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The Rise of Disney and the Future of Fantasy in the Shadow of the Empire

When I first saw The Force Awakens after a fully funded summer media apparatus of hype in the winter of 2015, I remember the following Christmas morning my mother turned the corner, threw me a Force Awakens pillow, and coldly chuckled “Merry Christmas.” It was a good joke — like many the Force is moderately strong in my family — but it left me to wonder, what Christmas spirit at Walmart possessed my Mom to buy me this gift? I suspect my mother may have unknowingly become a Disney market research statistic. But after the last five years and our predestined Rise of Skywalker, I am largely left to ask the same question.

A lot has happened since 2015. We have a president made by the caustic result of our country’s media brain and political systems fully converting our democracy into a reality TV show. Meanwhile, in the larger picture we have seen the “Mouse House” further cement itself in the gang of five major conglomerates that control our media. But what is really going on with our favorite galaxy far, far away? With Disney competing with the likes of Time Warner and Viacom in the Illuminati tee ball game of media monopolies, we have seen with the acquisition of Lucasfilm, Fox, Hulu, and countless others properties the unrepentant pundit class of the global nerd community salivate at the mere mention of Wolverine’s claws. But I am cautious as we walk hand in hand with these media conglomerates, to both their intentions, and the future of our creations. While I do have thoughts to share about the tangible cinematic successes and deep errors contained within The Rise of Skywalker — I have a larger question about the franchise’s future, and the complicated history of its property owners.

I don’t wish to offer a purity test to the industry, the movie business is peak capitalist machine and Disney is just another player in that game. If we look back towards the past and to the creation of the original Star Wars trilogy, though, we see its roots born out of the corporate acquisition of Hollywood in the late ’70s. In the Star Wars documentary Empire of Dreams, there is a discussion of the constant state of conflict during the original trilogy filming between Lucasfilm and 20th Centrury Fox. Ironically, George Lucas laments that despite his hatred of the then new corporate owners of Hollywood, he himself became a corporation in the process. The deep financial successes of Star Wars have in their own right set very steep financial precedents, with a corporate model that is highly researched and adapting to models that best ensure profits. The modern industry has realized that there is a deep craving for underserved identities, for example. However, we may want to question the sincerity of this motivation.

Since the ’70s Hollywood has adapted to a far deeper analytical model towards studies in advertising and the psychology of mass market consumer bases. In suit, Big Disney has worked hard at developing an insular culture that is ideologically autocratic and efficiently profitable. As we reach the end of the decade that birthed the MCU and Reboot Culture as we know it — we can see Disney has used their money to expand the wealth of source material, and to the tummy rumbling number of over $71 billion, we see the deeper-seeded financial incentive with these now realized ideas of “expanded universes,” remakes, and reboots. These acquired properties are the new content farms, where corporations only need to swallow up property rights to a resounding, “please take my money.” Yet, in spite of this unequal relationship, I believe many of us are beginning to question this brave new media landscape.

Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi was considered divisive in both the respectful and the racially-driven-sexist wings of the online Star Wars fandom spectrum. The unfounded side of anger that is leveraged towards the “identity politics” present in the culture of the new Disney films is the weakest leveraged critiques of these films. Yet while I have very mixed feelings about The Last Jedi as a film, the challenge that Johnson’s story presents regarding the legacy of the Jedi offers an interesting parallel to Disney’s own empire of media properties. Because we see there may be far worse precedents being set with The Rise of Skywalker than a fumbled and mismanaged plot.

In The Rise of Skywalker, we can see a deliberate erasure of POC characters within the story arc —  i.e., Rose Tico being written into a Bechdel “plot lamp,” or the redacted quality of Finn’s underdeveloped Force-sensitive narrative with Rey. But we also see a larger erasure in Abrams seemingly retracting Johnson’s proletarian Jedi teaser at the end of The Last Jedi, which begs a larger question about how they will continue to use these stories to speak to us. This is a problem no stranger to the politics of modern Star Wars — or its MCU counterparts, and the desire of fans to be included in the critique of Disney adaptations should not be devalued. But within this reactionary subtext of the writers room, the deeply racist and sexist white nerd outrage seems to have won a dangerous victory.

Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico (not) in The Rise of Skywalker

Meanwhile, the deeper problems with the future of this content remains clouded in the shadows of Disney’s empire. In watching the finished trilogy, it places The Last Jedi’s legacy in a unique context. I can appreciate Johnson’s desire to shake the foundations; I don’t like the idea of sacred material anyway. (Take the bible — the best example of a pre-Hollywood soulless re-adaptation. How many Disney-esque reboots has “The Greatest Story Ever Told” gotten since the King James? Side-note: is god the original Disney Corporation?) But Rian Johnson’s installment suffers from the same structural failures within the story that detracted from the entire trilogy’s more moving and well leveraged plot points and scenes. These failures are not because he took risks but can be traced to the larger problem of the Disney-mandated assimilation, developing Big Disney’s big decade.

My biggest compliment for The Last Jedi was in fact this risk-taking, in light of corporate pressure. I can appreciate the gesture of knocking down the mythos of the Jedi. Yet despite this healthy plot evolution, I feel this whole trilogy has largely failed at brokering an effective introduction to the characters that we are expected to connect ourselves to. This “next generation” of characters and concepts formed in The Force Awakens feels more and more like we are being rushed through an unfamiliar Disneyland — rather than something new that stands on its own merit. My main criticism of The Last Jedi is that it sacrifices exposition for dense lore. The movie misses more than a few thematic jump points from the journey to Canto Bight and back to Captain Holdo’s “Crazy Train” storyline. The uncouth convenience of the plot advancement felt awkward and forced, and felt like they should have been revised before they left the writers room. But somewhere along the way to the rebel stand on Crait, the story found its footing, but at what cost?

Thinking back to the original trilogy, it is in very small moments where we learn about our characters — not through flashbacks and monologue, but through Jawas, droids, and power converters. We can be grounded without big ideas or having it explained to us — and it is in these moments where the characters we know and love come to life. I want to call these the “quiet moments.” For example, in A New Hope when we first see Darth Vader’s smoky boots interrupt Leia’s Peace Train to Alderaan, no one tells us to fear the dark and scary sorcerer. We learn from action, not words, and Star Wars has always succeeded when it was cinematically quiet.

From A New Hope to Return of The Jedi, there is no shortage of these quiet moments where we can stake both criticism and merit toward George Lucas’ love affair with East Asian spiritual philosophy and Akira Kurosawa’s filmography. In conjunction with their mutual inspiration drawn from American westerns, this interplay gave Star Wars its contextual charm. The figures of Jedi, smugglers, and Sith resembled a classical noir tale that worked to endear us to the characters. By virtue of this fact, Star Wars works far more efficiently when it functions as vehicle of a smaller ideology within its thematic core. While there are those deeper classic critiques the original saga’s plot holes and plot recycling, the original saga still largely succeeded whereas the preceding installments largely did not.

Behind the scenes of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

The prequel trilogy shows how terribly some of this source material can crack under pressure. Fans have been bellowing for a decade that perhaps the expanded Star Wars universe is the wiser farm for feeding. Yet even in the 2000s Lucasfilm did not exist in the same draconian distribution landscape we traverse in the modern era. Which begs the a question for the future of Star Wars: Why does Disney’s culture of mass market movies constantly fail to accomplish these “quiet moments” and leave many “thirsty” audience members unmoved? Looking back, the original Star Wars trilogy did not inherit its fan base, nor did it have the expectation to perform at its modern capacity. But neither the prequel trilogy nor the sequels are the first trilogy to suffer from bad writing and ideas. As we have learned in the many decades since A New Hope, the original trilogy was largely saved by the hard work of editors like Marcia Lucas whose criticism gave us much of what we have come to love from Star Wars.

While I can speak nothing to the merit of Lucasfilm’s current writers room, I see in the Abrams/Johnson trilogy as three disjointed movies that look lost in their own lack of internal criticism. But is this the failure of individuals, or is it the failure of this modern Disney apparatus that largely enables a culture of sloppy and regressive politics, in casting, writing, and delivery? “Big Disney” projects our movie consumption in a pre-destined Calvinist consumer plot. Much like a spoiled child of a real estate tycoon, these movies inherit our love and our money — without having to earn it. The Force Awakens is the best example of this cinematic nepotism. Not because it was a bad movie — actually because it followed the “quiet” layout of A New Hope without deviation it was more of a cohesive offering. But it is exactly the kind of safe recycled film-making that dug plot holes in the Jakku desert for our new characters long before wise-guy Palpatine came back into the fold with his jazz hands.

With all that said, this isn’t to say they didn’t create moments, scenes, and even characters with deep potential. But we are left to wonder how much further this universe and lore could have been evolved under a different sign. After watching The Rise of Skywalker and its questionable plot advancements, I am left to wonder how we find balance within a systematic problem of Disney in the shadow of the global nerd community? Because there is no doubt that we need to elevate oppressed identities with cultural respect not only onscreen but in the writers room and the director’s chair. Much like the working-class in our country, the global nerd community has been divided by racist other regressive hard-liners of identity. Yet we must ask why there is so much dissatisfaction? The desires of progressive and regressive fanboys alike don’t seem to understand the mechanisms of their very worst nightmares — when it is actually this contextual ignorance that will be all movie lovers undoing.

While the hard-liner nerd community struggles to put words to their cinematic problems, they are convinced the enemies of good films are “identity politics.” When in actuality it is uncaring media monopolies such as Disney that strip us of a diversity of ideas, and profit through replication. Sci-fi and fantasy fanfiction has functioned best when a decentralized core of fans contribute to the larger lore. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, we saw the virtue of a writers room that included fan-inspired episodes, developing a show that for the most part succeeded, despite the many fans’ deep skepticism of its adaptation. Star Trek’s original reboot era thrived and suffered in a similar regressive atmosphere.

The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” was based on a spec script by Trent Christopher Ganino

For Trek in ’80s and ’90s, we similarly suffered through autocrats like Rick Berman who used the older nerd community’s own racism and sexism as justification to stifle LGBTQ representation, and a deeper more nuanced representation of POC and women. We can see larger echoes of this argument between free expression and the longstanding systemic hegemony our media has festered. As a result, our country’s movie culture has grown with layers of toxic racism and machismo, embedded into generations of films that were sometimes effective and sometimes not. But if we learn from our own past of adaptation, no films predating our modern era ever faced such a wave of brutally justified analysis as they do today, and now it is time to serve that criticism. But I’m not sure how deep our modern critics will dissect the modern reboot machine. The struggle for better content under a bad moon is daunting.

While I probably enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker the most of all the installments, is this enjoyment enough? These movies contain multitudes of new ideas and plots points, but much of it feels too little, too late. Both of the previous episodes could have used much of the character development present in the final offering, but as resounding chorus of critics have echoed: in The Rise of Skywalker there is simply too much material to handle in a single movie. Which is a modern production fault that echoes from both the MCU to even the unanimously disdained Abrams re-imagining of The Wrath of Khan, aka Star Trek Into Darkness. This we do not forgive, nor forget.

“This we do not forgive, nor forget.”

But my frustration with Abrams aside, this trilogy actually carried many small successes, and many of them were even in The Rise of Skywalker. But even in these moments, I feel their placement in the trilogy make them critical failures. We shouldn’t beat upon Rian Johnson with a stick. His inexperience in directing isn’t any more to blame than the Disney culture hegemony. Which wouldn’t be remedied by any amount of Abrams’ “supervision.” I would argue Johnson may have had a better offering if he were given the time and the space to search the rich history of Star Wars for direction and guidance.

We can see all these factors playing into one another. Our lack of connection with these characters have not only been at the expense of their speedy introductions, but the greater question of their necessity to exist. I love Star Wars, and who wouldn’t love a hand at picking up every toy and playing with them all? But sometimes the right answer is to throw away all your toys and start over. Because if we look at Disney waltzing into the next decade, we have to ask ourselves the question: Don’t they own too many toys? According to an infographic made by corporate office seller Titlemax, they have stock in everything from the History Channel to Vice Media, and even small Chinese construction companies. Making Disney stand with the Berkshire Hathaway-esque conglomerates that have financial imperative that begs a separate question: did any of these movies ask to be born?

Much like ourselves we have little recourse to grapple with the tragedy of being thrust into existence. In the “Big Disney” money imperative, we understand that reboot trilogies of cultural touchstones such as Star Wars are sure bets of billions at the box office, but not a sure bet of a good movie. It is hard to imagine a world where Star Wars wasn’t such a large part of our media landscape. Yet if Star Wars were made today, it would likely be scoffed at and destined to be stifled in a two-season Netflix formula.

Though I appreciate hearing Abrams speaking out recently on how fans view their Star Wars opinions as a monolith and challenged fans that we are all entitled a wealth of criticism of these new episodes. We also hear these echoes in JJ Abrams’ Now This interview where pushes back at Disney management to release the original trilogy masters, which hardly seems like the first time he probably had that kind of dealing with the higher-ups at Disney. Which leaves us to wonder what both Abrams and Johnson could have contributed without Disney’s gaze. While I doubt we will call this “The Last Reboot,” under the specter of The Rise of Skywalker we are left to ask at the end of the day, what really did rise? With all the Skywalkers dead, maybe it’s time “this whole Skywalker thing has to end.” Much like the Corleones, we don’t need to keep re-animating this Force-sensitive family.

While the money figures are still reeling, I’m sure it will financially rake in enough money to make us nauseous about how much of that could have gone towards universal healthcare, rebuilt roads, or one of the hundreds of effective social policies that could have used $70 billion to improve our lives. We know Disney’s pockets can go deeper, but how much deeper? Is it too much to ask to move beyond this oligopoly? There are more insidious results that we have seen in the public than bad movies. We have seen a corporate consolidation that has evolved into attacks on our democratic freedoms, and since the year 2000 we have seen media monopolies evolving in every section of our consumer culture. Which plays a Sith-like hand in the Disney era of hit certification and may leave us to worry for the future of our fantasy.

If we think back to Yoda lifting Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamps of Dagobah, we could learn from the wisdom he bestowed on young Luke. Perhaps it is time to move past Disney and the Jedi, and trust in the larger force of ideas that bind us all together. We should trust in the infinitely diverse power of an expansive fan community and our desires and dreams. It is precisely Disney’s lack of belief in the force that is our lament. As Master Yoda said, “this is why you fail.”

We shouldn’t wait for conglomerates to diversify the world for us. We would be better off with a proletarian media landscape where we all can make our own space wizards and have the resources to develop our own empire of dreams. While we can settle for bits of fan service, we should want more. This trilogy will have an endless stream of articles that will dig through the minutia of Disney-approved details and mine them for all the lore-lithium they can. But in the end, we may find the only thing that is rising out of the ashes of this trilogy is Disney’s coffers, and our need for new stories.

Header image originally posted on Reddit

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