It may surprise you to learn this, but the events of Star Wars never actually happened—the majority of them, anyway. I mean that sincerely—not for a minute should that be interpreted as snide or condescending. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…
In 1983, George Lucas brought his Star Wars trilogy to a close with Return of the Jedi (oh, those bygone days when movie franchises actually reached—wait for it—a conclusive resolution). Throughout the eighties, the series lived on by way of a pair of made-for-television Ewok movies and the Saturday-morning cartoons Droids and Ewoks, which continued to stoke interest in the franchise—and its lucrative action-figure line… for a while. But by the end of the decade, with no new big-screen productions to energize the fan base, Star Wars had resigned its position at the top of the pop-cultural hierarchy.
Lucas, who had always been a forward-thinking businessman as much as he was a visionary filmmaker (he negotiated a reduced fee for writing and directing the original Star Wars in return for ownership of sequel and merchandising rights, which the studio deemed worthless and was only too happy to relinquish), had plans to revisit the Star Wars galaxy in a prequel trilogy that had been part of his grand design when he was developing the earlier films—hence the reason, in case you never thought to ask, they are numbered Episodes IV through VI. Even though the prequels themselves were some years off—production on The Phantom Menace wouldn’t commence until 1997—he began laying the groundwork to return Star Wars to its lofty place in the cultural consciousness by commissioning science-fiction author Timothy Zahn to write a trio of novels set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi—what later became commonly known as “the Thrawn trilogy” (named for its chief antagonist).
The books were released successively in ’91, ’92, and ’93 (my best friend Chip and I couldn’t get down to the local bookstore fast enough to buy a copy of each upon publication, though being a year older, he got to read them first); they were New York Times bestsellers that not only got their intended job done—reigniting public interest in a dormant media franchise—but also led to an endless, ongoing series of novels that explored every facet of the Star Wars galaxy: No character or event was too small to be the focus of its own story. Thus, the Star Wars Expanded Universe (SWEU) was born. Han and Leia had twins! Luke got married! Chewbacca sacrificed himself for the Solos’ son Anakin! A universe of stories, far beyond the contained narrative arc of the classic trilogy, took on a life of its own and captured the imagination of a generation that invested itself in the ongoing space opera collectively known as Star Wars—a vast, complex continuity that Lucasfilm maintained with curatorial oversight to prevent inconsistencies and contradictions in the expansive mythos, which comprised movies, books, comics, TV shows, RPGs, and video games.
When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, however, they had their own ambitious plans to expand the franchise, and didn’t want to be tied down to every addenda in the extensive mythology. And just like that, everything other than the feature films and then-current Clone Wars animated series was “retconned”—still commercially available, mind you, under the new “Legends” banner, but henceforth declared noncanonical. This was an outrage to many of the longtime fans who considered these “expanded universe” adventures sacrosanct—who’d invested time, money, and interest in the world-building fictions of the Star Wars continuity that had been undone with the stroke of a hand. Some of their favorite stories were now apocrypha, whereas the much-derided prequels, on the other hand, were still canonically official. Where was the justice—the sense—in that?
“[I]n place of time, comic-book universes offer something called ‘continuity’” (Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human, [New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011], 114).
To fully comprehend the fans’ indignation—their sense of betrayal—you have to try to appreciate how much time and effort goes into studying and making sense of the sprawling continuity of any “shared fictional universe” with a fanatical following, be it Star Wars or the movies and comics of DC and Marvel. (Hell, even The Blacklist isn’t exempt from such sine qua non.) For instance, no less than the online business and finance journal Forbes—hardly a bastion of fanboy fervor—recently published a staggeringly comprehensive argument for the in-universe justification of the (controversial) appearance of Darth Vader’s “Force ghost” in the visage of Hayden Christensen, the actor who portrayed him as a young Jedi in the prequels. To say nothing of the copious digital ink that gets spilled on Reddit and in Facebook fan communities analyzing and debating Rey’s parentage (I mean, won’t we find out soon enough?), or the quantum mechanics that allow for Supergirl and the Flash to visit one another’s shows (a complex cosmic phenomenon otherwise known as a ratings stunt), or why the X-Men don’t appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (because what’s the existential significance, after all, of a reason as mundane as licensing issues?). Scroll through any one of those feeds and something soon becomes starkly apparent: This shit matters to people. Far from ornamental details, the minutiae and Easter eggs that crosspollinate these fictional worlds are exhaustively examined for rules, for order, for consistency—for meaning.
But, then, that’s the whole point of storytelling nowadays. The original Star Wars—which later became known as A New Hope—was a classically structured three-act hero’s journey about an idealistic farmhand who learns he is destined to become the savior of the galaxy; in the second film he trains for that role, and in the third he fulfills it—done, done, and done. But stories simply aren’t that straightforward—that linear—anymore in our fractured Digital Age. On the contrary, anyone who’s as much as peripherally aware of ongoing, ensemble-driven sagas like Lost and Game of Thrones recognizes, if even unconsciously, that narrativity as we once understood it has been “replaced by something more like putting together a puzzle by making connections and recognizing patterns” (Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, [New York: Penguin Group, 2013], 34). So when an editorial group selectively renders a swath of fictive episodes noncanonical, as Disney did with the SWEU, what they’re in effect saying is that the whole thing is fungible bullshit—that it never had any permanence or significance to begin with. Now, perhaps to you or me, that’s elementary—they’re just stories, after all. But to fans—the ones who puzzle over the enigmatic numbers on Lost, or who study bloodstain patterns for clues to Jon Snow’s lineage, or who track the appearances of the Infinity Stones in the MCU (something casual viewers, like myself, hadn’t even noticed!)—they’re oftentimes scripture.
Now, any ongoing continuity, especially those that run for decades, is going to eventually grow unmanageably convoluted and require periodic reset—when the mythology becomes so Delphic and complicated that writers feel creatively confined, and prospective new fans are wary of joining in for fear of having to commit themselves to learning the monumental fictional history that precedes a given starting point. It’s uncommon that such a history—or a sizeable chunk of it, anyway—will simply get thrown out à la the SWEU. More likely, out of respect for the fidelity of longtime fans, the custodians of pop culture will go out of their way to establish a concurrent “alternate timeline” (as was the case with X-Men: Days of Future Past, Terminator Genisys, and J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek) or perhaps a “multiverse” (that’s DC’s cover-our-ass catchphrase) to justify within the context of the fiction itself how every competing iteration of their characters can coexist and make an equal claim to legitimacy. In the 1950s, DC used to identify tales that took place outside the mainstream continuity as “Imaginary Stories,” until someone presumably realized how stupid that must’ve sounded—aren’t all superhero stories imaginary?—and the term “Elseworlds” was adopted in the late eighties (right around the time—coincidence?—comics stopped catering to children). Regardless, to appease fans, a lot of effort is put into making sure that nothing is ever abolished, necessarily, merely reassigned to an “alternate reality,” and those retconned events may be incorporated into the new continuity in part or whole, or altogether ignored, at the storytellers’ discretion. That’s often the consolation prize for a continuity reboot: It happened… it just happened elsewhere.
But why all the politics, though—the careful hedging? Why isn’t it enough to say, as Disney did, “You know what? This narrative has become very intricate and unwieldy, and in order to produce something more commercially accessible that all can enjoy, liberated from the baggage of dozens (if not hundreds) of artists that have contributed to the mythology over the decades, we’re just going to bring everything back to basics now and move on from there”? Why can’t hardcore fans accept that canon is fluid, not fixed, and that in order for these mythologies to reinvent themselves and remain creatively fertile, some storylines are just given the clean sweep now and then?
Alan Moore, writer of such classic graphic novels as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Batman: The Killing Joke, has a theory:
“It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics” (Pádraig Ó Méalóid AKA Slovobooks; “Last Alan Moore Interview?,” blog entry by Pádraig Ó Méalóid, January 9, 2014).
Now, that is a categorically extreme position that’s likely to gall some people. But let’s take a closer look at it, anyway. Is it possible that our fantasies, rather than providing a diversion from reality, have instead become our preferred realities? Have “the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence” (ibid.) pushed some of us to a place where the world-building of fictional universes is more manageable—more gratifying, ultimately—than the world-fixing of this one? We are a generation that’s been summoned by history to rise to unprecedented existential challenges: Global warming. Bioterrorism. Religious extremism. Mass shootings. Income disparity. Big data. Each problem daunting in its own right and downright insurmountable their totality, our anxieties about all of them are only stoked by the continuum of real-time updates we receive day and night on our smartphones. We can’t make sense of any of it anymore—can’t see our way out. And our democracy—our most efficient instrument to address such issues—has become hopelessly dysfunctional, as the last year painfully reminded us all.
Is it any wonder, then, the problems of Luke Skywalker and Tony Stark are appealing in comparison? As broad as their worlds are, they are circumscribed: We can make sense of the way everything within them correlates. So, when an editor says, “This is getting too complicated” and hits the reset button, he’s not only dismissing as futile the search for order and meaning in those narratives, he’s exposing our last hiding place: the narratives themselves. For when the tangled complexities of a fictional universe become too ungovernable, somebody somewhere simply initiates a hard reboot and voila—everything’s wiped clean like a whiteboard at the end of class. And all we’re then left with is our actual reality with its intractable problems, which, alas, isn’t subject to the convenient sorcery of deus ex machina (hence the reason we also love apocalyptic fantasies like The Walking Dead that envision a societal do-over). So when we can’t make sense of or find meaning in the world we live in, and our intricately assembled fictional worlds are revealed, despite our only-too-willing suspension of disbelief, as artifice, where do we have left to turn?
So I tend to think Moore is right: A significant section of the public, from what I myself have witnessed, has indeed given up on attempting to understand this reality in favor of immersing themselves in the arbitrary trivialities of another, be it Marvel or Star Wars or whatever their pleasure. And he’s not the only one who thinks so:
“Noam Chomsky once observed that when he listens to a sports call-in show, he said, ‘It’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know all sorts of complicated details. On the other hand,’ he said, ‘when I hear people talk about international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.’ In other words: We’re not clueless, we just apply our brainpower to bullshit” (Bill Maher, “New Rule: The Danger of False Equivalency,” Real Time with Bill Maher, October 28, 2016).
Look, I’m not suggesting we can’t or shouldn’t have hobbies—on the contrary, it can be therapeutic to channel our energy into healthy diversions that require time and meticulous attention, be it modelmaking or baseball-card collecting (if people still do that) or immersive online gaming. Such activities help us step away from our actual problems for a while and clear our cerebral conduits—no arguments here. But are we really a culture that practices recreation in moderation, or have we become—with our mega–movie franchises and multiplayer videogames and 500 scripted television shows in production, not to mention all the podcasts and aftershows dedicated to scrutinizing their every last excruciating detail—a hopelessly decadent people committed to using our time on this earth for nothing more than amusing ourselves to death?
When Star Wars or Marvel contradicts the rules of its reality, either by design or by error, fan theories about what it means or why it’s justified go viral overnight. But who held Trump accountable when he flagrantly disregarded reality—meaning truth—during his presidential campaign? Who demands congressional climate deniers be answerable for the same? In the wake of the election, commentators argued that Democrats need to do a better job at “messaging”; there might be some truth to that, but what about the electorate’s civic responsibility to stay informed, challenging (and time-consuming) though that may very well be in light of all the misinformation out there? Because we’re quite happy to engage in endless speculation and debate about the true motivation behind the Chitauri invasion at the climax of The Avengers—we have plenty of time and mental capacity for that—but who’s analyzing the long game of some of our actual supervillains with their hands on the levers of power? (In that respect, cable news is no different than fanboy culture, endlessly assessing minute details and late-breaking developments of real-world affairs, but consistently failing to see the bigger picture, to glean the larger takeaway. Again: See the Trump candidacy.)
What I’m asking is this: How is it some of us can care so passionately about the granular details of our fictive worlds when our real world is in such dire need of the same vigilance and creative thinking? Stories used to help us make sense of reality; now making sense of the fiction itself is the entire purpose of narrative. And I submit that if we deprioritized the need, the obsessive search, for patterns and correlations—a.k.a. continuity—in our fictional “universes,” our fixation with what constitutes canon, a meaningless designation if ever there was one, would then itself seem equally pointless.
“IF ONLY YOU COULD SEE WHAT I’VE SEEN WITH YOUR EYES”
It was the cinema of George Lucas, more than any other formative influence, that inspired me to be a storyteller. As such, I’ve often been asked by friends and colleagues to rank the Star Wars movies, as I judge them, from best to worst. I can’t do that. Not won’t—can’t. I don’t consider The Empire Strikes Back superior to Return of the Jedi on account of its lack of Ewoks; rather, I view the classic trilogy as one story told across three movies, each inseparable from the other—each one great in its own right and somehow even better in their combined totality. (I feel the same about the original Indiana Jones trilogy: I love all three entries equally, each for entirely different reasons.) Lucas’ six Star Wars movies, for better and for worse, at least felt like an artistic vision—the singular imagining of an uncompromising filmmaker—whereas the recent two Disney offerings come off more like a corporate product; the further the series gets from Lucas’ creative intentions, the less I seem to care for it. Even though The Force Awakens and Rogue One are objectively superior narratives to the prequels, I think I actually prefer the prequels, God help me: They are (mostly) failures, but noble ones, at least. When it comes down to it, though, my heart belongs to the first cycle films from the seventies and eighties—along with a few of the books published in the nineties—and everything after that I can quite happily live with or without.
The prequels certainly didn’t “ruin my childhood”—no more than the utterly ill-conceived Beverly Hills Cop III tainted my affection for Axel Foley’s first two outings; it disappointed me, sure—it was not fun seeing one of the formerly coolest wiseasses in cinema (and personal role model back in the junior high school days) reduced to slumming his way through an idiotic “Die Hard in an amusement park” plotline—but I simply resolved to never watch that third one again. The umpteen Alien sequels—a case study in the perils of monster-movie franchising—haven’t diminished my fondness for the first two installments in the least. Hell, I love Bridget Jones’s Diary—my wife and I watch it every Christmas—but I’ve never even seen or read either of the sequels; I’m told they’re terrible, so why bother?
Is Beverly Hills Cop III “canon”? (Whatever that means.) What about Alien vs. Predator? (Yeesh.) Or Prometheus? (Swing and a miss.) Or the forthcoming Alien: Covenant? (The sequel to Prometheus no one asked for.) What about The Edge of Reason and Bridget Jones’s Baby—do those “count,” even though Bridget’s arc of learning she’s worthy of love was so conclusively and satisfyingly fulfilled in the first story as to leave viewers not wanting more? Will the inclusion of Harrison Ford in the belated sequel Blade Runner 2049 definitively settle the age-old philosophical debate of whether Deckard was human or replicant? Based on the rules established in the first film, it would certainly seem to (guess we’ll have to wait and see), but isn’t the enduring joy of Ridley’s Scott’s cult masterpiece—the meaning in it—derived from making up our own minds about that? Does the “canonization” of Blade Runner 2049 (produced by Scott and co-written by original screenwriter Hampton Fancher), with whatever new insights it may bring to the context of its forebear, outweigh our own personal interpretations of the self-contained events of Blade Runner itself?
Of course not. A story’s value isn’t predicated on how faithfully it adheres to some greater mythology, how it fits into some arbitrary “grand scheme” of things—which is, let’s face it, hardly a scheme at all, given how often these allegedly “canonical” continuities are subject to relaunch, like the Spider-Man movies (three distinct, unrelated incarnations over six feature films in just fifteen years) or DC Comics with their “Rebirth” initiative following so closely on the heels of “The New 52.” On the subject of DC, the “Death of Robin” story arc devastated my twelve-year-old self—in the best possible way—when it was published in Batman in 1988; that DC reintroduced the character into the continuity almost two decades later pissed me off—Jason Todd’s death had proven more emotionally valuable to the mythos than his (brief) life had ever been—but it didn’t in any way lessen the impact of “A Death in the Family” for me, ‘cause I simply opted to disregard that creatively desperate resurrection. Because whether we’re talking about Star Wars or Star Trek, DC or Marvel, Alien or Blade Runner, or A Song of Ice and Fire or Bridget Jones, the only stories in a media franchise that are truly canon—by the one metric that matters—are those that have meaning to you.