Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Thoughts from a Star Wars fan


A new blog, a new day. And a new lease, apparently, for Star Wars. Anyone who knows me personally knows that Star Wars is far and away the first love in my life when it comes to franchises of film, book, toys and everything else I've bought from them over the years. And in the (admittedly vast) amount of time since my last blog went belly-up, the franchise I love so much has changed hands. George Lucas is no longer the sole owner of the company he built from the ground up in the '70s. He's handed it off to one of the most beloved, and in some circles despised, corporations in the world: Disney.

So what does that mean, exactly? Well, first, I want to explain what Star Wars has been, from a creative standpoint, for the past 40 odd years. Star Wars has been described by GL himself as being a sort of sandbox, so that's the analogy I'm going to go with to help everyone here, both insides the fandom and outside of it, realize exactly what this changing of hands means for the franchise and for the much-publicized future plans for an extended saga.

Warning: This post is long. Very long. I'd bookmark this and read it over multiple sittings, if I read it at all.

So, back in the 1970s, as George Lucas was getting his feet under him as a filmmaker with THX-1138 and American Graffiti, he had an idea for a sort of Flash Gordon-inspired story about adventures in space. From a variety of ideas culled from the Dune books, Japanese television and movies, and many other places, he crafted the sandbox of Star Wars from these materials, using self-made tools called that came to be called Industrial Light and Magic, THX, and Skywalker Sound. This first castle, if I may indulge my poetic side for a moment, was a grand one, like no castle before it, built from bits and pieces of things that had come before but a creation all its own. George had ideas in his head for more castles, but never expected to be able to make more than one, so this first castle was only called Star Wars.

After the castle was revealed to the public, of course, that changed. Star Wars caught the public fantasy and took off. It was a low-budget castle, and it made both Lucas and Fox a lot of money. So, plans for the low-budget sequel were scalped off to a book Splinter of the Mind's Eye, penned by Allen Dean Foster, who had also helped hone the script of the first movie. This was the first of the separate castles in the sandbox, not a particularly big or grand castle, but the first of what we now call the Expanded Universe, causing the sandbox of the Star Wars universe to grow.

But Lucas had his own ideas for another castle, and he knew that people would want the story to go on. Retitling the first Star Wars as Episode IV: A New Hope, he went on a tear, writing up plans for many many more castles he could build as time advanced (Not to mention the Star Wars Holiday Special). Most of these weren't much more than a loose timeline with castles happening here or there around important parts of the story. Episodes 1-3, he knew, would be about Obi-Wan, Luke's Father and Darth Vader as young Jedi as the Republic fell into corruption and became the Empire. And Episodes 5 and 6 would set up Darth Vader's master, the Emperor, as the biggest foe to be faced, as well as possibly killing off Han as Leia led the Rebel alliance and Luke trained as a Jedi while searching for his sister, a character not before introduced. Stories after that would deal with the death of both Vader and the Emperor, the reestablishment of the Jedi Order, the foundation of the New Republic and the passing of the torch of freedom on to the next generation of heroes.

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back was written up by Lucas, but he enacted a new vision for his sandbox as it was being created. He hired a director to take the script he had written and make it into a castle worth of the box. Irving Kershner did more than that, he in many ways built a castle even taller and more grand than the first, certainly with more depth and drama. Not to mention, Darth Vader was now Luke's father, a change Lucas had a hand in himself. People outside of the box, though, didn't enjoy this castle as much, it was too different from the first, it took itself too seriously for a lot of them. So, with the next castle, George knew he had to take a different approach.

But George was also running against the wall with the creation of his castles, the amount of writing he had done over Empire and its potential sequels had burned him out, only for Kershner and the actors to toss a lot of it out and make up better bits as they went along. And the people didn't like it, he thought. Empire didn't make as much money as the first had, and George thought he had to do something to make sure that the next installment in the sandbox didn't slide further down the box office receipts.

So, the next sequel, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, was crammed full of a lot of the ideas George has for the stories that would stretch into a sequel trilogy. Leia was now Luke's brother, Han survived, the Emperor and Vader were dead and the galaxy was free. It was directed by a Welshman, Richard Marquand, who did not alter nearly as much of George's script as Kershner had, and wrapped the saga up with a neat little bow. George was tired of making Star Wars movies, and the technology was not yet there to create his other castles. So, he moved on to a new sandbox and left Star Wars in the hands of Marvel Comics and Bantam Spectra, along with the Role-Playing company West End Games, only stepping back in to help with the production of the Ewok television movies, Caravan of Courage and the Battle for Endor.

In that time, the sandbox grew immensely, with books, comics, game manuals, video games, toys (obviously), two television shows, radio dramas and much more created, all without George's input. Some of it he read, certainly, the Dark Empire comic was a favorite of his, and he said that the Shadows of the Empire multimedia project would have included a movie, if it had come around in the 80's while he was still making movies.

The year after Shadows was released, the Special Edition of Episode IV was released, followed shortly by special editions of V and VI. George went back to his castles, convinced that he could make it and the others better with the technology he had gained from for on other projects. In some ways, he did, but a lot of people from outside of the sandbox were upset with the changes. They had grown up looking at these castles, and they didn't like the fact that they were suddenly different. But, in a way, this was just a warm-up. George had the Star Wars bug again, and he had plans for the first new Star Wars movie in more than ten years.

This time, though, he would take the reins himself, directing the first movie he had done so with since Episode IV. There would be no altering of the scrip, unless he decreed it. Episode 1: The Phantom Menace was, for better or worse, the purest version of Lucas' creative vision since THX-1138, as even the Original Trilogy had to deal with budget limitations changing what could be put on screen. Needless to say, the results were divisive, as some consider Menace a masterpiece of visual direction and design, and others decry it as wooden, unfunny, dry and lifeless. New fans of the saga generally enjoyed it, while fans of the originals generally disliked it, some quite strongly. Certainly, the structure of the film was flawed, and it made some odd decisions with plot and character depiction. And I'll just leave it at that.

Because the next installment, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, was even more divisive. Film critics roundly hated it for wooden acting, bad dialogue and confusing, schizophrenic plotting that swung from politics to action to romance in the space of just a few scenes. The overuse of Computer Generated Imaging was also criticized, leading to a common thought among the fandom that Lucas was relying too much on flash and not enough on substance. In any case, Lucas heard the criticisms. He had already taken into account the lessening of some problems from Episode I in Episode II, but only replaced them with more problems. Episode II was the lowest point in the saga since the infamous holiday special.

As these movies were being made, the sandbox had more people in it than ever. The book license had returned to Del Rey, who had published the Star Wars books until 1983, when Bantam picked it up. Starting with the novelization of Episode I, Del Rey started an entirely new chapter in the Expanded Universe, known as the New Jedi Order, a massive series of books over a dozen novels long, and LucasArts gaming studio was coming out with quality product through various production teams from the 80's right through until the end of the movie saga and beyond. And the comic license, long since abandoned by Marvel, had been acquired by Dark Horse, who published some of the most acclaimed stories in the Expanded Universe, not just as comics, but overall.

All of these sources of Expanded Universe stories came together in-between Episode II and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, as the Clone Wars multimedia project, similar to the Shadows of the Empire project a few years before, with comics, books, games and even the first Star Wars cartoon in many years to air on television seeking to bridge the gap between the two films and, by proxy, make them both stronger. It succeeded, on some levels, and certainly told many stories worth reading or watching.

As Episode III came out, Lucas deflected questions as to whether he would make any more. Sith did it's job, riding the wave of Expanded Universe material to a movie that, while not as acclaimed as the Original Trilogy, was certainly the most praised of the prequels. While uneven and suffering from a lot of the same problems as I and II, Sith met praise for its darker tone and deeper characterization, much like Empire Strikes Back before it.

But Lucas was done. He was tired of the criticism, and, when asked in an interview, whether he was making any more Star Wars movies after III, said "Why would I make a movie everyone would hate me for?" He left the franchise in the hands of the Expanded Universe and stepped away, just as he had before after the release of Return of the Jedi.

As time went on, though, he was drawn in again and again, either with involvement with EU projects like The Force Unleashed, and even with the films once again with the eventual Blu-Ray releases of the entire saga with retouched effects and bonus features. He was also involved in Clone Wars television show from the second season through the fourth and possibly beyond, giving them story ideas and design clues and heavily changing their scripts. This castle, more than any before it, demolished a lot of the EU castles occupying that particular corner of the sandbox, dividing the fandom yet again. Whether for good or ill, Lucas was back into Star Wars again.

And that brings us up to this year. 2012, the year of the mouse, as Lucas decided the sandbox was better of in the hands of other people and sold it, the tools he used to build it, and everything else to Disney and retired to his ranch to serve as a story consultant and give away the funds from the sale, or at least most of the 4 billion, to charity.

What does this mean for Star Wars? Well, in the worst case, it means that the Star Wars brand will be bled dry, turned into just another franchise under the Disney banner, with sub-par television shows churned out to air on the Disney networks, movies that destroy all of the Expanded Universe by rendering them non-canon, and taking the publishing licenses away from Dark Hose and Del Rey and giving them to Disney subsidiaries and completely new creative teams.

But that's the absolute worst case. And I, as a Star Wars fan who's weathered everything from the early 90's on, am not going to be that pessimisstic. I know. It's weird. I'm normally an incredible pessimist about massive media corporations, but I think this is the best thing that George could have done.

Here's why.

Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, and since then released Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3, Cars 2, and Brave. Of those, only one is really poor, Cars 2, but that one was a pet project of John Lasseter, you can hardly hang that failure on Disney. Most of the others were critical darlings, especially Up, Wall-E and Toy Story 3. And every single one of their films have been financially successful.

Disney also bought Marvel a few years back in 2009, and since then they're released only one film that was not already almost finished in terms of production: The Avengers. They've also come out with a lot of cartoons, including amine versions of Iron Man and Wolverine, among others, that were well received, as well as two cartoons, Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, which is both well-liked and successful, and Ultimate Spider Man, which was not as well received, but meant mainly for children regardless. And there are more shows on the way, like the live actions SHIELD show Joss Weadon is making.

Disney has acquired these companies, but left them to do their own thing, so long as they turn a profit for the mouse's coffers. Both Pixar and Marvel have continued to do exactly what they would have done if they had not been bought, except that, thanks to having a ready distributor and network, they are able to do much, much more than they could before.

My best case scenario, then: Star Wars gets a new movie every few years, ones that either respect and follow the Expanded Universe or else taking place well after any EU stories have done so (very possible). We also get new Star Wars television shows, some aimed toward kids, and others toward adults like myself. Maybe that live action series they've been talking about might even get off the ground, like SHIELD; after all, ABC is owned by Disney as well.

Overall, I'm cautiously optimistic. And I'll leave you with this anime fan-film, the original of which was taken off of YouTube for undisclosed reasons. The creator says it was because it was unfinished, but, it looks pretty finished to me. Perhaps, could this be a preview of things to come?