Last month, I bought tickets to a movie two months early: a thing I am fairly certain I had never done until that point. I was attempting to buy tickets to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which took hours of websites hanging and having to be refreshed, and then crashing, all because too many people were trying to get tickets to this movie that doesn’t come out for TWO MONTHS. While I was doing this, I started to wonder why? Why was *I* so keen to see this movie, but also, why were so many other people? The last set of Star Wars movies were nearly universally despised by fans, and I know many of them are STILL skeptical that it is possible to save the film franchise. There are many possible reasons, of course, and I am sure many of them play a role: the non-film properties like video games, books, and toys have done very well. It has been a decade since the last movie, so people have had time to recover from the sting. George Lucas isn’t attached as a director (a lot of people blamed the drop in quality in the prequel movies on Lucas). And then, of course, the return of the actors from the original trilogy lends a kind of credibility to this one that the prequels didn’t have. That said, I would like to focus on another theory. I would argue that Star Wars, in essence, belongs to the most popular genre of modern cinema: the superhero movie.
Superhero movies have never been bigger. There is almost no better guarantee of commercial success (Fan-4-stick aside) than making a superhero movie. A lot of theories have been offered for this success, but I think the most compelling one is that we are at a time when we NEED superhero movies. Superhero movies offer us a world that we wished we could live in. It’s a world where good and evil are clear sides and the good side has larger-than-life heroes: real heroes that we can have faith will save us from whatever danger is out there in less than 3 hours (remember when you used to be able to say “less than 2 hours” when talking about movies? Those were the days). We will see what happens to that philosophy when Captain America: Civil War comes out next year, but for now, it is pretty much a constant in the superhero genre (at least on the Marvel side). So what does this have to do with Star Wars? Star Wars works the same way. Episodes 4-6 are films about hope. For fuck’s sake, episode 4 is actually CALLED “A New Hope.” They are films about a hero’s rise to power to triumph over a clear evil, and I don’t mean Darth Vader, necessarily, so much as I mean the dark side, and by extension, Emperor Palpatine. Luke starts out a poor farm boy, and then discovers he has powers, and then trains and hones his powers until he can take down the most powerful supervillain in the galaxy. That is a superhero story. And right now, those are what people want. We want a world to escape to where things are relatively black and white, light and dark, black hats and white hats, because it is a world with problems that are simpler than we are facing now.
The prequels never got there. They weren’t a story about hope, they were a story about a fall from grace. They were the opposite of what we wanted and needed in a new millennium that has been wracked by job loss and war. They took something that we thought was pure and simple like Star Wars and muddied it. Sure, the acting wasn’t stellar all the time, and the writing had its problems, and the whole thing felt too clean, because of the reliance on CGI, but really, I just think it was the wrong kind of story. It’s not really ALL George Lucas’s fault when you get down to it. The 1990s was a decade of reasonable prosperity and comfort. We had some room for some gray in our simple stories, and so in 1999, when The Phantom Menace came out, I didn’t hate it nearly as much as I do now. As the new millennium started, though, and things began to get worse for us, it became harder and harder to watch this story that tried to garner empathy for a villain. It wasn’t the kind of Star Wars story we wanted. Though, this did not become evident until Iron Man exploded in 2008, and the superhero genre became the medicine we all needed, even if we didn’t know it. The Force Awakens uses the return of the original series’ actors and the return to practical effects to remind us that a superhero story is at the core of Star Wars, and that’s why we are so excited to see it. It’s certainly why *I* am.