I May Be A Sad Nerd, but RISE OF SKYWALKER is Bad News for STAR WARS on a Rather Terrifying Level: An Essay in Some Number of Parts
The Internet is crowded right now with people gleefully proclaiming that this geeky franchise or that one is dead or dying, usually for political reasons. Most recently, we were treated to the claim that female-centric DC Comics vehicle Birds of Prey spelled doom for all female-led comic book films, because Sonic the Hedgehog did well. These sorts of proclamations have become overwhelming since hashtag-GamerGate ripped through the Internet and turned geek culture into a full fledged battlefront in the war over whether the world should be a more bigoted and small-minded place.
This is not one of those articles. This is just the analysis of a sad Star Wars fan who recognizes a couple of fundamental truths about the business that is also the greatest source of sparks of imagination in my life and has been for twenty-two years and some months.
Star Wars is Financial
As it is no longer a creator-owned franchise, Star Wars is much more marked-driven today than it was when George Lucas released the first six films as technically-independent films. The survival of the Star Wars franchise, which today is about 44 years old (the novelization of the original Star Wars film released substantially ahead of the actual movie, and began to build buzz and even fandom), depends on the films to prop up a “long tail” of other financial cash-ins, starting with toys, novels, and comics, but today extended to prestige and family television shows.
Given this, from a purely financial point of view, as a Star Wars fan who wants to see more Star Wars, I want to see Disney not just make money off of the franchise, but believe that they will continue to do so if they invest in more high-profile content. Being frank: I believe that Star Wars: Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker has, more than any previous event in the Star Wars franchise’s history, reduced the chances of it looking financially prudent to continue investing in Star Wars. If I were a Disney shareholder (I am not), I would be asking some very tough questions about whether the franchise should continue to get new movies. Sure, The Mandalorian and the revived Clone Wars are propping up the new Disney Plus streaming service — but can that last? Moreover, can any further feature films be justified?
I’m opening with this ruthlessly capitalistic analysis because I want to foreground my personal alienation as something rational, and explain why I’m worried one of my favorite escapist pleasures may be nearing the end of its lifecycle, and to distinguish that sad whine from the purely mean-spirited takedowns I alluded to above. I wanted Rise of Skywalker to succeeed. Even if I didn’t like it (which I didn’t), I wanted others to like it, because that would increase the chances that Disney would gamble on more movies and high profile content. That didn’t happen.
Now, let’s get into how Rise of Skywalker is literally worse than literally being hit by a literal automobile.
Rise of Skywalker is Worse Than Being Hit By a Car
I wanted to see the earliest possible showing of Rise of Skywalker, but I live in a town where that’s still pretty late. I also like to walk — so I walked. You probably see where this is going. It was a bit dark, I was in a crosswalk, and a car — more accurately a sports-utility vehicle — came out of nowhere and rammed into me. The driver evaded a ticket by arguing my clothes were too dark, presumably suspecting me of being some sort of Sith Lord and gaining police agreement. I should check if I’m on some sort of list. Anyway, despite being knocked several feet in the air and sustaining bruises, I insisted to the police and the EMTs that I was fine, and I went to go see the new Star Wars — because nothing excites me more in the world than seeing “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. . . .’” in those big letters on the big screen. I’m a sad, pathetic nerd with bad judgment, but that’s not the point and let’s get on with it.
I will forever remember December 19, 2019 as the day I was struck bodily by a high speed metal transport vehicle and could easily have been killed, and also as the day I was shockingly appalled by how not just unappealing to me, but deeply unwise a movie I saw was — and unless there were some really subtle internal injuries, I know that the latter issue will bother me for much longer.
As I said, my issues with Rise of Skywalker are many. Some are even political (the racism? That was bad.) But I’m not the ess-jay-doubleyou inverse of one of those guys who invests himself emotionally in the idea that Alita: Battle Angel is somehow a virtuous champion of “unwokeness” or whatever, and I’m not really going to analyze Rise of Skywalker or the sequel trilogy in general in terms of politics today, except insofar as it affects the longevity of the franchise in what I perceive as fairly objective ways.
So why was it so distressing to see the film play out the way it did, to the point that it was worse than nearly being killed? Well, I’ll acknowledge that I may have a somewhat unhealthy investment in Star Wars BUT ALSO I saw the potential for any continuation of the story that had begun with the revival of the franchise that began with the Disney buyout in 2012 fade away like a Jedi becoming one with the Force, except not in that cool, at-peace kind of way, more like just noping out of existence. The story was, as we learned in successive days, made up at least partially in post-production; it was video-game-like in ways that no previous entry in the franchise had been; it was racist in ways that were also stupid and undermined characters people were invested in (and buy toys of from Hasbro, Disney’s toy partner!)
It also resurrected things that had been thought banished forever from the Star Wars universe except as jokes — the resurrected Emperor Palpatine and his armada of Star Destroyers with infinite Death Star lasers was, in fact, the plot of one of the very first “Expanded Universe” Star Wars products back when we weren’t even sure if the prequels would happen. That storyline, Dark Empire, was one of the things that I remember saying over the phone to my brother when he called me, ecstatic, in 2012 to tell me about the Disney buyout, that we wouldn’t miss when the Expanded Universe was purged.
And with that in mind, let me lay out a little history of how the Star Wars economy works, why I think Disney probably thought buying it was a good idea to begin with, why they made certain decisions, and why they had fan support until now. After that, I’ll get into why that fan support matters even though they’re still objectively making money hand over fist.
The Previous Times Star Wars Was Ruined
Star Wars is a very unique beast, perhaps most comparable to the anime franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion by creator Anno Hideaki, in that it was for the bulk of its existence almost entirely creator-owned. This is how we got the toxic fandom of the early 00s, in which I regretfully participated to a degree, in which a common sport was harassing George Lucas for ruining (or doing worse things metaphorically which I won’t repeat here) people’s childhoods, but also harassing the actors for unpopular characters like Kid Anakin and Jar Jar Binks. Those are sad stories with real human costs and I’m sorry I was even indirectly connected to them.
I was disappointed when I saw Phantom Menace at 11, and moreso when I saw Attack of the Clones at 13. I was not all that disappointed by Revenge of the Sith, probably because the contents of that film were pretty much exactly what I and most people expected, centered around The Duel we’d been promised for so long. But I was resigned to this being the last time I got to see “A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. . . .” on a big screen. Lucas broke that promise/assurance that Sith would be the last film only a few years later with the animated Clone Wars movie, but my conviction that Star Wars films were over seemed vindicated. I, like a lot of fans, turned to hoping for things that seemed more realistic than a return of Star Wars as anything beyond toys and novels, like the return of Firefly. Some of us got into other fandoms that would thrill and then massively disappoint us with the finale (I’m looking at my Mass Effect poster in the corner as I write this). Whatever. My point here is that Star Wars has “let the fans down” before and it has certainly had movies that were bad before. So I need to break that down before I explain why Rise of Skywalker is just objectively worse.
Star Wars has always made its money from the “long tail” strategy of merchandising — which feeds back into the films as well, which is why any of us know about Boba Fett and why The Mandalorian even exists. Boba Fett was just a really popular toy because he looked cool, Lucas tried to step up his role in Return of the Jedi and it didn’t work, and now we finally have a TV show about “what if Boba Fett, but he’s actually cool and a dad.” That’s just how it works — the films have characters, ships, weapons, etc., that are iconic and make money for whoever currently holds the toy license which makes money for the IP holder (Lucasfilm, now Disney). Spinoffs and tie-ins and even decisions about what goes in the movies are made based on this. It’s always been commercial.
The merchandising of Star Wars went through several phases, and the dominant fan attitudes shifted depending on what else was going on.
- First, there’s the era I wasn’t born for when the original films came out, and the time after. This was mostly toys and a very few tie in novels that expanded the story, which were unclear in their “canon” status (and the fandom hadn’t really, as I understand, gotten to the point of worrying so much about that.) But a lot of what we know about things in the Star Wars universe stems largely from the backs of toy boxes in this era, and novelizations whose canonicity was demolished decades ago because Lucas totally gave the go-ahead for Luke and Leia to screw in an Alan Dean Foster novel before he’d decided any of his main characters were related are still paying off today — the khyber crystal concept which was central to Rogue One originates in the retroactively-incest-filled Splinter of the Minds Eye I allude to. At this point, fans were getting everything they could get from what was sold to them — it wasn’t clear if any movies were going to come out in the future.
- Then came the Expanded Universe which is now known as Legends, as well as increasingly solid rumors of the prequels. Lucas basically blocked off the era before the first movie as off-limits but let novelists, comic writers, and video game developers have their fun with the rest. This is why there’s an entire Star Wars sequel continuity that’s amusing to look back on with the actual sequels in mind — did you know that in the old version, Luke’s son was named “Ben” and Han’s son did become a Sith, but his name was Jacen? Fun times. There was a lot of incredibly bad and ridiculous stuff in the EU of this era, which is why in the aforementioned phone conversation I had with my brother, we were happy to learn Disney would be declaring everything not created by Lucas or directly authorized by him non-canon (abandoning an incredibly complex ranked system of canon that existed before and which I never really understood). Anyway, while they were wildly financially successful, the products of this time included, and I really want to emphasize this, both a plotline in which, somehow, Palpatine returns, and he has an invincible fleet of Star Destroyers that come from ancient Sith tech and have their own Death Star lasers, and also a plotline in which Palpatine’s grandchild is raised without the knowledge that he (in this case) is in fact Palpatine’s grandchild, due to the innate pull to the Dark Side of the Palpatine bloodline, but he overcomes his heritage and becomes a Jedi. Yeah. Anyway, this era generated a lot of resentment from fans and probably drove a few away, but the EU also helped retain fans, as it overlaps with the prequel era and a lot of fans saw the occasional/frequent ridiculousness of the Expanded Universe as worth it for the few gems that did turn up, like Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic video game. I would say that it did not damage the brand, because it made Lucasfilm money and it was easy to ignore the parts you hated.
- The prequels. I don’t want to get into this in too much detail. Like I said, fans behaved poorly, but the movies were disappointing and overly hyped, and they didn’t perform financially as well as the sequels eventually would (although expectations, and budgets, were much lower then, and again the franchise was still creator owned.) I do want to say some things about the prequels though:
— they were weakened by the directing, the acting, the overreliance on CGI, and like the sequels unfortunately, the racism (which was much more blatant and led to actual protests and the like in some cases)
— they were not weakened by their storylines, because those were pretty damn solid
— most of all, the prequels didn’t undermine the sense that Star Wars was a coherent galaxy that within its space opera rules made sense and was a real world you could live in, where aliens hang out in cantinas because they got there in spaceships that make sense and people lead ordinary lives. That was always a big appeal for me — I wished I could get isekaid into Star Wars so to speak, and I had a pretty good idea what I’d do if I got there. Because the world made sense.
— so the prequels told a somewhat badly organized story that was badly directed with underutilized actors and some racist stereotypes with CGI that was the Icarus of computer technology, but it didn’t make you feel like Star Wars itself was ruined — you were just a bit disappointed about those movies.
- The sequels and Star Wars stories and new expanded universe under Disney direction, prior to Rise of Skywalker. This era started off strong. I will fully admit that The Force Awakens hit every single nostalgia note it could have hit in my soft little heart, as JJ Abrams is known for doing so brutally, and it was like poetry, it rhymed, all that jazz (jizz?) and so I bought in hard. And then Rogue One delivered something that felt like it was directly part of the original trilogy, and the comics and other tie-in material reinforced this and gave you the sense that the Plot Committee was really taking charge and making sure we were going to get a coherent universe where the tie-ins and merchandising supported the movies and vice versa and definitely we weren’t going to have a clone Palpatine and a grandkid Palpatine and infinite Star Destroyers, because these were mature adults crafting an intricate… yeah, that didn’t happen. It looked so hard like it might, but honestly it broke down with The Last Jedi. I was all on board with TLJ’s increased diversity and deconstructive approach, don’t get me wrong, but it was going to be very hard to follow even without the death of Carrie Fisher, and once that happened, everyone involved in making the next film was in a really terrible position. It sucked. I’m not here to blame Caesar, just to bury him. (Caesar is JJ Abrams.)
- The Rise of Skywalker is an unmitigatable disaster. I am not going to pick on any particular plot point, but rather note the ways in which it undermines synergy between itself and literally every other part of the franchise — very bad when it was marketed as the capstone to the major saga of the franchise.
— It took characters with massive merchandise potential — especially Poe, Finn, and Rose, but also ultimately Rey and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, and gave them either utterly ridiculous backstories, no role at all, or conclusions to their stories that are uninteresting. Furthermore, it drove the actors of at the very least Poe and Finn away from any inclination to ever return to the franchise, meaning even if they could come up with a way to fix those characters, they never will. Which means people won’t keep buying Poe and Finn action figures, and hey, maybe they’ll read some skilled author’s fix-fic comic, but comics don’t sell very well and they won’t help build momentum for a movie, TV show, or toy sales
— this is one the entire sequel series is guilty of, but TRoS hammered it so hard it’s pretty much baked into the franchise now. Apparently, the entire Galaxy takes less time to travel from one end to the other of than the modern planet Earth does on a jet. The vast Galaxy I imagined when I saw the first movie for the first time on a tiny TV playing a Betamax ten years older than me turns out to be effectively smaller than the world we live in. Furthermore, aliens are mostly irrelevant, and people just wander into Fate wherever it’s convenient for the writers. That’s not how the Force worked in previous installments, where Luke got a premonition he had to go to Degobah, but he still had to fly there and at the time I thought the implication was that it took some time.
So Here’s Why Star Wars May Be Totally Fucked
But we have The Mandalorian! I hear you say. People love The Mandalorian, it’s old school Star Wars!
It’s true. People love The Mandalorian, and it’s old school Star Wars going back to influences from the before-I-was-born era of fandom. But you’ll note it draws on the prequels, and it draws on Dave Filoni’s excellent TV shows, and it draws on the originals. It does not draw on the sequels. Yes, it takes place before them, but it does not make more than a token effort to connect to them.
This is because the sequels do not make sense. Where did the First Order come from? How did the New Republic work? Why is everyone still using the same gear, nostalgia is not an acceptable answer, JJ? There are so many interesting answers to these questions and Rise of Skywalker overruled the new expanded universe and some very clear directions things were headed to say “nowhere interesting. Who cares? Nostalgia.”
No one will be nostalgic for the sequels. Well, I will, for the first two and especially the first. But most people are going to be totally soured on the first two by the fact that what they’re building to is nonsense cobbled together from the worst of what Disney threw out when they acquired the IP.
And this is bad for Disney’s bottom line. If they have to abandon the entire sequel era as part of their marketing-feeding-into-tie-ins-feeding-into-toys-feeding-into-shows-feeding-into-movies dynamic, then the case will get weaker and weaker for any investment in the IP beyond what we had in the 90s — comics, video games (not AAA, either), and novels. I’m sure some of those will be great, but then… what did we even get from the sequels. I loved the characters, but they’re ruined now.
In conclusion, Attack of the Clones may have been a bad movie, but it gave us The Clone Wars. That’s because it was still in a coherently world-built, interesting galaxy, and even Anakin and Padme are interesting, just not when written and acted like that. No one will ever make a Clone Wars for the First Order era, because there’s no there there. Nothing about it makes sense as an alternate world.
And I’m sad. Because I love Star Wars and I’m afraid this movie may finally have killed it.