A long time ago, the original Star Wars trilogy was sacred. Particularly if you were born after Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, the three movies felt like they were sent down by the ancients. On some level, you knew that they’d been created by people, but they were a foundational document for a certain kind of lifestyle, similar to the way Americans feel about the Constitution. While the original trilogy hinted at a larger universe beyond what we could see onscreen, the movies themselves were entirely knowable, even memorizable.
George Lucas built a huge world—scores of huge worlds—and showed us only a fraction of that creation. Intentionally or not, it was a perfect balance for inspiring curiosity, and in the pre-internet age, the knowledge that that curiosity would never be satisfied only made Star Wars more fascinating.
When I was in second grade, around the time my mom sewed a rough approximation of Luke Skywalker’s Hoth uniform for me to wear on Halloween, my dad handed me his copy of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, the novel that kicked off what became known as the Expanded Universe. Heir to the Empire picked up five years after Return of the Jedi and followed Han, Luke, and Leia through a new set of adventures. And it introduced new characters—Mara Jade, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Talon Karrde—who over the course of two decades’ worth of books, spanning generations of in-universe time, would become iconic in their own right.
If the original film trilogy was the Bible, the Expanded Universe was like the writings of St. Augustine or C.S. Lewis, illustrating truths and concepts hinted at in the canon but not totally explained. And when the prequel trilogy came out in 1999, it was like a new divine revelation. (That revelation was horrifying, but so are parts of the Bible.)
Now, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are going to get their own Star Wars film series, as is The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson. Until Heir of the Empire was published in 1991, Star Wars was a closed ecosystem, and even until The Force Awakens came out in 2015, you’d get a new set of feature films once a generation, with those films coming three years apart. Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, when it comes out in May, will be the fourth Star Wars movie in 30 months, with at least five more to come over the next few years, plus a TV series and numerous as-yet-unannounced films. Forget the new revelation, the Second Coming is here.
Modern cinema serves two often contradictory masters: commerce and art. There’s an argument to be made that the original Star Wars trilogy created such a revolutionary cultural moment through such a beloved story, that going back to the well could only reduce its stature. Certainly the much-derided prequel trilogy bore that argument out, as does what has happened to the Harry Potter universe. J.K. Rowling originally intended to leave that universe behind after the seven-book series, but here we are wondering how Johnny Depp finagled his way into a beloved series of children’s films, and how much Eddie Redmayne is too much. Meanwhile, Rowling herself has spent the intervening years retconning her own work and plugging away on Twitter like a retired athlete who fears obsolescence. Letting a great work stand on its own means moving on to the next thing, and moving on to the next thing is much more difficult than just going back to the well.
But we’ll get new Harry Potter movies from now until they stop making outrageous sums of money, and capitalism demands the same of Star Wars, regardless of whether it was a good idea from a cultural or artistic perspective. Now Star Wars serves Disney, which is simultaneously going to feed the Marvel Cinematic Universe to moviegoers until molten vibranium starts leaking from our nostrils. Commerce is job no. 1.
The scarcity that made Star Wars into a culturally religious text is gone. We’re getting a Star Wars movie every year, and it’s still an event, like the Super Bowl, but it used to be like the Olympics. With each new installment, it becomes more like any other film series; tinker enough with the Bible and it’ll turn into Divergent.
Star Wars means different things to different people, and the novels, video games, and assorted other media allowed everyone to explore whatever avenue was most interesting. And because the books were so numerous, almost every avenue could be explored. Characters with five lines in the movies, like Mon Mothma and Wedge Antilles, became immensely important in the Expanded Universe. I found the political/military thriller aspect of Star Wars to be most interesting, so I gravitated toward the X-Wing series, in which the Force is a virtual nonfactor and Luke, Han, and Leia are almost entirely absent. But Luke’s journey to grow as a Jedi got its own treatment, as did the fascinating criminal underworld from which Han, Lando, and Boba Fett emerged. There was something for everyone, and there wasn’t really a sense of obligation to explore story lines that didn’t appeal to your individual taste.
Now, the spinoff and anthology movies are taking on that role—if you liked the X-Wing series, you’ll like Rogue One; if you liked Tales From the Mos Eisley Cantina, you’ll probably like Solo. And because each of those movies is a billion-dollar business venture, you can’t miss them. Star Wars, for the first time in 20 years, is a one-size-fits-all universe again.
Except, as Star Wars gets Marvelized, it runs into another problem. Interesting filmmakers are being empowered to take big swings: It’s cool that the guy who made Brick got $200 million to make a Star Wars movie. But there’s an opportunity cost: For every Star Wars movie he makes, we lose out on one or two original Rian Johnson movies that might have been better but don’t fit into an existing franchise. (The same goes for Ryan Coogler and Black Panther.)
Even though there’s too much of it, and it’s all corporatized, and it’s standardized, Star Wars is still good. The Last Jedi was polarizing because it turned its guns on nostalgia, and in so doing changed the visual and philosophical language of the franchise forever. The multibillion-dollar bet on the previously unknown Daisy Ridley has paid off enormously, and it’s vaulted Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, and Adam Driver from indie darlings to global superstardom, and deservedly so. And the new generation of heroes isn’t just a new set of white guys with mop tops—the biggest science-fiction character in the world is a woman now, and her sidekicks are mostly people of color. Sending a social message isn’t the point of a blockbuster, nor should we necessarily wait on Hollywood to tell us that diversity is good, but it’s part of the reason the series feels modern and fresh, while still connected with its past.
So while that diversity hasn’t translated to the people running the show behind the camera, and while the guys who thought Confederate was a good idea might have some troubling takes on labor conditions at the spice mines of Kessel, Benioff and Weiss are, to their credit, coming off one of the most successful television series ever made, one of very few that aspires to please the gods of both art and commerce, as Star Wars must.
But in order to do that, the new Star Wars Expanded Universe has to aspire to be as ambitious and daring as The Last Jedi, and to a lesser extent, Rogue One. Mere competence will sell, because even fans who are ambivalent about the wisdom of the whole enterprise will still turn out on opening night, because it’s Star Wars. But 40 years ago, Star Wars made transcendent sums of money because it was innovative and transformative. There’s incredible peril in forgetting which way that causal arrow points.