13 December 2017

My Long Obsessive History with Star Wars

I had to sit really hard for a while thinking of this post. I have a complex relationship with Star Wars, as I think we all do. I haven't done much to get hyped about The Last Jedi (2017) - it's coming out, I am obviously going to watch it, probably multiple times regardless of quality, and that's that. I only watched the teaser, which was months ago, I thought it was kind of vague and sucky. So, to be honest, I don't have much of a preview for you, here. It'll make a ton of money, probably less than The Force Awakens (2015), because that was the build up of a lifetime, but I've got to think more than Rogue One (2016) because that movie was so specific. It'll have cultural weight, but again, probably in between Ep VII and Rogue, although with each rapid-fire release, the individual films become less special.

So, instead, I'm going to take you on a journey today, folks. I want to talk about Star Wars fandom in general, my history with the franchise, which I think is shared by many, and the intersection of where we are with this behemoth that can maybe explain why I don't really give a shit about the latest installment in a franchise that has shaped much of my childhood. And who am I kidding, my adult life, too.

Mark Hamill didn't speak in The Force Awakens because
he's now just stuck on Joker voice.
This series exists as a confrontation between nostalgic obsession and a more thoughtful adult worldview. So let's get personal. On the one hand, Star Wars beats everything else I loved in my youth. Ninja Turtles, Donkey Kong Country, Marvel Comics, digging in sand - these were all my prime hobbies, and none holds a remote candle to Star Wars. Maybe Donkey Kong. I still play Diddy's Kong Quest on SNES. On the other hand, I can reflect now and say, "What the hell was I thinking?" Let's dig into this obsession before we discuss the merits of The Last Jedi.

Star Wars dominated so much of my time and attention from about 1994 to...well, the present. I was born in '86, which is actually this Star Wars Dark Period. In the Late 80s Star Wars mania died down, with only some Ewok and Droid TV shows to sustain us. It really sucked! Just look at this timeline. And yes, I went through all of it and re-ordered each section by date of media release and  NO I'M NOT OBSESSIVE.

I'm mentioning all this because I think that every nerd has some relationship with Star Wars, but that really depends on the era he or she is born into. There are the original fans who saw the first trilogy in theaters, maybe kids who were born in the 60s or early 70s. Then there are the next generation who had to gobble up re-releases (keep in mind that all three OT films had substantial theatrical re-releases prior to the '97 Special Editions) and VHS. Those fans are still pretty potent, and were able to catch up on quite a bit. Then, my generation, who I think is really special for one reason - we were all Expanded Universe.

Now called "Legends" and not canon (oh Star Wars canon...you change every fucking year and are yet so holy), this shit exploded in the early 90s. We had Splinter of the Mind's Eye and a shitload of scattered comics and stories, but starting with Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire in 1991 we started getting all these really good novels. Dark Empire and The Glove of Darth Vader and the rest of the Jedi Prince series followed (okay, the latter is kind of shitty, but it was Star Wars YA in like 1992, I ate that shit up). The 90s exploded with this shit, from Darksaber and the Truce at Bakuura to Tales from Jabba's Palace, which gave complex backstories to every single fucking side monster stopping by Tatooine. This, combined with VHS gave me such a world-building appreciation of Star Wars and as more and more books and intricate media came out I was hooked even more. One of my proudest possessions is a huge hardcover Wildlife of Star Wars book. Okay, so I got that one in 2010. I said the obsession was '94 to present!

We had Shadows of the Empire, both comic and video game, and of course, this all built to the Special Edition re-releases of '97 and The Phantom Menace (1999). I can't overhype that we thought these were good when they came out. It's kind of like that moment where you realize that your parents are fallible and Santa isn't real. We didn't think Star Wars could do any wrong. We were so damn absorbed in this world. Well, I keep saying "we" but I was. I laughed at Jar Jar Binks. I was supposed to! I was twelve! Anyway, I was so caught up in this world that I immediately dove into everything Phantom Menace. I knew all the Jedi Council members, new weird-ass worlds, and all the filler background trade disputes. It was all golden, baby!

Except it definitely sucked. Like it DEFINITELY sucked. Looking back with a critical eye on my childhood is like taking a machete to this tortured franchise. Hey, we got Machete Order, right? During Attack of the Clones (2002) was fourteen and nearly fifteen. This is where that first moment of cognitive dissonance creeped in. Is it possible that I was wrong? I cheered for the Yoda fight with Dooku because it was campy and ridiculous. Why was this old former puppet doing flips? It was zany and fan service-y in all the best ways for a teenage boy to love and go nuts for. Except I was going nuts for the ridiculousness of it all, not out of genuine appreciation. It was unbelievable that a major film would actually do this sort of thing. This is my "walking in on my parents having sex" moment. Revenge of the Sith (2005) came out when I was in college, which is a weird age span to experience these films. Pre-teen to freshman year of college. It was also a seminal moment where I was now an adult. As a man it was time to leave these childish things behind. No, I definitely bought a shitload of those Star Wars Transformers.

The prequels signaled more than just a new batch of shitty films, though - they ushered in an era where Star Wars was never going to leave us. Instead of the occasional Super Return of the Jedi for SNES or Shadows of the Empire, we had complex, engaging video games that came out a few times a year. We had serialized shows - seriously, the Clone Wars only took three years, how did we get 129 episodes over six seasons? And that was the damn SECOND animated show to depict the time period!

This is for those mid-90s kids who truly grew up alongside the prequels. I don't really know their relationship with those films, if they think they're good, if they've grown cynical, if Jango Fett and Sio Bibble are truly "their" Star Wars characters, but it's harder to shake off movies you saw when you were four than ones you saw at age 14. They also consumed so much more expanded universe than we did, on a massive scale. Star Wars at the turn of the century was more ubiquitous than it ever had been - the movies itself mattered less than the merchandising. This was of course pioneered back in '77, but truly perfected here. These kids are just now starting to reach the age where they can think critically about their nostalgic childhood and it's a little too early to tell what they'll come with for or against the prequels. There are already all these insane theories or positions out there that the prequels are secretly good or that us old farts never understood Ring Theory or whatever. That's all compelling, and I'll give prequels what little good they are due, but it's all mostly compensation to mask something terrible you loved as a kid.

Man, I was super fucking into the movie CASPER (1995). Whoops.

With another ten years comes the last generation, impossibly born post-Revenge of the Sith. These are the kids who will watch The Force Awakens and Rogue One, and of course, The Last Jedi for the first time and own them as THEIR Star Wars. I'm curious to see how they end up reacting to these films. First of all, all the nostalgia infused in these films is never going to work on the same level. Sure they will be able to understand if not right now, then eventually the intertextuality of all the similar plot points. That will never be a reach back to their childhood, though, it will always be parallel. In that regard I'm curious if they think of Star Wars as all one amorphous glob or the old films as derelicts of the past, weird campy epics with shoddy effects and weird hairdos (ohh...Luke's coif...and Cassio Tagge...I talked about my love of his and the other Moff's '70s sideburns here).

Oh yeah - THESE guys too
While there seems to be a new Star Wars for each generation of kids to experience, where the dissonance happens is when you're an old man like me experiencing each wave at drastically different times in your life. I saw the original trilogy in their theatrical glory as a wee lad, then experienced the Special Editions and prequels during my formative years, and now as a full-grown-ass man am experiencing the Sequel Trilogy. In doing so I carry the full weight of my eight years of writing on the Internet level of critical thinking about film while balancing the love, hatred, betrayal, adoration, bewilderment, and inspiration this franchise has delivered to me for the past thirty years. It's a complex set of emotions that will always inform any review or interpretation of these new films.

This is what makes Star Wars gargantuan. It's beyond a new Alien movie or a new Pirates movie. There's nothing comparable to the eternal multimedia empire of Star Wars, which impacts everyone a little differently, but nevertheless in ubiquity. I try hard to take each of these new films on their own, but at the same time, they don't even want to stand on their own. If they did they wouldn't have teased us so much with Han Solo or both plots being intrinsically tied to A New Hope (1977) or the Sequel Trilogy still being indebted to the on-going Saga of the Skywalker clan. SPOILER - Kylo Ren is Rey's father!

At the same time, though, they jerk us around with the Resistance vs. the First Order and Snoke and all this bullshit that they don't seem to care at all about explaining. Sure, the Original Trilogy didn't need to explain everything little thing, but that was also coming out of the blue, not after forty years of precise and intricately detailed Expanded Universe material to bolster one of the most popular movie franchises of all time. Like I said, my generation in particular was first introduced to this mess through the now-Legends material. It's tough to shake off that none of that existed now without having the competence to fill in new material. Maybe The Last Jedi will solve all questions and in ten years' time we will look back on this with context and understanding. We just need a long enough time scale.

Then again, fuck that, we could understand the Emperor in A New Hope because we know what Emperors are and how Empires and rebellions work. What the hell is the First Order? How are they powerful? Are they actually a global threat or a thorn in the New Republic's side? Are they the insurgent terrorists, now? Ugh I hated The Force Awakens so much from just a nerdy world-building perspective. That's terrible because the characters are outstanding and Rey grabbing that lightsaber in the snow is one of the greatest movie moments ever.

I'm really cold on Last Jedi, both in anticipation and my literal knowledge about it. It's just a movie to me now. That's awful and cynical, but I need to be proved wrong. I've reached a point where in my life now we've had bad Star Wars for longer than we had good Star Wars. It's a tough hill to climb for Rian Johnson, but I hope for the best. 2017 has already brought us Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Blade Runner 2049 so there's no more excuses not to make a big money-making blockbuster that isn't great. Let's go, Star Wars.

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