I remember the early trepidation people had when Disney bought Star Wars in 2012. As for me? I wasn't worried. Disney would treat the same way the company had been handling the , and Marvel fans seemed pretty happy with how that was chugging along.
But here we are several years into Disney's approach to a galaxy far, far away. And I was right on one level: Disney is handling Star Wars much in the same way they handled Marvel. I was wrong, however, about it working. Disney's treatment of Marvel may have been ideal for that cinematic universe, but a similar approach isn’t working for the land of Jedi and lightsabers.
With the MCU, almost everything is tied together. All of the films are working toward a larger goal, with tiny references and mentions of the larger universe scattered throughout (all the many, MANY hints about the Infinity Stones over the years have fans excited for what’s to come). Each connecting thread is knitting a path that will join together with characters, events, and even plots all converging in a warm snuggly sweater with pretty jewels. Or something like that.
For Star Wars, instead of working toward events in the future, most of the connections seek to remind us of events long past. The recent Star Wars films are calling back to events that have happened already, events that even has shown have fallen, forgotten, into myth and fairy tale. One thing The Force Awakens does quite well is how it takes heroes like Luke and totally diminishes their role in the universe of the films - they may be heroes in our world, but they are mostly forgotten in-universe.
Why then, does The Force Awakens continue to give us little connections to those adventures, if even the people in the film aren’t totally aware if such events are even real? Part of it is nostalgia. Look, there's holochess! Again! As if, in this huge galaxy, there is only one game that is ever played and it must be played in every single Star Wars film or else people will somehow forget that they are watching a Star Wars movie, and laser off their Star Wars tattoos, and stop showing up to midnight releases, and burn all their merchandise like it's Darth Vader's funeral.
Again, it seems that Disney is trying to treat Star Wars in the same way they handle Marvel. And for me, the most disappointing movie in terms of universe building was probably . The first spin-off story had a chance to actually take Star Wars places it had never been before. Now true, it never was going to deviate that far from the other films with its steal-the-Death-Star-plans plot, but it had the possibility to take chances the other films probably couldn't.
It just didn't really capitalize on that. Take moments like running into the two aliens from the Tatooine Bar. It's almost as egregious as what Peter Jackson did with his Hobbit trilogy where he shoehorned in everything he could to remind people it was the same universe.
With Rouge One, Disney had the opportunity to present its freshest and furthest-from-the-original-trilogy story yet, and it still felt the need to, again, call back to the original films. It did the opposite of what the spin-off films should be doing. It wasn't expanding the Star Wars universe. It was shrinking it. It was tying it up with a bow and connecting it to other parts of the pre-existing world, making everything feel smaller. Universes shouldn’t feel small. That’s why they are, you know, universes.
This problem has even seeped into the extended Star Wars universe off-screen, as well. I read the Ahsoka novel last fall, and among Ahsoka's own narration lie scenes with Senator Organa and a younger Leia. Because, again, much like Marvel, everything in Star Wars needs that tie to the larger fictional universe, and that tie back to Luke and Leia and the original trilogies. Apparently. (At least the novel did have a new game people played!)
And such scenes can be interesting, and when done correctly offer fans cool moments of nostalgia. But nostalgia is a powerful... well, force, and needs to be wielded correctly. Every Star Wars property does not need some tie back to Luke, Leia, or Han in order to exist. Even Star Wars Rebels (there's probably an argument to be made that Clone Wars and Rebels are the best at expanding outwards, but that's a whole other article) doesn't waste much time before throwing R2-D2 and C-3PO into the mix. We know we are watching Star Wars. We don't need to be constantly reminded of that fact. All the little nods to the larger universe may have worked for Marvel, but they aren’t working for the Star Wars films.
Am I arguing against looking at old characters in new ways? Nope. Of course not. The upcoming Han Solo film - for example - could be great. I’m excited for it, and it could be a chance for Disney to use the Marvel formula in a good way. The Avengers have had successful individual movies, and there’s no reason that Disney couldn’t remove Han from his more respectable days during the Rebellion and have a film that just uses him as a starting point to then dive into new parts of the galaxy. Or using Han could keep everything firmly tied together as it has been so far. We’ll have to see.
Another solution, albeit one that it doesn’t look like will happen anytime soon, would be for Star Wars to actually take a stark departure from the original movies, and create a film that is entirely unconnected from what we have seen before, but just set in the same universe. Look at how wildly different Thor’s movies are from Iron Man’s, for example. Star Wars Rebels - in some form - could almost be seen as a mini experiment of this idea, at least as far as characters go, but it’s also stuck in the same ‘We can’t get away from this time period directly connected to the trilogy mindset’ that everything else seems to be. (There’s also the possibility that Star Wars is building to , but we’ll have to wait and see how that shakes out).
Looking ahead at the , there are other chances for Disney to really let loose with the series, and to start to move away from the original trilogy that has continued to be the go-to defining experience for what Star Wars can mean. But it's up to them if they decide to start having true stand alone stories that actually make Star Wars feel like a livable, breathable universe, and not just one that keeps rotating around the same cast of characters with the same references to the same events ad nauseam.
It's a big galaxy out there. It's about time we actually see some more of it.