In the year 2014 most Star Wars fans were waiting with baited breath for the release of Star Wars Episode 7. Most of us could not believe it: the sequel we had been wanting since 1983 was not only a reality, it was coming and SOON! Then The Force Awakens came, many people loved it, and were eagerly awaiting more. For a solid two years, the Star Wars franchise seemed to be in good hands; Rogue One was a hit, Force Awakens was a phenomenon, and Episode was eagerly awaited with more anticipation than Brad and Janet. A month ago, however, when the trailer for Episode 9 was released on theaters, it was met with the most damning of audience reactions: indifference. What happened?
The Force Awakens was by no means a perfect movie, and even in that innocent time between its release and the release of The Last Jedi, the film was met with unforgiving but well deserved criticism. That it copied many of the same story beats as A New Hope, that its main protagonist was far too powerful, that its main antagonist was overly emotional, list goes on. But you would still have been hard pressed to find a bargain bin with unsold Star Wars figurines from said movie during this time period; in fact, Rogue One was still a massive success in spite of the critique Force Awakens received.
Then came The Last Jedi, and suddenly the Sequel Trilogy was WORSE than the Prequels. Now the Sequels were the worst thing to ever happen to Star Wars, with Rose Tico and Amilyn Holdo (nicknamed Admiral Gender Studies by many in the community) dethroning Jar Jar Binks as the most hated Star Wars character of all time. Five months later, the impossible happened: a Star Wars movie FLOPPED at the box office.
How could it have come to this? To find the answer, we must first recognize the source of this calamity: Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilms.
Before Disney’s acquisition, the Star Wars property was far more expansive than most people realized: comic books, novels, novellas,and video games all helped to expand on the story originally told by George Lucas. This was known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and although the creator himself didn’t consider it canonical to his original work, he still had a hand in deciding which stories were told, and which were to be saved for himself.
Perhaps one of the most celebrated stories of this Expanded Universe was the 1991 novel Heir to the Empire, written by Timothy Zahn. Said novel was one of the first, if not THE first to truly expand on the story of the Original Trilogy (then simply known as the Star Wars trilogy) by introducing new enemies, new allies, and new conflicts. It was also the first story set AFTER Return of the Jedi, and the very first Star Wars work to become popular after the movies were released. For twenty three years, fans even considered it and its two sequels to be the TRUE continuation of the Star Wars saga, going so far as to consider them Episodes 7–9. These books were known as the Thrawn Trilogy, named after its main villain.
The Thrawn Trilogy introduced a great many characters who would go on to become mainstays of the Star Wars franchise, including Thrawn himself as well as Mara Jade, the woman who would go on to become Luke Skywalker’s wife. The series also kickstarted the entire Expanded Universe as we knew it, leading to hundreds upon hundreds of new works being made nearly consistently between 1991 and 2014.
At one point, it was commonly accepted that the REAL meat of the Star Wars franchise was its Expanded Universe and that the movies were simply the best way to get your feet wet, so to speak. In fact, a Message Board I was once a lurker of had a member who said “right now (1999–2005) the WORST Star Wars works are the movies (the Prequels). Don’t like the new movies? Read the comics or the books; they’re way better.”
Then came 2014 and Disney announced that all of these works were no longer canonical. The Expanded Universe died, as if Thanos himself snapped it out of existence. Suddenly all these stories that fans had grown attached to, that many fans even grew up with, were irrelevant and non-canonical. The TRUE stories were coming out, and they were being made by the biggest media company in the world.
JJ Abram’s The Force Awakens was met with enthusiasm by many, but not all fans. The movie, as stated before, had its share of problems, but at the time the fans at large were willing to forgive them. This was mostly due to the fact that, at its core, the movie was a crowd pleaser that succeeded in its stated goal: to entertain.
That said, there were many plot points in the movie that were left hanging; questions demanding answers, with seemingly a whole slew of content to be released to provide them. It was a brand new Expanded Universe, and many fans were eager to see what was coming.
The first question answered was: what happened to the Empire? In the old Expanded Universe, it was explained that the Rebellion kept fighting the Empire for fifteen years after Return of the Jedi, culminating with a Peace Treaty that left nothing but a rump state for the Empire, nicknamed the Imperial Remnant. The new Disney Canon, on the other hand, has the war end ONE YEAR after Return of the Jedi, with what can only be called a whimper for the Empire: after one last battle in the planet of Jakku, the Empire just gives up, with several members going rogue and leaving for the uncharted Unknown Regions. This is all explained in the terribly written Chuck Wendig series “Aftermath.”
Second question: What was the First Order? Again, we turn to the novels and comics for an answer: they are the an organization bent on restoring the Empire, led by the mysterious Snoke. Original made from former Imperials who refused to surrender to the New Republic, the First Order is now mostly comprised of child soldiers who have been brainwashed from birth to follow and obey said organization. NONE of this is shown in the movies.
Third Question: What’s the Resistance? According to the comics and novels, Leia founded the Resistance after it was clear the New Republic had no interest in putting a stop to the First Order. The Resistance is officially NOT affiliated with the New Republic, but the entirety of its brass is filled with New Republic and former Rebel commanders, including Admiral Ackbar. Its lower ranks are filled entirely by volunteer fighters. Again, NONE of this is explained in the movies.
Seeing a pattern? The movies withhold a LOT of vital information that helps explain the story better, keeping said information locked away in novels that Disney fully expects its audience to pay twenty five dollars American to buy. To understand the movie, you gotta read the novel that came out two months ago!
This leads me to the first of three fundamental flaws of the Sequels: the movies leave out much of its backstory to be explored in other media. Who’s Poe Dameron and why is he important? Go read the comic! Who’s this Phasma and why is she so important? Go read the novel! Why is the Millenium Falcon in Jakku? THE COMIC!
“Oh but the originals left out a lot of backstory too!” Yes, but the original trilogy existed in its own context. By this I mean that the original Star Wars movie (A New Hope) was created as a stand alone project, even if it wasn’t planned that way. You didn’t NEED to read a comic to understand the context of the Rebellion and the Empire within the Galaxy, and you didn’t need to read a novel detailing who the Emperor was or why he’s ruling the Galaxy. Everything you needed was given to you in the movies.
“So what’s the difference between this and what the Sequels are doing?” To put it simply, the Originals and the Sequels exist within two entirely different contexts. The Original Trilogy existed within its own self-contained context, but the Sequels exist within the context of both the Original as well as the Prequel trilogies. What this means is that there’s a set backdrop, a previously established saga that was at one time considered to be ended.
Let me put it another way: Episode 6 ends on an unambiguously happy and triumphant mode. Episode 7’s entire existence nullifies said ending! Suddenly that happy ending wasn’t so happy anymore. That triumph? One hundred percent nullified! And not once in either Episode 7 OR 8 is it explained why this happened; you’ll need to read the novel Aftermath to find out!
Compare this to the old Expanded Universe; you didn’t have to read ALL of it to understand what was going on. In fact, you did not have to read ANY of it, as the movies at the time were sufficiently self contained. The old Expanded Universe was exactly that: an expansion of the tale, more story for those wanting it. The new Expanded Universe of Disney is the place to gather the information the filmmakers weren’t clever enough to add in.
Nullifying the happy ending of Return of the Jedi is the least of the Sequel’s problems. Now we go to the movie that arguably killed the Sequel Trilogy: The Last Jedi. Much has been written about the sins this movie has committed against the canon of Star Wars. An entire subreddit is dedicated to dissecting this movie’s flaws. What else can be said about it?
The Last Jedi, in fact, showcases the second fatal flaw of the Sequels: their utter lack of artistic ambition. Allow me to explain myself.
One of the major themes of The Last Jedi is its notion of Light and Dark being somehow equivalent, which then leads to a subtle deconstruction of not only the two previous trilogies (where Light was unambiguously good and Dark unambiguously evil) it also deconstructs the entire mythos of Star Wars. This theme is placed front and center during Snoke’s speech to Rey: “Darkness rises, and Light to meet it.” According to The Last Jedi, the conflict of Light and Darkness is not only eternal, but it’s so by design; the Light and the Darkness will ALWAYS balance each other out, and one will never be able to be rid of the other.
But what does The Last Jedi do with this concept? Nothing! It presents the idea, does nothing to prove it wrong, but then ignores it altogether. Just as the audience is expecting Rey to realize that Light and Dark are one and the same and that the whole Jedi-Sith conflict is pointless, she instead buckles down and chooses to repeat this endless cycle of Light/Dark conflict. Instead of joining Kylo Ren and building something new, she chooses instead to bring back the Jedi.
One of the most haunting lines of the movie’s trailers was “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” This was THE selling point, the question that had millions wondering what could have led Luke to utter such nonsense. Then in the movie Luke goes on to explain:
“Now that the Jedi are extinct, they are romanticized, DEIFIED. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.”
This could be forgiven for being a commentary on how the Jedi Council failed to notice the Sith for over a thousand years, and how the most powerful Sith Lord in history (Sidious) far too often sat in front of and met them under his guise as Grand Chancellor Palpatine. It could well have been a commentary on how, during their final years, the Jedi did NOT keep the peace in the Galaxy, and instead LED troops into war, using living clones as soldiers while their opponents used lifeless droids. One would think that the movie was directly asking the audience if the Jedi really ARE the good guys.
But the movie doesn’t make this point; instead, these are the cynical ramblings of a man who abandoned his friends, family, and the Galaxy that depended on him over one failure. These venomous words don’t come from a man who searched history looking for wisdom, they are the justifications of a bum so he won’t have to take responsibility for said failure.
It’s quite telling that, at the end of the movie, Luke makes it a point to say “I will not be the Last Jedi.” Again, the Jedi are the good guys, again the Light is unambiguously good and the Dark unambiguously evil. All is back to how it was before.
So why bother even exploring this idea? Why go through an entire movie that seemingly debates the equivalence of Light and Dark, only to lazily return to its own Status Quo at the end? Because, at the end of the day, Status Quo is God.
A good look at the Disney cinematic library will reveal one common element: their movies, magical as they are, are also unchallenging. Their movies do not cause discomfort at their audience, much less invite them to think. In contrast, Star Wars has always been challenging.
In 1977, the USA was bitter and cynical. Watergate proved to them the President could be shady and crooked, and the Vietnam war shattered their illusion of being a force for good in the world. Most cinema at the time reflected this cynicism, having most of its heroes be “cowboy cops” who often broke the rules to get the job done. Star Wars challenged this cynicism with a tale of unapologetic heroics and idealism. The end result was an endearing movie that still holds up forty years later.
When 9/11 happened, it broke America’s brain. People no longer felt safe in their own land, and suddenly the word “terrorist” and “Islam” became part of every day talk. In the year 2002, the Spider-Man movie had said wall crawler jump across rooftops adorned with giant American flags, a reflection of the fervent patriotism felt (and enforced) at the time. In contrast, Star Wars was telling a tale of liberty dying, eroded away by a manufactured war driven by profiteering and manipulated by those with an agenda.
Now, in the 2010’s, what tale is Star Wars telling that can be considered challenging? What is this trilogy’s ambition? Simply put: none except make more money to Disney. One cannot even claim that the new trilogy’s ambition is to be progressive, seeing as how every non-white character has been denied the chance to make an impact on the story.
This leads to the third, and most damming, flaw: the Sequels don’t respect the audience. The Sequels are promoted as this tale of empowerment of women and racial minorities, but are they? No, they’re not. This is most prevalent in The Last Jedi: the one Latino is a hot head in need of a White Woman (tm) to put him in his place, the black man is a buffoon who needs a woman to teach him what HIS OWN LIFE EXPERIENCE should have already taught him (that slavery is bad) and our own main hero spends two thirds of the movie as a passive observer and catalyst to the main story arc of not one, but TWO men! Leia, one of the greatest feminist icons of all time, spends most of the movie in a COMA! And the White Woman who puts Poe in his place? She sacrifices her life so that Poe can learn a lesson in leadership.
Now ask yourself this: how does a black man feel seeing Finn suffer such buffoonery? How does a Latino feel watching Poe get slapped by Leia? How does a woman feel seeing Rey deliver herself to Kylo Ren in a goddamn box?
Actually, I can answer that second question: I felt sick watching Poe get slapped by Leia, and I felt angry watching him get pushed around and denigrated by a white woman, all for asking if there was a plan WHILE THEY WERE BEING CHASED BY THE ENEMY. If THIS is what Disney calls “representation,” I’d far rather be invisible in cinema.
Now consider the way the Sequels treat the heroes of the Original Trilogy: Luke, Han, and Leia. Han Solo goes from hero of the Rebellion to old, washed out smuggler whose glory days are far behind him. He is also the one OT character to be treated with the MOST respect by the Sequels, as sad as that is to say. Leia barely appeared in The Force Awakens, and spends most of The Last Jedi in a coma. And Luke?
Perhaps the WORST scene in the ENTIRE Star Wars series, and keep in mind this is over ten movies and counting PLUS the TV shows, is the scene where Luke tosses his father’s lightsaber over the shoulder. To explain why this scene is disrespectful, consider the following: Luke Skywalker has been a hero to millions of people for forty years. The big selling point of the Sequels, and The Last Jedi in particular, was seeing him again on the big screen. He’s just been handed his father’s lightsaber, the SAME weapon that started his journey into becoming the hero we all know and love. And what does he do with it? TOSS IT AWAY LIKE GARBAGE!
Personal anecdote time: I laughed at this scene, but it was more due to how awkward and awful it was. Seeing it a second time, knowing what was coming, I didn’t laugh. Rather, I cringed and shook my head. Luke wasn’t just a movie character to me, he was a hero. He was MY hero growing up, one of my inspirations. To date, The Last Jedi remains the only Star Wars movie that left me emotionally numb after leaving the theater. I didn’t even want to admit that I hated it; that took me a while to fully come to terms with.
This is the hero millions grew up with, whom millions have grown to love and admire. It’s one thing to see him so defeated and miserable; it’s quite another to see him so bitter and hate filled. Mark Hamill himself has gone on record with his many ideas he had for Luke; from pulling off a heroic rescue in The Force Awakens, to actually surviving The Last Jedi. None of these were approved; instead we got a Luke that died of a heart attack. That’s just low.
A decade ago, if the fans were unhappy with one Star Wars medium (most often the movies) they could go to some other medium and find the quality they sought. Want to see an Anakin Skywalker who’s NOT some Backstreet Boys reject? Watch the animated Clone Wars show. Want to see a totally bad ass Luke Skywalker? The Thrawn Trilogy and New Jedi Academy. Want a story that has nothing to do with either film trilogy? Play Knights of the Old Republic.
These days, fans don’t have that luxury. The ENTIRE Expanded Universe now caters to the movies instead of going beyond and expanding on them. Certainly there are exceptions (the Darth Vader comics), but that’s precisely what they are: exceptions. The Expanded Universe used to be a choice, but now it’s a necessity. The movies don’t make sense without reading all these comics and novels that explain the backstory. And all this, because Disney only cares about money.
And that’s why the Star Wars sequels are a failure: they’re just another cash grab from Disney, looking to make back some of that four billion they spent acquiring the franchise. They don’t care about quality, and it damn well shows. That’s why the trailer for Episode 9 didn’t get a tenth of the applause and excitement that the trailer for Spider Man Far from Home got.