(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I wrote most of this essay over the course of 24 hours, with a planned release of May the Fourth. Because of that, I did not have time to add images, nor give it more than a couple re-reads and re-edits. This post will probably change slightly over the course of the next couple weeks as I put the finishing touches on it, but the theme, story, and conclusion will remain the same.)
In 2012, Disney agreed to buy Lucasfilm and all its assets for $4.05 billion. This included Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound, Indiana Jones, Willow, and of course, Star Wars.
This acquisition was met with no small amount of trepidation. Disney’s film division had been stumbling lately, and the company as a whole was still struggling from the end of Eisner’s tenure. But Pixar was continuing to thrive under Disney’s ownership, the Muppets had just released a successful film, and Marvel Studios had become an unprecedented success, so there was a glimmer of hope that Iger and his crew could helm Lucas’ franchises back to critical acclaim after a series of misfires.
This wasn’t the first time Disney and Lucas had shared billing. In 1984, Eisner struck a deal with George to let him develop attractions for the Disney parks. This led to the 3D movie Captain EO, starring Michael Jackson at the peak of his career, and directed by Lucas’ friend and Oscar-winning filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola. Captain EO was followed by the Star Wars-themed motion simulator attraction, Star Tours, in ’87. Lucas also allowed his Indiana Jones characters to appear in the Disney-MGM Studios opening day attraction, The Great Movie Ride, as well as the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! later that year, followed closely by a clone of Star Tours that opened in the same park.
After these attractions were completed, Lucas continued to work with Disney Imagineering by conceptualizing an original story for their Alien Encounter attraction, which was originally planned to tie into Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction horror Alien franchise. He later lent Indy to Disney again for Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure ride in 1995. In 2010, Lucas and ILM helped out when WDI closed and retooled Star Tours to include a 3D projection, more destinations based on all six (now nine) Skywalker Saga films, and a randomized ride experience.
For the sake of completion, it should also be noted that Star Tours was duplicated in Tokyo and Paris, as was its sequel; and Indiana Jones Adventure was replicated in Tokyo DisneySea with a slightly different story and setting. Let’s also not forget the Star Wars Weekends held intermittently in the Studios park from 1997-2001, and annually from 2003-2015, nor all of the Disney/Lucasfilm merchandise sold exclusively in the various parks’ giftshops worldwide.
Suffice it to say, it was a mutually beneficial partnership.
All of these projects were completed with at least some involvement from George himself. This was in addition to overseeing the trajectory of these franchises’ film, television, merchandising, and convention activities separate from the Disney Parks.
But in 2012, with the final sale of Lucasfilm, et al, George Lucas retired. Any plans he had for continuing Star Wars, Indy, etc. were turned over to Disney for their perusal. Any sequels, TV series, and Expanded Universe content were theirs to do with as they pleased, with or without his consent. Kathleen Kennedy, friend and collaborator of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, as well as a frequent partner with Walt Disney Productions, was put in charge of Lucasfilms’ franchises.
One of the earliest decisions made was, perhaps ironically, to mostly ignore Lucas’ treatment for Episodes Ⅶ-Ⅸ. Hoping to distance themselves from the Star Wars of the Special Editions and Prequels, Disney’s Star Wars would be a soft reboot of the franchise, keeping the continuity of G-canon, most of T-canon, and select elements of C-canon, and relegating the rest of the former Star Wars Expanded Universe to non-canon “Legends”.
Disney then hired director, producer, screenwriter — and showrunner of hit serialized shows like Alias, Lost, and Fringe — J.J. Abrams to take the reins of what would become the official Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Instead of following Luke, Leia, and Han, and their adventures with their now nonexistent offspring, Eps. Ⅶ-Ⅸ would follow three new and unrelated characters, and the one and only Skywalker offspring. The Original Trilogy’s characters would appear in supporting roles, basically to pass the torch to the new cast.
What’s interesting is how similar the genesis of the new Star Wars Universe is to the original Star Wars. You see, Star Wars didn’t start as Star Wars. It started as Buck Rogers in the 25TH Century. George Lucas, who grew up watching the sci-fi movie serials of the ’40s and ’50s, wanted to pay tribute to them by making a Buck Rogers movie. He couldn’t get the rights, so instead, he created his own sci-fi serial by combining concepts from classic fairy tales, religious mythology, Asian cultures, ancient and modern politics, militaristic imperialism, and other personal interests. He called his utterly unfilmable space opera, The Star Wars.
We will return to Lucas’ Star Wars in a moment, but first, I wanted to discuss the timeline of Disney’s Star Wars.
Note: spoilers ahead, though I will try to be as vague as possible, some obvious spoilers will be unavoidable.
Abrams cowrote and directed the first chapter of the Sequel Trilogy, to be known as Star Wars – Episode Ⅶ: The Force Awakens; or commercially, simply Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The removal of the episode number and the prominence of the Star Wars logo in the title were a clear message to audiences that the sequels were going to be different than the prequels, and more like the originals.
In fact, it was very much like the original in several ways. One of the first characters we are introduced to is a droid. Our everyman protagonist meets our hero on a desert planet. The main antagonist is a tall man in a black suit with flowing robes and his entire face hidden by a mask. He receives orders from a decaying, old, clairvoyant master. The enemies are an authoritarian regime. They have a planet-sized weapon that can destroy entire worlds. Our heroes stop at a seedy underground watering hole with strange music. They meet a diminutive alien who helps them. They receive help from a hotshot pilot. One of the main characters is the offspring of one of the main characters from the previous trilogy.
Despite the obvious similarities, there were many bold and original concepts. Our heroes from the Original Trilogy have all gone their separate ways, and each gets their own grand entrance. Our new hero is a young woman who, despite also being an orphan, is not naïve or helpless, but actually quite self-sufficient. Our two main antagonists are young, brash, and butt heads like brothers in a competitive sport. In fact, most of the movie, despite feeling very familiar, is full of surprises.
Not enough surprises, it seems, because despite rave reviews and eventually reaching the number 3 spot on the top-grossing films of all time (it has since been surpassed by Avengers: Endgame), fans considered The Force Awakens too derivative, some going so far as calling it nothing more than a “remake” of A New Hope. So for Episode Ⅷ, Disney went bolder. They wanted the next chapter to be full of surprises, and hired independent filmmaker Rian Johnson to helm the middle chapter of the trilogy.
Episode Ⅷ: The Last Jedi was certainly a change in almost every way. From writing and visual style, to story structure, to major plot points, to (arguably) character depictions, nearly everything about The Last Jedi was a new way to look at the Star Wars franchise. We learn things about our favorite characters from the Original Trilogy that we never would have expected, and we see them face their mistakes and achieve their redemptions. Our new characters learn important lessons about themselves, and shadows and symbols of the past are destroyed in ways that shook things up like never before.
Was the gamble worth it? Depends on whom you ask. Critics loved it. It’s still one of the best-reviewed films in the franchise, only a few points behind The Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens. The movie kept the viewer guessing and ended the way a middle chapter should: the battles won, the war in peril, but with a glimmer of hope. The characters were finally fleshed out in ways they never had been before, with depth and flaws and consequences. In many ways, The Last Jedi mirrored the impact Empire had in 1980, but without repeating the exact notes.
Fans, on the other hand, were more divided. Passionately so. approximately half of the Star Wars fandom loved it as much as the critics, while the other half hated it vehemently, going so far as to petition for the film to be scrapped from canon entirely and remade from scratch, calling for Kathleen Kennedy to be fired from Lucasfilm, and Rian Johnson to be banned from ever touching the franchise again. The hate was so venomous, in fact, that actors and filmmakers were (and still are) harassed on social media for even participating in the movie.
Disney got the message. Plans for Colin Trevorrow to helm what would be the final chapter of the Star Wars Saga were derailed by studio interference, until Trevorrow finally left the project, citing “creative differences”. J.J. Abrams was brought back on to finish the trilogy, and the result was a movie that tried to retcon as much of the last movie-and-a-half as possible, while also wrapping up the stories of the characters involved in all three. Adding to the list of issues was the fact that Carrie Fisher, General Senator Princess Leia Skywalker Organa Solo herself, died shortly after completing her scenes for The Last Jedi, and was therefore unavailable to personally complete her character’s essential story arc.
Characters introduced in Episodes Ⅶ and Ⅷ were sidelined, or written out entirely. Characters from the Original Trilogy were senselessly shoehorned into a story that didn’t need them. New characters were introduced with no time to properly develop them. Major plot points from the last movie, meant to signal big changes for the characters in the third film, were rewritten to provide more ties to characters from the Original Trilogy. And what’s worse, all of this was crammed into a single movie with a runtime (including credits) of 142 minutes.
While these changes made some fans happy, it disappointed others, and baffled many, including critics. Whether you prefer Abrams’ storyline, Johnson’s, or would have preferred what Trevorrow had planned, what was supposed to be a trilogy of films continuing the stories of our favorite galaxy far, far away became a mess of poorly thought out events, unfinished stories, unresolved character arcs, and more questions than answers. A disorganized mishmash of three films with completely different tones and themes.
Nothing like the Star Wars we grew up with…
…or was it?
Let’s return to the early ’70s and Lucas’ plan for The Star Wars.
Here, we had a sprawling space epic about a father and son Jedi, a young man and his old mentor of the Force, a senator, a princess and her a twin brother whose lives could decide the fate of the galaxy, a hotshot pilot, a pair of droids, an evil emperor, a Dark Lord of the Sith, and a man with cybernetic enhancements (note the use of Oxford commas). So far, not dissimilar from what we ended up with, right?
Except every single one of them was a separate character! The story involved three or four main antagonists and at least twice as many protagonists, not to mention the droids for comic relief. The convoluted plot had them traveling to several planets, a space battle to destroy an armored space station, and engaging in a duel on the space station, and a pivotal ground battle between an advanced imperial army and a race of furry, tribal alien creatures.
Lucas wisely took his favorite characters and elements from this rough draft and cut it down to a digestible two hour movie with about a half-dozen leads and a handful of memorable supporting characters, with one climactic battle instead of three. His plan was to shoot one movie with these characters and locations, then make more movies out of the other ideas.
Because The Star Wars was inspired by Buck Rogers, Lucas’ plan was always to expand on the world he created with future installments, releasing new movies every year or so, and he estimated a 12-part series spanning generations. He wrote a brief-but-detailed summary of what the groundwork of his universe would be comprised of:
- A galaxy-spanning republic-turned-empire, usurped by a shrewd Force-using senator who became emporer via a political coup
- A group of Jedi, Force-users, once protectors of the republic, now fighting a war to free it from the Empire
- A ragtag group of rebels, engaging in battles with the Empire and committing acts of espionage and sabotage
- Clones and droids
Using this as a basis, he built the Star Wars we know today. The young Annikin Starkiller became Luke Skywalker, while the old General Luke Skywalker became Ben Kenobi, formerly General Obi-Wan, friend and master of Luke’s (at this point, unnamed) father. The Senator-Princess lost her younger twin siblings. General Vader and Prince Valorum were combined into Darth Vader, and Governor Grand Moff Tarkin took over as leader of the Imperial forces, with Vader as his henchmen, much like a Bond villain. Hotshot pilot Han Solo, formerly an alien, was now a human with a furry, tribal alien creature called a Wookiee as co-pilot.
The three-tiered final battle was reduced to only the space battle. The politics were removed almost entirely, and the Emporer was merely mentioned, reduced to a few lines of vague expository dialogue during a scene refigured to showcase Vader’s power and Tarkin’s ruthlessness. An elaborate subplot for Han Solo involving a botched spice smuggling operation for alien mobster Jabba the Hutt was cut down to a couple of scenes, and all but abandoned.
But even that doesn’t bring us to the Star Wars we know and love. In post-production, more of Solo’s backstory was cut (the infamous Jabba scene from the Special Edition), Darth Vader’s life was saved, a subplot involving the Death Star following the rebels to their hidden base was added, and the decision was made to replace all of the music, which Lucas had chosen from public domain classical works — à la Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — with original compositions by two-time Spielberg collaborator, John Williams.
At this point, Lucas had two plans for the continuation of the story: either the movie would be successful and he’d go on to make a string of bigger and better entries in the saga, or the movie would flop and he would continue Star Wars as low-budget independent movies. He wrote drafts of what would become the Star Wars sequel in either case. The rest, of course, is history.
Lucas’ low-budget sequel became the basis for Alan Dean Foster’s novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, in which Luke and Leia travel to a swampy planet in search of the source of the Force, a Kaiburr crystal. They encounter Darth Vader, and both Luke and Leia engage him in a lightsaber duel. Oh, and by the way, Luke is in love with Leia.
The movie that was made instead was The Empire Strikes Back — or, as it was titled on-screen, Star Wars – Episode Ⅴ: The Empire Strikes Back… but more on that later — which as Lucas promised, was bigger and better and full of surprises. The audience reaction to Darth Vader, along with the convenient death of Tarkin, meant the Sith Lord would become the de facto antagonist this time. The Jedi training scenes, originally envisioned with Obi-Wan, had to be passed off to a new character, Yoda. The potential love triangle between Han, Leia, and Luke is reinforced through several scenes. The Emporer is revealed, but only vaguely, as a blurry hologram and portrayed by actress Marjorie Eaton, with a chimpanzee’s eyes superimposed, lip-syncing to actor Clive Revill’s voice (or maybe Revill overdubbed Eaton’s).
But of course, the biggest change made to Star Wars’ story was the biggest reveal in film history since “Rosebud”. Darth Vader being Luke’s father. This is the subject of much debate within the fandom, but the fact is, Darth Vader was never written to be Luke’s father before Empire. I repeat, until the filming of the second movie, Darth Vader and the elder Skywalker (still not officially named, by the way) were two different characters. In an interview featured in the official Star Wars documentary, From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga, Lucas even admits that he debated going through with it at all.
With the release of Empire, Star Wars became a franchise. Not only that, but there was more story to tell before the story that had been told. The original Star Wars began as the first part of a series, a scaled-back version of the space opera Lucas envisioned. Now, due to its own success, it became the middle part of a sprawling epic — A New Hope in cinematic storytelling.
Another sign that Lucas was making it up as he went along was the fate of Han Solo. Encasing Han in carbonite was a cop-out. Harrison Ford didn’t know if he wanted to continue with the franchise. He wanted Han dead, but George didn’t. Carbonite gave them both a chance to decide. Like the fate of Jason Todd (look it up), the fans ultimately got the final say.
However, after six years and only two movies, it was clear to Lucas that his twelve-chapter polylogy was never going to happen without sacrificing the rest of his life and potential career. So here’s what happened instead:
Four separate stories — rescuing Han, Luke completing his training, Vader’s redemption, and the death of the Emperor — possibly planned for two, three, or even more movies, were combined into one. Not only that, but elements originally written for and cut from the first Star Wars were recycled to make the ending even more epic. Even more confusing is the introduction of a new surprise element, the fulfillment of a cliffhanger from Empire, resulted in the most ridiculous, ham-fisted resolution ever.
The second Death Star, bigger and more powerful than the first, was the first sign that something was off about this entry. Basically, Lucas wanted to use the original three-tiered battle that he planned for The Star Wars, and another Death Star was the best way he could come up with to do that. (Ironically, combining the Star Destroyer mounted Death Star lasers from The Rise of Skywalker with The Empire Strikes Back’s Super Star Destroyer Executor would have probably been a better idea, but I wasn’t there to suggest it.) Unfortunately, because he already depicted Chewbacca as an intelligent, technologically adept creature, showing other Wookiees as primitive and tribal wouldn’t work. So we got the Ewoks, which are in almost every way the opposite of Wookiees, to take down the Empire. The great lightsaber duel was now between Luke and his father, and newcomer Lando would lead the Rebel fleet in the second Death Star attack.
Where things start to get muddled are all the things that weren’t supposed to happen in Episode Ⅵ. Vader was always supposed to be redeemed and die saving Luke, but before writing Return of the Jedi, it wasn’t going to be from the Emperor’s direct attack. In fact, the Emperor wasn’t even going to appear on-screen until Episode Ⅷ or Ⅸ. “Yoda spoke of another” Skywalker as he said goodbye to Luke, something alluded to as Luke left the planet Dagobah in Empire. “The other he spoke of was [Luke’s] twin sister,” a reveal that wasn’t meant for this movie, but the next one — and she wasn’t supposed to be Leia! Making Leia Luke’s sister was a corner Lucas painted himself into when he introduced the idea of a new character, but ran out of time to introduce and develop her.
Not wanting to commit to another trilogy, Lucas threw everything he had left into Return of the Jedi, and the result was the second most muddled chapter of the saga. After Jedi was complete, he called it “The Star Wars Trilogy”, and that was it. There was no more. Episodes Ⅰ, Ⅱ, and Ⅲ may or may not ever exist, and there will be no Ⅶ, Ⅷ, or Ⅸ. Obviously that all changed, and for better or for worse, we got the prequels, and a few years later, Episodes Ⅰ-Ⅵ were released in a collector’s box set as “Star Wars: The Complete Saga”.
Star Wars fans like to scrutinize and criticize every aspect of the Sequel Trilogy. (To be fair, we did it to the Prequel Trilogy as well.) Rey is a Mary Sue. Kylo Ren is whiny. Finn is a token. So is Rose. Why is there a casino in Star Wars? Leia would’ve died. Luke wouldn’t have done what he did. The Force Awakens is just a remake. The Last Jedi isn’t even a Star Wars movie. The Rise of Skywalker is a confused mess no matter how you look at it.
This even extends to the theme parks, for crying out loud. Why is Galaxy’s Edge set in Batuu and not Tatooine, or Endor, or Coruscant? When does Star Tours take place, and why does it mix planets and characters from different eras? Why does Hyperspace Mountain exist?
I can go on… from complaining about Legends canon and the elimination of the EU (frankly, most of it wasn’t that great or important to begin with), to the cancelation and renewing of Clone Wars (a show most fans scoffed at when it premiered), to the insistence that the least Star Wars-like entries in the entire franchise (Rogue One and The Mandalorian) are somehow the best. And let’s not forget my personal favorite, the neverending demands for Disney to “fire Kathleen Kennedy”, and the unfounded rumors that it’s actually going to happen this time (looking straight at you, MIKE ZEROE).
It’s exhausting, really.
But the complaint about the sequels that I’m most tired of is the one that claims the new movies are bad because they just made them up as they went along. They’re nothing like the originals because they all had different directors, and they didn’t have a plan. But all it takes is a critical examination of what the originals were and how they played out to see that even Lucas was just throwing ingredients into a pot and hoping the result came out palatable.
I’m not trying to convince anyone that the sequels were better than, or even as good as, the originals. There are aspects that I feel are much better, and there are definitely aspects that are much worse. Altogether, they’re difficult to compare. Without the vision and guidance of the series’ creator, there were bound to be problems. Maybe they should have used Lucas’ sequel treatments after all, or maybe those would have ended up too much like the oft-maligned prequels. Honestly, empirically, the best planned and most consistent of all nine films — heck, I’ll even say all twelve — were the prequels. From the preproduction of Episode Ⅰ, Lucas knew exactly what was going to happen, when, and how, and the hardest part was putting it on film (digitally speaking, of course).
Maybe the lack of hindrance and spontaneity is why the other movies suffered. For the Prequels, Lucas had unlimited money and resources, and a producer who didn’t get in his way. For the Sequels, Disney had unlimited money and resources, and studio executives who constantly got in the way.
Good art comes out of the mistakes made during production. Creativity thrives with limitations. The Original Star Wars Trilogy isn’t the best because it’s the best written, the best acted, or the best directed. It doesn’t have the best special effects, or the best pacing. They’re not the best movies of all time, objectively speaking.
The Original Star Wars Trilogy is the best because they did the best they could with the best they had. The Sequel Trilogy may compare unfavorably, but they did the best they could under the harshest conditions any content creator has ever had to weather — something that barely existed when Lucas was making the prequels, and didn’t exist when he made the originals — fans, and the internet.