The end of the Skywalker Saga. A story that has been a massive part of my life since the earliest days of my childhood came to an end last night. As I sat in a theater packed with three generations of family and friends, we travelled one more time to a galaxy far, far away and immersed ourselves in the action, adventure, and nostalgia of the Star Wars universe. It is a story that we as a family, as a society, and as a culture have shared over these past 42 years, and it has been a magical ride.
But that ride has not been perfect. After the success of the original trilogy in the late 70s and early 80s, fans were overwhelmed with excitement when the production of a new prequel trilogy was announced and ultimately launched in 1999. For me personally, where the original movies hit theaters at the beginning of my life, this new trilogy hit at the beginning of my life after college. George Lucas, the mastermind of this cultural empire, set out to not only delight the current mega-fans of the franchise, but to also introduce Star Wars to a new generation of kids around the world. And while the movies made a fortune and had a ton of great moments, many of the hardcore fans were not pleased. Too childish. Too silly. Too far from the “canon” they expected. Kids and casual fans generally loved the movies and enjoyed the ride. These super fans did not. It did not meet their dreams and expectations, and they very vocally voiced their displeasure. Thus began some toxic fandom in the Star Wars universe. And this was before social media.
Fast-forward to 2012 when it was announced that Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise and were launching a new sequel trilogy that would start in 2015. Again… expectations were through the roof. Now those same hardcore fans from the 70s were looking for movies that would right the wrongs of the prequels. The kids who grew up with the prequels were excited to revisit their own childhoods, and Disney also hoped to introduce a new group of kids to the wonder (and merchandise) of Star Wars. And for me… now it was a chance to see the newness of Star Wars through the eyes of my own children.
And again, the result was polarizing. The first movie, The Force Awakens, was a huge box office success, but criticized for being too predictable and too much of a rehash of the originals. The second movie, The Last Jedi, saw the rise of toxic fandom rise to a whole new level. Paralleling the political landscape of these turbulent times, this movie, which set out to “subvert expectation,” divided the fandom and gave rise to a very vocal minority of haters and trolls. Too much “forced diversity.” The mishandling of Luke Skywalker’s character arc. A plot that didn’t follow the first movie. The destruction of childhoods. The world of social media, as too often happens, became a darker place for the Star Wars universe.
So for this final movie, I have been beyond curious for how J.J. Abrams and the good folks at Disney would pull this off. Would they try to please everyone and, if so, could they do it? Well they certainly gave it a valiant effort. Without giving any spoilers, they did successfully bring a definitive conclusion to the stories of each character in all three trilogies. They packed in a ton of action sequences and brought back nostalgia from each generation. And most importantly, they brought out the feels. This movie truly does tug on some heartstrings, creates a few tears, and allows you to leave the theater feeling the magic of Star Wars. Whoever you are. The movie was fun. It was far from perfect. It didn’t ruin my childhood. You should watch it. And I will see it again.
All of this begs the question… is it possible for something like Star Wars… a powerful story and a brand that spans 40+ years to create a product that delights all of its fans? 2 months ago, when I first thought to write this blog, I was prepared to say that it was next to impossible. And then everything changed.
Baby Yoda happened.
In November, Disney launched its streaming service, with its hero offering being “The Mandalorian,” the first live action Star Wars TV show. This series, positioned as a “western” featuring a badass bounty hunter surprised everyone by introducing the most fascinating and surprising Star Wars character in almost 40 years. The Child, lovingly known as “Baby Yoda” in countless memes, tweets, and articles, is a new character shrouded in mystery. He is rich with mythology but has no backstory. He is pure and innocent but immensely powerful. He is overwhelmingly cute but with a not-so-subtle air of danger. He is everything Star Wars fans (and non-fans) have needed but didn’t know they wanted. “Baby Yoda” has united the Star Wars fandom, balancing the rich air of nostalgia, the delight and excitement of the moment, and the anticipation of what is to come. “Baby Yoda,” out of nowhere, has become the future of Star Wars.
How did they do it? Instead of trying to please everyone in the movie world of “Skywalker,” where fans had so many and such differing expectations of what should change and what should stay the same, they created something new. That something was still wrapped in the mythology and the spirit of Star Wars, but unburdened with the expectations of the past. They literally gave a rebirth to the Force of Star Wars and found a way to create a character, a story, and a future that new and old fans could support.
So can a brand like Star Wars, which has been a cultural phenomenon for 40 years, adapt and evolve to tell new stories into the future? It can. Not through trying to change what is already powerful and loved, but by creating something new and fresh that evokes those old and new feelings of the magic that originally created the power and love. While it is time for the Skywalker story that started “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” to finally end, the universe is infinite for new stories that evoke a Force of familiar feelings.
May the Force be with You.
Mike Thomas is the Chief Innovation Officer at Upstream 360 and aspiring Jedi. He has no affiliation with Disney or Lucasfilm, beyond being a lifelong obsessive fan.
Post originally published at upstream360.com