At Star Wars Celebration in Chicago last month, you’d never know that the previous 18 months had been the most contentious in the history of the franchise. The attitude of the fans was overwhelmingly positive — despite an apparent backlash against 2017’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” that has inspired endless headlines, the continual badgering of its director Rian Johnson on Twitter, and the shuttering of Kelly Marie Tran’s Instagram account after endless harassment by racist trolls. At Celebration, the fans gave Tran a standing ovation, as they did also to Ahmed Best, the actor who played Jar Jar Binks and revealed in the past year that the fan backlash to his own character nearly drove him to take his own life.
But with all that tumult, coupled with the box-office disappointment of “Solo: A Star Wars” story, it’s not surprising that Disney CEO Bob Iger has announced that the saga will “take a pause” after the conclusion of the Skywalker saga this December, “Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker.”
Where should “Star Wars” go from here? On May the Fourth, the official fan holiday — as in “May the Fourth be with you” — it’s worth taking stock. And yes, much of the answer to where the saga should go lies in “The Last Jedi,” far more so than in any of Disney’s other “Star Wars” films. Partly because it’s the best of the Disney films — maybe the best “Star Wars” film ever, and certainly the most soulful — and partly because it sets up a vital new conceptual roadmap. Here are five things we’d like to see from the saga going forward.
1. An Expanded Universe
Apologies, apologies. We know this is a trolling subhed. The term “Expanded Universe” applied to all Star Wars storytelling prior to Disney’s reset of the canon in 2014 that did not appear on the big screen. That included hundreds of books and comics, along with video games and TV shows. Some of these have been retroactively introduced to the Disney “Star Wars” canon, and the “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” series initially canceled by Disney in 2013 was the last bit of the franchise micro-managed by George Lucas. For better or worse, it bears his imprint, but even when it was bad, it was personal. Disney has considered it to be part of its canon, though, and has even revived the series for a 12-episode concluding run to stream on Disney+. I loved “The Clone Wars,” even spending hours each week recapping it. When it was great, it was some of the best “Star Wars” ever. And when it was bad, it was bad. (The kind of love that denies some of it was bad borders on fanaticism.) And “The Clone Wars” in many ways is reflective of the sensibility of the old Expanded Universe: It was weird and it didn’t always serve up what you expected. Most importantly, it gave itself room to fail.
I’ve read hundreds of “Star Wars” novels and comics from the mid-90s through to the Disney canon reset, and I can tell you: much of it really is bad. Much of it is indicative of awful trends in ‘90s and 2000s sci-fi and disconnected from a lot that would resemble what we consider “Star Wars.” But those books allowed for personal voices and bold new directions that really did expand the scope of the galaxy far, far away — which is something big-screen “Star Wars” could use right now. With “The Force Awakens,” “Rogue One,” and “Solo” in particular, there has been a sense of that galaxy far, far away getting smaller and smaller.
That’s to say that there isn’t a great deal of brilliance in Disney’s films, even the maligned and underappreciated “Solo.” But these are films that have had much more to say about “Star Wars” itself than anything else, almost playing like metatextual commentaries on the saga, with Kylo Ren as the ultimate fanboy unhealthily fetishizing a skewed vision of the past. These are films in which everything feels connected, so as to best stroke their audience’s nostalgia, that look backward instead of forward. Every reference has some particular meaning: a throwaway line to “Black Spire” outpost in “Solo” is, you guessed it, a reference to the name of the village that is featured in the upcoming Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme parks in Anaheim and Orlando. Touches like that, when overdone, make that universe feel hermetically sealed rather than a place of limitless possibility. In order to achieve that expansiveness, something really does need to happen to this franchise. And that is…
2. Ban Everyone with the Names Skywalker or Kenobi
With hindsight, Disney’s sequel trilogy was in a conceptual no-win scenario from the beginning: fail to utilize Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill and fans would be bitter about it forever. Many still wish that they had been used in these films even more, and had been given moments to interact with each other — a feeling expressed, however jokingly, by Mark Hamill himself. But after a three-decade-plus absence, there was no way to tell any stories with these characters that would live up to years of fan theorizing and speculation. It would have been better if Disney had started with all new characters and only all new characters.
Going forward, Lucasfilm would be wise to heed Kylo Ren’s advice and let the past die, killing it if they have to. That was the stroke of genius in “The Last Jedi,” to end Luke Skywalker’s journey perhaps a film earlier than expected. How else could that character really grow and evolve? And in “The Rise of Skywalker,” despite the title, it seems like the focus will be squarely on the new cast. This is where Lucasfilm can heed its old Expanded Universe as well: Some of the best “Star Wars” novels ever published didn’t have anything to do with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, or Darth Vader at all. Sometimes they were barely mentioned, like in Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston’s extraordinary “X-Wing” series of novels, which took a military procedural view of the Rebellion’s fight against the Empire from the cockpit of entirely new starfighter pilot characters like Corran Horn and Garik “Face” Loran.
These novels defined their characters with laser-cut precision, had a ton of humor, genuine pathos, and even some damn sexy moments that I remember more than 20 years later. The presentation of a totally different aspect of this one familiar conflict made the whole galaxy feel bigger. Not everyone is related, not everyone knows each other. Some people may never have even heard of Han Solo. (Why would they?) Disney needs to remember this: Star Wars is not Harry Potter. This is not a franchise where you end up married to the crush you had in middle school.
That of course was the genius of “The Last Jedi.” By revealing that Rey’s parents were nobodies, it moved the saga beyond the idea that the most important stories this galaxy holds are located in one super-important family alone. By moving the saga beyond people who are all somehow connected, “Star Wars” can become a multiplicity of stories, not just one story.
This is also why the single most exciting thing to come out of Star Wars Celebration was details about “The Mandalorian,” the new Disney+ series slated for this fall that should focus on none of the major characters from the films, not be overly (if at all) concerned with the Force, and show a very different side of the galaxy viewed from something other than a rigidly binary Dark Side/Light Side perspective.
3. Give a Sense of What It’s Like to Live in a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Think about this: In the first 30 minutes of the original Star Wars film, “A New Hope,” you find yourself in a kitchen with Aunt Beru putting space vegetables in some futuristic food processor. You get a real sense of what it’s like to live in this universe. To the credit of “The Force Awakens” you also get that sense, with the depiction of Rey’s life on Jakku; even better, in “The Last Jedi,” you see how the wealthiest of the wealthy live in a galaxy far, far away in the underrated sequence in the casino city of Canto Bight. Some fans hated that sequence because our heroes fail during it, which means it doesn’t advance the plot. But it’s not like the plot is advanced that much when we’re seeing those scenes of Luke at his aunt and uncle’s homestead either.
These are scenes that allow the characters to breathe, go deeper into their motivations, and make the universe around them feel limitless – anything can happen because you don’t sense that these characters exist to be shoehorned into a plot. (The first true scene in “A New Hope” that exists for exposition alone, the conference room discussion about the Death Star when we first meet Tarkin, arrives 40-odd minutes into the film.) These are sequences built around theme, not plot, and you end up getting a really textured sense of who these people are and the worlds they inhabit. More sequences in the mold of Canto Bight, please.
4. Representation Matters: For Good Storytelling Most of All
One of the best Star Wars characters ever created has nothing to do with any of the saga’s major characters beyond Darth Vader: Doctor Aphra, created by Kieron Gillen, in his “Darth Vader” comic series for Marvel, first published in 2015. She’s a lesbian archaeologist who’s far more Belloq than Indiana Jones and prowls the galaxy far, far away for all kinds of nasty artifacts — evil, ancient droids included. She’s not Light Side or Dark Side, she’s just trying to find her way in a galaxy torn apart by such a binary worldview.
And she’s proof positive that LGBTQ characters need to be seen onscreen in addition to the saga’s ever more inclusive racial and ethnic diversity. Through this new perspective, we’re getting a fresh kind of story. And to make these stories really pop, there needs to be more diversity behind the camera as well. A woman needs to write and direct a Star Wars film sooner rather than later. How different might Rey’s story have been if a woman had guided her journey?
5. Break Barriers Again
The original “Star Wars” was a watershed moment in film history. There simply had never been special effects that dazzling before. To his credit, Lucas kept trying to move the goalposts with each installment. Take another look at “Revenge of the Sith.” Love it or hate — it’s this writer’s favorite “Star Wars” film — it offered a genuinely different approach to CGI. Practically an animated film save for its flesh-and-blood actors, it offered up a vision of the future in which photographic realism was not the end goal for CGI. Instead, Lucas embraced a hyper-style in which he seemed to be painting with pixels. Maybe you hated the world he was creating, but at least it was a new world. And damn, if those special effects in the prequels don’t hold up better than, say, the CGI in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films.
This painterly approach to wielding pixels has few other analogues: “Sin City,” “Speed Racer,” and “Avatar” being among them. J.J. Abrams’ much-vaunted “practical effects” approach to “The Force Awakens” played more like a greatest-hits mash-up of breakthroughs from 30 years ago rather than anything cutting-edge on its own terms. Star Wars needs to get cutting-edge again to reclaim its singularity in the world of franchise cinema. There’s no reason why these movies should not be doing things as groundbreaking as “Avatar” — it’s a far richer universe to apply those kind of tools than anything James Cameron offered up with his 2009 blockbuster.
It’s entirely possible that the franchise will slide back even further with “The Rise of Skywalker.” The reveal of Rey’s parentage from “The Last Jedi” could be walked back. And there’s nothing to suggest Abrams has any real interest in technical innovation the way Lucas did. Think about that moment from the original “Star Wars” when the Falcon jumps to lightspeed for the first time and the stars stretch into luminous streaks. Nobody had never seen anything like that before. That was what made “Star Wars” special in the first place, and it’s the challenge and the opportunity awaiting the next chapter of cinema’s greatest franchise.