The people vs. George Lucas: The twists and turns of fandom
If you want to credit—or blame—any single person for the geek-saturated movie and TV landscape in which we’re currently living, George Lucas is probably your guy.
Make no mistake: While Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is the original summer blockbuster, “Star Wars” is the movie most responsible for the way big movies are made and, perhaps more importantly, marketed today. Lucas’ creation is why Disney is in the Marvel Comics business, Warner Bros. is scrambling to catch up with their own “cinematic universe” based on DC Comics,The Lord of the Rings is an Oscar-winning movie franchise and a Harry Potter spin-off book is coming soon to a theater near you.
I come neither to bury this trend nor to praise it; that’s an article many of you have likely already read, and the situation isn’t likely to change for the foreseeable future. Instead, I want to talk about what keeps these competing empires of nerd IP1 afloat: the fans. For if it weren’t for the loyalty and devotion of the people who love Star Wars, The Avengers, Batman, Harry Potter and the like, there’d be no money in these movies and we’d all be back to complaining about how there are too many westerns.
A curious thing has happened as geek culture has taken over Hollywood: Even as fans get more and more movies based on the things they love and that love is actively, fervently courted by the powers that be, fans have come to demand and expect more influence over what shows up on screen. This is especially true as social media has made it easier than ever for fans to speak with creators directly and, in no uncertain terms, tell them how they feel about this or that plot point, adaptation, etc. It’s gotten to the point that, according to numerous recent reports, Warner Bros. frantically recut their recent supervillain team-up movie “Suicide Squad” to be more in line with an early trailer instead of the more somber version turned in by writer/director David Ayer. (This from the studio that says they’re the more “filmmaker-driven” cinematic universe; the irony abounds.)
Would Ayer’s version have been any better than the one released in theaters? We’ll probably never know, but it serves as a perfect example of how important fan perception has become to the people who own the stories and characters fans love. The general consensus is that most of the Marvel movies are simply better than their DC counterparts, but part of Marvel’s overwhelming success is also due to the fact that Disney has also done a much better job marketing their movies and generating fan engagement than Warner Bros.
Which brings us back to Star Wars. I think it’s self-evident that Star Wars is the holy grail of geek franchises. The movies have conquered the imaginations of three generations of moviegoers, and the Star Wars universe has been expanded in massive ways through merchandising and tie-ins. And yet, in many corners of fandom, the man who is most responsible for the galaxy far, far away is a reviled figure. After “Revenge of the Sith” capped the prequel trilogy in 2005, it took 10 years for another Star Wars movie to get made, and in part it took Disney buying the Star Wars universe from Lucas (to the tune of $4 billion) to make it a reality because Lucas’ reputation was in tatters among formerly devoted fans.
How did this happen? How did the man who made some of the most beloved movies of all time become hated by the people who say they love what he made? And what does that say about how fandom works today?
This, right here, is one of the first things people don’t give Lucas enough credit for. While Lucas was unquestionably influenced by prior works and borrowed bits and pieces of them for his movie (like all storytellers do), in the end it is a creation all his own. Simply put, without Lucas there would be no Star Wars; there may have been something similar at some point, but not the story and franchise as we know it.
There’s also the fact that “Star Wars” was not a sure bet by any means. Nobody except Lucas really knew what he was trying to do as the movie was being made, and the studio took what was perceived to be a huge risk in letting a guy who had directed just two prior feature films make his story about warrior monks in space battling an evil empire. Prior to “Jaws,” summer was not the blockbuster-lined season we now expect every year, and big-budget science fiction movies were almost unheard of. (“2001: A Space Odyssey” had been released in 1968, but aside from spaceships it has very little in common with “Star Wars.”)
Finally, “Star Wars” itself, independent of what it spawned, was and remains a remarkable achievement in cinematic storytelling. The narrative is sprawling in setting but elegantly simple in structure; the revolutionary special effects still hold up today; the characters have well-delineated arcs brought to life by a great cast; and the action perfectly captures the pulp adventure feel Lucas was hoping to achieve. If every big summer movie nowadays were as well made as “Star Wars,” nobody would be complaining about blockbuster fatigue.
It’s no wonder audiences flocked to the movie in droves. It’s a spectacular movie by any measure, and it speaks to universal themes of good, evil and the dark side within us all. A global obsession was born, and fans wanted more.
So we got the sequels, one well-received (“Empire”) and one not as well received (“Jedi”). We got the toys, the games, the books, even the infamous “Star Wars Christmas Special.” Not all of it may have been great, but some of it was, and to a certain extent it didn’t matter because someone, somewhere would buy a Darth Vader toaster oven if you made it available.
And the fans, for the most part, were grateful and ate it up. They wanted to be part of this universe they loved in any way they could, whether that meant building out their collection of action figures, dressing up in costumes, or reading new stories about their favorite characters. Sure you’d have lots of debates about which movie was best (with all due respect to “Empire” enthusiasts, the first movie remains the cream of the crop), but the shared love was the predominant feeling.
In 1999, everything changed.
The fandom menace
There are very few people who can claim to have created entirely new worlds in the way Lucas did, and they’re some of the most beloved creators of all time: J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, etc. And yet, with the possible exception of Martin, none of these men and women are treated with the scorn that many Star Wars fans have for Lucas.
The first major grumblings of anti-Lucas backlash began with the Special Editions in 1997. Fox re-released “Star Wars,” “Empire” and “Jedi” to give a new crop of moviegoers a chance to see the films in theaters and also build hype ahead of the long-gestating prequel trilogy. Along with updating some of the effects with modern technology, Lucas also changed, added or altered a few scenes in each of the movies to match what he said was his original vision for the films.
Should Lucas have made these changes? None of them really add anything of value, but at the same time most of them are harmless (I’m not getting into “Who shot first?”). The only argument that somewhat resonates with me is that since Lucas didn’t direct “Empire” or “Jedi,” making changes to those movies is a disservice to the people who had a more active role in their creation. But Lucas is also the guy who started the whole project and oversaw it until the sale to Disney, so he had the right to mold the franchise as he saw fit, even if he should’ve left well enough alone.
Logic, of course, only goes so far when it comes to matters of the heart, and messing around with something as beloved as Star Wars was bound to cause some trouble. But since most of the original story was left intact, the controversy was fairly minimal. It was still Star Wars, more or less, and the theatrical versions were still easy to find. Plus “The Phantom Menace” was coming, and the promise of a continuation of the Star Wars story was more than enough to inflate fans’ expectations beyond any reasonable measure. And when those expectations weren’t met, the backlash against Lucas became much, much louder and angrier.
Here’s the thing: The “Star Wars” prequels are not, for the most part, good movies. There’s no denying that. The dialogue is flat, and the story structure and pacing are often an absolute mess. There’s too much emphasis on tying the prequels to the original trilogy, the computer-generated effects work aged quickly, and much of the action itself is awkwardly staged.
That all said, there are things to like about the prequels. John Williams gave us more great Star Wars music (“Duel of the Fates” holds up with anything from the original trilogy), there are solid performances from Frank Oz, Ian McDiarmid and (after “The Phantom Menace”) Ewan McGregor, and “Revenge of the Sith” tells a genuinely tragic story of Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace.
Fundamentally, the prequels are disappointments, because they failed to recapture that same feeling of wonder, excitement and newness that Lucas conjured in 1977. But then again, how could any movie meet those expectations? The world of 1999 was an entirely different world compared with 1977, and what were the odds that Lucas could make a movie as beloved as “Star Wars” again? It didn’t matter, because the expectations weren’t met, and the fans let Lucas have it.
I don’t know if there’s any concrete explanation for how the love Star Wars fans held for Lucas curdled so quickly. To a certain extent, it’s understandable. Being disappointed is a painful feeling, especially when it comes to something in which you’ve invested a lot of time, money and love. But does mere disappointment justify a sentiment as outrageous as “George Lucas raped my childhood,” a relatively common phrase in the aftermath of the prequels? Not a chance.
And yet, the prequels were massive financial successes. Even after all the disappointment, the movies still made hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s clear people still wanted more Star Wars; they just didn’t want what Lucas was giving them.
Which raises an interesting question: What was Lucas trying to accomplish with the prequels?
If you take a few steps back from the bland staging, the over-reliance on CGI, the needlessly complicated narrative and Jar Jar Binks, you can see in the prequels an outline for a fascinating inversion of the original trilogy. While episodes IV-VI follow a fairly conventional "hero's journey" structure (while tweaking it in key aspects; Luke redeems Vader instead of killing him, following his own path instead of the one laid out by Yoda and Obi-Wan), the prequels are all about how the Republic and the Jedi in particular usher in their own destruction by clinging to prophecy and ignoring how obviously disturbed Anakin is even as Sith Lord becomes a tyrant right in front of their eyes. Instead of saving the galaxy and vanquishing evil, the Chosen One betrays everything and everyone he knows for power, and he loses everything in the process.
It's a great idea. Rather than simply regurgitate the familiar and make an easy buck, despite the fact that new Star Wars movies are probably the most surefire box-office bet this side of the Marvel movies, Lucas was going to take his series into new directions and tackle new themes and ideas. It's exactly what we should want from our favorite franchises, lest they become stale.
The problem, of course, is Lucas severely botched the execution. (I'm a defender of "Revenge of the Sith," but that's another article.) Combined with the hyperinflated fan expectations, it's no wonder the Star Wars faithful rebelled against Lucas. And it's equally no wonder that when it came time to bring the movies back from the dead under the Disney banner, the new management decided to go back to basics. All the way back, in fact, to the movie that started it all.
The nostalgia awakens
It was inevitable that new Star Wars movies would eventually get made. There's simply too much money in the franchise for it to lie dormant for long. But it would happen without George Lucas; he cut ties with the franchise after Disney purchased Lucasfilm from him. Whatever the future of Star Wars would be, it would happen without the man who started it all.
There's no denying that Disney and their team, led by director and co-writer J.J. Abrams, had their work cut out to bring a certain portion of the fanbase back into the fold after the bitter aftertaste of the prequels. So what did Abrams and his merry band do? They gave us "A New Hope" again.
I think it's a reasonable claim that "The Force Awakens" borrows heavily from "A New Hope." It's pretty obvious, even at a cursory examination: Both movies are centered on an orphan living on a desert planet who has to bring a droid containing the plans for a superweapon to a resistance movement. There are callbacks galore, and they managed to talk the surviving cast into coming back to reprise their old roles. Additionally, much of the marketing strategy involved talking up the use of analog effects and shooting on film to give the new movie the same look and feel as the originals.
To a lot of people, this was clearly what they wanted to see. The box office numbers for "The Force Awakens" speak for themselves3, and excitement is high for the sequels and the series of anthology films now being set up, beginning with "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" this December. The fans are clearly back on the bandwagon.
The problem is that all "The Force Awakens" offers is nostalgia. Sure there's a story that begins and ends, as well as new characters, but Abrams' obsession with setting up mysteries means that all of the new characters' story arcs are left hanging for the next movie. So the movie papers over the holes in the script with reference and fan service.
Shouldn't we want more than a glossy update a movie that's nearly 40 years old? Recycling the old movies will eventually hit diminishing returns, and what happens then?
It makes you wonder what would've happened had Lucas made "The Force Awakens" instead of Abrams. Would he have succumbed to the nostalgia pull? Or would he have tried again to make something new? If he had, what would the reaction have been? It's impossible to know, but it's clear that even if many Star Wars fans are done with Lucas, they're not done with what he created. Let's hope the future caretakers of the galaxy far, far away prove willing to take the same risks he did. For as we all know, the quick and easy path leads to the dark side.
IP = Intellectual Property↩
A quick primer: While Lucas wrote and directed “Star Wars” (aka “A New Hope”), he did not direct “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Return of the Jedi,” serving as a producer on both movies while receiving a “story by” credit on “Empire” and a co-writing credit on “Jedi.” He also directed and wrote or co-wrote all three of the prequel movies. All of this is to say Lucas had a heavy hand in all six movies, even if he didn’t direct them all.↩