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I'll try not to make this another "the secret Marxist themes of X" piece, but I want to discuss these media franchises as vehicles of Marxian economic reality, and how it applies not just to culture and the arts, but as a reflect of modes of production and consumption, and how the state of a fandom can be a barometer of media-cultural health in a society. Plus, I just like Star Wars. This piece just seeks to propose some alternative, perhaps speculative, critical readings of the franchise's direction, both in and above of the narrative.
When the first movie of the prequel trilogy of Star Wars came out, I was in 4th grade and was psyched, it had everything, I was certain the next two would be fantastic. I enjoyed Attack of the Clones, but having had to wait for the third for so long, I was exhausted by the idea of seeing the third, and didn't for many years until I rented it and loved it. I considered the prequels to be fantastic, creative, and unintentionally validating (not to mention enhancing) of George Lucas' dubious claims about how much of the story existed at the time of the original trilogy. I repeated this cycle recently with the sequel trilogy, which didn't see Rise of Skywalker until a couple weeks ago out of, both, exhaustion and a certain belief it'd be terrible, based on the passable job modifying the now-sidelined EU canon for Episode VII, and the absolute incosnistency and lack of any real substance in VIII. I was wrong for a few key reasons, and while Skywalker was panned by some for this almost forceful recommitment to the Expanded Universe, it was probably what made the sequel trilogy worth making at all. I'll discuss this more in depth further down, but it's the entry that, combined with Rogue One (which, before I saw Skywalker, I was maintaining the entire legacy of the franchise had been sustained by it and Solo), finally sees the franchise deal with the dialectic.
One thing that gets brought up often when discussing the prequels is that the dialogue is kind of, well, cringe in many places, simplistic motivations are applied to seemingly not very complex characters put into seemingly very complex circumstances, and the logistics are unimaginable from the physics of even a force-sensitive Jedi power battle to the fronts of the Clone Wars. This, I'd argue, is probably one of the more realistic elements of the franchise, if you're meant to understand this as some sort of analogy for real life sociopolitics: you're watching a film adaptation of what would be the mythology of this universe. Fantastic heroes, inexplicable feats, every action is a parable, on and on and on, until the point where it connects with your present day understanding (which, then Solo and Rogue One fill in, to an even greater degree, to literally the moment A New Hope starts).
The sequel trilogy deals with many themes, too many themes, and often not very well, but the one that persists in the main conflict between Rey and Kylo Ren is that the Jedi Order was ill-concieved in its resurrection. "I was wrong" Luke tells Rey, as she nearly gives in to defeat, running from the force, many years after the failure of his own leadership results in the turning of Ben Solo to the dark side. The sequels bring back a very popular mechanism from the Expanded Universe novels, only hinted at in the original trilogy, but used extensively in the fiction that the Force is a holistic system in the galaxy that Jedis can fully articulate to communicate with each other to varying levels of presence, up to and including physical contact, combat, the area surrounding them. This is made extensive use of in the final two films. It's something that features prominently in the New Jedi Order series of books, as is the notion of the Jedi as an order in need of serious spiritual, ethical, and ideological realignment with their priorities in the galaxy.
The Force Awakens seems to borrow heavily from this series, as it does the Jedi Academy series, wherein Sith Lord Exar Kun draws in Kyp Durron, one of Luke's pupils in the new Jedi order, much like Snoke does the Knights of Ren in the sequels. Ultimately, Durron is saved, and becomes a committed member of the order, however, in these stories, this is just one of many such misunderstandings of what makes the light so easy to stray from, and the dark so powerful, attractiveness aside.
It'd be very easy to blame Disney for the failures of many elements of the current state of the franchise; for all the adulation, contributions from Disney like The Mandalorian were visually and thematically so indistinct from, for example, Marvel media on Disney+, for example, or int he cinematic universe. This, in and of itself, isn't the problem, as much as it is homogenous, irrespective of how entertaining the result is) that it makes it almost immaterial that it's a franchise 45 years old that should have its own distinct cultural import just as an 83-year-old comics empire should as well. I bring this up to say that the prequels couldn't have happened had this stewardship by a media conglomerate happened sooner, and the sequels could've just as easily been irradiated of its significance as a franchise if J.J. Abrams hadn't stepped in to conclude the trilogy properly after an entry that was fine, but introduced so many storylines and plot elements that it could never hope to justify narratively in one remaining film.
Where Abrams failed with Star Trek was that it was always continuous with the world we live in now's material reality, the politcs were recognizable, and the visual style of his Trek film was totally appropriate for a futurist spin on newsreel combat footage, almost an unironic use of the methods and style of Starship Troopers– it doesn't work for a series that's meant to be a Maoist critique of neoliberal social utopia where the action is secondary to the aesthetic and political milieu. However, he made the Trek film Shatner would've loved to have been in during his run as James T. Kirk; it established that Abrams had the focus and deftness to make such a film with extensive lore behind it. With the Force Awakens and again with Skywalker, he took what kept people energized about the franchise from the Expanded Universe to make a movie that was comprehensible to new viewers (it was, after all, a franchise originally marketed to children, meant to be understood as childen) but also to those so deep into the lore that they might be giving themselves brain damage. The type of person Chuck Klosterman describes thusly:
“There was a time in our very recent history when it was “interestin g” to be a Star Wars fan. It was sort of like admitting you masturbate twice a day, or that your favorite band was They Might Be Giants. Star Wars was something everyone of a certain age secretly loved but never openly recognized; I don’t recall anyone talking about Star Wars in 1990, except for that select class of über geeks who consciously embraced their sublime nerdiness four years before the advent of Weezer (you may recall that these were also the first people who told you about the Internet).”
Lucas, himself, as Klosterman explains, didn't quite understand that beyond his intention of making an accessible moral message to children, it would speak to the first of successive generations that would no longer have distinct lines between childhood and adulthood and contending with shifting goalposts of what it means to be good:
“Third-graders didn’t want to be gritty and misunderstood; third-graders wanted to be Mark Hamill. And even though obsessive thirty-year-old fans of the trilogy hate to admit it, these were always kids’ movies. Lucas is not a Coppola or a Scorsese or even a De Palma—he makes movies that a sleepy eight-year-old can appreciate.2 That’s his gift, and he completely admits it. “I wanted to make a kids’ film that would…introduce a kind of basic morality,” Lucas told author David Sheff. And because the Star Wars movies were children’s movies, Hamill had to be the center of the story. Any normal child was going to be drawn to Skywalker more than Solo. That’s the personality we swallowed.”
I won't litigate my frequently-raised point that Gen X got a better deal than successive generations (as Klosterman sort of dances around, perhaps guilty of this himself to an extent, they basically get to be arrested as edgy teens now even into their 50's), but it was the first time that a major media franchise grew with its audience into all the places it went (casual media consumer, media gluttons, metanarrative obsessives), and is now a signifier for a certain type of media that cna be enjoyed on those levels.
I think the criticism of Disney here is something along these lines: this diversity of viewership styles, engagement, type of story, format, etc. is no longer a thing– the trajectory, absent Abrams, before and since this last film, was a homogenizing one that made it a brand, rather than a discrete franchise, one of many from Disney's other properties, a button on Disney+ next to its other properties that also use to be discrete franchises, that wouldn't offer the identical experience from consuming media that is directed from the top of the corporation, not creatively, to result in a specific type of sellable product, which it does, but seems to miss the point for all of these stories, not just Star Wars. This is a hyperprominent example of what capitalism does to art all the time because it's not only extremely popular franchises that have become more profitible while becoming more homogenous and of more dubious substance while the rationale for enjoying them has become more complicated metaphysically (mitigating phrases like guilty pleasure, "brain off", et. al) and less rigorous on burned out (to the point that media is exhausting) consumers who just want to chill.
Philosopher Jay Bernstein wrote, re: Adorno's Culture Industry, “Illusory universality is the universality of the art of the culture industry, it is the universality of the homogeneous same, an art which no longer even promises happiness but only provides easy amusement as relief from labour.”– a common refrain of late is "let people enjoy things", which typically means getting defensive about consumption and enjoyment of so-called "low culture", rather than seeing value in the work you consume that might not be rigorous, but is worth the effort for its enjoyment value. You're not just watching it because it's on is now, under capitalism, a concept that rarely applies to casual media consumption; "media" now requires a rigor that life in capitalism makes you feel is unproductive, and perhaps that's why even the pale shadow of more from well-made, enjoyable universes is so appealing, but simultaneously something many are defensive about. I think that's the present state of most franchise media, acquired by conglomerates, divorced from original context, divorced from distinctiveness from other franchies, now owned by conglomerates.
This takes us back to where finally the consumer tolerance starts to reach its limits; an example is when Disney announced that the Star Wars canon would be modified, and so heavily that almost all of the expanded universe (upon which much of the new media is based on, which narratively, makes some sense to do, but not for the reasons it was done) was made non-canon, hundreds of books and games rebranded as Legends, in order to rehash the film chronology, and create media continuous with it, which is, both, limiting of what can be created in a new expanded universe, but also a material shift to what fans may have enjoyed so deeply about said franchise. I mentioned The New Jedi Order series earlier, and this is an example of such a thing: the Yuuzhan Vong were represented in dozens of stories, and are remembered as some of the most memorable stories in the expanded universe, and now are non-canon. This bounceback, part of which was the last film, included the reinclusion of many storylines and species, etc. from this expanded universe back into the canon in new media.
As insignificant as this seems, it speaks to larger trends in how media is produced, consumed, discussed, and then, yes, extended by fandom as an extension of media expressions like creation and consumption, and the dampening is a direct result of capitalism's influence on how and what media is produced and by whom. A (false) argument that speaks to the total brainworming of, both, these mega franchises, but also consumers of them is that MCU films are required for the solvency to produce independent/more depthful fare, but that's not only not the problem (because you shouldn't have to justify your enjoyment, even if the kneejerk reaction is to get defensive about it when you know the quality is implosive), it excuses what is the problem. As I've written extensively about before, conglomerates subsume what is organically attractive about media, and turns franchise media into signifier for a certain type of entertainment, that then violates the form of said form of entertainment by offering nothing.
Something like the DC universe (still highly guilty of this same tendency) is a good example of some measure of parity between fandom, media, and adaptations maintaining somewhat responsive to sentiment, and maybe it's because the conglomeration isn't at the scale/mechnicization of a Disney, for example, that it has remained such, so you wind up in a bind like this where rich media properties like Star Wars has all this depth of engagement that is being necessarily invalidated for the purposes of recommoditzation rather than marketing what about it has been a consistent sell. It's an example of where productivity under capitalism means the quickest buck, for the least amount of effort on the part of the proft-earning class. It's ironic that our most popular and profit-generating art in society is what best exemplifies the effect that profit-motive as a first order concern in art has on the production of it, as I've said.
Debord wrote in Society of the Spectacle, “The loss of quality that is so evident at every level of spectacular language, from the objects it glorifies to the behavior it regulates, stems from the basic nature of a production system that shuns reality. The commodity form reduces everything to quantitative equivalence. The quantitative is what it develops, and it can develop only within the quantitative.”– this homogeneity is unnatural, counter to natural modes of human production and consumption of culture (that is, to say, productively and collectively). “The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender “lonely crowds.” Debord wrote. This passivity engendered by this homogenous nature of media has one purpose, as a function of being the perfect capitalist vehicle, to defuse participation in dialectical materialism. Stay with me here.
An irony about Disney, perhaps a larger one than Walt Disney (and Ray Kroc, for that matter) at one time identifying as a democratic socialist, is that in the 1990s, it produced many children's media pieces that not only reflected Marxian political reality, but a Marxist response to that reality. It does so in examples I've written about before (linked) from The Mighty Ducks, to The Mighty Ducks 2, to Blank Check, to films distributed by Disney like Kazaam. While not depictions of overt Maoist practice to be certain, these are firm examples of contradiction, synthesis, and practice in a capitalist system that engenders the sort of inequalities relevant/recognizable in parable to American children in the 1990s. These weren't overtly radical movies, or indicative of any kind of hidden Marxist messaging, as is so commonly alleged about XY and Z franchises, but ironically enough, the positive identification of dialectical reasoning with Marxian economic reasoning is telling, and that it informs projected parallels to the Marxism of the viewers is validating of those elements relating to real problems in real places with some applied version of some related political tendency . The Rise of Skywalker, too, albeit at a very high level approaching this theorhetical framework and applied to ideology writ large, is an example of Disney distributing media that does this, and this is notable for the Star Wars franchise for being the first film to wrestle with the notion of contradiction and practice, just as The New Jedi Order has characters struggle with this as well (notably Anakin Skywalker II during the Yuuzhan Vong war, considering what, if any, role Jedi practice should have in a war where the balance of the force risks becoming imbalanced, rather than rebalancing it): without going too deeply into the plot, the arc of the series headed towards answering what is to be done with the Jedi Order, and does its ideology serve the needs of peace and freedom in the galaxy.
The short answer is that, no, it doesn't, and the franchise's arc sets precedent that a rigid ideology's conception of justice allows one to simply hide and give up, flatten peacefulness into idle apathy masked as pacifism. In the film, the concept of a Force Dyad is named, and it represents the ability to resolve the contradiction that, hence, becomes "balance to the force" in all its precariousness as we saw over 8 previous films– resolving that contradiction, synthesizing a productive path forward is what the dialectic achieves, when the synthesis serves the ends of the society/parties doing this work, not necessarily anticipating every roadblock, but the practice informs navigating that path through contradiction, rather than necessitating that they become new contradictions that are not dealt with in the dialectic. Backing up further, the contradiction, the conflict itself, at the core of the stories, what the franchise became aside for a moment, is one between a well-defined ethos of what it means to be good, and what about being evil engenders looser distinctions of morality, almost as if reasoning towards justification is a trait of evil, rather than reasoning through contradiction, which is the purpose of this process to begin with. The path to becoming evil in this universe is not unlike Dante's Inferno in that it involves an escalating series of sinful transgressions against yourself and others, and this is how the evildoers ascend to power (and descend into what is eventually revealed as the looming damnation when a great Satan comes to collect on all the influence you thought you were accruing). Star Wars is the dialecticspilling of Dante, if you'll allow me to be annoying for a moment.
The bind fans and Disney find themselves in, alike, is that Disney acquired total control of the franchise, but virtually no control of the content; unlike Marvel, which accepts a multiverse, for example, wherein anyone who owns the IP at any time can do whatever they want and it really can't run afoul of the canon and opinions of fans, because it's the ultimate capitalist media project in that way, Star Wars has an almost authoritarian metaphysical proposition to consuming its extended universe in any real way. Invalidating the canon is the only way to capitalize on the acquired media's characters without having to invent new stories to any real extent free of the strictures of a preexisting, and fan-zealotry-supported canon. So, to me, it's interesting that the ideology of the franchise would become even more pointed going toward the question of what it means to be ethical, for contradiction and practice to be reconciled with the in-universe ideological question before thre Jedi, because the result was largely complicated but good for the media.
I'll use one last example to illustrate one last interpretation of the in-universe ideology: In the TV series Boston Legal clever defense attorney Alan Shore takes the case of a woman challenging her court-appointed conservator, who is exploiting her assets and knowingly is doing so illegitimately (as she is of sound mind. Shore ultimately prevails using his unconventional methods, which in this case, meant threatening illegitimate violence to prevent the further exploitation of his client (an old woman). Alan Shore mourns at the end that his solution wasn't "more clever", he feels guilt for resorting to violence, but what other option was there? The court was content to let the exploitation continue, absent any consideration for morality he wasn't going to stop exploiting Alan's client, so as Stalin might have (and correctly) argued: fascists have consented to be treated by a just society the way they would advocate treating those subject to their own justice. This is no contradiction; it's consent to be adjudicated by one's own ethics, and not that of the society whose rule of law, not to mention its ethics, has been subverted. Alan Shore represents a perfect kind of Western liberal in his remorse for his actions, rather than the actions themselves: had he not acted, he would have cognitively felt moral tolerating the exploitation as a function of upholding a larger system that he considers largely just and willing to prevent other, unnamed, larger exploitative practice, rather than acting as a critical social thinker might and finding what is possible, rather than identifying a path to explaining why it's actually not. This is similar to the conflict of the remaining Jedi, Rey, and the remaining Dark Lord, Kylo Ren, in this sequel trilogy, just like it is for many expanded universe iconoclasts who succeed Luke in the renewed Jedi Order, distinct from the abuses of the Old Republic's contending of the Dark Side– the conflict is between light and dark, that dark exploits the legitimate vulnerabilities of rage and sadness and any number of other negative human traits to justify evil, but what is the light doing to temper the equally human responses to this? Well, because the dark finds it so easy to exploit, the answer is clearly nothing– it offers nothing anondyne in coping with these impulses, except a beseechment to a (similar to Gene Roddenberry's in Star Trek re: the Vulcans) misunderstanding of stoicism. It'd be correct, if it were possible to actually purge these emotions, but it's not, and resolving that conflict is important for human growth, which is ultimately the overarching philosophical question about the sequel trilogy, if the Jedi can be matured into doing this kind of dialectical reasoning to stop the dark side from manipulating those vulnerable from a sense of being unheard and unserved ideologically, but guilty for feeling these things at all.