Even if Episode 7 is worse than George Lucas's prequels, at this point the franchise is modern folklore: destined to live forever by enraging old fans and minting new ones.
It's hard to know whether the number of people quoting Star Wars—"I've got a bad feeling about this"—beat the number of groan onomonopias and apocalypse wishes in response to today's news that Disney bought LucasFilm and will put out a seventh Star Wars film in 2015. Regardless, the widespread reaction among fans isn't good. After the CGI re-releases, prequels, the Clone Wars TV show, hack merchandising, and 3D retouchings, the beloved galaxy far away is being wrung out for a buck once again.
Yes, the process of providing new entry points for the series has produced a lot of bad art. But it also has kept a creaky old story cool among the group that matters: young people.
But that's probably why it's not worth getting worked up about whatever new indignities the franchise is about to suffer. Those who love the original three movies but despise the prequels have had to live with a seemingly degraded Star Wars universe for more than a decade now. And while it's fun in a sad way to snipe on the awfulness of Hayden Christensen's acting and the cravenness of George Lucas, anyone who's put on Empire Strikes Back since 1999 knows that for however many kids buy Boss Nass figurines, the old movies are still good.
More importantly, Disney's acquisition of Star Wars confirms something that's been true about the series for a while now. It's left the realm of specific-to-its-time pop-culture product and become something bigger and, yes, better: a folk tale. Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces led Lucas to write a story that was inherently mythical, and the way that story has spread and endured proves just how well he succeeded. The number of fans who fell in love with the original trilogy when it first screened dwindles each day in comparison to the number who found it through parents, friends, or older siblings—and through action figures, video-games, or, gulp, the prequels.
Of course, that fact just shows how much modern folk tales are paradoxes. "Folklore" by typical definition refers to a story that belongs to everyone and no one; seemingly authorless, it's passed from person to person until it suffuses a culture's very fabric. When adults screen Return of the Jedi in their living room for their nieces and nephews who then doodle Ewoks on their homework, that's the old idea of folk transmission at work. But Disney has made its fortune in large part from actually owning folk culture, from the kind it created in-house—Mickey and Minnie—to the kind its acquired through purchase, like the Marvel superheroes. The other big part of its business has come from profiting off folklore it doesn't actually own, like the Grimms' tales, by updating it for modern times and marketing it in modern ways.
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And so part of the understandable leeriness towards Lucas's mining of the world he created more than 35 years ago, and towards the way Disney may continue that process, is the seeming redundancy of it. "I've always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime," Lucas said in the press materials for today's announcement, and even that supposed statement of humility feels clueless. Of course Star Wars lives beyond George Lucas, says the fan in me. The movies were good enough that they'd be passed along for generations no matter what. All he's ever done since releasing the original trilogy, the thinking goes, has been to try and murder what made it great.
But look around. Yes, Star Wars would still exist in some form without Lucas's cash grabs since 1983. It wouldn't exist like it does, though. Without the dozens of paperback spinoff novels licensed in the '80s and '90s, many of my friends and I—the kids of the first Star Wars generation—wouldn't have gotten as deep into the universe as we did. Without the prequels, the Clone Wars series, and the The Old Republic videogame, you wouldn't have had so many children today bringing Boba Fett lunch boxes to school the same way their parents did in the '80s.
When 2015 rolls around, Disney's new film could feature nothing but Jar Jar Binks relatives for characters, and it still might well help mint a whole new generation of fans. This process of providing more and more entry points for the series has made Lucas insanely rich and produced a lot of bad art. But it also, incredibly, has kept a creaky old story cool among the group that always has final say in what's cool: the young. Adults may not like it, but they don't need to be converted.
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