“Star Wars is too aware of itself”, a friend of mine once said. Now that the ninth and (presumably) final entry in the Skywalker franchise is out, Disney+ has released its widely-acclaimed The Mandalorian series, and other major Star Wars media are being announced, it seems appropriate to reflect on the cultural place of Star Wars for a moment. (Or maybe you’d prefer to watch a Star Wars fan make fun of people who would take Star Wars seriously.)
TL;DR: I would not normally write about pop culture here, if it weren’t that I’m writing about Star Wars, and Star Wars is held by many (not all) to aim to provide a myth for the modern era, and to offer a means of re-enchantment. Does it?
Star Wars as a franchise is still very profitable, but there are not a few who hold that it is feeding off the body of Star Wars as an institution, and who go on, further, to claim that Star Wars as an institution is in peril. These two positions –(1) Star Wars is only a pop-culture entertainment franchise and (2) Star Wars is essentially an institution which expresses mythological themes for the modern age– are incompatible.
Some hold that the ultimate purpose of Star Wars is to entertain us while providing a reliable return-on-investment to shareholders; it is a comic book set in space, entertaining, and perhaps exhausted, nothing more than a jumbled inventory of familiar characters (it’s Lando! –it’s Chewbacca!), vehicles (look, it’s an X-Wing! –an AT-ST!), paraphernalia (look, blue/green milk! –carbonite freezing!), locations (look, Tatooine!), plot beats (look, Rebel characters dressing up as storm troopers to break into an Imperial base…again!), and overused lines (e.g., “I have a bad feeling about this”). This perspective takes it as essentially a kitschy self-referential iconography.
Others claim that its role is to give a pop-culture expression to the perennial issues found in the source material that made the saga interesting in the first place. These would say that if the brand does not identify its soul in the source material that inspired it (I’m not talking about recycling Ralph McQuarrie’s old pre-1977 concept art, but renegade Samurai wandering the landscape, looking for redemption, ethics drawn from Stoicism and Buddhist monasticism and Christian knighthood with a semi-Taoist cosmology), it will just be a bunch of familiar things — and, if that’s all it is, then this means that it is already exhausted.
It is not entirely clear to me which of these two things Star Wars is, though I incline nowadays to think that it is essentially entertainment that dips into mythological themes — and it does dip into the mythological for at least the first two movies, even if the films on the whole do not qualify as a fully fledged myth. (The Clone Wars TV show has some serious searching of spiritual and ethical themes in many episodes, as I recall, but ethics and spirituality are one step subordinate to myth.) That does not necessarily mean we should regard Star Wars as an institution, even though it has a strong place within popular culture.
Were I to be responsible, I’d buy and read the recent biography of George Lucas before writing this (more likely, I’d listen to it on Audible). I’d look at the concept art books or the Ralph McQuarrie art boxed set or the storyboards for the original trilogy. I’d read the books that dealt with how the movies were made — volumes on A New Hope, or The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi. I’d find and finally read my copy of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, or any number of other texts that would give me access to the history of George Lucas, Lucasfilm, and the production dramas and decisions that resulted in so many of these films. (Buy those books! I’ll get a few pennies to spend on the coffee needed to keep writing blog posts.)
Is –or Was– Star Wars ever a Modern Myth?
1.) There seem to be two basic positions on Star Wars:
a) it is merely popular entertainment;
b) it is a modern myth, an attempt at re-enchantment, and an institution.
Anyone who holds that Star Wars is (a) will affirm that, for those who hold it to be (b), it is not actually a myth for them (or anyone), but that it is actually a dream, a set of objects charged with childhood charm that people get irrationally and inordinately attached to, and these people should stop their dreaming, should wake up and see that the thing they are attached to is not mythical, but merely good, fun, hokey entertainment. Fandom is not an institution, so the thinking would go.
The opposite sensibility accounts for why many of the negative reactions to the movie The Last Jedi singled out the portrayal of Luke Skywalker as particularly odious: they claimed it was basically sacrilege. This is also why many of the defenders of that movie loved its iconoclastic role towards Luke: a mere repetition cannot provide a character with an arc, and taking an iconoclastic stand is seen as breaking the attachment that overzealous fans have towards the franchise as a whole. “Honor a holy thing” vs. “One must wake from the dream and grow into adulthood” seem to be the different approaches.
The mythicists. It is difficult to overestimate how mythically Star Wars is commonly treated. In a January 2018 USA Today affiliate article, Terry Mattingly reports the words of Palm Beach Atlantic University’s Alex Wainer:
this saga has enormous meaning for millions of people. It’s become a ritual for our culture. This is personal and people want it to make sense.
As Film Crit Hulk puts it (I’ve removed the all-caps and made other small edits):
The original Star Wars was so good at “the meaningful stuff” that it became the most universal movie of the modern age[,] to the point that it became “our core”.
This seems consistent with the role that the near-legendary scholar Mircea Eliade suggests that comic book characters can have with regard to mythical types. In his book Myth and Reality, Eliade suggests that myth ordinarily “supplies models for human behavior and, by that very fact, gives meaning and value to life.” This is not an exercise in archaic psychology, Eliade suggests, but helps us understand the category of the mythical and the role of myth among “our contemporaries.” [Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 2.] Eliade further suggest that there are “mythical structures” in the “images and behavior patterns imposed on collectivities by mass media.” [Myth and Reality, 184] Comic books are one of these, as they provide “the modern version of mythological or folklore Heroes.”
They incarnate the ideal of a large part of society, to such a degree that any change in their typical conduct or, still worse, their death, will bring on veritable crises among their readers; the latter react violently, and protest by sending thousands of telegrams to the authors of the comic strips or the editors of the newspapers in which they appear. [Myth and Reality, 185]
This would mean that Star Wars –or any narrative– although it cannot itself be a myth (given that myths are more basic than the images the myths coordinate, which images can change without the myth changing, and which images can remain largely the same but be coordinated differently by a different myth), can be expressive of myths.
In a recent conversation with a number of educated elites, however, I was assured that Star Wars is nothing more than a bunch of very well done B-grade fun, and that anyone who said otherwise was just clinging strangely –and probably pathologically– to things.
The historicists / therapists. It may be that, ultimately, the disagreement between the mythicists and the historicists is one in which some trans-historical mythical category of human life is denied. Alternatively, it is possible that the verity of this category of “myth” could be granted, and Star Wars simply treated as not making the cut for belonging to such a class of films. Any attempt to account for the attachment that people have to Star Wars using a therapeutic model, however, seems to reduce this fan attachment to an error of judgment that requires reason to till the soil of the attachment with an historical account of how these attachments were made — which has all the appearance of reason being positioned against myth.
Film Crit Hulk can articulate both sides of this divide between mythicists and therapists, and I’m not sure that his category of “the core” escapes pure historicity. We saw, above, that he can call Star Wars “our core”. In another article on The Last Jedi in The Observer, however, Film Crit Hulk writes that all films have messages, but we don’t usually notice them unless they rub us the wrong way. Because most of us don’t actually know what we want from our going to see a movie, and because when we go to see movies like Star Wars we typically look to identify with a character as a hero figure of sorts, we feel stupid when we can’t understand what a character whom we feel we identify with (or should identify with) is doing, or when we feel that a character we wish to project ourselves into acts like a buffoon or acts out of weakness; this buffoonery or weakness then boomerangs back to us in ways that don’t make us feel powerful or even validated. (This echoes Eliade’s comments, above, penned no later than the early 1960’s.)
Thus Film Crit Hulk mocks the petition that one fan started to have Episode 8 (The Last Jedi) removed from Star Wars canon (this is a long excerpt). He says that the fan’s petition “exemplifies the point” he wants to make — namely, that when the fan who petitioned to have The Last Jedi removed from the canon, he argued this on the grounds that The Last Jedi
“was crowded with unacceptable, infantile, disappointing and downright irritating jokes. These ‘jokes’ made the movie a perfect example of self-degradation. In the upcoming episodes, please do not spoil all the potentially epic Star Wars moments, legendary characters and basically the whole Star Wars Saga with humor every A-class movie would be ashamed of. As the biggest and most complex fictional universe so far, it just deserves more than this.”
Film Crit Hulk critiques this:
Sometimes, a reflexive moment does not get more perfect. But the truth is that I’m fascinated by these kinds of tonal comments because they tell you a lot about how certain people absorb storytelling. Specifically, how there are whole groups of fans who do not like anything “too silly” in their movies, especially blockbuster films that feature their favorite characters. They will say jokes are “too lame.” […] When trying to explain why these innocuous jokes “bother” them so much, they’ll throw out heady comments arguing about an “uneven tone” or something like that. And often they’ll start trying to sound like Mr. Civility, like in the paragraph above where the guy is trying to sound like the most urbane person in the world as he argues over nerd canon. Why, they’re too adult for that silliness!
But it’s all very simple: if the movie feels silly, then they feel silly.
And they do not want to feel silly one bit. Make no mistake, a lot of people watch movies and live vicariously through the characters. They go “I’m Luke Skywalker!” or “I’m Spider-man!” and they do this because these movies are really good at making us feel this way. So it’s not just about escape, but an empowerment fantasy. They want to hold a lightsaber or web-sling around New York City. They want to feel awesome. They want to feel badass. But they definitely don’t want to feel like the butt of a joke. It’s exactly why Christopher Nolan endeared a certain kind of superhero fanboy who wanted to dress up their dark affinity for Batman in an intellectual, very serious packaging. While I will certainly go to bat for those films, there is nothing inherently “mature” about this fan approach. […]
There’s a reason the Star Wars petitioner personality gets saddled with the “basement dweller” stereotype. It’s not a fair one and probably not even accurate (which is scary, imagining them as full-grown adults with jobs and stuff), but it happens because making those comments are absolutely the tonal equivalent of a self-serious tween boy yelling, “MOM, GET OUT OF MY ROOM, I’M SUPER SERIOUS.” It is always in the desperation to be taken seriously that we make ourselves the joke. But embracing our kid-like sensibilities, along with all the sadness and range life has to offer, is maturity itself. It’s understanding we can be silly and make fun of ourselves just as much as we can be anything else […] it is often the people who feel weakest that most cling to empowerment fantasies to off-set how they really feel in life. So while we have the romanticized image that it’s an escape for nerdly torment of the ’80s, there is also a dark-side to that expression that sees entertainment as a kind of revenge on life itself.
Film Crit Hulk goes on:
What this gets to is the bigger question of how we see “ourselves,” within a narrative. […] Understanding what we want is at the heart of everything.
For instance, I was having a conversation with one of my local bartenders I love. […] The Last Jedi is the first time I have ever seen him incensed. He kept yelling at us and talking about all the things that were so “stupid” about the film […] He finally just yelled, “I felt like the film was making fun of me!”
And there it was. […] But to everyone who wants the power fantasy, they can only shout in response, “this doesn’t make me feel the way I want to feel!”
Finally, FCH does end on a rather political note about this, but you can go read the whole review for yourself. FCH sees film as inescapably political, and as having political power to effect social change, so that films have a responsibility to model the kind of world we want to live in. This is historicist, one should think — there are no pre-existing patterns of meaning that are simply “there” to be discovered and lived into, but only meanings made by our political agency, or peculiar to the current moment. There may be another myth in the background of FCH’s account (–and there may not be one), but if it’s there, it’s hidden in the background, and keeps out of sight.
2.) It is true that there are many mythical and religious elements blended into the original recipe for Star Wars. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, was influenced by Buddhist and Christian archetypes (the man described himself once as a “Zen Methodist”, and I’ve heard other variations on this self-description). Further, the writings of Joseph Campbell were famously important. It is not clear that this is sufficient to make something a myth; all that can be safely said is that this can give something mythological motifs.
3.) What is a myth? I would hazard to say that myths are narrative patterns that offer symbolic expression of the general order and purpose of the world (often through origin stories). These narrative patterns generate actual stories that root the normative social organization of a society and its ordering practices (customs, taboos, more formalized rituals, &c.) of a society outside of time, whether in primordial history or something else.
The element of ritual is key for myth; there can be no myth without ritual expression; rituals have no power if they do not return one to the order set forth in myth. Myths are usually ritually recited at festival moments. They offer archetypes upon which we pattern our shared life, and by which we can recognize a hero or heroine.
There is no organic, folk-driven holiday to spur this on for Star Wars; it is not naturally a part of Thanksgiving here in the US or any other holiday elsewhere in the world. “Star Wars Day” (the 4th of May, so that people can say “May the fourth be with you!”) has an unclear pedigree, and seems to be the practice of no people as a people, but the habit of a consumer group, and a top-down occasion for marketing Star Wars products by Lucasfilm.
4.) One should not confuse the feeling of being charmed (an effect that can be manipulated through techniques) with an object holding the essential status of being mythical (something that cannot be engineered through techniques). The feeling of pleasure can be induced through drugs and otherwise manufactured, even when it is not welcome at a certain moment; the feeling that something is meaningful or just or even holy cannot be taken away when it is felt, or produced when it is felt to be absent. A sense that something is holy is not easily thwarted by rational arguments to the effect that it is merely ordinary, secular. Similarly, a court can rule that others have not harmed you when you deem that they have, but the unanimity of many reputable judges cannot easily manipulate this feeling of injustice and make it go away. A college frat boy can spike his roommates’ orange juice, however, and get him in the party spirit, can make him charmed by the situation — but one cannot generate a sense of meaning so easily.
5.) As for being charmed: most people seem to find the original Star Wars trilogy quite charming. The special effects and operatic score for Star Wars are part of the special effects project that creates a sense of scale; this is technical, and part of the charm of Star Wars.
As Film Crit Hulk argues: this is about texture, not text. He writes:
When the [sale of Star Wars to Disney] started brewing a few years ago, I had a creative friend tell me of a meeting where they were being pitched on the new Disney modus operandi. He reported the following: “if it doesn’t smell, look and feel like Star Wars ’77, they ain’t interested.”
This is an understandable instinct. After all, the biggest complaint with the prequels was that it all felt too polished, hollow and flat. These were, of course, failures of execution more than intent, but that didn’t seem to stop people from adhering to the belief. Not so coincidentally, I just recently just wrote about how we latch onto the “texture” of films while often ignoring their text. But Disney wanted to communicate clearly to the fans that they could rest assured by communicating this critical element of texture. It was as if they were saying, “this will look and feel like what you remember.” Every creative decision seemed to back this up. We’re shooting on 35 millimeter! Behold these demonstrations of practical effects! We’re going to use the designs that are familiar to you! It’s all going to have an earthy, worn-in feel!
The preoccupation with texture is due to the fact that the original trilogy of films was charming, and audiences remember how they felt when watching them. This preoccupation with “how I felt” has led to a preoccupation with recycling iconography, however: in the thirty or so years between the original trilogy and the Disney sequel trilogy, the X Wings are still being used (any in-universe explanation is simply rationalization for the true and ultimate reasons, which have to do with marketing to nostalgia). The story reasons don’t matter, because the real reasons are found in the Disney marketing department.
Certainly, now that Disney owns Lucasfilm, they want to be the provider of a feeling — a return to the feeling of being a little girl wanting to be a princess again, or a return to being a little child watching Luke or Rey be powerful again. As FCH notes, it is about texture, not text.
“Star Wars is too aware of itself”, and the various Lucasfilm departments don’t see this as a problem to be solved. Is that because the aim is to charm people into their seats? –or is the iconography mythical at this point? –but I have suggested that a myth is not a particular narrative, but the pattern of narratives; not a particular set of images, but the pattern by which the images are arranged — and by which our lives find and achieve meaning. Perhaps if one aims at charm through nostalgia, one will focus on repeating the particular set of images (or the texture of a set of images), and so one will inevitably dissolve any mythical pattern that called for such images and held them together. Perhaps.
6.) Is Star Wars mythical? –is it a myth for the modern age?
It certainly has equipped our Western culture with an everyday vocabulary that is symbolically charged (e.g., “don’t go to the dark side!”, &c.), and an iconography of heroes that we can assume others are familiar with, and to which we can refer as a backdrop or prototype for things we are trying to do or talk about.
Also, we grew up playing with the toys; the ritual elements of play to re-enact the mythic story is not totally unlike the ritual expression of myth — one that adults cannot re-enter without difficulty (games, arguably, do not serve this role; screen time kills empathy, and while ritual does not reduce to shared feeling, it includes it both as a significant prerequisite and byproduct of the ritual). Myths get extended through the improvised patterning-after that human lives can exhibit of the archetypes expressed in those myths; the ritual play of children with Star Wars toys in the early 1980s does something like this in shared imagined space between friends. Didn’t Gareth Edwards, at one point in his behind-the-scenes videos on Rogue One, say something to the effect that, by making a Star Wars movie, he felt like a kid who got to play with his Star Wars toys?
Modern children do not have anything quite like this as a normative play experience (sports or video games for them, until Dungeons & Dragons — see Stephen Colbert and Vox on this); to the degree they do, it is Marvel comics characters.
Children playing with toys is quite a far cry from a community engaged in shared ritual activity at festival moments, however, and no number of cosplay-riddled Star Wars conventions (a consumer activity, not a community activity) can bridge the gap. It may be that the feeling of myth is acquired by the similarity that playing with toys has to ritual activity’s expressing & extending myth.
7.) As noted in (1.), there are Star Wars fans who regard it with the aura that is usually reserved for myth, and this explains the degree of frustration they feel with Star Wars media when it does not hold together well (as the quote from Eliade in (1.) states clearly); they demand more coherence and inspiration from the franchise than anyone ever would of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It’s not just that audience members have an idea about how the movie should have been, and they’re being petty (although that happens): it’s that, in a secular age, we have so few explicit myths that can give us meaning, and people want what they hold to be a myth to make sense. Myths are never mere movies, but part of the culture. This is why serious thinkers post videos seriously critiquing the underlying symbolism of Star Wars, why people at JSTOR can compile a list of heterogeneous opinions from critics about how seriously Star Wars should be taken, and why even Catholic bishops are commenting on the movies — though it does not require much searching to find Evangelical Protestant (or Jewish, or any other religious tradition) comparing & contrasting their tradition with what is found in Star Wars. Lucas wanted to invite this kind of reflection.
This doesn’t mean that Star Wars is myth, and not entertainment, but it does go a way towards explaining a few of the behaviors of those who hold Star Wars to be myth, even if they don’t understand that they regard it as myth.
8.) To see Star Wars as mythical, it appears one must grow up with it. (This is partly the upshot of (6.), it seems.) The people who were introduced to Star Wars in adulthood typically see it merely as a franchise. Those of us who grew up with it have it as part of our identity, so that, as director James Mangold tweeted (Mangold was going to direct a Star Wars movie about a character called Boba Fett until that movie project was canceled early on), making a new Star Wars movie is like writing another chapter of the Bible — and directors run the risk of stoning.
At the point when work writing & directing big franchises has become the emotionally loaded equivalent of writing a new chapter of The Bible (w/ the probable danger of being stoned & called a blasphemer), then a lot of bolder minds r gonna leave these films 2 hacks & corp boards.
— Mangold (@mang0ld) July 5, 2018
Traditions are things that usually have some kind of buy-in for those who are not raised on them (some buy-ins have universal appeal, and some people never arrive at a condition to approach the buy-in costs of some communities and practices), and, at this point, most of us were raised on Star Wars. I cannot remember the first time I watched a Star Wars film, and those for whom this franchise is so charged are usually the same.
Indeed, if reason and historical consciousness (likely two of the key hallmarks of the “adulthood” that the modern period regards itself as having grown into) reveal the manufacturing process of a Star Wars movie, it may run against the mythical simplicity with which children so often receive things — as though they came to us unmediated. Knowing how movies are made lives uncomfortably next to mythical receptivity. As Colin Trevorrow, the director who was originally going to direct Episode IX, noted back in 2018:
“When we know how Star Wars movies are made, we think of them as just movies, but they’re not just movies, they’re much, much more than that” and because “they came to us [as children] from a galaxy far, far away”,
it’s important not to affect how people see the films by revealing too much of the backroom production. Historical consciousness may erode mythical consciousness.
9.) Assuming that Star Wars is –or ever was– not a franchise, but an institution, and a pop-culture mirror for many of our aspirations, it is likely losing that role.
The YouTube channel Midnight’s Edge has a longer video on this here, and suggests that the boxes that Star Wars once checked –excluding the hero’s journey– are now superseded by the Marvel brand, especially in international markets, but also domestically, and this is reflected in the costumes and toys children demand and buy. See (7.).
If Star Wars is not an institution, but entertainment, it is also lagging behind Marvel — look at the box office returns for the respective franchises over the past five or six films. The fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is often compared to Disney Star Wars invites the comparison between the two to be made at multiple levels. There are articles by Slate and The Ringer comparing the Marvel and Star Wars properties that I won’t summarize here. The number of YouTube videos comparing the franchises is very high.
10.) Star Wars has always drawn on the politics of the time to say timeless things, even if the iconography of the original trilogy was marked by its historical index. (For example, 1977 Star Wars was only thirty years away from World War II, and the uniforms of the Empire look like Nazi uniforms; that 1977 movie was closer in time to WWII than we are to 1977). The recent movies, however, have become divisive, and it appears that they are being seen –both by identitarian progressives and conservative reactionaries– as part of the politics of the time, so that support (or criticism) of the recent movies, or characters in the movies, is interpreted as a political stand in the present against other members of our own culture.
I should think that this is not something that a successful myth could ever be accused of doing, for a myth necessarily unifies the people group who hold to the myth and ritually re-enact it. Beyond that, I leave Star Wars’ past and present political elements to the reader — with one note.
The original trilogy reflected many of the themes of the Vietnam War generation, and the democratic battle against state Communism; it did not present this, however, in a way that made it merely one part of the politics of the time, but transfigured these events into perennial expressions of perennial problems about human nature and the pitfalls that stable and peaceful polities and regimes are always threatened by. The prequel trilogy, and especially the much more successful The Clone Wars series, attempted to complicate the way that politics affects moral choices, character development, and the commitment to hold to spiritual principles. Both of these dealt with perennial issues. However, trying to make these movies “relevant” –whether by the studios or in the minds of fans– trying to make these spiritual themes of good and evil part of our modern-day petty squabbles, can only help any mythic elements — if they are there — to dissolve.
11.) Star Wars is now fan fiction — literally. The people who are making it are not Lucas, and though they seem to be aware of the products that have been released over the decades (products that are now no longer official), and they do not seem to be interested in the source materials (certainly not the spiritual elements, but neither the political, as they are now either not able to write cautious morality tales about how democracies can die through demagoguery, or else they are not interested). The people in charge are merely people who grew up enjoying it. It should have been obvious from before Episode VII (The Force Awakens), but I first remember hearing this aptly said by Phil Hartshorne here and here.
If one thinks that Star Wars was a myth, then the only reasonable hope is that the people who work on this franchise would sink roots into Jungian archetypes and Buddhist psychology and the themes of Christian knighthood and samurai ethics and Taoist cosmology, in order to extend the franchise from the sources. The roots in Flash Gordon are pulp elements, not at the heart of things, if one takes the mythical approach. Break with mere repetition of iconography, or Star Wars will just be a jumble of remembered imagery and impressions, a cycle of repetition and decay.
If one thinks that Star Wars is just entertainment, however, then none of this matters, as the franchise simply needs to be profitable to Disney shareholders, and occasionally to be amusing to audience goers. (Star Wars’ roots in Flash Gordon become much more important here.) Perhaps, also, the various special interests groups –who would like to see this-or-that message promoted through major media distribution platforms– will hope that Disney Lucasfilm can be bought, so that the groups’ interests can find an outlet. Perhaps also, those who cling to the franchise through affections that have never received the seeds of reason can finally make the earth of their hearts receptive to the truth of the immaturity and potential moral failure of their own attachment.
Essentially myth, or essentially entertainment? You must decide which it is, dear reader.
Header image: from Entertainment Weekly, but found here