With today being the annual Star Wars Day (May 4) and the release of The Last Jedi film later this year, Dr Nathan Hunt, Senior Lecturer in Film and Media, discusses why fans celebrate and adore the popular franchise.
Even among the most recognisable characters and fictional worlds of the cinema, even amongst its most promoted and profitable franchises, popular cultural phenomena don’t get much bigger than Star Wars. One would have to travel far off the beaten track to find someone who could not recognise any of its characters, settings or spaceships and further still for someone to find one who had not heard of the franchise at all.
Star Wars’ fame and popularity can be understood by considering that some popular phenomena are simply bigger than the sum of their parts and Star Wars has meanings for audiences that come to life outside of the films that produced them, appearing in and influencing countless other aspects of popular culture.
What does Star Wars mean to fans?
Star Wars exists for its audiences, not just as blockbuster movies, but as a set of ideas, images and aesthetics; Jedi Knights and quasi-mystical abilities, lightsabers, space battles, quirky anthropomorphised robots and grand narratives of good versus evil a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Its meanings for many are also nostalgic, with the films offering recollections of the pleasure of discovering Star Wars for the first time, whether in the 70s and 80s with the original trilogy or in 1999 or the early 2000s with George Lucas’ prequels. When we revisit a Star Wars film, we revisit and re-experience these ideas and images and read them back onto the films.
Commercial hype aside, it is no surprise, then, that George Lucas’ ‘prequels’ and Disney’s recent reinvigoration of the franchise generated so much interest. There were only three films available in which audiences could experience this compelling fictional universe and learn more of its lore and stories. When compared to the decades of films and TV produced by that other behemoth of mainstream cult sci-fi Star Trek, the Star Wars films demonstrate a cultural significance disproportionate to their number.
However, in spite of the eagerness with which each new Star Wars film is received, each new film since the first sequel The Empire Strikes Back has famously met with some degree of fan dissatisfaction with a perceived failure of the franchise to live up to these ideas of what Star Wars is. Just as many fans in 1982 were infuriated by Return of the Jedi’s Ewoks, who seemed, to them, included just to please the kids, so again they were annoyed at the comic character of Jar Jar Binks in the 1999 The Phantom Menace.
Such criticisms stemmed from the perception of Star Wars as being dumbed down, selling out its values to appeal to the kids in the family audience. But why should it not? For all its cultural prevalence, Star Wars has never confronted adult ideas in earnest and its appeal has always rested in its escapism.
Star Wars and religion
This is not to say it doesn’t have importance to its audiences. Famously, in the United Kingdom Census of 2001 a little under 1% of the population identified their religion as Jedi, often as a statement of humour as well as a devotion to the film, but a statement that, for many, highlighted the increasing role of popular culture in the meanings of their lives.
Of course, for many audiences there is far more Star Wars available than just the eight movies produced to date. Spin off cartoons, The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, represent the most high profile of these, but a range of video games and a huge array of novels written for both general and specifically youth audiences have expanded the Star Wars story both before, after and in between the films.
What this demonstrates is that, unlike many other areas of knowledge, expertise in popular culture is inherently democratic. Claims to expertise about Star Wars may be made by almost anyone with knowledge of the films or their extended narratives. Furthermore, for the invested, such knowledge is easy to acquire.
What makes a fan?
Of course, some know much more than others, and like fans of anything from football to Harry Potter, knowledge is the currency through which one’s status as a fan is demonstrated. Internet and pub debates abound about who is the most powerful Jedi, whether Darth Vader could beat Yoda in a fight or who Rey’s parents are (this one will actually get an ‘official’ answer) and answers to these questions tend to reveal detailed knowledge of the narratives of the franchise.
However, what the sale of Star Wars to Disney reveals is that this expertise and investment in popular culture is potentially subject to the economic activities of the media industries. Disney’s acquisition of the franchise and its need to create space for further stories has rendered some of the stories produced under the George Lucas’ control, specifically many of the novels and video games, obsolete in order to create narrative space for developing further films and television programmes.
While this is frustrating for some, Star Wars fandom has been democratised again by this. A new generation coming to the franchise can soon find themselves as knowledgeable as those who have lived their love of Star Wars for years.
Moreover, in characters such as Rey we find female protagonists breaking out of the traditions of male heroes (princesses shouldn’t always need rescuing), offering new ideas and meanings for Star Wars audiences to celebrate on Star Wars Day.
May the 4th be with you!