In the six months since the release of Disney’s Lucasfilm’s Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Star Wars fandom has gone from crazy to absolutely, unmistakably, inexplicably insane. In that time, I’ve had to confront the, from what I hear, fact that, apparently, I’m not a real Star Wars fan.
I’m more of an outsider, I guess. Always have been, standing on the top of a flower pot, peering into the window of Star Wars fandom, taking in what I see. And enjoying it, to some degree. Not as much lately, though, which has spurred my current train of thought. Take a trip back with me.
Growing up, my parents were extremely conservative, both politically and religiously, especially until I was in high school. They carried a sense of heightened conservatism into every area of my immediate family’s life, including the media content my siblings and I were or were not allowed to consume. One of the things that was not outright banned but was certainly discouraged, and not really allowed: Star Wars. Why? Well, Dad and Mom thought Star Wars was too much of a liberal series, so they didn’t want us kids to watch it.
My parents saw multiple signs of liberalism in Star Wars. For instance, the ever-present undertones, often overtones, of Eastern mysticism in the series, particularly Zen Buddhism, for them somewhat concerning when that spirituality manifested in the appealing “the Force” and most concerning in Star Wars’ multiple instances of moral relativism, coming to a head in Obi-Wan’s famous declaration, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Or that George Lucas claimed the Emperor in the Original Trilogy represented people like Richard Nixon, whom my parents disliked strongly but didn’t enjoy hearing constantly disparaged, because of the implications for the Republican party as a whole. Or how Lucas ramped up the political commentary in the Prequels, presenting, on multiple occasions, the big bad, Palpatine, as an allegory for George W. Bush, with the rising evil empire standing in for the U.S.A.’s political direction under W., the “e-vil” parts of Lucas’s created society representing the things he saw as the bad of the U.S. and its policies. Mom and Dad didn’t support Bush’s every word and deed, but they tried to support Bush as a whole.
In addition, my parents saw Star Wars as yet another series that treated women poorly. Han, more or less, sexually harasses Leia in Empire Strikes Back. Luke has sexual feelings for a woman that turns out to be his sister, and that element is barely wrapped up, let alone in a way that satisfied my parents. Then, of course, there is the lust shown toward Leia, especially when she is forced into Return of the Jedi’s iconic golden bikini scene in Jabba’s palace. They even disapproved of some of the women’s parts in the Prequels, like Amidala’s needlessly midriff-revealing costume in Attack of the Clones, and the ways she’s mistreated by Anakin throughout Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
Now, I don’t necessarily agree with all the concerns my parents had about Star Wars, and some of them were certainly overblown. I plan to let my own kids watch Star Wars, and I’ll be excited to show it to them. There’s a lot positive in Star Wars’ good vs. evil themes. But that’s not the point. And I don’t hold something insignificant like not being allowed to watch Star Wars against my parents. I understand they wanted us to believe in absolute truth, wanted to teach us their conservative politics, and wanted us boys to treat women right, as well as let my sisters know it’s not all right for guys to treat them poorly. Anyway, my parents didn’t hate the idea of us watching Star Wars. They just didn’t want us watching it until we were older, even though it is a series aimed at families.
I was a good child. I always desired, always tried, to please my parents. So I avoided Star Wars, as they wished. Yet I saw all the Star Wars marketing. I mean, it was unavoidable. And I would see clips of Star Wars on TV, as well as posters and stills in the World Book Encyclopedia. Being the imaginative kid that I was, and being jealous of other kids who were watching Star Wars, the series took on mythic proportions in my mind. I fantasized what the movies were like and played out imagined Star Wars characters and scenarios, by myself and with friends. Lightsabers, blasters, spaceships, plucky good guys, intimidating bad guys. Star Wars became a huge mythos in my mind, based only on the basic aesthetics of the series.
Finally, at the age of 13, I got to see A New Hope, and when I finally watched those end credits roll, I was left . . . disappointed.
Before you go off on me, A New Hope is one of my favorite films of all time now. I love its charm, and I’m intrigued by its place in motion picture history, though I do think it is an almost-too-messy movie saved by genius editing – partially from Lucas’s wife, Marcia Lucas – and made great by its impact on cinema and pop culture in general.
It’s not as if at the ripe age of 13 I was a cinema snob. I didn’t even wade deeply into reading critics and film analysis until college. Yet I was already, at a young age, trying to figure out what made a film good or bad. And multiple elements in A New Hope let me down. Especially the dialogue.
As a voracious reader and aspiring writer, I loved good dialogue, and I thought Star Wars‘ dialogue was clunky and awkward. I’ve come to love it now as part of the charm I mentioned, but my dislike of the dialogue was coupled with my feeling New Hope‘s fictional science wasn’t as interesting as something like Star Trek (which, yes, for some reason I was allowed to watch, though only the Original Series), the action-adventure wasn’t as exciting or entertaining as something like The Mask of Zorro (which I was allowed to watch with one scene skipped), and the fantasy didn’t impress me as much as The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings already had.
However, a month later, I watched The Empire Strikes Back, and it met every one of my expectations. It lived up to the Star Wars I had built in my head. Empire Strikes Back instantly became one of my favorite films of all time.
A little while after my great Empire experience, though, I watched Return of the Jedi and was let down once again. I could tell the direction wasn’t as solid, most of the characters were suddenly under-utilized, and the Ewoks annoyed the crap out of me. I just wanted to punch them right between their black, unblinking, beady eyes. . . although I loved, and still do, the confrontation between Luke and Vader. Return of the Jedi deserves to be a classic, if only for that aspect.
For some reason, I didn’t end up watching the Prequels until about two years later, and when I finally took them in, I was disappointed again, and much more so than with New Hope and Return. I tried to like them, partially because all my friends seemed to love them, but Jar-Jar irritated me more than the Ewoks ever could, the dialogue was even more stilted than in A New Hope, the acting was as wooden as a Cigar Store Indian, and the green screen was always painfully obvious. Revenge of the Sith was somewhat better – especially those first several minutes – but still with many of the same issues. And I just couldn’t buy Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side. It just didn’t feel well done.
Oh, and before you ask, no, I never watched any of the animated TV series. Please don’t kill me. . . I couldn’t stand the animation style. . . Was I a picky young film-lover or what?
Fast-forward to the last few years, and I thoroughly enjoyed both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. As films, they brought to the table the things I loved most about A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. I found Rogue One and Solo halfway decent too. To me, these new films are better than every work in Star Wars between 1980 and 2015.
Anyway, we need to stop looking to the past to “save cinema.” Star Wars is not the Star Wars of today. Other series, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have taken its place. And neither Star Wars nor the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be the Star Wars of the future. Something else will.
Let’s have something new and exciting, whether that be in Star Wars or not.
If these circumstances and opinions make me a fake Star Wars fan, then so be it. I’m not a Star Wars fanatic, I guess. And that’s OK. I’ll be just fine. As always with Star Wars the Franchise, I am, and remain, an outsider-looking-in sort of fan.