
Despite this reimagining, the 2 minutes and 35 seconds of film we do see is drenched in nostalgia, perfectly deployed. It opens with a shot of a never-ending desert wasteland reminiscent of Tattoine, the world where we first met Luke Skywalker all those years ago. Later, our new H.V.I.C. (head villian in charge) Kyoto Ren worships at an altar of Darth Vadar’s warped and melted helmet, while wearing a Vader-esque mask of his own. There is even a particularly potent meta-moment in which Ren, speaking to an aged Han Solo, says “there are stories about what happened,” suggesting that our new heroes were raised on the very same stories that we were. The movies we’ve seen have become just as deeply ingrained as mythologies inside the world in which they originated. While the last trilogy went deep into the past, this new trilogy will resync the series to coincide with our own timeline. And if the iconography doesn’t feel classic enough, all you have to do is listen to John Williams’ new score swell behind it all. The nostalgia is deeply embedded sonically in the slightly reimagined fanfare. This J.J. Abrams-helmed ship seems to know where it comes from and, by all accounts, is dedicated to preserving that legacy. Its subtle homages have certainly won over a large part of the fanbases’ trust. And yet, is this not corporate greed at its most refined, taking our collective childhood memories and magically turning them into profit? After all, box office analysts are already predicting that The Force Awakens stands to easily earn over $1 billion.
But maybe that’s okay. If The Force Awakens is exploitation and it is only exploiting our memories, fine. But what happens if it decides to fundamentally change them? The Star Wars world has been slowly spreading out for years. If the space from which it takes its name has no edge, neither does the franchise’s reach. Beyond the bounds covered by the six featured films, The Clone Wars film series, and the Rebels series, we find the ‘Expanded Universe.’ This encompasses all of the novels, comics, video games, toys, and other new media that is considered canonically relevant. It should be noted that the largest chunk of overall revenue come from sources other than the box office, mostly toys and video games. Over $1.6 billion comes from the video game development branch, LucasArts. Lucasfilms was the first production company to develop this level of pervasive franchising. Disney, upon acquisition, has pared this down considerably in its effort to unify the content. They established Lucasfilm Story Group, a committee whose sole job is to keep track of and define the canon. One can imagine the boardroom meetings involved in determining whether or not Skippy the Jedi Droid was essential to the telling of the saga. On April 25, 2014 they announced that the ‘Expanded Universe’ is out, while the six features and The Clone Wars series remain the only ‘immovable objects’ in the storytelling.
And, to be fair, this may have been a necessary edit, considering how bloated and contradictory that universe had become. Take for instance, the 1984 made-for-TV movie Caravan of Courage: The Ewok Adventure in which a group of Ewoks reunite two stranded, plucky tykes with their parents instead of eating them, and learn a life lesson about trust along the way. These kinds of works—and there are a lot of them—fall primarily on Lucas’ shoulders. He never bothered to set any standards of the canon while still granting permission for these materials to be produced. But it does seem strange to think that George Lucas has given away his rights to a world in which he was once god, and that these kinds of edits can be made without him—even though he no longer seems to care. He is, after all, the one responsible for those blasted prequels and the introduction of the freaking midi-chlorians. Although he may be the original creator, he is not necessarily the best one for the job.
If Disney will, in fact, take on these new projects and all that they entail, it is in good company. Harry Potter, the other seminal franchise of the present moment, is attempting a similar expansion. For years, J.K. Rowling has been famous for her extradiegitic declarations that Dumbledore was gay and Hagrid never had kids. The series has begun to take on a kind of post-ending, in which an increasing number of conclusions are tacked onto to the epilogue or to what was once left to reader’s imaginations. The narrative grows past its ending point. And it is clear that doing so can be extremely profitable. In fact, it seems that both the literary and the economic are invested in a narrative of growth. Both, in this case, have an insatiable need to expand ever further. However, this kind of post-publication clarification is typically vilified by the literary community: authors, they argue, only have jurisdiction inside of what they wrote. The rest belongs to their readers. But when Rowling does it, we not only concede, we cheer. Because, as fans, we’re so starved for one more detail that we’re happy no matter what. For many, a large part of their childhoods are tied up in these stories. Many fans are also members of large online communities that revolve around the love of these books and movies. And through that, fans establish connections and friendships, that while initially stemming from shared devotion to the franchise, often grow beyond it. The same can be said for Star Wars. A vast network of discussions, fan theories, fan art, fanfiction, and cosplay are all archived online. And this network has roots beyond the virtual realm. More than 5 million people have ridden the Hogwarts Express at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter since it opened and there are over 400 college Quidditch teams. Not to mention the thousands of people who travel to attend conventions—from Leaky Con to Star Wars Celebration—across the country. And in this way the worlds can stay alive. Or rather, the fans can make the worlds real. And while people of all ages indulge in and enjoy these occasions, it is often the tendency of adults to play make-believe almost as a way of validating their upbringing and resultant identities. Or as a way of prolonging a feeling that was only found in childhood, when we still retained our ability to be spellbound. There is an investment involved in elevating these stories outside of the books and movies in which they are found. This goes past the experiential and into the material: through toys, memorabilia, and the physical structures of the theme parks, fans are able to literally own a piece of the fictional universe, as well as claim collective ownership over these worlds into which they invest so much. By transposing them onto reality, by making them concrete, fans are finally able to insert themselves into the narrative, to play at being the chosen ones, even if only for a day.
Industries know that they can leverage the degree of audience attachment to these characters to make a sizeable profit. It’s a far safer bet than investing in a new venture. Even the Star Wars prequels, almost universally vilified by fans, still grossed over a billion dollars in box office.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. recently announced that it will be making three new movies based on the figure of Newt Scamander, author of Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This movie is only tangentially applicable to Harry Potter. That is, it is of the fictional world but will never touch our version of it. It offers an entirely new imagining, taking place in the magical society of 1920s New York. But the money-making machine knows no bounds. On October 23, the official synopsis for a Rowling-approved play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” was announced. The West End stage play is set to premiere this summer and will feature the Boy Who Lived as an “overworked Ministry of Magic employee, a husband and father of three school-age children.” It is extraordinarily significant that a large portion of the fan base, those who are now college-age, grew up alongside Harry Potter. An integral part of his charm, Harry’s youthful naiveté will feel misplaced in an adult’s body. Epilogue aside, the last image we get of Harry is of him surveying the rubble of his final battle, where he finally emerged victorious against Voldemort. Although that is going to be replaced by a Harry Potter with a mortgage and thinning hairline, we can take heart that the image will only be seen by those who can afford a seat at the Palace Theatre in London. Harry would be 30 in 2015, but it is not fair to him to extend his lifespan as a fictional character to that of an actual human being. But there is still an excitement in getting to see him again, like visiting an old friend you haven’t seen in a while. The addiction to these escapist worlds leads to a desire for more, and the fulfillment of that desire leads to the slow erosion of that world’s magic. It is difficult, of course, to tell where that line lies in this clash of temporalities, and it seems only some things should be made real. Build your theme parks, but leave Harry be.
While lack of diversity on screen is a problem that permeates throughout Hollywood, it seems most serious when it comes to sci-fi and superhero genres. The casting of The Force Awakens is sensitive to this failure, having cast a woman and a person of color as its heroes. Disney seems commited to having the film’s characters represent the actual demographics of the fanbase. Many fans are excited about this development, but a small faction of Twitter trolls reared their ugly heads. It began with #BoycottStarWarsVII, initially meant as a (tactless, insensitive) joke, and was quickly appropriated by racists and sexists to protest the films choice of casting John Boyega and Daisy Ridley as lead badasses. While the Twitter-storm in this case was small, it does fit into a larger historical trend of fans freaking out when casting does not go the way they want it to. Fans are defined by their love and commitment to their characters. But clearly there is a dark side to these notions of ownership. Fans can feel that the conception of a character belongs to them and, when the appearance of that character does not look as they believe it ought, casting can be met with a lot of anger.
Oftentimes, this passion is a fan’s way of protecting characters from what they believe to be poor translation. While sometimes well-intentioned, in this instance, the reaction has been one of discrimination. This points to a larger reality of nerd culture in which white male fans get to be the hero, while people of color and woman are typically given secondary roles: best friend at best, sex object at worse. The very people attacking diverse castings are the ones used to seeing themselves represented on screen as the protagonist; and, when that is challenged, they are able to co-opt discourses of authenticity to shroud their own prejudiced ideals.Their passion here becomes a vehicle—or rather, a megaphone—for their racist and sexist understandings of what a hero can and should be.
Perhaps the best response has come from John Boyega himself. In an interview with V Magazine, the young actor quipped, “I’m in the movie, what are you going to do about it? You either enjoy it or you don’t. I’m not saying get used to the future…[it] is already happening. People of color and women are increasingly being shown on screen. For things to be whitewashed just doesn’t make any sense.”
There is a lot of debate about who owns Star Wars. First, it was George Lucas and now maybe it’s Mickey Mouse. But Lucas made sure to embed himself in the commercial universe of Star Wars. In a way, he is just as iconic as any of his characters, mythologizing himself alongside his work. And in that way, he’s really the same as any common fan.There is a possessive inclination on the part of the fanbase to be part of this cultural and fictional narrative; a pervasive feeling that these characters belong to us because we helped make them too. They haunt our childhood memories like friendly ghosts. Through this deep love, the legacy of Star Wars is solidified as a cultural touchstone for everyone, endlessly referenced and remade.
Everybody wants to be the hero, so it is only fair that the hero doesn’t always look the same. And maybe that’s the greatest testament to this series, that we can empty out the universe and repopulate it, casting it in our own image.
DOMINIQUE PARISO B’18 is polishing her lightsaber for the midnight screening.