“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.)